One of the biggest differences between custom and mass produced furniture has to do with the finish. How a piece is finished determines not only the outer beauty, but influences the quality of wood chosen for the piece as well. For example, this summer Dan refinished a shoe bench for my sister. After sanding away the finish, he found not one, not two, but six different kinds of wood, all glued together for one bench. The piece was stained all over to cover up the different graining and blend the wood, giving it the false appearance of solid oak. This blending of wood is common practice in the mass production of furniture, and very different from the way Dan finishes.
“In my way of thinking, there is something inherently dishonest about staining wood. If you love the material like I do, then it seems wrong to change its color. It’s all about composing the graining. If you feel you must dye a piece of wood in order to save the piece, then, in my opinion, you’ve failed to use the material correctly.”
This begs the question – what is the difference between stain and dye, and are there other options for changing the color of the wood without obscuring the graining?
Wood stains are, in effect, a thin version of paint that pretty much covers up everything. Most woodworkers stay away from it for that reason. The color does not penetrate into the grain but rather sits on top, which why – after several hours of sanding – Dan was able to re-finish my sister’s shoe bench. Dye, on the other hand, soaks into the wood and changes the color without as much obscuring to the grain.
“I used to dye wood at a client’s request to match tone or color in their house,” says Dan. “But in my opinion, you’re better off investing in higher quality lumber instead. People make the mistake of thinking they need to match, say, their wood trim, furniture, and flooring. But what you really want is to set things off. For example, if you put a maple cabinet on an oak floor, suddenly you will see the floor again! They will set each other off, and give each other complement.”
Using different woods to complement one another is a practice Dan uses often when composing even the smallest of pieces. And there is a third way to play with the natural colors in wood. Iron-buffing is a practice not commonly used, but one that Dan and I have both fallen in love with. It’s an old technique using the simple ingredients of vinegar, steel wool, and a lot of elbow grease. As the name suggests, iron-buffing requires a lot of rubbing, but the result, in my opinion, is well worth it. Says Dan, “It doesn’t dye or stain the wood, but rather brings something that is already in the wood out. There’s something magical about it.”
Iron-buffing is most dramatic on white oak, as seen here. In the maple cabinet pictured above, Dan chose to iron-buff the stand for two reasons: to bring out the figuring in the maple panels, and because if the cabinet stood on light wood, the piece would have looked to be falling into the floor.
When buying furniture, be aware that the name “Oak” might not refer to the wood at all, but rather the name of the stain used to cover up inferior lumber. When creating your own treasures, if you have questions about stain, dye, or iron-buffing, feel free to send us an email. We’re happy to discuss the ways you can dye without killing the natural beauty of this live material.