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In this section we will explore the intriguing world of aniline dyes and how they can add beauty to your next project.


Aniline is a chemical that is a by product of burning coal. The first synthetic dye (mauve, developed in 1856) was a coal tar product and contained the chemical aniline but the term "aniline" has been used to include other chemical type dyes. Today the term "aniline" is used mainly to differentiate natural dyes from the synthetic dyes. The synthetic dyes offered by The ReRanch do not contain the chemical aniline. Take note that the class of dyes known as aniline are chemicals and as such should be treated with respect. Protective gloves and eyeware is encouraged. Breathing the powered dyes is not! The dyes offered by The ReRanch are the product of Home Stead Finishing. Their web site offers information on using natural dyes as well as the synthetics. The information offered here is how the family of synthetic dyes relates to the builder of wooden instruments.

Other products will be discussed in this section that are needed in the preparation of the wood. They are sand paper, oil based grain filler and sand and sealer. The sand paper grades needed for the preparation are grades #180, #220 and #320 with #320 being the finest. All prep sanding should be done using dry sand paper. This will eliminate the risk of introducing moisture into the wood. Grain filler is a thin wood filler like material. The thinner viscosity allows it to penetrate and hold in the grain pits. Normal wood filler will pull out of the grain as it is applied. Grain filler is difficult to find although Wood Craft Stores and other fine wood working stores will carry it. Bartley's is oil based and a good one. It is the one that you will most likely find. (Of course The ReRanch offers a good grade oil based filler as well). Water based fillers are available but have the inherent problem of introducing moisture into the wood. Lastly, sand and sealer is recommended with all woods destined for a perfectly glass-flat glossy finish. Sand and sealer is a high solids content lacquer, vinyl or shellac filler that helps fill the grain but also acts as a leveler for the coats above it. Each product as it is used on a particular wood is discussed below.

Water based Vs. Alcohol based Dyes

Most of the colors can be found in either water based or alcohol based dyes. The alcohol based dyes can also be reduced with lacquer thinner. The dyes may show slight differences in color depending on the reducer (alcohol or lacquer thinner) but it has been my experience that lacquer thinner works just as well as denatured alcohol. If you want to err on the side of safety use denatured alcohol as your reducer. Any hardware store will carry it in quart size cans.

The water based dyes are reputed to be more color fast than the alcohol reduced dyes. I say reputed as I have found the color fastness of the alcohol types to be a non issue. Gibson and PRS use alcohol reduced dyes to tint their translucent finishes and fading doesn't seem to be much of a problem to these manufactures. It should not cause great concern for the one off custom builder either.

Water based dyes can only be applied to unfinished and unsealed wood whereas alcohol based dyes can be either wiped onto unfinished wood or sprayed over filled and sealed wood. Water based dyes cannot be successfully sprayed over sealed wood.

Dye Selection

Water based dyes are simple to apply but on some woods may cause problems further along in the finishing process. Alcohol based dyes if wiped on are as easily applied as the water based. If you choose to wipe onto bare wood the water based dyes have a slight advantage. Water will evaporate much slower than alcohol and as such allows the dye solution a longer working time. The longer working time can lessen the possibility of streaking. 

Some colors are not available in both water and alcohol based. If your chosen color is not available in a water based dye don't let the possibility of streaking cause you to abandon your preferred color choice. In normal temperatures alcohol will evaporate slowly enough to allow you adequate application time.

As hinted at above, wiping on water based dyes  may not be the best application method. The problem lies with the choice of wood the dye is to be applied. Remember, water based dyes can be used only on raw and un sealed wood. On woods requiring filling and/or sand and sealing the prep work must be done over the dyed wood. This prep work offers a high potential for sanding through the prep coats and into the dyed wood. Sand throughs will sand away the dye and leave a light spot. Sometimes these spots can be re-dyed but it is difficult to dye the spot back to the hue of the surrounding area. For this reason I suggest that wiping on dyes be reserved only for a wood that requires little or no filling. In the guitar world that limits wiping on dyes to maple.

For the rest of the woods in our world spraying the dye over the prepped wood is the best choice. Since water based dyes cannot be sprayed over prepped wood that leaves us with alcohol based dyes.

Mixing and Applying Dyes

Let's first talk about water based dyes. Water based dyes (as well as alcohol based dyes) are sold by weight. The powdered water based dye are offered in one ounce bottles. One ounce of powdered dye will render two quarts of solution. For our work I suggest you use 1/2 ounce in 1 quart of solution. Mixing one quart will be more than enough solution for a guitar body and will leave you with enough dry dye to adjust the solution if needed. The mixing is not a critical part of the process and is more akin to cooking than chemistry. Homestead recommends using hot water for the mixing medium. Distilled water will most likely not be needed but should be considered if tap water causes problems. Add the powder slowly while stirring the solution. Allowing some colors to sit for a few hours will give a more homogeneous solution. In a perfect world there should be no residue in solution or on the bottom of the jar. If there is, the solution can be strained through a coffee strainer to remove the residue.

