Even though I’m a dollhouse newbie, I have some specific decorating ideas. Like, I know I want to stain the wood trim. As I started learning about miniature dollhouses, I kept coming across wood dye, not just wood stain. Wood stain or wood dye? Aren’t they both the same thing?
Well, they’re not. While both accomplish the same goal (changing the color of the wood), there’s a difference in how each delivers the color. Those differences impact the final finish of the wood.
Much like me, you’re probably thinking whatever. Great. So, what’s the difference between wood stain or wood dye?
Similar, but Not the Same
When I started out, I assumed that wood stain and wood dye were basically the same things. In fact, I was using the terms interchangeably. They both change the color of the wood, and they’re both permanent, right? So, whether I say wood stain or wood dye shouldn’t matter.
Yeah, no. Total newbie mistake.
What Is Wood Stain
Wood stain is made of three components, pigment, carrier, and binder. What’s interesting about these components is that they’re very similar to those in paint, so it may help to think of wood stain as a thin paint.
Fun fact! Most of the pigment in wood stain is actually dirt. Really!
OK. It’s not exactly dirt. The pigment is made of clay of various hues, colors, and intensities. See? Dirt! If that sounds a little odd to you, don’t worry. It did to me too. However, as I learned, having pigment made of clay is important because that’s what makes them colorfast. Clay-based pigment is colorfast, meaning it won’t wash away when it rains. Because, you know, it’s clay and used to that sort of thing.
That’s not why wood stain is so popular for outdoor applications Whether you use wood stain or wood dye both will bind to the wood, albeit, differently, making them both permanent color jobs. However, the pigments in wood stain (because they are dirt and clay) are far more fade-resistant in UV light. Dye, on the other hand, will fade and change colors when exposed to direct light.
The carrier in wood stain is what determines if your stain is oil or water based. I could go into a whole list of the pros and cons of oil versus water-based stains and dyes, but I won’t. Instead, read about it here.
Without a binder, the pigment would never stick to the wood. When you use wood stain, you’re painting the pigment on the surface of the wood. It doesn’t penetrate into the deep layers of the wood.
Interestingly, the binders used in wood stain is the same resin used to make finishing and sealing paints. This means that when the stain is curing on the wood, it’s creating a tiny seal over the wood. It’s not perfect (that’s what sealant is for), but it does make it a little harder for the next coat of stain to absorb into the wood.
What Is Wood Dye?
Wood dye is made of tiny dye crystals that, when mixed with the right solvent, come apart into individual molecules. Those molecules are small enough to penetrate deep into the wood and bond directly with it. This makes a binder unnecessary in wood dye.
Dyes are water-soluble (meaning you’ll never find an oil-based wood dye), which makes them colorfast. However, because the pigment is made from different materials than wood stain (as in, not dirt), the pigment in wood dye will fade in direct light.
Head to Head: Wood Stain vs. Wood Dye
So, that’s what’s in each product. But, before figuring out which one is right for your project, there are pros and cons to consider when choosing wood stain or wood dye.
Wood stain pros
Wood stains are great for creating contrast on your wood pieces. If, however, you’re not a fan of wood grain patterns, you can treat wood stain like paint. This means you can leave more pigment on the surface of the wood and hide the grainy pattern.
The composition of wood stain also makes it more uniform. This means that you’re less likely to end up with an uneven finish no matter what kind of wood you’re staining.
Wood stain cons
While stain can be right for your project, it’s not without its quirks. Wood stain has to be stirred often while in use. As the stain sits, it separates, and the components can separate. Forget to stir, and you’ll end up with who knows what on your wood.
If you’re hoping to highlight the grain pattern on your wood, wood stain will not create this effect on all types of wood. Wood grains that are dense or small won’t take the stain as well, and you won’t create that “popping” effect. And, if you add too many coats of stain, you’ll end up obscuring the grain pattern.
Wood stain pros
When you use wood dye, the dye soaks deep into the wood layers and doesn’t rest on the surface. This means that if something scratches your wood, it’s less likely to show scratches.
Wood dye is also translucent. This translucent quality means wood dye is better at highlighting wood grain patterns even if you use a darker color or more coats of dye. And, because wood dye particles are smaller, they work on wood with dense grains as well as they do on wood with large grain patterns.
Wood stain cons
The biggest drawback to wood dye cons is that the finished product is prone to fading in the sunlight. I will also say, based on my experience with dying dollhouse shingles, that it can take more than one coat of dye to really get the color intensity you want. And, again, from my experience, dye does not always apply evenly and can leave you with a less than uniform finish.
Should I Use Wood Stain or Wood Dye?
Don’t get mad, but it depends.
Come on. You knew that was coming.
I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, your dollhouse won’t be outdoors. But, if it’s going to be in direct sunlight for any reason, consider using stain instead of dye (or protect your dollhouse from direct sunlight).
If you want to show off the wood grain pattern, then you should consider using wood dye. However, on small dollhouse pieces, you may never notice the grain pattern, in which case, you could go with stain.
I haven’t used stain yet. I will say though, after my experience with wood dye, I recommend that over stain. It’s easy to clean up and allows the wood grain to come through. Even working in miniatures, if you have a large surface area (relatively speaking), you’ll be able to let that grain come through.
Below is a handy infographic to help you compare and decide: wood stain or wood dye?
Any preferences out there? Do you recommend wood stain or wood dye for dollhouse projects?