Make: Projects

Stain PVC Any Color You Like

Permanent color that won't flake off.

Stain PVC Any Color You Like

PVC is great: cheap, common, easy to work, and easy to join temporarily or permanently. Only problem is, it’s kinda ugly, much of which owes to the fact that it only comes in white, gray, sometimes black, and (if you’re willing to pay through the nose) clear. “Furniture grade” PVC pipe can sometimes be found with integral color, but you’re limited to factory shades and if you want matching elbows, tees, or other fittings, you’re out of luck, because fittings only come in white.

Sure, you can paint it, but PVC doesn’t take paint all that well, and the paint is prone to flake and screws up the dimensional tolerances. With stain, you get color that doesn’t flake or add thickness, so you can stain pipe and fittings different colors before assembly and still expect them to fit. You can even take them apart and reassemble them in some other way without affecting the finish.

Steps

Step #1: Gather materials

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Stain PVC Any Color You LikeStain PVC Any Color You LikeStain PVC Any Color You Like
  • "Clear Cleaner" is a product used to prepare PVC pipe and pipe fittings for gluing. Chemically, it is very similar to "Purple Primer," but without the added purple dye.
  • Update: Previously, this guide advised that the most important ingredient in the clear cleaner was tetrahydrofuran. That is probably incorrect. I have not confirmed it by experiment, yet, but we have been advised that methyl ethyl ketone is actually the most active penetrating solvent in the mix, and best for dyeing PVC.
  • Update 2: Though I still haven't found time to confirm it, myself, the folks at Narad Marketing have informed me that pure MEK works at least as well or better than branded "clear cleaner" for this process. Specifically they said it "works great" and "dries faster than clear cleaner."
  • "Solvent dye" or "fuel dye" is an oil-soluble chemical intended for colorizing oily products like gasoline. I found one-ounce bottles of Rekhaoil Red HF, Rekhaoil Yellow HF, and Rehkaoil Blue HF from Narad Marketing on eBay by searching "petroleum dye." Note that these dyes are very strong; one ounce goes a long way.
  • Rekhaoil Red HF is a trade name for Solvent Red 164. Rekhaoil Yellow HF is a trade name for Solvent Yellow 126. Rekhaoil Blue is a trade name for Solvent Blue 98.
  • If the color you want happens to be purple, of course, you might as well just buy "Purple Primer" and use it as a stain instead of mixing your own.

Step #2: Add dye to cleaner

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Stain PVC Any Color You LikeStain PVC Any Color You LikeStain PVC Any Color You LikeStain PVC Any Color You Like
  • Work in a well-ventilated workspace and wear nitrile gloves and goggles at all times when handling the solvent or the dye.
  • Using your volumetric pipette, draw up the required volume of each dye and transfer it to the container of Clear Cleaner. Be careful not to cross-contaminate the dyes.
  • Here are the volumes of red, yellow, and blue dyes I added to 4 oz cans of Clear Cleaner to get the colors shown in the photo:
    • Red = 1 mL red
    • Orange = ½ mL red + ½ mL yellow
    • Yellow = 1 mL yellow
    • Green = ½ mL yellow + ½ mL blue
    • Blue = 1 mL blue
    • Indigo = ⅔ mL blue + ⅓ mL red
    • Violet = ½ mL blue + ½ mL red
    • Brown = ⅓ mL red + ⅓ mL yellow + ⅓ mL blue
  • The "black" is actually very strong blue, with fully 1/2 oz (15 mL) of blue dye added to 4 oz Clear Cleaner.

Step #3: Mix

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Stain PVC Any Color You Like
  • Close the can lid tightly.
  • Wipe off any stray solvent or dye from the outside of the can with a paper towel.
  • Gently shake the can for about 15 seconds to mix the dye into the solvent.

Step #4: Apply stain

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Stain PVC Any Color You Like
  • Although the photograph shows me using a gloved finger to support the fitting during staining, I recommend using a holder, such as a piece of bent wire hanger.
  • Generously slather the stain onto the pipe or pipe fitting using the can's built-in applicator. Work quickly, rotating the piece and making sure to smooth out any streaks or drips of color before they have time to dry.
  • Spilled dye can usually be cleaned up with lighter fluid and a paper towel. Dye that has dripped off PVC pipe will be harder to remove because it will have dissolved polymer in it; loosen it with a copper dish scrub and lighter fluid, then wipe up with a paper towel.

