Tools + Supplies staining unfinished wooden toys tutorial (2 of 4)

Published on December 6th, 2011 | by Julie Finn


How-to: Stain Unfinished Wooden Toys with Vibrant Colors

How-to: Stain Unfinished Wooden Toys with Vibrant Colors

Families who embrace a natural lifestyle often have lots of simple wooden toys–I know that mine sure does! Building blocks, peg people, beads, and even more unusual items, such as my daughters’ collection of little wooden acorns, can furnish an infinite amount of creative play, all without batteries, or plastic, or a video screen of any sort.

However, sometimes you just need a little color. A kid can build with her unfinished wooden blocks all day long, but if what she really wants to build is a rainbow, well…

Fortunately, unfinished wooden toys (or unfinished wood of ANY type), is quite simple to stain, and it takes color so beautifully that you may never want to paint wood again. Here’s how to do it:

How-to: Stain Unfinished Wooden Toys with Vibrant Colors

The secret to staining these small, unfinished wooden toys is to use liquid watercolors. You can’t buy liquid watercolors everywhere, so you may have to ask your local arts and crafts store to order it for you, or purchase it online, but they’re not terribly expensive. There are expensive liquid watercolors around, of course–Stockmar makes a very expensive set that’s all the craze amongst the Waldorf mamas in my circle–but the cheapie brand works perfectly for this project.

While you can stain the unfinished wood perfectly well with liquid watercolors and a paintbrush, if you can stand to have zip-top plastic baggies in your house, you can stain your items even better, and in seconds, using one of those little baggies.

smoosh the wooden toy in the baggie with the liquid watercolors

Put a few drops of liquid watercolor into a zip-top plastic baggie, add just one or two small wooden objects, and seal the baggie up.

Smoosh the wooden object around in the baggie until it’s completely covered in liquid watercolor. The wood will suck up the liquid, so it only takes seconds before each piece is done.

Kapla blocks stained with liquid watercolors

Set each piece aside to dry, well away from the others–I tend to stain a whole rainbow of toys at one time, and if one of my yellow blocks touches one of my red blocks while they’re both wet, they’re both messed up permanently.

I really prefer staining to painting especially with our fancy Kapla blocks and other plank-type blocks, because the stain doesn’t interfere with the perfect balance of those blocks, while finally, FINALLY, allowing my kiddo to stack the rainbow of her dreams.

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About the Author

I'm a writer, crafter, Zombie Preparedness Planner, and homeschooling momma of two kids who will hopefully someday transition into using their genius for good, not the evil machinations and mess-making in which they currently indulge. I'm interested in recycling and nature crafts, food security, STEM education, and the DIY lifestyle, however it's manifested--making myself some underwear out of T-shirts? Done it. Teaching myself guitar? Doing it right now. Visit my blog Craft Knife for a peek at our very weird handmade homeschool life; my etsy shop Pumpkin+Bear for a truly odd number of rainbow-themed beeswax pretties; and my for links to articles about poverty, educational politics, and this famous cat who lives in my neighborhood.

  • HopeB

    This post just solved my “how to paint the little wooden peg people and holders for my 18mo for Christmas” dilemma. Kudos!

  • DIY Blog

    Looks like a great solution. I’ve been trying to do this for ages without the risk of the colours running. Thanks for sharing (:

  • camille

    how great! would you consider these safe enough for a kid to put in their mouth or is there a kind of sealer that you know of that makes it safe. i am excited to make some blocks for my niece but dont want to accidentally give her something she shouldnt put her mouth on. thank you SO much

    • Julie Finn

      If you used non-toxic liquid watercolors, I would consider them okay for a kid to put in her mouth. However, the most natural choice for a child who still mouths is an undyed natural material, so plain wooden blocks are also a good choice.

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  • Jessica

    So I did this for my son and his friend came over, put the blocks in her mouth, and all the color came off on her! Is this to be expected or am I doing something wrong? I am also using the colorations brand of watercolors.

