How To Make Colored Wood Stain

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In this article, we’ll teach you all about making colored wood stain. It includes step-by-step instructions on how to color stains of different bases, as well as some tips for success. 

Any hardware store that sells stain can tint it for you, but the selection of colors to choose from is usually very limited. When you have a specific color in mind, skip the paint counter and make your own at home using one of these four methods. 

How to Color Oil Based Wood Stain

Oil paint can be used to color wood while allowing the texture of the natural grain to show through. 

  1. Choose your stain. A colorless or natural colored stain works best. This method only works with oil-based stains, which are sometimes labeled ‘penetrating stains’. You can also use oil paint to tint polyurethane. To color water-based or acrylic stains, see the instructions below. 
  2. Choose your color. Oil paints (the kind used for fine art painting) can be used to tint your stain any color under the rainbow. You can even mix oil paints together to achieve your desired look. Oil paints can be found at any craft store. 
  3. Make a test board. Select a board that is the same age, color, and type of wood as whatever larger project you’re working on. Divide the board into several even sections using a tape measure and a marker. Label each section of the board. 
Man with gloved hands holding a popsicle stick and mixing stain inside a can

Each section should be about four inches wide so that you can adequately evaluate the results of your test. You can test as many colors as you have room for. Testing at least four different shades of the same color will help you zero in on the exact right shade.  

  1. Make test cups. Label several plastic cups to correspond with the blocks you marked out on your test board. Pour a small amount of stain into several plastic cups. Yogurt containers work very well, especially the kind that come with resealable plastic lids. Try to put the same amount of stain into each cup, to keep your results consistent. Use an old set of measuring cups if you want to be precise. 
  2. Tint the stain. Using an old set of measuring spoons or working by eye, put a small amount of oil paint into the first cup. Add a little bit more paint to the next cup, and continue on in this way, increasing the amount of paint as you go. The more paint you use, the deeper and darker the color will be. 
  3. Stir. Use popsicle sticks to thoroughly stir the mixture. The oil paint should completely dissolve into stain. Note that if you leave the stain to sit for a while, the pigments may sink to the bottom. If this happens, just give it a good stir before applying. 
  4. Apply the stains to your test board. Use a clean brush for each test swatch. Start with the lightest/least pigmented test sample. If it’s too dark or vibrant, adjust the rest of the sample cups by adding more stain to dilute the paint. If it’s not nearly as colorful as you were hoping, you can add more paint to the remaining cups. Remember to stir well before continuing. 
  5. Allow the stain to dry. The same wood stain will look very different when wet than it does when dry, so don’t make any decisions until you see the final result. 
  6. Make a larger batch. Once you’ve got the color of your dreams, mix a big batch. Stain the wood according to the directions on the can. 
Hand holding a can of blue paint with a roller on a plastic covered floor

How To Color Acrylic Wood Stain

Use this method to add tint to water-based or acrylic stains. 

  1. Choose your stain. This method is only appropriate for water-based or acrylic stains. To color oil-based stains, see the instructions above. 
  2. Choose your paint. Any acrylic paint will work, including the cheap stuff that art teachers and daycares buy in bulk. You can mix different colors and brands of acrylic paint to get the exact shade you desire. These paints are available at craft stores, and can sometimes be found in drugstores, dollar stores, or at the supermarket. 
  3. Test and apply. Follow the same procedure described above to make a test board. Once you’ve created the color of your dreams and seen what it looks like dry, you can mix a larger batch and stain wood according to the directions on the can. 

Using Interior Oil Paint to Make Colored Wood Stain

Maybe you know exactly the color you want, but it’s only available as a paint. Or perhaps you want to stain trim to match the walls, and you have some extra oil paint lying around in the same color.

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Adding glazing fluid to paint will spread the pigments out, giving you a semi-transparent stain. A four to one ratio of glazing fluid to paint is a good place to start; you can adjust as necessary. 

Using Interior Water-Based Paint to Make Colored Wood Stain

If the paint you want to match is water-based, making it into stain couldn’t be easier. Simply dilute the paint with water to get a semi-transparent stain. Apply in a thin layer and wait for it to dry. To deepen the color, add additional coats. 

Using Fabric Dye to Make Colored Wood Stain

Fabric dye has a tendency to fade when exposed to ultraviolet light. This method is therefore best for wood that will be used inside, away from the bright light of the sun. Fabric dyes come in many different colors and are available in craft and fabric stores. 

Mix the powder or liquid dye with water, according to your personal preference and the directions on the container. Brush it onto to smooth, porous wood, or use a rag to apply the dyed water mixture. 

Minwax Water Based Wood Stain

This method will likely produce a less intense color than the other methods described, but a lot depends on how much dye you use. 

Tips for Colored Wood Stain Success 

Whether you’re using oil or water-based stain, there are few tips that make the coloring process easier and raise your chances of success. 

  • Make more stain than you think you’ll need. Unless you measure carefully, recreating the exact same color of stain is a very challenging task. You don’t want to get halfway through your project and realize you don’t have enough stain to finish the job
  • Measure precisely. While it may be a bit annoying, using an exact ratio of stain to colorant will make it more likely that you get the results you’re looking for. Also, if you have to make more stain to finish the project (or decide you love the stain so much you want to recreate it) knowing the recipe you used will make things much easier. 
  • Don’t store paint after it has been diluted with water. Water can introduce bacteria into the paint, affecting its performance. 
  • Prepare the wood properly. These methods will work best on untreated, smooth, and even-surfaced wood. The wood should be free of finishes and adhesives and sanded with fine grain sandpaper before application. Just like commercial stain, these handmade colored stains will be absorbed more easily by porous wood. The color may be lighter or more muted on wood with a close grain. 

Conclusion

Making colored wood stain is simple. Add paint to a neutral colored or clear stain, mix it well, and apply as you normally wood. Making a test board will help you anticipate the outcome of the stain. Stick with oil paints for oil-based stains, and acrylic paints for water-based stains.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.