When working with water based dyes you may find that the solution will raise the grain of the raw wood. To minimize the grain raising wipe the wood first with a damp cloth or sponge. When dry you can sand the raised grain off using the last grade paper used in the sanding schedule to prep the wood.

Wearing gloves, you can now wipe on the color. Dip an absorbent cotton cloth (old tee shirts work great) into the dye solution and working with the grain wipe the color onto the wood. If the color doesn't appear dark enough you can either wipe on more solution or strengthen the solution by adding more powered dye. The dye will appear flat and may appear blotchy as it dries. Don't worry. The true beauty will become evident when it is clear coated. If you get the color too dark a clean moist rag can be used to remove dye. When dry do not sand and try not to handle the body more than you need to. Allow to dry thoroughly. Clear coating will follow.

The mixing of alcohol dyes follows the basic steps noted above. The alcohol dyes are offered in 2 ounce quantities. Two ounces of dry dye will make 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of strong solution. Again mix a solution using 1/2 of the dye. Denatured alcohol is recommended by Homestead. I've found that lacquer thinner seems to work well also. When wiping alcohol based dry solution wipe in a cool area to retard evaporation. Streaking is a possibility but not as great of a problem as you may imagine. If you do see streaking wiping again with a rag dampened with denatured alcohol can be used to blend the streaking.

The real advantage of alcohol based dyes is that they can be sprayed. Three colors; Cherry Red, Blue and Neck Amber are offered by the ReRanch in aerosols. For the other colors a Preval Unit can be used to spray them. A Preval is a disposable aerosol system. They are available at most home supply super stores and many hardware stores. Home Depot sells them for about $4. 

Woods and Wood Prep

The world of guitar woods is of course unlimited but because of tradition there are four woods that are the most commonly found; Maple, Alder, Ash and Mahogany. Basswood and Popular are also found occasionally. The prep for theses two woods is much like the prep required for alder. The woods have been listed by the degree of poresness which directly affects the level of preparation required. The least pores of the primary four is Maple. 

Maple is used for caps on Les Paul, PRS and custom Strat and Tele after market bodies. Many other builders use maple as the outer laminate on hollow body and semi hollow body guitars such as the Gibson Es335. Because of its weight it is seldom used alone for solid body guitars. Maple is a very dense wood and as such needs little in the way of grain filling. The absence of the need for grain filling makes maple the prime candidate for the  use of water based dyes. The raw wood should be sanded starting with either #180 or #220 dry sand paper. When sanding with any paper below #220 be especially careful not to sand across the grain. It is very tempting in some areas such as around the arch on the top of a Les Paul to cross sand. Don't! Cross sanding can put scratches in the wood that may appear invisible until dyed. The dye will find the end grain in the scratch and reveal it. If you find scratches after the dye has been applied resanding is usually the only way to correct them.

Birdseye maple and flamed maple can be enhanced through the use of dyes. To bring out the figuring in the wood wipe the wood with a diluted mixture of either amber or medium brown dye. When dry lightly sand the wood back with #220 or #320 dry sand paper. The field of the wood will sand back to the natural maple color but the dye will remain in the figuring. 

Along these same lines, flamed maple can be enhanced by pre-dying with either black or a strong solution of color. For example a blue flamed maple top can be pre dyed either black or dark blue. The darkness of the blue should be several shades darker than is intended for the final color. After applying the darker color and allowing it to dry, sand the wood back to the point that the field is natural but the grain is stilled dyed. If you are doing a burst you can sand more in the center of the body and make the grain color lighter there than at the edges. This gives the effect of having the flames appear to burst into the center of the body. The pre-dying technique can also be used to enhance the grain of alder and basswood although the effect may be less striking. After the pre-dying has been done the body can be wiped with a solution close to the color of the dyed finish. If the color isn't dark enough additional dye can be added through further wipings. If the dye is too dark much of the color can be removed with a clean damp cloth.

[An aside; PRS has popularized the natural binding look on maple capped guitars. If you are spraying the dye creating natural bindings is simple; after prepping the body to the sand and sealer stage tape the binding line and spray the dye. Remove the tape and clear coat. If you are wiping on the dye it becomes trickier. You can try to tape the area you want to be the binding but the problem is the dye may migrate through the wood and go under the tape giving a ragged binding line. For a crisp line first tape on either side of the binding line to be. Then spray clear lacquer over the binding area. When dry remove the boundary tapes and tape the binding line. You can now wipe on the dye. Even if the dye does get under the tape the sealer will prevent the dye from staining the binding.]

