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Wood Dye vs. Wood Stain; How and When to Use Each

If you’ve ever wondered about wood dye vs. wood stain then this is the post for you! I’ve shared the differences between wood dye (wood tint) and wood stain and how to use each. 

I bet most of you reading this haven’t heard of wood dye. Why would anyone use wood dye (also known as wood tint)? We hear about wood stain every day but until last year I hadn’t heard of wood dye. When I first heard of it I had so many questions.  What is it made from? Is it water based or oil based or both? I was curious to try this new wood finish. I’m going to share all about the pros and cons of wood dye vs. wood stain and why you would use each. Just remember, every different type of wood will create a different wood finish so test a small area first to make sure it will create the desired result. 

Before we dive into why you would use each, I want to talk about what they are first.

What is wood stain?

Wood stains are primarily used to color wood while they sometimes provide a protection to the top layer or finish coat of the wood. There are two main types of stains; oil based and water based. 

Wood stains can even be created from household items like coffee and tea! Today I’m talking about the store bought wood stains. Most of the time stain is purchased in a can or wood stain kits. 

Wood dye vs. wood stain

Types of wood stain categories

There are two main types of dye stain categories;  Penetrating and surface finishes. 

Penetrating wood stains 

These are products that seep down in the wood and dry inside the wood (also called pigment stains). These are best applied with a cloth and really give the color of wood that natural finish because they don’t hide the natural grain of the wood.  You can see how I used this type of stain to refinish our wood stairs

Surface wood stains 

These are just as they say; the product dries on the surface of the wood. These stains make wood more durable because they protect the surface and can be used as for outside wood projects due to their UV protection. Surface stains are typically the best choice for high traffic wood stains and create a more uniform coverage due to the fact that they cover the wood grain a little more effectively. Examples of surface stains are products like Varathane and Minwax stains. I recently stained an outdoor planter with Valspar’s one coat exterior stain. Gel stains are also a surface stain because they don’t penetrate the wood. 

Pros of Oil based wood stain:

  • Requires longer dry time which allows for a more even finish
  • More durable
  • Less maintenance 
  • Most common type of stain

Pros of water based wood stain:

  • Dries quickly
  • No harsh fumes 
  • Easy cleanup
  • penetrates the wood deeper

Most people know what wood stain is and have probably used it at least once for a wood project. You can see where I applied wood stain over a bench that had been previously stained below. This created a lovely custom color on the bench. 

How to apply wood stain over wood stain

I’ve also used wood stain on a variety of different projects like when I repurposed a few wooden cratesadded a beautiful ebony stain to the top of our chalk painted dining room table for a color change and stained a few DIY floating dining room shelves.

Enough about wood stain, let’s talk about wood dye or wood tint.

What is wood dye or wood tint?

Wood dye (also known as wood tint) is comprised of a colorant and a solvent (like a fast-drying alcohol base or even water). This gives you some flexibility to create oil based wood finishes or water-based dye stains with your own colour creation.  Unlike regular wood stain, which mostly sit on the top of the wood surface, wood dye (sometimes called solvent-based wood stains) penetrates the wood and colors the wood from within. The color is more translucent than the color from a traditional wood stain and you have more options to create coats of different color dyes. If you are looking for a more prominent wood grain in the appearance of wood, wood dye is probably the right finish for you. 

You can purchase wood dye in liquid form or powder form. Wood dye powders are probably more common as they allow you to create your own custom colors. 

Why you would use wood dye vs. wood stain? 

Wood stains are used to not only color the wood, but often times they are used to add a layer of protection to it. 

Wood dyes, on the other hand, penetrate the wood and do not give a protective layer like most wood stains do. 

Like I said earlier, wood dyes are more translucent. This is helpful when you want the wood grain to show. The dyes are made of much smaller molecules than wood stains, so UV light can pass through them easier. 

