There are many types of wood stains and dyes available on the market. A lot of people don’t know the difference between the two, so they assume they are one and the same.

However, there is a big difference between the two.

So, before you color your wood or ‘pop the grain’, read through this guide to end the confusion. I’m going to share expert advice and some experiments to clear the air once and for all.

What is the Difference between dye and stain?

The difference between stain and dye is that wood stains consist of colored pigments which stick in the pores and grain of a wood surface, while dyes are made of microscopic particles that ooze through the wood and bond directly to it. Ultimately, stains and dyes deliver varied results with different effects on wood species.

What is Wood Stain?

Forget the DIY stains from tea or coffee; I’m talking about industry wood stains. Basically, wood stains resemble the thin oil or water-based paints used to color wood.

They’re composed of pigments, carriers for the pigments (water, alcohol, spirit) and a binder to make the pigments stick.  Staining wood can be super easy when the wood surface is prepared the right way before application.

There are two categories of stains; penetrating wood stains and surface finishes.

a). Penetrating wood stains

I see why they call this penetrating wood stain; it really does penetrate into the wood and dry from inside it.

Penetrating wood stains enhance the natural look of wood and the best way to apply them is to use a piece of cloth.

Editor’s recommendation: Learn the difference between gel stain and regular stain.

b). Surface wood stains

As the name denotes, surface wood stains dry on the wood surface. The stains protect the wood, making it more durable. As such, they are best suited for high traffic wooden projects. Some of the surface stains include Minwax and Varathane stains.  

See also: Varathane vs Minwax.

Wood Stain Pros

While the primary function of wood stains is color change, they can also diminish or strengthen a wood grain; of course taking into account the type of stain and wood being used.

Since the binder creates a thin seal atop the wood, a first or second coat of stain can’t be absorbed. As such, stains can act as a shield to the top layer of a piece of wood.

Oil-based wood stain pros

  • Highly durable
  • Takes longer to dry, allowing for a more even finish
  • Requires minimal maintenance
  • The most common type of stain
  • Easily adjustable consistency through thinning, enabling precise application. Here is a guide on how to dilute wood stain.

Water-based wood stain pros

  • Dries quickly
  • No harsh fumes
  • Easy cleanup
  • Seeps the wood deeper

Wood Stain Cons

Oil-based wood stain cons

  • Oil-based water stains are quite involving and take longer to dry (about 48 hours) thus they’re not suitable for people living in areas with wet and humid weather conditions.
  • They are also not durable and require more maintenance in the longer term. Generally, oil-based wood stains are prone to mould, algae and mildew problems than water-based wood stains.

 Water based wood stain cons

  • Water-based wood stains require proper preparation and must be applied within expected time. After application, the water stain has to be brushed.
  • This type of stain is hard to penetrate through the wood. They also peel off if over-applied. So, only apply as much as the surface can take.

Both water-based and oil-based wood stains have their advantages and disadvantages. As such, you’ll have to consider various factors including weather extremes, type of wood and high-traffic surfaces before you make a decision.

Enough about stains, let’s now shift our focus to wood dye or wood tint.

Interesting Read: Staining Tips for Cherry Wood

What is Wood Dye/Wood Tint?

Wood dye (also referred to as wood tint) has two components—a colorant and a solvent (such as water or alcohol).

Unlike wood stains which don’t penetrate the wood surface, wood dyes seep through the wood, coloring it from within. Compared to a wood stain, its color is quite translucent.

Did you know that your woodworking dye is similar to that used in dying clothes? Well, I bet now you know. When mixed with the right solvent, dye crystals detach into sole molecules that make them tiny enough to penetrate deeply into any piece of wood.

Wood Dye Stains Pros

  • Translucent and penetrates easily and deeply into the material
  • Doesn’t obscure the grain as they only color but not protect the wood
  • No harmful odors
  • Easy clean up
  • Comes in a wide variety of colors
  • Maintains its original color for a long time if sealed tightly and kept out of the sun

 Dye wood stain cons

  • Prone to fading when exposed to sunlight unlike pigmented stains.
  • No layer over wood hence doesn’t offer protection against elements like rain, wind and sunlight.
  • Very little color choices hence can’t give your wood a brand-new look like wood stains.
  • Dying requires expertise to get desired finish.

Wood Stain vs Wood Dye: In-Depth Feature Comparison

Both products can give your furniture a new look, but they have different properties and uses. Let’s delve deeper.

Wood dyes vs stains: Ease of Application

Both wood stains and dyes are easy to apply and get uniform results. However, stains particular oil-based stains are easy to prepare and apply by even children.

Dyes are a bit difficult to use and have the highest risk especially when the process goes wrong. For example, an overlap can occur when darker color streaks form after dye is applied more in some areas than others.

You can avoid this by making the process of application faster.

