Introduction: How to Add Color to Wood

About: A wife, mom, and maker, making heirloom quality wood artwork for the bold home.

Experimenting with ways to put color on wood while not obscuring the grain and figure of the wood is quite fun. For most of my projects I use a pre-made chemical dye that you can find in almost any craft store. I really wanted to try to dye wood either using all-natural materials or at the very least using a method that required less use of chemicals and was more readily available. After experimenting with using food coloring, Kool aide, and Jell-O, I found that food coloring was a winner!


Food Color

White Vinegar

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Step 1: Preparing the Wood

I had a piece of live edge spalted maple that I intended to add handles to and turn into a serving tray. In order to prep the wood for dye, I sanded it from 60 grit up to 220 grit with my orbital sander. Applying the dye will raise the grain. If you don’t want to have to sand prior to your final coat of dye, then it is best you use a spray bottle with water and spray the wood with water to raise the grain. Allow the wood to dry fully and then sand briefly at 220, just enough to knock down the raised grain so it doesn’t get too fuzzy feeling. If you sand too much at 220, then you will still end up raising the grain when you apply the dye because you will have removed all of the grain you previously raised…and that can become a vicious cycle you just don’t want to enter!

Step 2: Making the Dye

Through research and working with a recipe for ebonizing wood (turning it black), I had experience and knowledge of using white vinegar as a mordant. A mordant is what is needed to chemically alter the fibers of the wood and make the color actually stick. I had also learned that it worked much better when heated. I poured 8 ounces of vinegar into a glass container, added food coloring until I reached the desired color and then put it in the microwave for a minute and 30 seconds so it reached boiling. I wanted to do a transition from yellow to orange for color on the tray so I did do this process three individual times, starting with a yellow and working up to a dark orange.

Step 3: Applying the Dye

Applying the dye is really pretty simple. Just use a clean cotton cloth, those bags of rags you can buy at Home Depot and Lowes work great. Dip the cloth in the dye mixture and apply. Now even if you are not trying to do a transition of colors, you will need to apply the dye multiple times to get a nice rich color. Allow the wood to dry in between each layer of dye. Now if you end up raising the grain in this process by accident, you can sand at 220 right before applying your last layer of dye to remove that raised grain without really removing much of the dye.

Step 4: Applying the Finish

To really show off the rich color of the dye, it is best to apply a clear coat finish of some sort. Either water-based or oil-based finish will work. I prefer to use a nice coat of lacquer, but this is really just a personal preference.

Looking for a bit more instruction on this? I have a full self-paced virtual course covering this project. You can find out more about it here.

Step 5: Conclusion

It was really easy as you can tell to create a dye from simple house hold items that you can find in pretty much any kitchen. Pretty amazing really, the amount of color you can obtain. I would love to see pictures if you give this method a try with one of your woodworking projects.

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