Guide to natural dyes for wood toys

Welcome to our ‘ Guide to natural dyes for wood toys ‘

Toy making really brings out the versatility of wood and even very simple designs with minimal tooling can be crafted into something that delights and provides entertainment for hours on end. It’s not just toymakers that need to know about stains and natural dye for wooden toys. Parents also often ask the question ‘Which dyes and stains are safe to use on wooden toys?’ when they are looking to bring back to life their child’s favorite wooden toy. Which, with many years of play, can start to look a little tired and worn.

Using natural stains and dyes for wood reduced the potential for toxicity. One of the best things about wooden toys is that they are made from an all-natural material. Usually, parents can be confident that wooden toys are non-toxic, but some paints, dyes, and stains may not be fully safe. Sourcing natural wood dyes and stains afford the opportunity to be creative with wood and create items that achieve a good depth of color and character safely.

In this article, we will run through all you need to know about natural dyes, a list of vibrant natural wood stains and dyes, and how they are used to add vivid color to wooden toys.

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All about natural wood dyes and stains

The art of dyeing and the kaleidoscope of colors that have been achieved through the ages first developed with fabric but was observed and appropriated by woodworkers who were eager to add a new dimension to their designs. Indeed, this was the norm prior to the 1850s when synthetic dyes were first developed. Heritage and conservation woodworkers are adept in creating colored finishes for wood and it is this knowledge that has been carried over into toy making.

Remember: Dyes and stains are not the same!

Dyes are particulate pigments that are dissolved in a suitable solvent and penetrate the wood.

Stains are made up of color particles that superficially adhere to the wood. Their pigment sits on the wood’s surface, in the grain and pores.

Here is a list of well-known natural substances that are used to dye or stain wood

  • Cochineal beetle shells are crushed to produce a well-known culinary and clothing dye that can also be used on wood to produce vivid hues from black through purple to red depending on other substances it is mixed with.
  • Walnut husks can also be used as an effective brown stain. 
  • Brazilwood has been heavily used for the red stain produced by boiling its heartwood down to a rich liquor. It is now endangered.
  • Barberry bark also used as a medicinal herb, produces green coloring when steeped in hot water.
  • Alkanet root is widely cultivated in the Mediterranean for its vivid red dye. It is both oil and water-soluble and its color is usually released by powdering the root of the Alkanet and soaking in turpentine.
  • Buckthorn berries produce a yellow coloring when crushed and boiled. 
  • Annatto seed can be used for red or brown wood coloring. The seeds come from the Boca Orellana tree which is native to the West Indies. They can be crushed, boiled, or soaked to produce the stain.
  • Madder, which is obtained from Rubia tinctorum, produces deep pinks and reds. Temperature and the addition of substances like alum can produce drastically different hues. 
  • Cutch produces a range of brown shades
  • Indigo’s rich and varied blues can be obtained by fermenting the leaves and stalks of several species including Indigo tinctoria and Dyers Woad.

Key points on dying or staining wood with natural substances.

  • Natural dyes can be crushed or powdered and steeped in water to release their pigments. Alternatively, they can be blended with spirits or oil for direct application. 
  • Prior to dying or staining a piece of wood, it is best to test the dye or stain on a similar untreated piece of wood to see how it will turn out before you apply it to your final piece. 
  • A mordant, a substance that increases the light fastness or grip on the wood of your dye may be needed to be used with your dye of choice. 
  • Dyeing wood is best with rainwater or distilled water.
  • A light sanding and reapplication of the dye may deepen the color.
  • Once a satisfactory application has been completed, the wood should be allowed to air dry.
natural dyes for wood toys
All children chew their toys hence the dye or stainer used must be child friendly, also see ourAre wooden teething rings safe for babies and Toddlers ‘ article

Frequently asked questions

Q. Can food coloring be used to safely dye or stain wooden toys?

A. Surprisingly, food coloring makes a great alternative dye for wood and the color achieved can be very vivid. Take liquid or paste certified food-grade coloring to dye light-colored wood by dissolving it in warm water and adding your wooden item to a sealed bag with the liquid. The longer the wood is soaked, the deeper the color. Air dry and lightly sand when done.

Q. Are all-natural dyes safe?

A. The substances we have shared are naturally occurring but may be harmful if directly digested or inhaled. Observe proper precautions when preparing and using natural dyes by wearing gloves, goggles, and a dust mask.

Q. Can I obtain consistent results when I stain wood naturally?

A. Results achieved with these natural dyes and wood stains tend to be more nuanced than those with chemical dyes and paints. The condition of the coloring substance, water used and techniques will affect the outcome. The finished result will also be unique to each batch prepared, though with experience you’ll be able to achieve more predictable results.

Q. How do I protect dyed or stained wooden toys?

Over time, UV and environmental exposure get the better of dyed or stained wood and color does fade. This process can be slowed down by applying a wood finish to seal and protect the colored wood. Non-toxic wood finishes include:

  • Linseed oil
  • Beeswax
  • Wax
  • Mineral oil
  • Tung oil

Depending on the brand and any additional ingredients, these substances should be safe for children.

Disclaimer: Always make sure you read the instructions or seek professional advice before painting any child’s toy to ensure you’re using child friendly products.

In conclusion: Natural dyes for wood toys

It’s great that classic wooden toys can be finished naturally with such a diverse range of colors. Beautifully stained and finished items can also be retreated and resealed to revive their color as they begin to fade.

Using natural wood stains also really enhances the design of the item by bringing out the texture and grain of the wood and showcasing the hard work, tooling, and craftsmanship that has gone into making the toy. We’re sure that a naturally dyed or stained wooden toy will become a treasured heirloom that can last generations.

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