    • Julie Finn

      I’m sure you’re not doing anything wrong. I don’t craft for mouthers anymore (yay!), but when you craft for mouthers, you need to add the extra step of sealing your toys if they’re painted, stained, or dyed. I’ve got a tutorial for homemade beeswax polish coming up soon, which is also natural, non-toxic, and will do the trick of sealing that wood away from spitty little toddlers.

      • Jessica

        I did actually seal them with beeswax polish! I can’t figure it out. It’s only the blue, which is sort of weird. I might just pick a different shade of blue and see if that helps.

        Loved this tutorial though! So much easier than a lot of the other ones I’ve seen.

        • Julie Finn

          Goodness, I’m stumped, too, then! I could see it being color-specific, though–I dye a lot of play silks, and I certainly know that some colors set better than others. This is just a total guess, but I’m wondering if a) rinsing or soaking in vinegar would set that color better, or b) just rinsing or briefly soaking the block in water would at least bleed out any color that won’t set BEFORE it reaches a kid’s mouth.

          • Jessica

            I tried vinegar last night and it worked like a charm! Thank you for brainstorming with me. :)

  • Heather

    This is a great idea! I just got some bare wooden animals to color. If I wish to make black or white accents (like hoof lines, stripes, spots) do you know what type of paint, pen or marker even that I would use over the water colored wood? Also, do you know if I would need to seal the pieces first before adding the accents. I would appreciate any help! Thanks so much!

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  • Brittany

    Do these need to have some sort of sealant applied after staining? I’ve heard that using vinegar will help set the color, but I’m not sure that will work well enough for my 10 month old that loves to chew.

    • Julie Finn

      I can’t think of any sealant that I’d super want in a baby’s mouth. Honestly, I kind of consider painted wooden toys to be for kids who no longer put things in their mouths. You could always leave toys well-sanded but unfinished until the kiddo is a little older, and then stain them.

    • Julie Finn

      Vinegar will help, but I don’t know if it would work well for a mouther, either. Honestly, I’d probably only give a mouther undyed toys.

  • Milusha

    If I were to paint wood what would I use? Water based paint that’s not watercolour? And. If so what should I seal it with? Can I paint over already sealed wood (beeswax and oil)? Thanks.

    • Julie Finn

      You can paint with anything, but you wouldn’t be able to use the beeswax sealant, because it wouldn’t be able to be absorbed into the wood. You also can’t really paint over wood sealed with an oil- or wax-based sealant, because it won’t stick.

  • torontomama

    I’m wondering if you stained maple Keva planks or pine Keva? I am really hoping to be able to stain the maple Keva planks, but afraid it will ruin them or that they will turn out splotchy. Thanks!

    • Julie Finn

      I actually stained Kapla blocks, which are pine. You could maybe stain one Keva plank and see how you liked it, before you did an entire batch.

  • torontomama

    Also, wondering if you find that the colour comes off on their hands or clothes, or on furniture at all? thanks!

    • Julie Finn

      The pigment may come off if you get it wet, but won’t rub off onto anything else.

  • Gopika

    Hi this is a good idea to make it more attractive for kids, but was wondering if there was a natural way to colour it as shop bought colours come with their own set of chemicals? Any ideas? Thanks gopika

    • Julie Finn

      There’s a long history of natural dyes that you could research, from woad and indigo to black walnuts and red onion skins. Just remember that “natural” is NOT the same as “non-toxic”–some of the natural dye recipes that you’ll come across won’t be suitable for those with sensitive skin.

  • Kristy

    I’m looking at the same brand you’ve used here trying to decide on colors. Any favorite colors? Like, the reddish color above, is that “red” or “magenta”? Is your purple “purple” or “violet”? Ha. Basically I just want those same beautiful vibrant colors you have above and I’m having a hard time narrowing.

    And so you would seal with beeswax polish once dry, yes?

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