Step #5: Let dry

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Stain PVC Any Color You Like
  • Set the stained PVC aside, on a safe surface, to dry. In point of fact the solvent will dry up very quickly. Under most conditions, an hour will be more than enough.
  • Once dry, the stained PVC should be able to pass a "white glove test" and not transfer even a small amount of color to anything that touches it.

Conclusion

"Clear Cleaner" is a mixture of four solvents, but the "magic" ingredient that makes the staining process work is tetrahydrofuran (THF). THF actually dissolves the outer layer of the PVC plastic, just a bit, so that the dye molecules can be absorbed into it. It's not unreasonable to say that the color is actually "dissolved" in the outer layer of the plastic. Once dry, the only way to remove it is by mechanically abrading away the stained material from the outer layer of the pipe or fitting.

Note that some companies sell a product called "cleaner" for use on PVC pipe that actually contains no THF. It can be confusing, because in point of fact the product that contains THF is actually "cleaner/primer," but is often simply labeled "cleaner." When in doubt, make sure it says tetrahydrofuran on the label.

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.


  • Sean Michael Ragan

    I have tried dipping and found that it is very sensitive to surface contamination of the pipe or fitting–so if you’ve touched it with bare fingers anywhere, for instance, on dipping your fingerprints may turn out a different color than the rest of the piece. The mechanical action of brushing really helps to prevent splotchy color, but if one were to carefully clean the pipe first, dipping might work. Might be worth experimenting with dipping in untinted cleaner followed by tinted cleaner to see if that helps.

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    It does, yes. If you start with a glossy fitting, it will end up “satin” or “matte.”

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    Wanted to thank you, belatedly, for linking to the MSDS, Jim. While not wanting to discount the hazards of THF or any other volatile solvent, I would point out that PVC cleaner is not pure THF; it’s usually mixed with acetone and/or cyclohexane and/or other hydrocarbon solvents, and the safety profile of this mixture is considerably different from that of pure THF. Here is one provided by Oatey, one of the largest manufacturers of this product:

    http://www.oatey.com/apps/catalog/instance_assets/assets/MSDS_Sheet/1402E_tmpl_us_e1_OUT.pdf

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    I noticed that, too. In point of fact, the four-ounce cans of Clear Cleaner that I used are product #30779, but my understanding is that they contain the same material as #30805, and indeed the Oatey MSDS you’ve linked to includes both product numbers. The label on the #30779 cans I used lists Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Acetone, Cyclohexanone, and Tetrahydrofuran, in that order. Oatey’s MSDS, as you’ve pointed out, only lists Methyl Ethyl Ketone and Acetone. I’m not sure why Oatey has not included cyclohexanone and THF on the MSDS. I would be surprised if it’s a mistake on their part, and suspect rather that the regulatory requirements for what must be listed on the MSDS, versus what must be listed on the product label, are different, and that Oatey is following the industry practice of providing the minimum amount of information required by law, in each case, in order to protect the formulation of their product. But I really don’t know.

  • Michael Smedberg
  • Sean Michael Ragan

    Thanks, Jeff! I think the largest size Oatey product is 1 quart. It’s important to note that the chromophores in these solvent dyes are not designed to be UV-resistant, so they may fade with sun exposure. Probably best to do some small-scale tests, first.

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    Never tried it, but my guess is no. It might “colorize” the gray so that it becomes a gray-green or gray-blue or whatever, but it will not “cover” the gray.

  • deanaarens

    I have the same question.

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    The truth is I don’t know. And I’m not sure anyone does, will, or can know that without a controlled study. Until then, err on the side of caution and assume “no” on both counts.

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    No that’s great information, thanks Joe! I’ve corrected the guide, above, accordingly. Good to hear from you!

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    Ha! Classy! I think the next version may recommend another supplier!

  • Victor Comforte

    Does anyone kow if this dying process will work on Nylon washers and nuts?
    V.J. Comforte

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    So, I kept meaning to e-mail the Narad folks and ask them to link here and credit me by name, but never quite got around to it. Then just a couple days ago they contacted me through a couple channels. They’re quite nice, just very busy and still on the bunny slope, a bit, when it comes to netiquette. They’ve now updated their page with appropriate links and credit. Thanks guys!

    They’ve also performed the MEK-only test I talked about, above, and report that pure MEK works even better than the clear-cleaner based formulation. I’m working with them now to test out some different dye chemicals that should have much improved color and light stability over time. Stay tuned.

  • Goli Mohammadi

    Good to hear they contacted you, SMR! Good work, Narad.

  • Daran Ahker

    i belive you might of gotten red by mistake . the people at Narad are very honest and helpfull

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    Hi Hugo!

