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My “go-to” stain for furniture finish is not a stain at all. It’s a dye. What’s the difference? A store-bought stain has pigment , and usually a binder to glue that pigment to your furniture , that’s suspended in a solvent. Stains sit on the surface of your work and obscure the wood’s grain (which creates what is otherwise known as a “muddy appearance.”) 

Dye is quite different. Dye is made up of microscopic crystals that dissolve in a solvent. As a result, dye travels wherever the solvent travels, and that’s deeper into the wood than stains. That adds depth to your finish. Aniline dye is the best method I’ve found to add color to my furniture without camouflaging the surface.

But what solvent (alcohol, oil or water) should you use in conjunction with the dye? That’s an easy call , water. Yes, water is a solvent and water-based aniline dye is what I’ve used for my entire woodworking career.

Here’s why. Water is easy to find for most of us. You don’t have to drive to the store to make a purchase. You simply walk into your kitchen , or use an outside hose bib if the spouse isn’t fond of sawdust on the kitchen floor (I know of what I speak!). Water-based aniline dye is the least likely aniline dye to fade in sunlight. It does fade, but it fades at a much slower rate than either the alcohol- or oil-based dyes. You do know by now that anything placed in direct sunlight is going to fade.

Additionally, water-based dye is easy to use. It’s almost error proof. Compared to alcohol-based dye that dries so quickly, the water-based mixture precludes lap marks, especially if you apply the dyes as I do. And oil-based dye has such an extended drying time that you may lose a couple days in the shop watching oil dry. Comparatively, water-based dyes can dry in about four hours. (I’ve forced more than one piece to dry more quickly with a hand-held hairdryer.) And who wants to worry with oily rags when the process is complete? Yes, water on wood does cause the grain to rise, but it’s so easy to knock the raised grain down with #320-grit sandpaper, it’s a non-issue.

And the biggest reason, especially if you’re brushing your finish, is topcoat compatibility. If you use an oil-based dye then brush on a coat of oil or oil-based finish, there’s a chance, a good chance, that your dye will run or move as the brush strikes the surface. Ditto if you’re using alcohol-based dye and applying a coat of shellac. But when water-based dye is used, no oil or alcohol product is going to affect the dye job. That’s another mark in the easy-to-use column.

For more information about finishing your project with aniline dye and how to make your furniture’s finish stand out, pick up the newest DVD “Finishes That Pop” from the WoodWorker’s Bookshop ( You’ll be able to pre-order the DVD beginning sometime after September first.

– Glen D. Huey

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  • Glen


    You can use a wipe-on polyurethane over aniline dyes. But if you want the curl to really "Pop", I suggest a coat of boiled linseed oil before your top coat. The oil seeps into the curl to add depth. Then once the oil is dry, begin your wipe-on finish.

  • Jeff

    Can I use a wipe-on polyurethane like Min-wax over a water based dye? I am using some tiger maple on a project and want the curl to really stand out.

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