How to Make a Wood Toner

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

*This post contains affiliate links.

Ever have a staining project not turn out how you imagined? Last week, I was working on a little maple dresser. If you have ever worked with maple before, you know it sucks to stain. Like, majorly. Even after using a pre-stain conditioner, I was still left with a splotchy mess. After sanding, and re-staining. I decided to work with what I have, and apply a wood toner. Best. Decision. Ever.

I'm not ready to share the dresser yet, so I mocked up a test board to show you how a wood toner works.

Just like a toner you would get over your highlights in the salon, a wood toner is a translucent coat that lightly deposits color over the surface. It can be used to neutralize unwanted tones (like brassy highlights), even out splotchy color, or darken an existing finish.

If you research wood toners, you will probably end up on a professional wood worker forum, and they will be throwing around terms like "pre-cat", "HVLP" and "TransTint". Its not that complicated, and despite what you might read, it doesn't have to be sprayed. Toner can be applied with a high quality brush. A wood toner is simply pigment, mixed into a "watered down", clear finish. (I say the term "watered-down", but if you decided to use an oil-based finish, make sure to use mineral spirits, or lacquer thinner.) I'll show you how to to mix up your own toner, with products found at your local hardware store.

For easier clean-up, I chose to use a water based, polyurethane by Minwax*. The sheen doesn't really matter.

 Now, you need to add your pigment. I've touted the praises of universal tint several times before. I love the stuff. It can be mixed into oil or water-based products, and one bottle will last forever! Its my go-to product for mixing a dark glaze. The ProLine brand is available at Home Depot, in the paint section. In my particular toner, I used my favorite, raw umber.

In addition to the universal tint, I mixed in some pigment powder. This stuff is pretty cool. It can be mixed into poly, paint, wax, and pretty much anything else, without watering down the consistency. Adding powdered pigment is my new favorite to create my own colored wax. I find mine on Ebay and it is pretty cheap. This stuff is SUPER concentrated! A little bit goes a long way.

So like I said, I add the color to the polyurethane and stir it very well.

Now, I thin the poly. As mentioned before, if you are using an oil-based lacquer or polyurethane, use mineral spirits or lacquer thinner. Since I used a water-based product, I added a good deal of water. The ratio should be 2 parts water, 1 part poly.

Now, you can spray or brush on the toner. Caution, it will be VERY thin and easily runs. You will want to apply the toner on a horizontal surface, if possible and remember "less is more". Use multiple, thin coats to get the coverage you want.

This is how my sample board looked after 3 coats. Although I used polyurethane in the toner, you will still need a clear coat to protect the finish.

For reference, here's the "before" again.

Ready for some awesome news?! A wood toner can be used over an existing finish! Yes, that means you can darken that golden oak table top of yours without stripping it to bare wood. I would recommend giving the surface a light sand, and wiping everything clean with some TSP before toning, and remember to seal the toned surface with 2-3 coats of a clear finish, to protect your work. 


So what are you ready to tone?

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  1. So you used the universal tint AND the powered tint? It looks great!
    Would this be the same as using Polyshades?

    1. Yes, I used both powdered pigment and universal tint. I did this to get the exact color I wanted but you could use either or both. It is similar to Polyshades, if you thinned the Polyshades quite a bit.You don't want the finish to build up. The poly is there just to help the pigment stick. I prefer to mix my own so I can use water based products.

  2. Great information! Thanks so much for sharing - I'm wondering if I can finally make the indigo toner I've always wanted, lol!

  3. HI! I have a Crate and Barrel "pivot" table that the finish is coming off of. It is very similar to the color of the piece you show here - with strips/little patches of very light wood showing where the finish has come of. :( Is this a situation where I could use a wood toner like this, or should I sand it down to bare and redo the whole piece? I am hoping I can use this! I bet that powder could be found a WoodCraft, also...

    1. hi Kelly. No, I don't think I would try this on a existing finish that is not in good condition. If the first finish decides it wants to start flaking off it will take the toner with it. Also, the toner won't fill in the texture difference where the chips are.unfortunately, sounds like you will need to sand it first.

  4. I love the end results, it's gorgeous. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Girl you rock!!! Thank you for posting this and the dark wax recipe. I was going to try and make some tonner from Floetrol paint thinner to mock the Caromal tonner.
    Thanks again for the info.


  6. Yea, mixing toner still a best kept secret but it really should not be as it is an amazing way to finish wood (like a pro). As wood has come back into popularity mixing toners and also mixing tint with wood glaze is becoming discovered. This article is one of the better I have read.

    Buy the way, Home Depot has not adjusted to the renewed popularity of wood/wood floors and they do not stock the types of poly that can be used with tint (slow drying/water based/oil modified) such as the one you listed in your article. They also stopped stocking the colorants (tints). Thankfully we have the internet.

  7. Replies
    1. My local Home Depot used to carry ProLine universal tint but I was told they no longer carry it. Chromaflo makes a very similar product which you can find on Amazon. Here's an affiliate link :

  8. Do you prefer working with the toner or the gel stain? Which was easier?


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