This is good in one sense, like if you want wood grain to show, but not good if you want to protect the surface of the wood. You always need to add a top coat or sealer to a surface that you’ve applied wood dye to. Using a clear acrylic spray lacquer is an easy product to use after you’ve dyed a wood surface. 

Wood stains are similar to paint in that they both are primarily surface coatings. Dyes, on the other hand, penetrate deep because the molecules are smaller. 

Wood dyes are great to use when whitewashing a furniture piece, especially if you want to whitewash in different colors and create different effects in the wood. 

Also, wood dyes can be mixed into solvents like Shellac, lacquers or water based finishes

If you want to achieve a rich color, you can use both together! Apply the wood dye first so it penetrates the wood and then add the stain over it. There are a handful of different ways to use each! 

You can see where I applied aniline dyes with a Keda Wood Dye product to a wood cutting board to create a beautiful colorful decor piece! 

wood stain vs. wood dye and how to use each

Disclosure; this post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. This does not affect the price you pay. This disclosure statement refers to the rest of the Amazon links in this post. See more on my disclosure page.

Pros of Wood Dye:

  • Translucent
  • No harmful odors
  • Comes in an array of colors
  • Easy clean up 
  • Can be mixed with other solvents and sealers

Pros of Wood Stain:

  • Very Durable
  • Easier to apply because they don’t dry as quick as wood dye’s
  • Works better with outdoor wood
  • Comes in either oil or water-based finishes

Where do you buy wood tint? 

I purchased my wood tint on Amazon. It’s a product called TransTint Dyes in the color Dark Mission Brown. It comes in a liquid form. 

This particular product comes in an array of new colors with brilliant transparent colors. 

Wood Dye

If you are looking for a powder dye form, check out this Keda dye kit with a few different dye colors. There are a handful of other wood dye products like General Finishes dye stains that come in an array of premixed colors. 

How to apply wood stains and wood dyes

Here are the general steps for applying wood stains and dyes:

  1. Prepare the wood surface: Sand the wood to create a smooth and even sanded surface and to open the pores in preparation for staining. Remove any dust or debris from the wood using a tack cloth.
  2. Test the stain or dye: Before applying the stain or dye to the entire piece of wood, it’s a good idea to test it on a small area to ensure it achieves the desired color.
  3. Apply the stain or dye: Using high-quality range of brushes, lint free cloth, or sponge and apply a coat of stain or dye in the direction of the wood grain. Work in small sections to ensure even coverage. Allow the stain or dye to penetrate the wood for the recommended amount of time, typically 5-15 minutes.
  4. Wipe off excess: After the stain or dye has penetrated the wood, use a clean cloth to wipe off any excess. Wipe in the direction of the wood grain to avoid streaks or uneven coloring.
  5. Allow to dry: Let the stained or dyed wood dry completely according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This may take several hours, so be patient.
  6. Apply a topcoat (optional): Depending on the type of stain or dye used, you may need to apply a topcoat for added protection and a glossy finish. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the specific product you are using.

Remember to always follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer of the wood stain or dye for the best wood finishing results.

I hope this post has helped you better understand how to use wood stain vs. how to use wood dye. Ultimately, the finished product will depend on the wood type and which finish you choose. Always test a small area before diving into a big project. 

Thanks for stopping by! 


Related Posts:

Valspar One-Coat Exterior Solid Stain & Sealer Review

How to Stain Wood Stairs Treads without Sanding

Ten Easy Gel Stain Cabinet and Furniture Projects

Wood furniture Makeover with Unicorn SPiT as a Gel Stain in Three Easy Steps

Stained Wood Stairs; Do they Need a Sealer?

How to Apply Wood Stain over Wood Stain

How to Stain Wood with Household Products

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  1. Dave says:

    I am finishing off a small spindle legged oak side table. There was a nasty heat stain in the centre so I have bleached it out and now need to colour the table top so it matches the darkness of the legs and frame.
    I was going to use Danish Oil with a dark mahogany colour but the table top is too light and needs toning down.
    Would you recommend a dye to colour the top then finish off with a neutral danish oil, I would value your guidance.
    Thank you

    • I think applying a wood stain to permanently match the rest of the table might be a great idea first. Then apply the danish oil. Always try to test a small inconspicuous area first if you can.

