A little bit about dyes

Tortured Sun Detail

I was queried by a few turners at the West Coast Roundup about the materials I use when colouring wood, so promised I would put something up. My plans for the future include posting something on coloring wood so I already had something in mind. Because it is a very extensive topic I would imagine it would best be presented in a series of smaller posts, so lets consider this the first post in a series that will stretch out over time. The best way to follow it will be to refer to the site map in the main menu.

First, I use dye for it’s transparency and occasionally paint if I am looking for something opaque. Dyes are totally dissolved in the carrier so do not hinder the passage of light the way a pigmented stain or ink will. Basically, dyes penetrate into the wood where pigmented colours remain on the wood. To emphasize this, the pigment settles to the bottom of my bottles of ink and stain while the dyes stay totally dissolved. For that reason dyes punch the chatoyance of figured wood and generally provide more vibrant colour while still letting the grain show through. “Tortured Sun” is a good example of that, however the effect still can’t be fully represented in a static photograph because the pattern changes dramatically depending on the angle of viewing.

Here are a few quick crib notes about dye.  Aniline, dichlorotriazine and metal based dyes are most commonly used in colouring wood. I am presently using the Dichlorotriazine dyes (Procion MX) because of it’s vibrancy but am slowly switching over to the metal acid dyes because of their superior light fastness. More about that in a bit. Natural dyes like crushed blackberries and so on sound cute and “back-to-the-landy” but are not colourfast in the least and quite honestly are very dull. Aniline dyes are organic based (read: petroleum based oxides). They at one time were used with an oil base as a carrier and gained a reputation for not being coloufast for that reason. The bottom line is this (and this from an on-line retailer of some very good colouring products): there are apparently very few aniline based dyes being used now. The vast majority are dichlorotriazine or metal acid dyes and he says that those that are touted as aniline are in all likely-hood one of the other two anyway anyway, simply because “aniline” is more familiar to most folks. I will look more into this.

Dyes are dissolved typically in water or alcohol. Both have advantages and disadvantages depending on what you’re trying to achieve. In other words they both are good mediums …depending. I prefer water because it is free and non flammable. As a matter of fact I recall using copious amounts to put fires out when I was a firefighter (sorry, couldn’t resist that). I can dilute it on the piece with more (cheap, non flammable) water if I want to. I can safely heat it to dissolve the dye more easily. Some folks get all bent about the fact that it raises the grain. So raise the grain first with some water, sand it off (not a bad idea anyway) then apply the dye. Once you raise the grain, it doesn’t happen a second time. I very often use more than one colour, sanding back all but the last application, so it is a non-issue in that case. I  also use some premixed dyes that are alcohol based and like them very much, so it’s not like they don’t perform satisfactorily. In the safety department, remember that  alcohol flames are very nearly invisible. Alcohol is also a very volatile liquid (vapourize [evaporate] very easily) with a broad flammable range. For all you non firefolks, that means it produces lots of vapours for fuel (only vapours burn), catches fire very easily and there is no warning that it is actually on fire. Other than that, no worries. 🙁

Dye concentrates come in dry and liquid form. The liquid is very easily mixed but the dry is not that bad either – just not super quick.  You can vary the intensity by mucking with the concentrate/water (or alcohol) ratio. When combining colours you can premix dyes or mix them on the wood depending whether you want one colour or varied colours. The latter is where things get really creative and takes practice to get what you want. An interesting thing to have to deal with is the fact that the wood itself has a colour. That means you are combining colours whether you like it or not and it isn’t always what you expected, so you have to compensate for it.

