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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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  • 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 = 1/2 mL red + 1/2 mL yellow, Yellow = 1 mL yellow, Green = 1/2 mL yellow + 1/2 mL blue, Blue = 1 mL blue, Indigo = 2/3 mL blue + 1/3 mL red, Violet = 1/2 mL blue + 1/2 mL red
  • Brown = 1/3 mL red + 1/3 mL yellow + 1/3 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

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


Comments

  1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

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

  3. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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

  4. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  5. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  6. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  7. deanaarens says:

    I have the same question.

  8. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  9. Sean Michael Ragan says:

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

  10. Sean Michael Ragan says:

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

  11. Victor Comforte says:

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

  12. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  13. Goli Mohammadi says:

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

  14. Daran Ahker says:

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

  15. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  16. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  17. Hugo Codinach Domenech says:

    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!

  18. Daran Ahker says:

    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.

  19. Garry Wakely says:

    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!

  20. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.”

  21. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    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.

  22. Ron Butterfield says:

    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.

  23. tom says:

    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.

  24. Mike Brady says:

    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.

  25. Julian says:

    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

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

    1. Dave Andrews says:

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

  27. Lynn says:

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

  28. Ana says:

    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?

  29. Ace says:

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

  30. 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

  31. tjlich says:

    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?

  32. […] for long. Coincidentally, I was just reading about how to die PVC last night. Here's the article: Stain PVC any color you like Or if you want to just do a small area, you could abrade the surface where you want to write. I'm […]

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