Wood projects come alive when the right colours are chosen. Learn about the different ways you can colour wood projects to make them look amazing.

There are lots of decisions to be made when building any wood project. You need to decide the size, shape, joinery and hardware such as hinges and handles. However the decision that will usually make the most impact is the colour of the completed project.

The colour of a piece of furniture may need to match other furniture in your house or you may actually want it to stand out and be unique. It may need to complement trim or flooring or fabric in carpets or couches and chairs.

Finally you might just have a love for a particular hue that you saw somewhere else, such as in a magazine, at a friend’s house or a showroom.

It can sometimes be overwhelming to pick the right colours. After all there are variations in the wood itself and in all the types of finishes you can use.

Let’s have a look at some ways you can colour wood projects, starting from when you initially pick the wood.

Using different species of wood

With so many species of wood to choose from and the variations with a species, we have a lot of design flexibility in choosing one or more that complements the project.

In fact by using different species of wood for different parts of a project, you can get an amazing effect. 

If you are for instance plugging screw or nail holes or using pegs to secure joints, you can use a different species of wood to accentuate the plug or peg. Instead of trying to hide it by using the same species as the main project.

Keep in mind of course that there can be lots of variations in the specific pieces of wood that you use. And some woods such as cherry will actually change colour when exposed to UV light. What starts as a simply brownish grey changes to a deep reddish brown.

Even adding a clear finish will change the colour of the raw wood significantly. That’s why it is always a good idea to test a finish on some scrap wood from your project.

Another way to add some colour to your project is to combine the use of sapwood and heartwood. Using sapwood can sometimes be seen as controversial among experienced woodworkers – sapwood is considered to be the lower grade part of the tree.

I used sapwood more out of naivety that on purpose when I built my bathroom vanity out of cherry. Here’s what it looks like now with the cherry having aged over the past three years into that dark reddish-brown I was talking about above. The sapwood hasn’t changed much from when I first built the vanity.

This vanity has a simple polyurethane finish.

Stains

stain-woodThe most common way to colour wood is stain.

Stains soak into the wood, which makes them durable and less likely to require re-staining, unless the project is outdoors or subject to a lot of scuffing such as a floor.

Stains come both in water-based and oil-based. Water-based are better for indoor projects because they tend to smell less and can be low VOC, but they are less durable on outdoor projects. Oil-based are great for outdoor projects as they are more durable but tend to smell more and the smell lingers longer.

Stains come in different opacities ranging from transparent that don’t hide the natural grain, to translucent to opaque that completely hide the colour of the wood but let the grain’s texture through.

For outdoor projects, look for stain that has UV and mildew inhibitors if you will not be applying a topcoat. 

Since stains soak into the wood, they are very hard to remove if you want to change the colour. Often the wood will require bleaching to at least lighten the stain, so that you can apply a different colour. It’s easier to go from a lighter stain to a darker stain.

Paint

paint-woodPaint is also very common way to colour wood, with similar effect to an opaque stain. It tends to hide the grain better than a stain, especially if the grain is filled first.

Paint though is film-forming, which means it sits on the surface of the wood, so doesn’t have much adhesion to the wood. Often paint will flake away after a few years, requiring a repaint.

This is especially common in outdoor applications, hence why stain is a better option.

As with stain paint comes in both water-based and oil-based versions, with the same criteria as to where you should use it. You may need to use a primer, especially on some types of wood that are very oily, but then you may not want to use a paint on those types of wood.

Paint can usually be removed with a paint stripper that loosens the bond to the wood and then can be scraped off. Paint can also usually be removed with a heat gun, so long care is taken to not heat the wood too much. 

You can also usually apply a different colour paint on top of existing paint, so long the original coat is still in good shape and there are not too many paint layers already. For light colours on dark, you may need to use a primer.

If the project is a baby or toddler toy, you’ll need to make sure to use a non-toxic paint. I prefer though to use one of the natural dyes mentioned in the next section as that is much safer than even a non-toxic paint.

Natural wood dyes

beet-dyeIf your project will be used for food such as a bowl or spoon you’ll need to use something that is food-grade.

For baby and toddler toys that will likely be put in the mouth and even chewed on (!), you can’t use a toxic stain or paint.

Natural dyes have been used in ancient times to dye wood. And they’re seeing a comeback with the concerns for the environment and the wish to go back to natural materials instead of manufactured.

Natural wood dyes are usually made from plants, although they sometimes can also be made from clay. Keep in mind that most dyes work best on light-coloured wood, such as birch, pine, etc.

For more info on how to make dyes, there will be a separate post on that topic eventually.


So for your next project, you now have some options on how to colour it. To colour wood projects properly you will likely need to combine some of these ways to get the effect you want. It’ll depend a lot on the type of project, how it is put together and where the project will be placed/used.

There are many other ways to colour wood that I haven’t included in this short list. Shou sugi ban is a Japanese method to burn the wood surface which produces a unique dark finish. And bleaching and fuming wood are other methods that produce interesting results. I haven’t yet tried these methods but plan to and will share how those work in a future post.

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