One of the most difficult tasks in wood finishing is matching the color of a new part you have installed in furniture or cabinets to the existing color on the other parts. The usual way woodworkers and restorers try doing this is to practice on scrap wood until they get the color right, then do the same on the part being matched. But if you have ever tried this, even if you keep good notes, you know that more often than not the new part doesn’t match well enough even though you have followed the same steps exactly.
Totally by chance, I figured out how to easily get a good match decades ago. The trick is to use water-soluble dyes supplied by WD Lockwood, which are available directly from Lockwood, and also from Woodworker’s Supply (sold as Moser dyes), Tools for Working Wood, and I believe from Lee Valley and maybe from Olde Mill Cabinet Shoppe.
The reason I say “by chance” is that when I began restoring furniture, the commonly available dyes were the Lockwood brand. So naturally, I used these dyes. Now, the most commonly available dyes are from Transtint, and my experience with these dyes is that they don’t work well because you can’t lighten them easily, just darken them. There are also dyes available now from General Finishes, but these are also more difficult to lighten because they contain an acrylic binder that locks the color in.
And, of course, common store-bought stains don’t work at all because the binder they contain, usually oil or varnish, locks the color in place so you can’t lighten them hardly at all once they have dried.
The Lockwood water-soluble dyes are easy to lighten simply by wiping over with a water-dampened cloth. So if you get the color too dark, it’s a snap to lighten it and begin again getting a match. You’re actually practicing right on the part.
Here’s the way to proceed. Go ahead and glue the new part or parts into the furniture or cabinet, then apply a dye color you think is close to a match. Because the color you’re going to get with the finish applied is the same as the color of the part with the dye still damp, you can see right away what adjustment you need to make. It’s usually adding a little red to warm the color, a little green to cool the color, or a very little black to dull the color.
If you get the color too dark with all the adjustments you’re making, simply remove some of it by wiping over with a water-dampened cloth. After the wood has dried, begin again getting the color you want.
A big advantage of using a water-soluble dye over solvent-soluble dyes is that you don’t have to worry about damaging an adjoining finish if you get some of the dye on it. Just wipe it off.
When you get the color right with it still damp, let it dry, then apply the finish.
The only downside I can see from using these dyes is that you can’t brush a water-based finish right over the dye or you’ll lift some of the color and smear it around. You’ll need to apply a sealer coat of any solvent-based finish before brushing the water-based finish.
– Bob Flexner