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The Case for Using Natural Dyes

The Case for Using Natural Dyes

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly Volume 11, #1, 1983 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000

Luthiers do not need to color their raw materials as much as other woodworkers. We use fine woods that can stand on their own merit without any help from the dye pot. But now and then we do find a need for dyes: for example, for rosettes, bindings, taking grey streaks from ebony, enhancing the color cast of wood, and tinting finishes.

In 1856 young William Henry Perkin was trying to synthesize quinine but instead wound up with a black tarry mess. This was mauveine, the first of the coal-tar derived dyes. By 1900 the aniline dyes (coal-tar derived) had virtually replaced all other dye materials. Up to this point, dyeing was done with naturally occurring materials and was more of an art than a science. With aniline dyes results were predictable, repeatable, stable, nonfading, and a heck of a lot simpler. There was bound to be a reaction, of course. The art of natural dyeing is returning to the amateur weavers and textile artists; I doubt if woodworkers will be far behind.

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