    Sorry to be so unhelpful, but the answer to all of your questions is “I don’t really know!” My guess is that it will not work so well on Nylon, but I have not tried it and that is really just a gut instinct as opposed to any kind of reasoned guess. You’ll have to try it out for yourself! But please do let us know. I do have some experience storing these mixes: They will keep, but you have to seal the cans very tightly, or the solvent will evaporate. I use ParaFilm to wrap the can lids once I seal them. Note, also, that the lastest feedback indicates that you don’t have to use the branded Clear Cleaner; you can buy Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK) in gallon metal cans and save some money. Reportedly it works just as well or even better.

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    This is a hard thing to say conclusively. Is PVC itself safe for an animal to chew on? That answer probably exists, somewhere, but I don’t know it off the top of my head. If you can satisfy yourself that the PVC material is safe, that would leave only the dye to worry about. And the safety of the dye will depend on the particular color, because different colors are, obviously, made from different chemicals.

  • Hugo Codinach Domenech

    No problem Sean, thank you so much! I tried to use it with nylon and it doesn’t work. Seems like it does something but it needs a lot more time to dry and it doesn’t seem to penetrate as good. Even after waiting 24 hours it still was staining my hands. I guess we will have to figure out another tutorial for dying nylon :) Once again thank you so much for all the advise!

  • Daran Ahker

    Yes it will be safe once the dye is cured into the pvc. the only danger is if animal/child swallow the pvc can puncture your lungs ,stomack etc.

  • Garry Wakely

    Hi Hugo – You can dye nylon fittings using acid dyes. These are available from either Dharma Trading or Jacquard Dyes. The acid is a 1/4 cup of vinegar, so it’s not a toxic brew and no particular safety equipment is necessary. These dyes are inexpensive, work really well, come in a wide range of colors and are easy to use. You just put a small amount in a pot with water, put your nylon pieces in the water, bring up to a boil, add the vinegar, and continue to simmer for about half an hour. Remove your items, rinse them and you are done. Good luck!

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    Depending on the color and the specific molecules used in the dye, these are susceptible to photobleaching. Some solvent dyes are UV-stable and some are not, and there may be chemicals that can be added to provide additional UV-protection. This is on my list of stuff to experiment with, but that list is pretty long, so it may be awhile. Right now, the best answer is “probably not.”

  • Sean Michael Ragan

    I’ve observed that fittings often tend to take the stain better than pipe, and, further, that some pipe tends to take the stain better than other pipe. It’s a bit frustrating. The age of the pipe may be a factor, as may be its cleanliness or history of UV exposure. Lots of experimenting still needed here.

  • Ron Butterfield

    For Nylon, I have used fabric dyes and hot water. Pick your liquid fabric dye color, mix it into a gallon of hot water (I used a hot plate to keep it hot), and soak it for an hour. It seemed to be permanent.

  • tom

    Would anyone happen to know how to achieve the color “Almond” for similar pvc dyeing? Sort of thinking/hoping someone may have already had reason to arrive at this color for another similar type application, well before this post. Looking for color reasonably close to the off-the-shelf aerosol spray can #7770 sold at OSH.

  • Mike Brady

    Thank you for the great instructions and advice. Where do you get the dye to add to the clear PVC cleaner to make the stain.

  • Julian

    I wonder if anyone can help me here. I live in Germany (deepest Europe) and shipping of these chemicals mentioned by Sean are very expensive. Does anyone know of suppliers or alternatives that can be easily bought on this side of the pond? Cheers Julian

  • http://www.facebook.com/jimsflies Captive Reefs

    Do you have a link to a mixing chart to achieve different colors?

    • Dave Andrews

      My guess is if you can find RGB or CMY colors, you can mix those using Pantone mixing percentages.

  • Lynn

    I’m wondering if straight THF would work. What are your thoughts on that Sean? Also would any dispersing dye work?

  • Ana

    If you were to paint the whole pipe with the purple primer, does it have any long-term consequences for the integrity of the pipe?

  • Ace

    Is there a fixative that could be sprayed over the stain to make it UV resistant?

  • http://www.reliancemetal.in reliance metal

    its was nice articles for mixers of color. it will work to my business
    we are manufacturing and supplier of Pipes and fitting, this articles will make increasing a ma business

  • tjlich

    I want to use these in my garden for trellis, etc. Some have commented that the dyed PVC is safe but does that include leaching when exposed to weather and soil?

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  • docbets

    How toxic/caustic is this stuff? To work with, and to use in a vegetable garden? The white is ugly enough, but I also don’t want the chemicals to get in my food. Thank you.

