Coloring Wood

by David J. Marks

Wood does not have one solid, uniform color to it.  It is a composition of a range of colors.  For example, maple ranges from a white tone to a grayish yellow tone, while cherry is a blend of brown and reddish tones.  Bearing this point in mind when I color wood, I strive to maintain the clarity of all the little fine grains in the wood.  I accomplish this by mostly using dyes as opposed to stains.  Dyes will not affect the clarity of the grain patterns, but stains will.  Stains generally contain pigments which are finely ground colors.  When an oil stain is wiped onto the wood it does not actually change the color of the wood.  What happens is that it leaves behind a tiny layer of fine pigments which adds its color to the wood.  This certainly does an adequate job and in some instances a very fine job of coloring the wood but pigmented stains will reduce the clarity or readability of the wood.  Dyes, on the other hand, will not reduce the clarity of the grain and in some instances, they will accentuate the natural markings of the wood.

When I speak of dyes I am referring to natural and synthetic dyes and I am also referring to chemicals.  Chemicals can react with the wood changing its color and enhancing the natural beauty of the wood.

Here are several of the chemicals that I use:  aqua ammonia 26%, potassium dichromate, and ferrous sulfate.  Aqua ammonia is great for fuming quarter sawn white oak and I have had very good results using it on mahogany to deepen the rich brown tones.  If you sponge on a weak solution of tannic acid you can get the ammonia to react with other woods such as maple.  Ferrous sulfate dissolved in water and brushed on Birdseye maple will dramatically affect the Birdseyes.  Start out with a weak solution and you will see the wood take on a three dimensional quality.  Potassium dichromate used on mahogany gives the wood great depth while coloring the wood to some rich dark reddish brown tones.  The same potassium dichromate solution applied to maple will create a beautiful yellow color.  To mix it, start with ½ tablespoon of potassium dichromate to one cup of hot water.  This will give you a mild solution to experiment with on your test samples.  This chemical is toxic, so wear gloves, goggles, and an apron while working with it.  For more information on these chemicals as well as sources for purchasing them, check out the FAQ section at my website  As with all finishing, the most important  ingredient is experimentation, so make lots of sample boards and keep accurate notes on the back , and as always, have fun.