How to Add Color to Varnish

For a varnish color you may not find ready-made in your paint store, you can add color to your varnish for the tint that will be just right for your tastes. With the right technique and tinting material, you can create a customized color that allows the natural wood grain to be seen through the varnish.  

Tools and Materials:

  • Turpentine
  • Tint
  • Cheesecloth
  • Hot water
  • Heating pan
  • Paintbrush

Step 1 – Choosing the Right Varnish

To suit the finishing of your varnish project, choose a stain that adds the right degree of gloss, one that does not penetrate your wood surface and provides the quick drying time you might prefer. If you plan to apply the varnish to a piece of furniture that will be used out of doors, such as a deck chair, choose a varnish that will withstand harsh weather conditions and UV degradation.

Step 2 – Choosing the Right Tint

For tinting of house paints, you can use colors that are ground in oil. These colors are typically not as transparent as you might like for finishing items when you prefer to see natural wood grains. These are also more likely to produce a cloudier or muddier look. For a more transparent appearance, good tints to use include umber, sienna, chrome green, Dutch pink and Prussian blue. Tints such as yellow ochre, lamp black and chrome yellow usually produce a more opaque appearance

Step 3 – Mixing Varnish Stains

Mix varnish stains by breaking up the pigment with turpentine and mixing it thoroughly. Then, prior to mixing it into the varnish, strain it through several layers of cheesecloth. When adding your tint to the varnish, be sure your varnish is at room temperature and then stir the tint into the varnish. To mix cold, tar dye colors such as aniline, dissolve them in hot turpentine before mixing with the varnish. Heat the turpentine by placing it in a container of hot water until it is very hot. Then stir the color into the turpentine until dissolved. At this point, add it to the varnish by straining out sediment through cheesecloth.

Step 4 – Producing the Right Viscosity

To produce the correct varnish viscosity or thickness, make your stain from a solution of spirit soluble anilines and shellac. In a pan of very hot water, heat your denatured alcohol and then add your aniline colors. Be sure the alcohol when heated is not placed near an open flame. When the color is dissolved, mix it with shellac. The best proportions of shellac and alcohol for a medium viscosity are three pounds of white shellac gum and one gallon denatured alcohol.

Step 5 – Creating the Right Varnish Tint

With the right proportions of tint and varnish, you can create the perfect shade of tint for you varnishing project. Here are a few colors you can create for one gallon of tint.

Mahogany Red

Varnish: 7 pints

Italian burnt sienna: ¼ to 1 pound

Rose pink: 1 to 3 oz.

Turpentine: ½ pint



Varnish: 7 ½ pints

Vandyke brown tint: ½ to 1 pound

Turpentine: ½ pint



Varnish: 7 ½ pints

Burnt sienna: ½ to 1 pound

Rose pink: 1 oz.

Turpentine: ½ pint