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General Finishes Stains and Dyes - Tool Review

by Jeffrey Fleisher
New Market, VA

General Finishes produces a large variety of products for both the commercial and consumer retail markets. In this review, I’d like to focus on their stains and dyes for use by woodworkers like you and me. This includes their oil base stain, water based stain and their water based dye. Many manufacturers are developing water based products for their product lines to reduce the impact on the environment and General Finishes water based products are excellent.

General Finishes was founded in 1928 by a Milwaukee lumber company to make finishes for their cabinet-shop customers. Like most finishing companies, General Finishes produced a wide range of solvent based products until about 1994. Because of increasing EPA regulations General Finishes began to develop water-based products and won numerous awards in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Today, General Finishes produces a broad line of professional and consumer grade water-based products which include pigmented stains, dye stains, colored acrylics, glazes, exterior stains and wood coatings, acrylics, pre-catalyzed urethanes and sanding sealers.

What is the difference between a stain and a dye? Stains and dyes are used to color a wood before applying a clear topcoat. The difference between a stain and a dye lies in the size of the particles used to create the color….pigments for stains and crystals for dyes. Pigments are rather large and are suspended in a solvent when stirred. Dyes, however, are made from extremely fine crystals that dissolve completely in a solvent and stay suspended in the solution. Stains will enhance the grain pattern in wood because the large pigments will settle into the pores of the grain. This is very evident in woods like oak or ash which have very large grain structures but less obvious in woods like maple and cherry. Dyes on the other hand will color wood uniformly because the dyes penetrate both the grain and surrounding areas equally.

How do you tell the difference if you can't read the label on the can? Gently open the can without shaking it and lower a stirring stick to the bottom of the can. If it comes back up with a lot of ‘goop’ on the stick then it is a stain because the pigment has settled out of solution and collected on the bottom of the can. Stir well before using. If the stick comes out clean but uniformly colored then it is a dye.

Oil Based Wood Stain

I have found that General Finishes oil based wood stains provide a deep rich color that penetrates into the pores of the wood. It is an easy wipe on, wipe off stain that dries slow enough for easy application. I have used the oil based wood stain under both solvent and water based finishes with equally good results. General Finishes provides oil based wood stains in fourteen colors: White Mist, Honey, Honey Maple, Maple, Light Oak, Pecan, Salem, Danish Teak, Candlelight, Warm Cherry, Antique Cherry, American Walnut, Mahogany, and Spiced Walnut.

Water Based Wood Stain

The first thing you notice about General Finishes water based stains is the amount of solids in the can. General Finishes calls this product a ‘semi-gel’ stain because of the amount of pigment in the product. When used directly out of the can without a lot of stirring it acts like a gel-stain; the thick consistency slows down the penetration into the open pores of the grain which gives the user much more control of the application of the stain to the surface. However, a veryinteresting feature of the product is that by stirring it the gel-structure will break down and it will become a smooth, creamy stain that can be easily wiped on and off. Their wood stains come in 16 colors which also include a natural, clear finish: Whitewash, Natural (clear finish), Country Pine, Golden Oak, Antique Oak, Pecan, Shaker Maple, Early American, Antique Cherry, Black Cherry, Rosewood, Cranberry Red, Walnut, Brown Mahogany, Espresso and Black.

Water Based Dye Stain

General Finishes has a product that they call a water based dye stain. I believe the term "dye stain" is a purely marketing term because people are familiar with stains, recognize the term, and are unsure about what to do with a dye. In practice, however, this is a dye…and I like dyes! These dyes have a rich, deep tone and uniformly color both the wood’s grain and surrounding wood. They can be sprayed either as a light no-wipe application or to quickly saturate a surface and then wiped off. Repeated applications of a dye will continue to darken the wood so in order to prevent dark spots due to drips it is optimal to saturate a surface, either by spraying or with a wet stain/dye pad, and then wipe it back.

There are thirteen colors available: Yellow, amber, light brown, medium brown, dark brown, orange, vintage cherry, cinnamon, empire red, merlot, ebony, green, blue. The reason I like these dyes so much is that they can be layered, one on top of another after each preceding layer is dry, or mixed to form a new color. For example, on a recently built cherry dining room table and chairs I created a color that I call Virginia Cherry which is a mixture of 2 parts cinnamon, 1 part light brown and 1 part water. You can also layer colors like amber, light brown and dark brown to make a wood like poplar look like walnut. These dyes are extremely flexible.

General Finishes has a broad variety of stains and dyes that lead the market for both the professional and amateur woodworker. These products will provide just the right coloring for your next woodworking project.

Purchase your own General Finish Dyes and Stains today!

Jeffrey Fleisher has been a woodworker for approximately 20 years and a professional woodworker for the past 6 years. He is the president of his local woodturning club, the Woodturners of the Virginias and past president of the Northern Virginia Carvers. You can see some of the furniture he has made at He can be reached by email at

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