Dyeing Veneer - Working With Veneer, Part 4

Sometimes, regardless of how much veneer you have accumulated in your treasure trove, there will arise a need for a colour you just don’t have. Dyeing may be the solution to this problem. It can be done in several ways depending on the requirements of the task at hand. This is a brief discussion of my personal experiences with some of those techniques.

Dyeing for Surface Colour

This is the simplest form of dyeing veneer and is used generally after assembly or at least after pressing the veneer to the substrate. It consists of applying a wood dye like Transtint, Colour FX, or Keda directly to the surface with a brush or spray and wiping it off again when the desired shade is achieved. This is exactly the same procedure as you might use with solid wood. The dye will not penetrate deeply so any sanding will have to be done judiciously. As the dye is generally water and alcohol soluble care must also be taken when applying the first sealing coat of finish.

Surface Dyeing for Effect

A variation on simple surface dyeing involves purposely sanding some of the dye off. This is normally done on figured woods to pop the grain or to create a special effect. In the example below I used the technique to make the curly maple figure resemble the pattern that refracted light makes under water.

Curly Maple

This is a simple example of a technique that can be much more complex and can involve repeated applications and sandings of different colours to produce stunning results.

Hand Dyeing Marquetry

This is a technique that I have developed myself but I’m probably not the first or only one to have done it. It involves cutting a piece of marquetry from a single sheet of light coloured veneer and then hand dyeing each piece separately with an artist’s brush using the same dyes as mentioned above.


Again, the penetration will be minimal so the same precautions go for this technique. Here are some examples of finished pieces.

A Dsc 5945

Dyeing Raw Veneer

The last procedure I will cover is dyeing raw veneer for use in marquetry. The base problem here is that many marquetry subjects are representations of nature where the full spectrum of colours exists in all their many shades while the natural colours available in veneers are much more limited. Greens and blues are particularly hard to find in natural wood veneers. For this reason veneer has been dyed for use in marquetry for centuries. Many of the old recipes however, contained very nasty toxins and chemicals and on top of that they did not stand up well over time.

The method I am currently experimenting with was given to me by my marquetry friend Elaine and uses common textile dyes in conjunction with heat to soak the pieces until they are penetrated all the way through by the desired colour. I know the colour will last because I have seen some of the work she did several years ago and because I have used some of her old stock dyed veneer.

I recently used this green packet of 16 layers of her “old stock”.

Img 2253

Here are the pieces in context.

Img 2282

I work with 1/16” (1.5 mm) sawn veneer so it is more difficult for me than it will be for those who are using the more standard 1/42” commercial sliced veneer.

Here’s my setup. It is a heavy foil roasting pan set on top of a warming tray. The two cost me less than $5. Love those thrift stores.

Img 2592
Img 2598

The Dye (so far I have tried Rit and Tulip) is mixed in boiling hot water and set on the warming tray at high setting. This will maintain a heat of about 150 degrees. Add your veneer and wait. Don’t worry about it floating or about separating the pieces. It will sink within the first few hours and as long as you move things around occasionally separating doesn’t seem to be an issue.

I am leaving my thick pieces in for three days to start with which seems to be enough for poplar but not for harder species. Thinner veneer certainly will take less time.

This is a piece of 1/16” poplar after three days in the green dye bath. You can see that it is fully penetrated.

Img 2623

There is lots of experimentation to be done here but my results so far show that the method will produce veneer that is dyed all the way through, that it will not transfer colour to neighboring pieces, and that it will stand up to the heat of sand shading. This is a sample marquetry I did to prove these characteristics.

Img 2667

One interesting thing to note is that a given dye bath will render different colour in different species. The picture below shows European pear, sycamore, curly maple, and English boxwood .... all dyed in the same bath.

Img 2756

I am still experimenting with this myself but I am sufficiently convinced that it will succeed to recommend the method to anyone who is interested in experimenting with creating their own infinite palette of dyed veneer colours.

I was in the process of experimenting with through dyeing when I wrote this article. I would now caution experimenters about using aluminium trays. Apparently they don't get along with the acids in the dyes too well. The fix is to line the trays with plastic film or better yet use glass or enamelled pans.

Paul is the founder and instructor at The Canadian School Of French Marquetry (Facebook)