Matching Colors: The Easiest and Most Foolproof Way I Know - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Matching Colors: The Easiest and Most Foolproof Way I Know

 In Flexner On Finishing, Flexner on Finishing Blog, Woodworking Blogs

On this panel, I stained it all red with a Lockwood dye. Then I wiped over the left section with a yellow dye changing the color to orange. Then I wiped over the right section with black changing the color to brown.

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.

On this panel, I stained it with a brown water-soluble Lockwood dye. Then, after it dried, I applied a second coat to the left section and wiped over the right section with a damp cloth to show how easy it is to lighten the color.

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

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Showing 5 comments
  • Kevin

    May I ask a question about a previous post, the one about marine varnish? Do you have any experience with Interlux Sikkens Cetol Varnish? I’m building a house and will be using an oak log as a post on my front porch, and I’m looking for the best product to use as a finish. My sailor friend said I should look into it. The information I’ve seen on line so far suggests it’s used mostly for teak, but I wonder how it will do on oak. Thanks.

    • Bob Flexner
      Bob Flexner

      The wood you are coating doesn’t make any difference. You’re just trying to block UV light and this finish should work well. The more coats you apply the more effective.

  • 1995gm

    Bob, fantastic post! I happen to use Lockwood dyes, I’ll be giving this a shot. Thanks!

  • keithm

    Excellent post!

    Last I looked, there where a lot of Lockwood dye colors. In my experience, you can normally get by with a basic set of a handful of color choices. Which do you recommend as a starter set, then a starter+1 set?

    • MikeV

      I use both lockwood and transtint dyes…. I do keep a basic set of transtint in coffee brown, black, honey amber and orange. I find with those I can approximate most wood colors. The last 3 (black, honey amber and orange) are great for toning top coats, enhancing the color of woods (for example, approximating aged cherry or adding color back to steamed walnut), or equalizing a panel when my boards are a poor color match (this happens a lot with cherry or african mahoganies, their colors are all over the place. Same goes for walnut, particulary if you have mixed lot of unsteamed and steam walnut).

      When using lockwood, I start with one of their colors (I find their descriptions are quite good) and, if I need to tweak the tone, add the transtint concentrates in small drops until I get the tone correct.

      If you want to go all lockwood (so that you can easily change the amount of color, as Bob suggests), then I would suggest a medium brown (such as #8 standard walnut), amber (#11 golden yellow), orange (#1 orange), black (#327 ebony) and red (#3 red) to get started. You could probably make almost any wood tone with those. Most wood tones are brown with either a red tone or a yellow/green tone. I find it is much easier to mix by weight, so I use a digital kitchen scale to mix lockwood dyes, particularly since I am making them in such small batches. Their instructions are more geared to commercial users who are mixing in quantity.

      As you get more advanced, you will want to understand color theory. for example, it might seem that green concentrate has no place near wood, but if you have wood that is too orange or red (either by nature or due to stain), green is the opposite of red on a color wheel and cancels it out.

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