Verdict-Wood stain

See Also: Is It Necessary to Remove the Old Stain Before Restaining a Deck?

Wood dye vs stain: Translucency/Solvency 

Wood dyes are more soluble and translucent. This feature comes in handy when you want the wood grain to appear. Wood dyes have smaller molecules that can easily dissolve as compared to wood stains and hence light can easily penetrate through them.

Verdict-Wood dye

Wood tint vs stain: Coloring

When it comes to coloring, wood stains are vibrant and offer multiple colors and additional shades. They are also versatile to all kinds of carpentry projects.

Interesting Read: Blue Stain for Wood

Wood dyes provide few color choices. When staining, the longer you wait, the richer or darker the color. You can also apply several coats to achieve the desired tinge.

Verdict-Wood stain

Wood Stain vs Dye: Pigmentation

Both wood dyes and stains have the same form with either large or small pigments as well as carriers that take the form of oil, water or alcohol. However, the wood stain has a binger which is not present in wood dyes.

When it comes to stirring the product before use, wood stains need a lot of it because of the large particles but for the wood dye, no stirring is required given their light fast pigments that can’t settle.

Verdict-Wood dye by a small margin

Wood dye vs wood stain: Protection from Elements

Thanks to the thin layer of pigment, wood stains don’t yellow over time on exposure to sunlight. Hence, when compared to wood dyes, wood stains offer better protection of surfaces against rain, sunlight and wind.

Verdict-Wood stain


Are wood stains harmful? Wood stains are considered toxic during application and drying but become non-toxic after curing for at least 30 days. Liquid wood stains have more harmful solvents which bind the stain and maintain its liquid form.

Water-based wood stains are less toxic and according to the Safety Data Sheet of a reputable brand, they have zero hazardous substances.

On the other hand, wood dyes, along with textile dyes are highly toxic and considered potentially carcinogenic in that they are linked to environmental degradation and some diseases in humans and animals.

Verdict-Wood dyes by a wide margin.

See Also: Hemlock Stain Techniques


Is wood stain better than wood dye?

It depends on the situation and the required materials. For example, if you’re looking to achieve a natural grain pattern on your wood, the dye will give you better results than the wood stain. And if you need a brand-new look for your wood, go for the wood stain. If your project has to be outdoors, chances of fading are high and hence you should go for a wood stain. Lastly, if you have a small budget and have no problem with a limited color choice, then the wood dye is for you.   

How long does wood dye last?

It lasts for about one to two years under proper maintenance and protection against direct sunlight, rain and wind. But if polyurethane sealant is applied, the lifespan can hit two years. Ideally, the sealer protects the wood as well as increase the durability of the dye, ensuring the darker color stays on for a prolonged period.

Is wood staining permanent?

It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Wood staining can be permanent only to a given extent but not fully and you should be careful when you choose to apply it to your wood. Some effort will be required when removing the stain though the appearance of the material will not be as the original one. If you wish, you can change its look by applying a different color stain. After application, the color doesn’t fade for approximately five years if polyurethane sealant is used.

Is wood stain a dye?

No. A wood stain contains earthy, dirt-like pigments that give wood its color. They color wood in the same way paint does. The earthy and dirt-like pigments form a coating on your wood giving it a new color. On the other hand, a dye is made up of organic material that’s water-soluble. Wood dye usually penetrate the grain of wood and doesn’t create a coating on the wood.

What is the Best Wood Stain?

The Minwax 70009 Cherry Wood Finish Oil-Based Wood Stain is my go-to wood stain thanks to its rich even color, easy application, quick drying and being a trusted brand.

The premium natural wood stain leaves an incredible, medium cherry color that’s great for use on a variety of projects. It’s also warm and light-colored.

What is the Best Wood Dye?

The best dye for wood is TransTint Dyes. Dark Walnut TransTint Dye is a water-based, nonflammable dye that can be mixed with water or alcohol for a variety of finishes. This dye can be added directly to water-based finishes and solvent-based finishes, making it an economical and versatile choice.

How to Use Dye Stains for Wood

Wood dye is applied to wood by first sanding the surface to make it smooth. Secondly, use a brush or cloth to apply your preferred dye to the plank.

Lastly, once the wood is completely covered in dye, get any excess dye residual off the wood without damaging the finish and allow it to dry. After using the wood dye, keep it tightly sealed to prevent a horrendous mess.

Wood Stain vs Wood Dye Verdict

Are wood stains and wood dyes interchangeable? In short, no. Wood stains are better at hiding wood grain, while wood dyes are better at color saturation.

Choose Wood Dye When:

  • You want to safeguard a surface for years
  • Working with limited color choices
  • You want ready-for-use polish 
  • When you want the wood grain to show

Choose Wood Stain When:

  • The wooden surface will be exposed to sunlight
  • Looking for easy application
  • You need a bit of versatility in your coloring
  • When minimal toxicity is a priority

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