John T. Kramer

Traditional Wood Conservator
P.O. BOX 8715
Sugar Creek, Missouri 64054
copyright 1989

I recently received a letter from Ralph A. Rowden of Mays Landing, N.J. requesting more information about staining and dyeing wood by traditional methods. So I will try to go into a little more detail with this article. Remember test, test and test again before committing any important work to any methodology new or old.

Altering the color of wood is done by one of three basic methods: Staining; Dyeing or Fuming.

Fuming is submitting the wood to an atmosphere of heat and ammonia. Sheraton used this method to color sycamore a pearly grey and called the result harewood. During the craftsman period G. Stickley advocated this method for coloring oak a rich warm brown. Split tonkin cane flyrods receive the dark brown colorization by the same method. Commercially the work is done in pressure tanks which are first flooded with water and raised to boiling by external heat on the tank; the tanks are drained and immediately filled with approximately 15 lbs. per square inch pressure of anhydrous ammonia. The sealed tank is left for a specified period of time (generally twenty-four hours) the ammonia purged and the colored work removed. There are other methods and techniques involving sometimes days and sometimes short periods; the above is probably most common.

In order to fume wood in the small shop or at home will require some experimentation and ingenuity. If the work is small it may be possible to use capped sections of common pipe with torches and commercial ammonia, much like preparing wood for bending. Large pieces may be set in the back yard periodically flooded with liquid ammonia and covered over with black plastic to intensify the heat of the sun. It may be possible to use heat guns or radiant heaters to benefit. I have read descriptions of using the sun and plastic method in combination with fresh manure to enhance absorption of the ammonia; be very careful this is approaching basic explosives and may give your neighbors something more than a bad smell to complain about.

What happens in fuming is the ammonia reacts with the tannin in the wood and permanently changes the wood fiber. It does provide very interesting colors and does not hide the figure of the grain. Be careful and unless you know exactly what you are doing stay away from anhydrous ammonia.

Staining is the most common method of changing the color of wood because it is the easiest. It is also the least satisfactory as the figure is hidden by the infusion of pigment into the pores of the wood. Todays commercial stains for the large part are simply thin paint washes that lay pigment on the surface and really hide the beauty of wood. Adding pigment to surface finishes has been done for centuries both to slightly change color or to act as paint, enamel is nothing more than heavily pigmented varnish.

Stain is of four general types; water base, alcohol base, volatile oil base and oil base. Blend the required pigments with the chosen medium to the color desired. Water is the least penetrating, alcohol the quickest drying, volatile oil offers best color density, and oil is the slowest drying. Oil bases are generally cut with volatile oil. Turpentine is the preferred volatile oil and Linseed the best for oil bases.

Pigments are generally minerals or oxides of minerals. The most useful in staining wood are Van Dyke Brown, Yellow Ochre, Red Ochre, Ivory Black, Raw and Burnt Sienna, Raw and Burnt Umber, Zinc or Titanium White are the best choices to replace the more efficacious White Lead. If you choose to work with the more exotic colors be careful and first find out what you are working with; i.e., Prussian Blue is the most beautiful blue you will ever find and perhaps the last as it is a form of cyanide.

Dyeing is a chemical process that combines coloring matter with mordants to alter the wood fibers. The French are attributed to the first usage and developed many secret techniques based on the plant materials used in the dyeing of fabric. In a previous article there is a listing of many tree parts used in dying wood; depending on the mordants used each tree part can produce several different colors.

The most common dye we see is black rings on the tops of oak tables used as plant stands. Iron (the mordant) is combined in its oxide form with water which reacts with the tannin in the wood. The only way to satisfactorily remove a mordant dye is with a sour solvent, sour solvents are so dangerous to prepare and use I can not in good conscience offer further instruction.

The most important part of dyeing is the choice and use of the mordant. What will work with one specie of wood will not necessarily work with any other specie. Not only the mordant but the material the mordant is dissolved in will react differently dependent on not only the wood but temperature, humidity and particular coloring matter. The mordant is actually an intermediate substance which combines with the wood to allow the coloring matter to combine with it when the matter cannot combine with the wood alone.

Mordants most often used are: Alum dissolved in sulphuric acid. Acetite of alumine, prepared by pouring acetite of lead into a solution of alum, which more easily saturates the wood and imparts a richer and more permanent color. White oxide of tin is used in three states; dissolved in nitro-muriatic acid, in acetous acid and in a mixture of sulphuric and muriatic acid. The form of tin most often used is nitro-muriate of tin prepared by dissolving tin in dilute nitric acid to which sal ammoniac is added. When used it is dissolved in a large quantity of water with tartar. Red or yellow Oxide of Iron is not only used as a mordant but, also as a coloring agent. Iron is used in two states as sulphate of iron or copperas dissolved in water or more commonly as acetite of iron which is prepared by dissolving the oxide in vinegar, sour beer or pyroligneous acid; the longer it is kept before use the better. Tan derived from an infusion of nutgalls or sumac is often combined with other mordants like alumine or oxide of iron to alter the resulting colors. There are a great number of other materials suitable as mordants additionally materials such as tartar, common salt, sal ammoniac, sulphate of copper and many more are used to facilitate the combination of the mordant with wood as well as to alter the resultant color.

