A Few Traditional Receipts For Stain

by John T. Kramer

Antiques Doctor & Apothecary

Though I have found these formulae useful there is no assurance they will work for you. Differences in the way people mix and apply them can cause very different results. Before committing any antique to any preparation; you have no personal experience with; it is strongly suggested that you first conduct a full range of experiments to be certain it will do what you need the way you expect it to do it. Know what you are doing some of this stuff is extremely dangerous to work with!

When working with ancient recipes be advised that the secrets of a trade were jealously guarded even from a Master's most trusted apprentices. Though trade journals were published listing receipts often the exact sequence and technique of preparation was omitted or key ingredients left out of the published listing.

Test, test and test again before committing any antique or other valuable work to any formulation new or old. Know what's going to happen not only now, but, later - much later.


Modern stains are mostly claimed to be aniline dyes soluble in water. Those who sell just aniline dye say their color is permanent. Something's wrong somewhere because one feature I've noticed with modern products is the certainty of fading - fading quickly when exposed to sunlight. Experiment you'll see what I mean. They are available in a vast array of colors, their permanency is suspect, my personal experience has been frustrating.

Most often stain is used to help inferior wood imitate the better varieties; less often to bring out the natural colors of the wood as in using alkanet root and cochineal to highlight mahogany.

Today the most common use of stain is to impart color to pine which has had the original finish stripped off. In the past pine, poplar and magnolia along with other light color plain woods were considered paint grade. Many times these plain woods were painted and grained to resemble exotic hardwoods or marble. Seldom was a plain wood finished except with paint. Seldom was natural wood stained except to match repairs to original work.

Fumed oak can only be duplicated by the original method; exposing the wood to an atmosphere of heat and ammonia.

Much old work was painted to blend several different specie of wood to a contiguous whole; the best examples of this were Windsor chairs which were built of as many as nine different woods each chosen for maximum strength, workability or utility of each part. Modern reproductions of all one particular wood, most often maple, are shallow imitations of the originals.

For practical purposes here I refer to stain as those things which establish a physical presence in the wood as opposed to dye which chemically alters the wood. The words have been used non-specifically for a very long time.

If we stain a well figured wood the finer grain definition and multiplicity of color natural to all woods is reduced. This is a contemporary technique taught to us by people who sell stain. If the natural colors of the wood are brought out by traditional natural and compatible products the end result is many magnitudes richer in depth, color and definition of the grain. And more permanent.

Chemically altering the wood does not always offer the same dulling result. Fuming changes all of the colors throughout the wood to wonderful effect. Dyeing can flatten the range of color or enhance the range depending on the materials and techniques used. Much of what is written about traditional methods of dyeing wool, linen and cotton can be adapted and applied to dyeing wood. The French perhaps experimented with the dyeing of wood more than any others.

Stains can be made from a variety of pigments they are applied to wood prior to finishing with alcohol, water, oil and used to pigment varnish or shellac. Often they are water based, sometimes alcohol and occasionally oil.

Traditional pigments most commonly used for staining wood: (Raw/Burnt Sienna, Raw/Burnt Umber, Yellow/Red Ochre, Van Dyke Brown, Vermilion, Prussian Blue, Ivory/Lamp Black, White). These are primarily minerals and will never fade no matter how much sunlight.

These pigments can be mixed with acids, alkalis water, oil, varnish, rosin, resins, gums, lacquer, shellac, alcohol, and more. They can also be used to benefit with Kramer's Best Antique Improver and Kramer's Best Blemish Clarifier. <Follow this link to find out how>.

Vermilion and Prussian Blue (as only two examples) are extremely dangerous and not recommended for use. Traditionally white lead would have been used - now that we recognize the hazard titanium white seems the better choice.

White is used for opacity - black for intensity of color.

Staining raises the grain, less with spirit and oil stains than with water stains. Light sanding is usually necessary after application. It is always better to apply several thin coats than to attempt one heavy coat. Each coat must be perfectly dry before applying the next.


Chokecherry inner bark red dye
Red Cedar " " mahogany red
Black Walnut nut husks drk brwn, acidic
Hazel inner bark black dye
Hemlock " " red dye
White Birch " " light red
Dogwood " " " "
Wild Plum " " bright red
Osier Dogwood " " " "
Magnolia " " yellow
Alder inner bark "
Bur Oak " " black
Butternut inner bark &root "
Maple rotted wood blue



Slake urine with lime and lay on hot.


1/4 lb. madder root

1/8 lb. fustic wood

1/2 gal. water

Make a decoction and apply.


1/2 lb. madder

1/4 lb. buckthorn berries

1 gal. water

Make a decoction and apply


1 oz. Dragon's Blood

1 pt. Spirits of Wine

Mix and apply.


1 oz. Tumeric root

1 pt. alcohol


Diluted sulphuric acid






Tincture of Brazil wood


Make two solutions which should be heated before mixing. The (b) solution darkens the shade. 5 parts (a) to 1 part (b) gives a useful color.

(a) 1 oz. verdigris in 10 oz. vinegar

(b) 2 drm. indigo in 15 oz. Vinegar


In a clean earthenware jar place 4 oz. sulphuric acid and 1 oz. indigo (well ground). Place in a basin as it will bubble up and perhaps boil over. When boiling has ceased add distilled water to the desired shade. Keeping the solution improves the color.


40 gr. bichromate of potash

400 gr. Van Dyke brown

200 gr. carbonate of soda

10 oz. water

Mix and boil together all ingredients apply hot or cold with a soft brush.


80 gr. permanganate of potash

10 oz water

Mix and apply varying the water will vary the color.


1 oz. logwood chips

1 pt. water

Boil together and then add:

30 gr. grain tin

1 oz. dilute nitric acid

Use fresh logwood known by its bright red, not dirty brown color. Filter and make hot before application.


1/2 oz. catechu (cutch)

120 gr. carbonate of soda

15 oz. water

Bring to solution, boil and apply hot. When dry apply a solution of bichromate of potassium. The strength of the bichromate solution will regulate the depth of the color.