Making Sense of Dyes

The Confusion
Non-grain-raising (NGR) dyes are now available to woodworkers in concentrated form – that is, with the glycol-ether dissolving solvent but without the methanol thinner. These dyes are very versatile because they can be thinned with water and used the same as a water-soluble powder dye, or they can be added to water-based fin
ish, shellac or any finish that thins with lacquer thinner, to make a toner.

The packaging can cause confusion, however. These concentrates are exactly the same as the widely available NGR stains. In other words, thin a concentrate with methanol and you have Behlen Solarlux. So there are still just two very useful types of dye to choose from – even though you might find three packaging options at the store.

Choosing Among Options
If you are making a toner using shellac or any other finish that thins with lacquer thinner, the NGR type, whether concentrated or thinned with methanol, is the only one you can use. Personally, I find myself using the methanol-thinned NGR because a toner almost always has to be thinned a great deal anyway to maintain control. Otherwise, you risk building the color on the wood too fast and getting it too dark.

If you are making a toner with water-based finish, you can use either of the NGRs or the water-soluble powder. The NGRs are easier to use because you don’t have to do the dissolving. Only if you want one of the colors available in powder form should you choose that type.

For staining wood by hand (not spraying), I find the water-soluble powders, especially those from W. D. Lockwood, far more useful than either of the NGRs for two reasons. First, the powder dyes are much easier to lighten right on the wood if you get the color too dark. Second, the dyes from Lockwood are available in a much larger choice of colors, including a great many that reproduce very accurately those colors we associate with traditional furniture. (See story at the bottom if this article.)

I find the ability to easily lighten or change the color after the dye has dried invaluable when trying to match the wood color to something else – for example, a “paint chip,” an existing piece of furniture or an already finished object when replacing a part. Changing the color means applying another color that, when combined with the original, gives you what you want. Doing this darkens the original color, however, so you often have to lighten it first, or lighten the result.

The downside of using a powder dye, of course, is that you have to go through the extra step of dissolving it in water. Both types of NGR dye are ready to use. (Keep in mind that though “NGR” is the acronym for “non-grain-raising,” this dye raises the grain of wood if it is thinned with water.)

Also, if you are brushing water-based finish over a water-soluble dye that redissolves easily in water, you have to apply a barrier coat of another finish (shellac, varnish or lacquer) or you will drag the color and cause unsightly streaking.
For more information about the dyes available in most woodworking stores and catalogs, go to the web sites of the two principal suppliers at homesteadfinishing.com and wdlockwood.com. PWDyes were developed in the late 19th century for use in the textile industry, but it didn’t take long for furniture manufacturers to realize they could use the dyes also.

W. D. Lockwood and the History of Wood Dyes

Early American and British reproduction furniture was very popular at that time. But the colors of the new wood didn’t match the colors of 100- or 200-year-old oxidized wood. The easiest and most transparent way to make the new wood the color of the old was with dye.

W. D. Lockwood was started in 1895 in New York City by a chemist, a practicing wood finisher and a business entrepreneur, none of whom were named W. D. Lockwood. The company has always been located in lower Manhattan and may have been the first to adapt the textile dyes for use on wood.

Lockwood’s business model was (and still is) to buy dye powders from the large dye manufacturers such as BASF and blend them to the color specifications of furniture manufacturers, many of whom were making reproduction furniture.
Hundreds of wonderful wood-tone formulas dating back to 1895 are contained in Lockwood’s files, with about 85 water-soluble examples available to wood finishers. Examples of the colors include: Tudor Oak, Flemish Brown, Jacobean, Antique Cherry, Sheridan Mahogany and Phyfe Red.

Lockwood also has many alcohol- and oil-soluble colors blended to imitate traditional wood tones. None are “metalized” NGR dyes. — BF

Dyes and Availability

W. D. Lockwood (water-soluble powders)
• W. D. Lockwood
212-966-4046 or
wdlockwood.com
• Tools for Working Wood
800-426-4613 or
toolsforworkingwood.com
• Olde Mill
717-755-8884 or
oldemill.com 
• Woodworker’s Supply
800-645-9292 or woodworker.com
(Privately labeled: J. E. Moser)
• Lee Valley
800-871-8158 or leevalley.com
(Privately labeled: Lee Valley)

Arti (water-soluble powders)
• Highland Hardware
800-241-6748 or
highland-hardware.com

TransTint (concentrated NGR) and TransFast (water-soluble powders)
• Homestead Finishing Products
216-631-5309 or
homesteadfinishing.com
• Woodcraft
800-225-1153 or
woodcraft.com
• Rockler
800-279-4441 or
rockler.com

Methanol-Thinned NGR
• Many woodworking stores and most stores that supply the professional
finishing trade