Wood Finish Shading: Part 1

Okay. I get it. Wood finish shading is a special effect you won’t want to use on every project.

But when you’re looking to add a bit of pizazz and punch to a piece, it can be a real game changer.

I have a hunch that once you’ve read through this article and realize just how easy it is to master the basics, you’ll want to try it out.

And you may even decide to add wood finish shading to your repertoire. It’s that exciting.

Sample of shading effect done on a faux guitar face for display purposes.


Wood finish shading is done using a thinned finish that has had color added to it. 

The colorant can be either a dye, a pigment, or a mixture of both. 

And if you selectively tone only one area of a surface – such as the sunburst effect on a guitar face or the edges of a raised panel – it’s called shading.  

Let’s get at it.


First off, shading is so exciting that it can easily stand by itself in making a dramatic statement. 

So much so that it’s widely used to create those beautiful sunburst finishes seen on guitars (see the sample piece in the above photo). 

You should also know that shading can be applied as one of the final steps to a complex, multi-step finishing process that includes pore filling, coloring and staining or glazing. 

So whether you’re wanting to use it as one of a multi-step process or by itself as described in this article, you’ll want to completely seal the wood before going any further. 

And this is so important – especially when you’re first learning this effect – because if you’re not happy with how it’s going, it’ll come off that much easier and keep you from having to go all the way back to bare wood and start over again.

All you’ll need is two coats of sanding sealer, sanding after each.  I like to use foam-backed sandpaper because it conforms better to edges or profiles and is therefore less likely to cause sand-throughs. 

Your second coat should need nothing more a light swipe of the sandpaper.   Ensure you vacuum away or blow off any sanding residue.  Let’s move along to our next step.


I mix my own water based, 3-part shading finish in the following proportions, by volume:

65% sanding sealer
30% tap water
~5% concentrated liquid dye (more or less depending on the desired color/hue)

I prefer using Target Coatings sanding sealer because it’s very clear (rather than white like other manufacturers’ products) which enables me to more readily get the exact color I’m aiming for.

If you’d prefer to use shellac or a top coat rather than sanding sealer as the base, that will work too. Just make sure your thinner and dye are compatible with it.

Pro Tip: To duplicate the same shading finish at some future time, write down the exact proportions you settled on. And while you’re at it, document all the other pertinent finishing information associated with that job: surface prep; specifics of finishing products and equipment used, as well as the finishing schedule. That’s what the pros do.

That’s it for Part 1, but stay tuned for Part 2 in which I’ll discuss setting up your spray equipment, spraying technique, and a few other things I’ve learned about wood finish shading.

In the meantime, do you have any questions about or personal experiences with wood finish shading? Please share your thoughts or read what others are saying in the comments section below.

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