    • Roxysteve

      It’s probably a safe bet to say that all organic solvents have *some* toxicity. MEK vapor is listed as toxic on mek-containing glues for sure. I guess the question is how much MEK (etc) survives once the dye is “dry”, and how fast and under what conditions it migrates out through the dyed surface or into the pipe cavity.
      I can’t answer those questions, only urge everyone to work outside and use a properly rated respirator. One sniff of the purple cleaner would have you doing that anyway.
      And don’t make a habit of handling these chemicals without gloves, and watch for the chemicals soaking through. Some organics are toxic *and* absorbed through the skin.

      • docbets

        Thank you for taking the time to reply. That was very nice of you. I think I will leave the PVC white; it;s just for garden covers and no one expects them to be things of beauty.

  • Guest

    What if you wanted to dye a large quantity, of let’s say, fittings? Do you think you could mix a batch and soak the fittings and then hang them to dry?

  • Gregg K

    Does this dye fade over time?

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  • Alex

    Can I use acetone instead of MEK? I’m finding it IMPOSSIBLE to source in Ireland.. :/

  • Steven

    This is a great post. Changed the finishing of many of my own projects. MEK is highly regulated in industrial sizes. In the US it is available at big box retailers up to 1 gallon sizes. MEK is relatively safe in small doses, but it is very flammable (3x more than acetone) and at very low and very high concentrations. Treat MEK as you would a leaking bottle of Oxygen. Flammability wise, it is that dangerous. That said, as a solvent it is much safer than anything that else you might use (Toluene).

    Once the project is dry, all of the MEK will be evaporated from the project, so it should be just as safe as straight PVC (dye/chemical changes not withstanding).

    – To really do this project right, you can also add MIBK and some PU beads, which will give you a really nice satin gloss. MIBK is hard to get , but PU beads are fairly common

    • Tommy Hard

      Could you provide more information on the MIBK and PU beads idea? What sort of quantities would be needed, say per half liter of MEK? Thanks!

  • Pteromandias

    In the body it says the most important ingredient is methyl ethyl ketone. Then the conclusion says it is tetrahydrofuran.

    Which is it?

  • MichFaw4

    We are planning on making loft beds for our boys and wanted to paint them orange camo. (they have a hunting themed room). I would like to dye them instead after reading your article. Once the dye is completely dry will it be safe for kids to sleep on?

    • the1grape .

      I would have to assume this would be a personal call.
      What chemicals are you willing to expose your children to?
      Personally, I”d either paint the pvc and then clear-coat over the paint several coats, or leave the pvc white; rather than stain…

  • Cory Blank

    “Furniture grade PVC pipe can sometimes be found with integral color, but you’re limited to factory shades and if you want matching elbows, tees, or other fittings, you’re out of luck, because fittings only come in white”

    Not true. Fittings are available in colors too.

  • Andrew Musolf

    I am looking to make telescoping table legs out of pvc…If I wanted to dye the pvc to match a wood finish of the table, would you recommend using this method or another method of painting/staining the pvc?

  • http://WWW.GOOGLE.COM Mel Tangness

    I am making dog treat toys w/holes for them to roll around to get treats out. So if they naw on it, will the stain scrap off and get into their system?

    • しげ巫女

      It’s an organic solvent. You would be doing nothing short of poisoning the dogs that chewed on these.

  • hatrack

    When I cleaned the factory printing off the pvc (with the clear cleaner) it smeared. Is there a better way to clean it or do you just make sure and dye darker than the smears?

  • Guest

    the “cleaner” is clear and the red dye is clear which when applying is coming out translucent, how did you make it look thick like paint?

  • Ken Armstrong

    is this dye safe to use in building a bird gym out of stained pvc ?

  • Don

    Do you recommend gluing the parts together first and then dye after glue dries or dye then glue?

  • Somekindofpatriot

    Why not just buy the color PVC you’re looking for? Several colors are readily available from C&S plastics http://www.candsplastics.com/CatBrowse.asp?Category=4

  • Confused

    I was thinking of using 10 inch pvc, split lengthwise in 12 inch sections as shingles. The split and cut sections of pvc would resemble mediterranean clay curved tiles. Staining white pvc in a terra cotta color would be ideal. How long do you think stained pvc would endure on a sunny rooftop?

  • Axel Anarchy

    does anyone know if I can use the same for a dualshock 4 controller?

  • Louise mella

    Can I paint a 100 vinyl outdoor arbor with thisPVC paint process