Because I like a challenge, I decided to apply a transparent sunburst to the top of the walnut orchestra guitar (serial number 16) that’s just a few weeks from being completed. I wanted to show off the beautiful grain of the Adirondack spruce top, so I chose to use reactive dyes to produce the color without the opacity of applying colored finish. Generally speaking, dyes enhance the grain while color coats, like colored lacquer, dry to a colored film that’s more like a lens.

Applying dye directly to wood can be pretty dangerous: the surface preparation needs to be perfect (no oily finger smudges, no glue smears that didn’t get cleaned up thoroughly) and the application needs to be close to perfect. The dyes can be dissolved in water or alcohol; alcohol is quite a bit more forgiving because it dries more quickly. (The longer the dye stays wet and active, the stronger the color. That’s why tie dye t-shirts look the way they do.) Because it dries quickly, you can mix the dye to a much weaker strength and apply more coats, making it easier to control the blend. Also, alcohol doesn’t raise the grain of wood like water.

To get a rich color that responds to a variety of lighting conditions, I ended up using a series of four dyes. I first lightly dyed the entire surface with a golden yellow. Then I began creating the burst with a peachy toner around the edges. Next, I further refined the edges with mahogany-ish tone, with the final edge treatment a reddish walnut color.

I masked off the herringbone body purfling and rosette rings with a liquid frisket from my watercolor kit before I began, and the results are very crisp.