Alder is a little less porous than maple and depending on the particular piece of wood may require differing degrees of preparation. If the grain appears open to your eye it will need a grain filler. Some alder is tighter grained and may not. If you determine a grain filler is needed you can use a natural colored filler to fill the grain. After sanding the raw wood to #220 or #320 (Note: all sanding should be done using a sanding block where possible) wipe on the filler. The filler should be the consistency of warm peanut butter. A rag can be used to wipe it on but I've found that smearing it into the grain with my fingers works best for me. After applying the filler wait about ten minutes for the filler to set. You can save yourself a lot of sanding if you then use a rag damp with mineral spirits to remove the excess. After letting the filler dry for an hour or so repeating the application will assure you of a good fill. Wipe again with mineral spirits and let dry overnight. The filler can be sanded flat starting with #180 and finishing with #220 or #320 dry. The goal of the sanding is to remove all of the filler in the field (the light area of the wood) of the wood leaving the filler in the grain pits only. Dyes can be wiped on alder over the filled and sanded wood but sanding through may occur during the next step.

After filling (or not filling if it was decided it wasn't needed) a sand and sealer coat should be applied. Sand and sealers are a high solids content lacquer, vinyl or shellac product  that gives not only additional grain filling but provides a level surface for the following coats. They can be brushed on or sprayed. Spraying results in a much more even coat and as such is much easier to sand flat. Apply a minimum of four coats of sand and sealer. Spray two coats separated by at least ten to twenty minutes and let dry, preferably overnight. Sand the first two coats flat. The goal is to remove as many of the shiny spots as you can without sanding back into the wood. Use #220 dry and you should get about 80% of the shiny spots. When sanded apply two more coats. When dry sand flat with #220 and finish with #320. This time sand out all of the shiny pots. If there are a few that seem too deep to sand out you can either respray that area or drop fill and sand out the more persistent ones. 

If you opted to use an alcohol based dye on the alder, spraying the dye is next. Some of the more popular colors are available from The ReRanch in aerosol sprays. For the colors that are not available in aerosols they can be mixed and sprayed with a Preval Unit. One unit will be enough for a guitar body. Using either method (or a spray gun) spray light dye coats avoiding overlaps if possible. Don't try to reach the end color in one or two passes. Depending on the strength of solution and the desired end color 4 to 10 passes may be needed. Dyes may appear flat and blotchy when first sprayed. Clear coating will be needed to reveal the true color and depth of the finish. As you approach the desired final color shoot a coat of clear to give you a truer reading of the color. If the color isn't dark enough additional color passes can be sprayed and checked again by spraying a coat of clear. When the final color is reached finish with the clear coating schedule; usually about nine to fifteen coats.

Ash is the most porous of the white woods and must be grain filled. If you try to skip this step hoping that the lacquer will act as a filler you can get a short term acceptable finish. As the lacquer dries without a filler as a base it will sink into the grain leaving a pot marked finish. The sinking of the lacquer will occur in a matter of weeks. Follow the grain filling schedule above to protect the lacquer from drying back into the grain. Normally a natural colored filler is used on ash but stained fillers can be used to highlight the grain. After filling the grain a sand and sealer should be applied followed by a sprayed on color coat and clear coats. As with alder spray nine to fifteen coats of clear.

Two species of wood fall into the family guitar builders call "Honduran Mahogany"; mahoganni and swietenia. Mahoganni is the dark mahogany Gibson used for the original SGs and L/Ps that we know and love. It is very rare today. The second species, swietenia, while called Honduran is actually from Brazil and much lighter than true mahogany. Most likely a new mahogany guitar would be built using the lighter Brazilian species. Because of the darkness of the wood the use of dyes on mahoganni and swietenia (to a lesser degree) is limited. "Woody" colors such as mahogany and walnut work well on both species but colors like yellow and blue may not. Red will give a wine color (like an SG) to true mahogany but may give a redder color on the lighter swietenia. Test first before committing to a color.

When dying both types of mahogany some success with obtaining a true color can be had if the wood is bleached first. If you must have a blue mahogany guitar try an A/B bleach Like the Parks Corp. wood bleach. Home Depot has it for less than $10.

Filling mahogany offers a special challenge. The grain filler used must be stained darker than the wood. Pre stained fillers are available from Bartly's and can be found at fine woodworking stores. You can also make a dark filler using a natural oil based filler. Oil based fillers can be stained with an oil based stain such as Minwax or Sherwin Wood Stain. The advantage of making your own is the color is limited only by the colors of wood stains available. Let your imagination be your guide.

When using a stained filler the wood must either be protected form the stain or sanded completely back to the field of the wood after the filler is applied. To protect against staining the wood any darker than it is naturally (older Les Pauls come to mind here), seal the wood first with a coat of clear lacquer. When dry apply the stained wood filler. The lacquer will leave the grain open but will leave a sealer coat on the rest of the surface. When the filler has set (ten to twenty minutes) wipe off the excess filler using mineral spirits. Mineral spirits will dissolve the excess filler but not the lacquer which will prevent the stain in the filler from staining the wood. After two applications of filler spray with sand and sealer, Spray your color and clear..

The spraying of the clear coats and final polishing can be found in ReRanch 101. 

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