Although not the most light fast dye (it’s still very good) I prefer Procion MX dyes for it’s brilliant colours. It is designed for colouring fabric and is actually a Dichlorotriazine dye, not metal acid or metal complex. When dying fabric there is a very involved process of stopping and fixing baths using salts, potash and other stuff which isn’t required for wood. The most important thing is that it is compatible with cellulose, which of course is what wood is comprised. Basically, put it on and you’re done (except for finishing). It is available through Opus but I get it at Maiwa, a fabric and fiber arts dealer. I would suspect that other art supply stores have it as well. I have recently discovered Wood Essence in Saskatoon. They are on line and the owner, Jeff Richardson, is very knowledgeable. I put Maiwa and Wood Essence’s URLs in the “links” in the sidebar. Wood Essence sells  Colour FX liquid dye concentrates (and other neat stuff). The best thing is that they sell the only “black” black dye that I have found other than leather dye (awesome black but too hard to sand back – long story, wait for later). The significance is that blacks are usually very dark blue, so when combining colours on the wood using the “sanding back” technique, you don’t get the second colour with stunning black highlights. What you get is purple when applying red and green when applying yellow along with black highlights whereas with true black you get the true second colour that you added after the black. On the other hand if you are trying to get some rich, varied browns, using the blue-black then red and yellow (with selective sanding back between applications) you get some magnificent combinations on figured wood.

So there you are – quick and dirty. A few tidbits on colouring using dyes, however not much on application. Understand that applying the finish is also a large part of the process in bringing out the Wow! factor, so there is much more to this story. I hope you will find this interesting and watch for more on colouring wood some time in the future. In the meantime, try to find a book called Colouring Techniques for Woodturners by Jan Sanders. I picked it up more than 15 years ago from Lee Valley Tools but is out of now out of print. I have seen used copies available on line, however.

As always, I encourage your comments and questions, so please refer to the tag line at the bottom of the article to post a comment.

About Ed Pretty

I am a professional woodturner, specializing in gallery work, commercial work, teaching and demonstrating. I have been turning since 1958, so... a long time. I use this site to present my work to the public at large and to let people know that I am available for teaching private lessons in woodturning. Wood turning is one of my passions (the other is motorcycle touring). It is my desire to pass on everything that I have learned over the years to others so that the craft of woodturning will grow.
This entry was posted in Colouring wood, Finishing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A little bit about dyes

  1. Joel Elder says:

    Hi Ed,
    Great Site!! I especially enjoyed the post about dyes. It rehashed some of the things that we talked about at the Symposium and the meetings. I have turned a couple more platters since we last talked, and have been fairly happy with the results. Thanks for the tips that have helped me to continue to improve.
    Regarding applying Poly off the lathe, I’m still getting some ‘streaking’ ‘roughness’ to the feel of the finish. I’m sure you told me how to best deal with this but I’ve forgotten what that was, could you refresh my memory, please.


    • admin says:

      OK. 1) First the age of the Poly, but I think we talked about that. 2) Don’t forget the basics, that the wood surface will determine the outcome. Unless I am “sanding back” the first colour before appying a second, I always raise the grain first with water and then hand sand with 320, P320, or 400 – even if I’m using alcohol based dye. When you apply dye (water or alcohol based) it leaves residue on the surface of the wood so that must be dealt with prior to finishing: Buffing with a cloth or light brushing with a plastic-bristle brush. 3) It’s a balance between too thick and too thin when applying the poly. Too thin sometimes give the finish a blotchy and/or streaked appearance. Remember to apply then keep rubbing until the pad just starts to drag. I have found that the pad makes a difference as well; I now use a wad of cotton material held in a cheesecloth “sack”. Works very well. 4) I have found that sanding between coats with 320, P320, or 400 levels the finish as well as creates highlights. Somewhere around 4-5 coats (on big leaf maple) the grain will have been filled enough to switch to 0000 steel wool or the very fine grades of “scotchbright” abrasive (I would have to go out to the shop to see what I use) between coats. It sounds like #4 may be your problem.

  2. Jerome Mills says:

    When you talk about metal based dyes are there certain brand names that you can say. I familar with Ritz dye but I’m not sure what you mean by “metal based”.

