Stains and Dyes: What's the Difference?
by Alan Noel
Professional Wood Finisher

In wood finishing, there are about as many methods of obtaining a result as there are folks doing this kind of work. Seems not a week goes by without someone asking me this very question about stains and dyes. Just as common is "How can I make this look like that?" "

First of all for sheer simplicity, stains such as Minwax, are nothing more than very thin paints. For this very reason they must be stirred thoroughly before and during application in order to get a consistent color. Some stains not only contain pigments and binders but also contain some dye in the mix as well for an added color boost. Gel stains, such as Bartley Gel Stain , for the most part are the very same except they have an additive that thickens the mix, which aids in application. Oil based stains also contain a very thin varnish as the binder to lock in or "bind" the color to the wood.

Powdered and premixed dyes , on the other hand, are a horse of another color. Powdered dyes such as ARTI , or premixed dyes like Transtint and Solar-Lux Dyes contain no pigment and unless mixed with a finishing material such as Shellac or Deft , have no binder. This makes dyes a little harder to use but never the less they have very distinct advantages over stains, with the most important being clarity. Since the particles making up the color are small enough to allow light to pass through, dyes are virtually transparent thereby allowing the beauty of the wood to shine through. Because of this, dyes can be layered in the finishing process thus allowing for much better control of tint and depth.

Here are some tips:


  1. Be sure to keep stains thoroughly stirred during use.

  2. If staining a large project like a table top or large chest, it's always best to use a wood conditioner like Minwax Wood Conditioner first to help prevent blotching.

  3. When staining pieces with many different angles/surfaces like chairs, start from the bottom and work your way up keeping the entire piece wet. This way drips won't be a problem because the surface below is already wet.

  4. Be sure to allow plenty of time for the stain to dry completely or you are sure to have problems with the top coat.

  1. Dyes are packaged as powders that are soluble in oil, water and alcohol or can be purchased "premixed" in their respective solvents.

  2. The preferred method of application is spraying.

  3. If you mix your own dye, be sure to strain it before application.

  4. For hand applications with a rag or brush, wet the surface first with the appropriate solvent, oil, water or alcohol and proceed at a brisk pace.

  5. As with all finishing situations, air movement and good ventilation are a must.

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