How to color wood with dye and stain to match an older finish.

By Andy the stuff doer

This isn’t the route that the DIY sheds are forcing most people to go down.

I’ve finished building a staircase up to loft conversion in a style to match the existing stairs and banister rail. The original Victorian stairs are, I think, Canadian red wood. It’s been stained dark and varnished many years ago.

The images below show the new bare wood and the existing stair color I want to match.
Victorian Stair newel and spindels dark wood finish

Victorian Stair newel and spindels dark wood finish

The old timber is red by nature, this redness is clearly visible although the overall effect is dark. The new timber is light yellow in color.
Replica Victorian Newel and spindles, bare wood

Replica Victorian Newel and spindles, bare wood

 The grain on the original is really well defined with contrasting deep amber against almost black.

To get this same coloring on modern yellow timber is something that DIY sheds don’t cater for. If you use common products straight from the tin the results will be bland areas of patchy color.

 Now I’m going to put you off the modern products that the regular DIY outlets sell. The varnish you commonly find is advertised as “Quick Drying”. It’s acrylic based, it does dry quickly but isn’t particularly hard wearing, with little resistance to moisture. For a quick tarting up job it’s fine but I want a finish that will last. It’s available in various colors but using it to get a consistent finish that the beauty of the wood can shine through is a nightmare. It doesn’t flow as the drying process starts so fast, brush strokes are almost impossible to eliminate and you can’t keep a “wet edge” on anything but a really small job. Without a “wet edge” you end up effectively adding a second coat to parts of the job and so you get an ugly patchiness.

 That’s my opinion anyway, please free to comment and disagree if your experience is different.

The Varnish you need to find is “Polyurethane”. It’s the stuff that can up to 24hr to dry, this means its workable for longer so you can get an even finish. The brush strokes can also disappear as is flows into an even finish after it’s applied. The down side is, it can run if it applied too thick. The trick is: Thin coats well brushed out.

I had to find polyurethane varnish/stain on-line as it’s not available in my local shops. I found “Rustins” is widely available, the supplier I found was

The other product I’m using is Wood Dye (This did confuse me a few years because when I was lad it was called Stain. Stain is what they now call colored varnish). This stuff is a thin colored liquid that soaks in to the wood, unlike varnish that sits on the surface. There’s good and bad versions of this about. I think cheaper versions have the color more as a solid in suspension that doesn’t soak in properly. The dye I’ve used is from Wickes and has Napilia as the solvent.

The Method

  1. Prep the wood. It has to be bare wood and well sanded and clean. Take some time over the prep, make sure all traces of glue are removed from the surface.

  2. Apply the wood dye. I use a brush to cover the surface and get in to the nooks and crannies

    Dark Oak Wood Dye on yellow softwood

    Dark Oak Wood Dye on yellow softwood

  3. After about 5 minutes letting the dye soak in, wipe off any excess with a cloth. ( The dye soaks in to grain of the wood, the more open the cell structure the darker it gets. The dense part of the grain takes very little of the dye, so the contrast is enhanced.) Lookin Good! The “Dark Oak” stain is almost black at its darkest but still nearly yellow on other parts of the grain.

  4. Open the windows up and come down from the solvent based high…. Joking – make sure you’ve got good ventilation coz it’s powerful stuff.

  5. When fully dry. Apply the varnish. I’ve used Mahogany colored, to give a rich amber colour to the lighter parts of the grain.

    Newel part Dyed part Dyed and vanish Stained

    Newel part Dyed part Dyed and varnish Stained

  6. Finish off with a couple of coats of clear polyurethane varnish, not forgetting a light rub down with wire wool between coats.

 This is how I’ve achieved the result I wanted, after some testing. Addition coats of dye and or stain would modify the results.

 It’s a lengthy process but the results are spectacular and long lasting.

 I hope you find this technique useful. Let me know how you get on.

If You want to comment on environmental issues to the product I’ve used, PLEASE DO.

2 Responses to “How to color wood with dye and stain to match an older finish.”

  1. had a look around your site nice one mate like it

  2. Cheers Dave, its building up steadily.

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