    • admin says:

      Hi Jerome,

      I was paraphrasing my supplier in my explanation of the dye base, trying to make it brief. I did some research and have copied the comment below so as not to clutter up my response. The brand name that I noted in the post was Procion MX and not knowing where you are, I am unable to suggest a supplier. Perhaps Google “Procion MX dye” or try local art or fabric art stores. I get mine at Maiwa (fabric arts) and Opus (artist supply). The “MX” part is important in that it is compatible with cellulose fiber, which of course is what wood is made of. Although Procion is for fabric as is Rit dye, I suspect Rit it is only compatible with cotton and/or wool. Not only that, it is quite dull and lifeless when applied to wood. Most dyes sold for wood colouring are aniline based dyes which are not colour fast. I have pieces I made several years ago using aniline dye and they have become quite bland looking.

      An addendum I need to add to the post: I have recently learned that Procion MX should not be premixed, but rather, mixed at the time of use since it is activated when mixed with water.

      The “metal oxide” based dyes differ from “organic oxide” dyes (aniline) chemically. Organic oxide dyes are various petroleum oxides which, contrary to the connotation of being all nice and natural, are organic simply because they contain carbon.
      “Procion MX dyes are described as dichlorotriazine dyes, while Procion H dyes are less reactive monochlorotriazines. Here are the full chemical names and/or structures for several Procion MX dyes. Note the cyclical structure with two chlorine atoms on it: these are the reactive sites that react with -OH groups on the cellulose fiber to create the strong covalent bonds that are responsible for the dichlorotriazines’ extremely high washfastness. Procion H or monochlorotriazine dyes have one, rather than two, of these chlorines, for a similarly strong bond, but higher heat requirements due to their reduced reactivity – which also makes them store well in water, unlike the Procion MX dyes.”

      The site goes on to explain each colour chemically including molecular representations. I doubt that would be of any use to you. It certainly doesn’t for me.

  3. Karen says:

    Can I just put the Procion MX in the tung oil?

  4. Karen says:

    Or what about mixing it with water based polyurethane?

    • admin says:

      Hi Karen,
      I’ve never mixed Procion MX with either Tung oil or polyurethane. OF course it’s always worth a try on a scrap piece of the same material.

      The dye is formulated to mix with water so I doubt it would work with the Tung oil. Perhaps it might mix with the polyurethane because that is water based.

      Either one is going t prevent you from applying a second colour unfortunately. For me, dying a piece isn’t just about changing the colour. It’s about adding a dimension that the wood cannot do on it’s own. That is why I typically colour highly figured wood because the variation in grain pattern and direction gives it a visual depth once colour is added. The dye must be able to penetrate to do that. Once a finish is applied it cannot penetrate.

      I’m assuming you want to save a step and the thought that comes to mind is that you’ll get out what you put in. Each step that I have described is for a particular purpose. For instance sanding back before applying a second colour. By creating a variety of intensities and colour volume in the first colour you create interest and depth when you add the second. That cannot be achieved with the use of one colour. By applying the colour along with the finish you have eliminated the possibility of doing that because the finish seals the surface and you cannot add colour after that.

      I hope that has answered you questions and explained adequately the reasons why it may not be a wise choice to mix dye with finish.

      • Karen says:

        I’m getting a raw spinning wheel and I need to finish it if I want the 1 year warranty. He said not to put water on it. I thought about using food color… Unfortunately I am eccentric and want to see the grain and want it to be turquoise. I also live in the country where you just can’t get anything you want. I have procion mx on hand. Can I mix it with rubbing alcohol? Or some thing…

  5. Mike Thurman says:

    I have experimented with aniline wood dyes for guitar finishing and the colors have not satisfied. This morning I had an idea – why not use the Procion MX that I have been using for tie dyes ever since Grateful Dead tour days? Your post confirms that this is not only possible, but in many ways preferable. Thanks so much.

  6. Hal Schalles says:

    Do you have any ideas on how to dye wood all the way through. I do segmented bowls and need the color to penetrate all the way through so the inside of the bowl is the same color. The color I want to use is black. I have tried steel wool and vinegar with poor results. I have also tried “rit dye” … Didn’t go all the way through!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.