Wood Dyes vs. Pigments – Who will win the Battle?

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Ok, so there’s not really a “battle” per se between pigments and dyes, but when you’re coloring wood, these two products are sure to do the trick; and each has their own particular way of doing it. So, which material is best to get the color you’re looking for on your next woodworking project? Decide for yourself when these two wood coloring powerhouses fight to the death in this article. Note: HomeFixated does not condone death matches between any finishing materials, we’re all about woodworking peace and love here.


This DVD can really help you to get the big picture when it comes to dyes and pigment choices
This DVD can really help you to get the big picture when it comes to dyes and pigment choices, as well as attention-grabbing shirts

What the heck is pigment? It’s pretty much dirt that’s been put into some sort of liquid. Technically, you can take your favorite colored dirt, stick it in some water, give it a mix and spread it on some wood for an instant color change. But the problem is that after it dries, it easily wipes off. That’s where you need a good binder to help it stick to the wood. Basically, any pigment stain has these three ingredients: a colored pigment, a liquid vehicle and a binder.

The funny thing is a pigment stain has the same basic ingredients as latex paint. And in fact, you can use any latex paint to create a great homemade pigment-based stain. Just mix it with an equal amount of water and apply it like you would any stain. Simply flood it on with a rag, and wipe it off with a clean one. You can also control the color intensity by leaving the stain on longer or wiping off less.

Pigment without a binder is worthless
Pigment without a binder is worthless

Pigments are also used for staining wood with a technique called dry brushing. It’s used to highlight wood grains on lighter colored materials or even to create wood grains where none existed before. A great example of this technique can be found on the DVD from Woodworker’s Journal and our sponsors over at Rockler Woodworking and Hardware. The Way to Woodwork: Step-by-Step to a Perfect Finish features a scene with Michael Dresdner (one of the most trusted names in finishing) that shows how he creates a realistic looking wood grain on a piece of plywood using this dry brush technique. It’s truly a work of art and has to be seen firsthand to be appreciated.

This technique is easily mimicked by taking a bit of pigment-based stain and placing it onto a scrap piece of wood. Thin it down with a bit of mineral spirits to make a sort of dry mix onto the scrap wood. Using a stiff china bristled brush, hit just the tips of the brush with the dry brush mix. Then using light quick strokes, apply the mix to the material, sort of like if you were brushing off dust from a lampshade with a feather duster.


Dye changes color when it gets wet
Dye changes color when it gets wet

Because pigments are essentially ground up dirt, the particles of color that actually impregnate the wood fibers can only penetrate so deep because of their size. Dyes on the other hand are as small as a molecule, so the dye can deeply penetrate the wood and create a myriad of effects that pigment just can’t do. For instance, with pigments, you control the color with how much you apply. Dyes on the other hand need to be mixed with more dye to create different color intensities. Doing multiple applications of dye also lets you sneak up on the color intensity you’re looking for.

Dye always needs to be applied the same way – flood the dye on the materials, then wipe it off completely. Scotch-Brite pads work great for applying dye and even simple paper towels work fine for removing it. Once the dye has dried, it’s going to change color; but don’t worry. After you apply the finish, the original color of the dye when it was wet will reappear on the wood. Keep in mind, dyes are often considered less colorfast than pigments.

The neat thing about using dye to color wood is that once it’s been applied, you can change the color of the wood just by adding a different colored dye or lighten it by using a little dye solvent. You can even remove the dye all together by scrubbing the dyed wood with household bleach.

So Who Wins the Battle?

Dye and Pigment or Pigment then Dye?
Dye and Pigment or Pigment then Dye?

There is no clear winner in the wood coloring contest, they both are equally good for coloring woods. However, because dye is more translucent that pigments, if you’re looking to enhance the grain of the wood, a dye will work best, but only if it’s a denser wood grain like maple. Oak and other semi-soft wood grains are best enhanced using a pigment-based stain. That’s because the softer wood is absorbing more pigment in the deeper grains whereas a dye will create a more uniform coloring across the entire woods surface.

To make things even more complicated, you can use the two materials together. For example, you can add dye first, and then cover it with a pigment to make the wood grain pop and still get a nice uniform color over the project. Switch it up and add pigment first followed by a dye and you’ll get an entirely different look altogether.

No matter if you’re using dyes, pigments or both; it’s always a good idea to test out your color on a few scrap pieces of wood first. If you don’t test it first, you might find that you’ve spent all of that time, money and effort on finishing firewood!

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About Eric

Since Eric built his first skateboard ramp in his parents driveway; he’s breathed, slept and eaten DIY construction. As a second generation master carpenter who runs two Florida-based construction firms, Eric’s had the chance to work on everything from Mcmansions to your local mall to the cat lady’s bathroom. So when it comes to dealing with construction s@#t; he’s the man—literally. There isn’t a tool or construction material that Eric hasn’t used and abused, and if there is; it’s rocking in a dark corner nervously waiting for him to show up for work.

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