Stains and Dyes

Use these techniques to carefully make decisions regarding the use of stains and dyes with trimwork.

Choosing the right tone for your millwork is a major decision because changing your mind involves a heavy price in both materials and labor. So it's worth the modest investment to make sample strips of the leading color candidates before making your final choice.

These samples should be more than skinny sticks dipped into a can of stain. Take actual pieces of your millwork (cutoffs work nicely), sanded to the same degree that your installed moldings will be, to the home center.

Use a permanent marker to identify each board with the stain that you're testing. Wipe on the stain, then apply the same number of clear coats that you'll brush on later. To make certain that you're judging the samples under the lighting conditions of the installation site, take the strips into that room. If you've already selected a wall color, go ahead and paint the room or at least make a good-size swatch to help you visualize how the paint and stain colors influence each other. Don't make a snap decision. Instead, view the samples at different times over several days.

Oil stains are easy to use, but you may need a wood conditioner to prevent blotching, especially on softwoods such as pine and fir. If you can't achieve the exact look you want with off-the-shelf colors, you can custom-mix a stain. Several cautions: Stir well to ensure consistent results, mix stains only of the same type and from the same manufacturer, and keep careful notes of precise measurements so you can duplicate the tone later.

Dyes are less likely than stains to produce blotching. If you use a dye that mixes with water, prepare the wood by wiping it with a barely damp cloth. Let it dry. Then, using 220-grit sandpaper, remove the whiskers of wood raised by the wetting before you proceed with the dye coat. You also can choose dyes that dissolve in denatured alcohol. Alcohol dries quickly -- especially in hot weather -- so make certain you allow enough working time to achieve smooth coverage. Whenever you work with solvents such as alcohol, provide plenty of ventilation and exercise extreme caution to prevent fires.

Prepare Samples

Prepare samples with the same care that you'll use on finished moldings so that you can accurately preview the tones.

Using a Prestain Conditioner

Using a prestain conditioner can help prevent oil-base stains from blotching your lumber, such as the bottom piece in this pine sample. Follow label directions closely and ensure identical timing of the conditioner step for consistent results.


Dyes require careful mixing and have greater safety concerns, but they can produce rich, clear tones that oil-base stains can't match.


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