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Pigment Stain vs Dye Stain vs Pigment Dye Stain Combos

When it comes to stains for woodworking there are two types of colorant used:  pigments and dyes. A pigment is made up of earth both natural and artificially made. Dye on the oher hand is a chemical that dissolves in liquid. (Flexner, 2005).  Each have there benefits and drawbacks. Will cover the benefits and drawbacks and when each might be right for you. Will also cover how to determine if your coating is primarily made of pigment/ dye or both (as this typically won’t be stated on the label) which will help you to know how the stain will perform. Additionally, it is important to remember that most commercial stains contain pigment.

How to tell what is in Your Stain

To better know whether your stain has pigment or dye included you can perform the following. Take a wood stir stick and dip it into the stain container. If there is a mass of material at the bottom of the stain then your stain contains pigment. Also, leave the wood stir stick in the coating and if the wood changes color you have dye in your stain. If there is a change of color but no solid mass you have a dye stain. If there is a solid mass but no discoloration with the stir stick you have a dye stain.

Pigment Stains

Pigment stains have the following characteristics

  • Pigment lodges less fully in the wood surface filling in scratches and larger pores that will accept the pigment.
  • Pigment obscures the wood surface while dye is transparent – obscuring means that pigment will actually cover over the natural wood grain if it is not removed from the surface
  • Pigment is highly resistant to fading due to sunlight.
  • Pigment Requires a Binder

Pigments Benefits & Drawbacks of Pigments

  • Color the wood less evenly due to absorbing in larger pores and scratches only vs dye that saturates the wood
  • Highlight scratches in the woods surface which is why you should always sand your wood with the grain
  • Pigment will color wood if it is left on the surface and not wiped off, this will result in a finish much like a painted wood.  You can control how much the wood is obscured by how much pigment you leave on the woods surface.  
  • Leaving pigment on the surface for a while will result in a more even coloring

Dye Stains

There are four types of dye stains used in wood finishing and are distinguished by what they dissolve in.

  • water soluble dyes – are ideal for application by cloth or brush as they will not evaporate as fast which is important with the slow application time of brushing or hand applying
  • alcohol soluble dyes – these dyes are often best for touch up work
  • oil soluble dyes – rarely used alone
  • non grain raising dyes (dyes that do not cause the grain to stand up due to moisture absorbing in the wood) these are important when you have not dewhiskered the wood) they are also the ideal option for spraying directly on the wood and leaving it

Dyes Benefits & Drawbacks 

  • If not mixed with a binder (as in the dye is not combined with a stain) you can lighten or darken the dye easily by adding more dye to darken or wiping with a solvent to lighten THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE WITH A PIGMENT ONLY STAIN or a DYE/ Pigment combo stain
  • Not obscure the surface of the wood which can allow for lighter coats and still achieve even coloring
  • Fade in Sunlight and Fluroscent light

Pigment/ Dye Stain Combos

Pigment/ Dye stain combo benefits & drawbacks

  • Will allow for greater even coverage of the wood as the dye will fill in areas that pigment will not 
  • However areas of the wood colored by dye will fade over time with sunlight exposure.

Pigment stains are ideal when

  • The furniture will be exposed to fluorescent light or sunlight and you are not as concerned about visibility of the wood grain
  • You are not as concerned with the coloration of the entire surface being exactly the same
  • You want to highlight different parts of the wood and let others remain lighter.

Dye Stains are Ideal When

  • Your product will not be exposed to fluorescent or natural light and you want even tone across your wood surface
  • You want finer control over color matching ability
  • You want a very even coloration of the entire surface

Sources and Further Resources

Flexner, B. (2005). Understanding wood finishing: How to select and apply the right finish. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest.
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