Most old wood dye receipts call for the wood (most often veneers) to be boiled in the prepared substances. Experimentation will provide you information as to which work more directly; nearly all work best when layed on very hot.

The mordant, coloring matter, and additional chemicals must be carefully chosen to combine intimately with the wood so as to arrive at the desired color. In the course of these articles I can do little more than to provide a point at which to begin, it is up to each individual to experiment with what they have available to meet their own needs.

Slight alteration of the balance of materials can have noticeable effect on the end result. Cochineal with an aluminous mordant will offer a crimson color used with oxide of iron it is a black, when combined with alkanet root various shades of purple can be derived. Logwood with volatile alkaline salts or acids incline to purple, vegetable and nitrous acids render it pale, while vitriolic and marine acids deepen it. Madder used in the ratio of 16 parts to 5 parts alum and one part red tartar offers a good red, if the alum is lessened and tartar increased it becomes a red cinnamon, if the alum is eliminated it becomes tawny cinnamon; volatile alkalies heighten the red color of the madder, but, do make the dye fugitive. The vessel in which the dye is prepared can effect the end result for example if boiled in an iron pot the color will be quite different than if boiled in a copper pot and different still if boiled in a tinned brass pot.

Lime water can be helpful in dyeing browns and blacks when the color does not want to come. Alum and tartar boiled together and applied very hot to form a mastic in the pores of the wood when cold can aid development of reds, yellows and other colors that refuse to take. The water used has a marked effect on the resulting color: snow water has a little muriate of lime and slight traces of nitrate of lime, rain water has the same salts in larger quantity along with carbonic acid, spring water contains carbonate of lime - muriate of lime - muriate of soda or carbonate of soda, river water has the same substances in less abundance, well water contains sulphate of lime or nitrate of potash in addition to the above named salts, pollution offers a rich abundance of chemical substances in addition to those listed, tap water has even more chemicals added. In order to control colors the waters used must be consistent in chemical composition: neutralize salts with acids, and mineral acids with alkalis.

A few of the principal dyeing materials are alum, argol, tartar, green copperas, verdigris, blue vitriol, roche alum, quereitron, oak bark, fenugreek, logwood, fustic, brazil wood, braziletto, camwood, brimstone, barwood, peach wood, sumach, galls, weld, madder, safflower, green wood, annatto, tumeric, archil, cudbear, potato flowers, dragons blood, oxides of iron, lime, cochineal, lac cake, goldenseal root, lac dye, indigo, onion skin, walnut husks, and nearly anything else you can think of.

The woods most often used for dyeing are pear, holly, beach, and boxwood. The wood is best dyed when as fresh as possible after cutting with little to no aging. When dyed air dry only; not with any added heat of fire or kiln, which will harm the color. Before beginning to dye soak the wood four or five days in clear water changing the water daily, observe above comments about the chemical composition of water. Let the wood dry about twelve hours before applying the dye. If these instructions are followed the dye will strike quicker and the colors will be more brilliant.


1. Boil together Brazil wood and roman alum with a little potash.

2. Dissolve two ounces of dragons blood in one quart of rectified spirits of wine in a warm place shaking frequently over several days.

3. Boil one pound of logwood in four quarts of water. Add a double handful of walnut peelings and boil again. Remove the chips and add a pint of best vinegar.


Rub the wood with aqua fortis a little diluted, remove whiskers with pumice stone. Repeat the process and then rub the wood with the following solution several times until density of color is achieved. Polish with tripoli on a rubber of leather.

In a glazed earthen vessel combine a pint of strong vinegar, two ounces of fine iron filings, and half a pound of pounded galls. Allow the solution to infuse for four hours on hot coals. Augment the fire and add four ounces of copperas and a chopin of water with half an ounce of borax and half an ounce of indigo; boil until a froth rises.


Boil one pound of ground brazil wood in three quarts of water for an hour; strain; add half an ounce of cochineal and boil gently for half an hour.


Boil one pound of chip logwood in three quarts of water for an hour; then add four ounces of pearl-ash and two ounces of well pounded indigo.


Reduce four pounds of roots of barberry into dust by sawing, put into a copper pan with four ounces of tumeric and four gallons of water. Boil the wood in the solution for three hours turning often. When cool add two ounces of aqua fortis.


1. Proceed as with the yellow but instead of the aqua fortis add as much of vitriolated indigo as will produce the desired color.

2. To three pints of the strongest vinegar add four ounces of the best verdigris ground fine, half an ounce of sap-green, and half an ounce of indigo; strain.


Boil the wood for three hours in two pounds of brazil-dust to four gallons of water; cool; add two ounces of alum and two ounces of aqua fortis, keep lukewarm until the color has struck through.


Put four ounces of indigo into a glass bottle with a pound of oil of vitriol.