A solution to get around the problem of uneven pigment absorption is to use dye stains instead of pigment stains. The difference is important. Pigment stains are composed of tiny opaque particles of color suspended in liquid. When applied to the wood, these particles lodge in pores and scratches, and the open ends of end grain where they are sucked up by capillary action, resulting in a blotchy appearance. Pigment stains also highlight sanding mistakes and obscure, rather than enhance the figure of the wood.
Dye stains, on the other hand, completely dissolve in liquid and therefore can soak directly into the cells of the wood, coloring the entire surface evenly. Dye stains even out certain flaws in the color of the wood, hide sanding mistakes, and, because they are translucent, bring out the figure.
There are three kinds of dye stains: water-based, alcohol-based, and oil-based. I use water-based dye stains for a few reasons.
- First, they are easier to find and come in a wider variety of colors.
- Second, they are less prone to fading in bright light.
- Third, the solvent is cheap: distilled water is about a dollar per gallon, and tap water can be used in a pinch.
The only downside to water-based dye stains is that they require an extra sanding step because they tend to raise the grain of the wood. Other than that, all three types perform identically, so I’ll confine my discussion to water-based dye stains.