  2. Nigel payne says:

    Am using a white littlefairs dye on a pine floor, can I varnish over with Ron seal waterbased floor varnish to seal it, many thanks Nige

  3. F Dixon says:

    Why Ho why are you comparing two different products just because they perform similar jobs. I’m very surprised that you now only come into contact with wood dyesthey have been around longer than stains. You covered very well their usages but may I add excellence of finish stain is the complete finish but dyes require help in the way of protection e.g. varnish oils my experience dyes allow a better more even finish when varnish or oils are applied stains an ok finish.
    Fred. From Wales

  4. Lyndon says:

    I was a bit reluctant to continue reading after I read that you just discovered wood dyes within the last year. Wood dyes have been in my vocabulary for 30 years or more, however I’m always looking for new information to expand my knowledge. You obviously did your research because this is the best explanation of dye vs. stain that I have read online. Bravo! I would also add that using a dye first, followed by the same color stain provides the “best of both worlds” for many types of wood.

  5. Nelda Anderson says:

    I am looking to buy corbels and wood carvings for my trim carpenter to use on new wood cabinets (new home construction). The rubber wood is most affordable but it always suggests dyeing or painting. Why not stain?

  6. planetpooks says:

    I’m really wanting to do a maple tabletop with a wood dye, a shade of blue/green. But I’m worried that years down the road somebody will hate me for it, if it’s so deep that they can’t take it back to a natural wood. Would they be able to?

    Thanks for great information!

    • As long as it’s solid wood you should be able to sand it down. If you want to sand it down in the future you might want to look into using like a gel stain or a stain that sits on top of the surface and doesn’t penetrate too deep so it will be easier to sand off down the road.

  7. Jan Pearse says:

    A very useful article, thank you.
    Can you achieve a sharp edge with a dye or will it seep under masking tape?

    • Since wood dye tends to penetrate the wood I would think that it would seep under the masking tape. If you are wanting a crisp line you need to find a stain that sits on top of the wood and doesn’t seep into it.

      • Christine E. Freeman says:

        Or you could take an awl and score the outline of the wood. If the stain or dye is put on in thin layers, it shouldn’t transverse the score. A good technique with stencils on bare wood, too.

  8. […] they seemed mostly the same to me. Given that, I did a quick internet search. I found a post from Repurpose and Upcycle that provides an awesome explanation of the two and when to use one over the other. The wood tint […]

  9. Robert Dean says:

    Can Dyed wood be laminated and sanded? Will the color stand up and what type of wood do you recommend? I intend to laminate, sand and finish with clear so the colored grain shows.

    • I don’t see why it can’t be laminated and sanded. It depends on how much you sand it as to how much the dye will show. Anything with a large grain will take the dye better. So like oak an ash would show well. Good luck with your projects. Let me know how it goes, I’m curious.

  10. Ponemah says:

    You said in the text that wood dye and wood tint are the same thing, but later on you advise using “tint” for translucent and “dye” for opaque finishes. That was confusing, and I think you must have meant to use “stain” for the opaque finish? Am I right?

    The content was good; but the number of ads flashing and using up screen space made it unpleasant to read.

    Your content was good, but the

  11. Linda says:

    Great post!
    I have some vintage flicks reed bamboo furniture that needs updated, I was hoping to darken the color it’s very very light.
    What do you think would work better to achieve this stain or dye (tint).

    • Nducho Brice says:

      Excellent post so far, but what is the most important factor to bear in mind when selectiing wood dye?

    • Thank you Linda!
      As far as which type? If you want a more translucent finish (like you can see the under tones of the original finish) I would go with the wood tint. If you are wanting to “cover” the finish, I would go with a wood dye. I hope this helps and good luck!