Tools + Supplies

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.

These toys are perfect for any kid who’s old enough not to pop them in her mouth. If your kid still puts things in her mouth, either seal them with a polyurethane sealant or hold off with the color until she’s a little older.

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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.

36 Responses to How-to: Stain Unfinished Wooden Toys with Vibrant Colors

  1. HopeB says:

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

  2. DIY Blog says:

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

  3. camille says:

    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 says:

      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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  5. Jessica says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

          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 says:

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

            • Jessica says:

              Could you please elaborate on the method you used for this? I’m having this exact same problem. I painted a stacking rainbow for my kids using liquid watercolours and sealed it with one coat of beeswax polish, but the colour still comes off if it gets wet. What did you do with the vinegar, just brush it on, or did you soak the wood in it? Do you think it would still work even though I’ve already put a coat of polish on it? Any help would be greatly appreciated, my kids keep begging me to let them play with it!

              • Julie Finn says:

                The commentor who successfully tried this said that she briefly soaked the wooden toys in vinegar. If the dye is still coming off through the beeswax polish, then the excess should come out in the vinegar soak. If your kids are still big on mouthing, you may want to leach out as much dye as you can in the vinegar, and dye it again in pretty colors when they’re past that stage.

  6. Heather says:

    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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  8. Brittany says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

      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.

  9. Milusha says:

    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 says:

      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.

  10. torontomama says:

    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!

  11. torontomama says:

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

  12. Gopika says:

    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 says:

      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.

  13. Kristy says:

    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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  15. Liz says:

    Has anyone tried keeping part of the block natural or white? Like if you wanted to do a zebra or something not completely uniform in color? I thought maybe using a clear wax crayon or candle before dying might work. Has anyone tried this?

    • Julie Finn says:

      It’s definitely worth trying, although stain does bleed as you’re applying it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it bled underneath the wax. Paint, however, would definitely work in the way that you’re envisioning.

  16. emp says:

    Has anyone tried food coloring to paint kids toys? I’m part of a wood puzzling forum and they sometimes paint their wood puzzles with food coloring. I’ve never personally tried it so I can’t speak for how it sets, but since its food coloring, I would think it is safe for children…

    • Reina Rose says:

      I dyed some building blocks with food coloring, then sprayed with several coats of shellac. The blocks looked beautiful when I was finished, however, it took many coats of shellac before the color stopped bleeding onto my hands. It was very frustrating. Then, a “mouther” ended up getting color on her mouth when she put the block in her mouth, so now I am not sure what to do. Even the shellac did not work. I’m really disappointed as I love the effect of food color on wood grain, but I will probably not use it again. You can use paint watered down really thin so that it is more of a color wash, and I don’t think you would get any bleeding then.

      • Julie Finn says:

        Bummer! I wonder if food coloring has any special ingredients to make it “washable?” I’ve been happy with liquid watercolors, sealed, for average play by non-mouthers, but over the years I’ve eventually become convinced that there is just NO way to dye wood to keep it from bleeding when a kid puts it in her mouth. I mean, think of all the stress that a mouther, even one without teeth, puts on an object! The kid is probably rubbing it with her gums and tongue, probably sucking on it–I can’t imagine any sealant or dye could withstand that stress. And if the kid has teeth, well, she’s surely cracking or biting right through the sealant.

        Dye just doesn’t bond to wood the way that it does to fabric–at least, non-toxic, kid-safe dye doesn’t. I’ve had loads of success dyeing play silks, for instance, but now when I give dyed wooden blocks as a gift, I include the instruction that the kid shouldn’t put them in her mouth.

  17. Stacey says:

    Would this bag technique work with large pieces of rainbow stacker made from pine? I’m painting raw wooden rainbows to sell and am stumped for what to paint them with. Thank you!

  18. Jody says:

    Hi there,
    I was wondering about how long until the pieces are dry?

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