7 Ways to Get a Darker Color

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Sand with a coarser grain. To obtain a darker coloring with any stain when removing the excess, sand with a coarser grain. More of the dye will settle in the sanding scratches, producing a darker effect. In the example here, I sanded it with # 100 (top) and # 400 (bottom) grain.

Get more control over coloring with these techniques.

Tthe most popular types of stains are oil stains, also called cleaning stains (although most stains are cleared after application). Oil stains are widely available in paint stores and home centers. They are very easy to use because they offer long working hours; water stains are more difficult to use because they dry so quickly.

The problem with oil stains is that they often don’t add much color to the wood, particularly to dense woods such as maple and birch. When you remove excess stain, which is the best practice for achieving uniform coloring, you may not get the intensity of the color you are looking for.

Here are seven tips for getting a darker color on any wood.

1. Sand the wood with a coarser grain. The larger the grain, the larger the sanding scratches and the more space to deposit the dyes. You just have to sand well enough not to show scratches. You may be able to get away with grain no. 150 or even 120 grain, as long as the sanding scratches run in the direction of the grain.

If you prefer to use a random orbit sander, you can finish by sanding by hand with the grain to align the sanding scratches.

2. It increases the ratio between pigment and vehicle in the stain (the vehicle is the combination of binder and thinner, ie all the liquid). The higher the ratio, the darker the coloring on the wood. There are several ways to achieve this.

Add more pigment to the stain. Use oil pigment or colored pigment in Japan for oil stains and universal colored pigment for water based stains. Keep good records if you’re coloring multiple objects so you can duplicate what you’ve done.

Leave the stain on the wood longer before removing. This allows some of the diluents to evaporate, increasing the pigment-to-vehicle ratio. (It is a myth that the stain penetrates deeper.)

Apply a second coat of stain after the first has completely dried. This usually produces a slightly darker coloring with the excess removed.

Replace an enamel stain or gel for the liquid stain. Nail polishes and gel stains usually contain a higher ratio of pigment to vehicle.

3. Do a “dirty cleaning”. That is, do not clean (or brush) any excess stain. It leaves a stain moisture on the wood which dries to a darker color. It will take practice to achieve uniform coloring, especially on large and multiple surfaces.

Dirty cleaning. A “dirty cloth” (on the right) produces a darker color leaving more stain on the wood. But it takes more practice to achieve uniform coloring, especially on large or multiple surfaces. You usually have more control by brushing the excess stain rather than cleaning.

There are two downsides to doing dirty cleaning. One is that it will confuse the wood more than if you delete all the excess. The other is that it could cause a bad bond with the wood if left too often. The finish must penetrate the stain and establish a bond with the wood. Otherwise, it may separate from the stain layer if it is bumped or scratched.

However, dirty cleaning is such an effective and often used method that it has its name.

4. Moisten the wood with water and let it dry before applying the stain to increase the grain and create a rougher surface to deposit more dyes. You can shorten the one-step procedure by using a water-based stain. The grain will increase and the coloring will be darker when you remove the excess. But water stains dry quickly, so you may need someone to help you apply or clean on larger objects.

Wet the wood before coloring. Wet the wood with water and allow the wood to dry completely, usually overnight, increases the grain, making the wood appear rough. Roughness retains more of the stain when removing excess, leaving a darker coloration (right). Apply a coat or two of finish before sanding so as not to sand.

Wait until after the first or second coat of film finish (not oil) or you may lighten the color in some places. In other words, “bury” the raised grain.

5. Use dye instead of staining it with a binder. The dyes are available in liquid form, usually called non-grain-raising (NGR) or TransTint, and in powders that dissolve in water or alcohol. You can get darker dense woods you want by using a higher concentration of liquid dye or by applying more coats. There is no risk of stain-level separation because there is no build.

Use the tincture. Common oil stains that contain a binder (left) are much less effective in developing darker colors on dense woods than non-binder dye stains (right). The color spots can be applied in higher concentrations or with more coats without fear of weakening the bond of the finish with the wood, as could be the case with binder stains.

For coloring, I have always preferred the water-dissolvable powders of W.D. Lockwood or J.E. Moser (they are the same and available in the catalogs) because I have much more control to obtain darker colors.

6. After applying a stain using one of the above methods, spray a toner between the finishing coats, usually after the coat of sealant. A toner is a pigment or dye added to the finish and is always sprayed on the wood. The pigment will confuse the coloring. The dye will darken the color without confusing. So most of the toning is done with the dye, and here I prefer NGR and TransTint (which are the same, only different concentrates). These are designed for coloring.

In addition to darkening the coloring, you can also change it for a better match. Add some red or orange dye to the finish to warm up the color and green or black to cool it. It always thins the finish and the colorant (even up to six times) for a better control of the color development.

7. After applying a stain and sealant (first coat), apply a glaze. This is a thickened oil or a water-based stain. It is thickened, so it is easier to control and does not work on vertical surfaces. Leave a little on the surface to darken it.

Toning. Toning is achieved by adding pigment or dye to the finish and spraying it, usually over the (first) layer of sealant. Pigment can confuse the effect somewhat. Tincture usually produces more clarity. Both make the coloring darker (bottom). Make sure to dilute the finish / dye a lot for better control of color development, especially on large or multiple surfaces.

The easiest method to apply the glaze is to brush it or spray it on the wood and brush it thinly. It will take practice to do this effectively without leaving obvious brush marks. The enamels are always pigmented, so they cannot help but confuse the wood a little.

Due to the difficulty of obtaining a glaze evenly, hue is usually the best method for darkening or changing a color. But glasses can be useful if you don’t spray.

Glazing is more effective for highlighting – for example, leaving part of the coloring in niches to darken them, or cleaning or brushing in selected areas to create motifs of figures.


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