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While it’s hard to believe those tumbled souvenir rock collections you’ve seen in any rock shop you’ve visited could be made simply with food coloring, it’s very much true. Through a simple but quirky process, you can achieve a similarly vibrant collection with the same natural look. So how do dye rocks with food coloring?
Any rock dying process starts by making sure your rock is a good candidate – hardness, luster, shape, and pattern all play key roles. The prepared and qualified rocks start off heated to over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. They are then immersed in a mixture of dye and vinegar, water, or other liquid. After cleaning, you can check their quality in a few different ways.
Not every rock will look natural after a dying process, but there are ways to ensure a fantastic end product through thorough preparation and care. These steps will ensure your process is as clean as a professional’s so that your end product can be too.
If you are interested in checking out the best food colors for dyeing rocks only you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
Prepare Your Rocks
Chisel, Smooth, or Tumble your Rock to the Shape You Want. As in almost any process, you’ll come across rocks, the preparation is the most important part.
Well, let’s start with the main shocking thing about being able to dye rocks: they don’t seem like they would be permeable enough to absorb and hold the dye for any amount of time.
This question will be the main struggle throughout this process, so keep in mind that most of the steps here are aimed at overcoming this question.
In fact, no matter the dye or stone you use, the dye will only penetrate a few millimeters below the surface of the rock. Therefore, the smoother the rock is, the better it will look after it is dyed.
If you are a fan of tumbling rocks, just be sure to generously allow time for all grit cycles. If you polish your rocks with a Dremel, pay extra attention to cracks and edges, since they are the most susceptible to chipping and scratching. Also, skip the polishing stage for now and apply that after the cleaning stage.
Remember, you will not be able to reshape the stone in any fashion after it is dyed.
TIP: If you want to know more about cutting or tumbling rocks, check out these two articles below and get the answers to your questions:
Find a Use for Your Dyed Rocks
Before you go any further, take a second to think about the application of your stones. If they will go in a display around the house, think about the aesthetic that you’re going for.
If you’re looking for a natural-looking colored stone, you will want to research varieties that display the color you want so as not to create an artificial appearance by matching color and texture together which aren’t found together in nature.
Keep in mind that some things will discolor a dyed stone. Solar radiation or continuous exposure to moisture have been proved to contribute to this.
Identify the Rocks to be Dyed to Anticipate how Well the Dye Will Work
Because we know that the dye will only penetrate a few millimeters, we know that most of the texture and discoloration of the rock will remain. This can be used to a good rock display artist’s advantage.
Rocks with micro-facets or cracks which don’t affect the smoothness of the surface are good candidates for dyes because the cracks absorb more dye and create a nice texture. Rocks like this can be some types of quartz and feldspar.
Hardness also affects the dying process. Certain types of soft igneous rock like pumice or basalt allow the dye to penetrate much deeper. In these stones, dye will last longer and not have much of a chance to fade.
On the contrary, any stone with a Mohs’ hardness of above 6 might have a hard time absorbing the dye – just think of trying to dye a diamond.
Another popular candidate for dying is agate. The layers which are characteristic of agate sometimes have different properties, allowing the dye to absorb into some layers well but others barely at all.
Browse around the blog for invaluable information on testing stones to identify them.
Clean the Rocks
Wash the rocks thoroughly with warm water, scrubbing with a fingernail brush. It’s common for crusted dirt to remain on a stone, even though the tumbling or smoothing process. This will not allow the dye onto the surface of the stone, so special care should be taken during this step.
TIP: It is really important to clean rocks properly to get the best results of dyed rocks later. Check out these ideas on how to clean rocks and minerals in the article below:
Heat Prepared Rocks
This step may seem strange and is widely debated among rock display artists. Some think that the heat opens the pores of the rocks so that the dye can penetrate deeper into the rock. In reality, heat does not alter the physical properties of the rock in any meaningful way.
The real magic of this step happens when the rocks are immersed in the dye. Extremely hot rocks will be able to evaporate a good amount of the liquid part of the dye solution. The part that cannot evaporate – the dye compound – will remain stuck on the hot surface of the rock.
A popular way to do this is in the oven. Line a pan with foil and put the rocks on it, while trying not to stack the rocks. The foil is necessary during this step since you won’t want to handle the hot rocks too much.
The actual temperature does not make a huge difference, some say 200F is a good idea, but exactness here is not the key.
Some have experienced fractures happening during this step when the hot rocks are put into a cold dye solution. Be aware that, especially when working with rocks that already have internal cracking, this could happen.
Sometimes this is even desired – if so, heat the rocks to a hotter temperature and prepare a greater volume of dye solution.
There are different kinds of food coloring that need some different solutions prepared. The solutions vary from dye to dye, so be sure to follow the directions on the dye.
If you’re still looking for a dye, one of the best dye solutions out there that I can recommend is the AmeriColor Student Kit (Amazon link). It’s especially efficient for rocks because of the gel fade-resistant compound which it uses.
However, if you aren’t an expert and you’re just starting out with the dying process, but you know that you want to try all the colors you can, there’s a better set for you. The Wilton Icing Colors Gel-Based food color set (Amazon link) is a cheaper option that is perfect for you if you’re just starting out.
It’s generally a good idea to double the concentration of dye in the mix while keeping the rest of the materials constant. Make sure the mix is homogeneous before you bring it in contact with the rocks.
As a side, some believe that it’s better to mix the dye onto the rocks before you heat it. This will lessen the opportunities for extra cracks to develop because there is no immediate temperature change.
This can be done by mixing the dye with the rocks in a foil-covered casserole dish. Another way to avoid cracking is to preheat the dye solution before mixing the rocks with the dye.
Let Them Soak
Whether you chose to mix the dye with the rocks before or after the heating process (I recommend after, but try both if you are curious), you’ll want to soak the rocks in the dye for at least 4 hours.
The longer they sit, the more the dye will be able to soak into the rocks, but after about 4 hours they will probably be at capacity.
Clean Dyed Rocks
After soaking, the clean-up process should be very thorough – you do not want any dye leaking anywhere in your kitchen.
Do not skip the part where you wash the rock! It’s easy to be shy about that, but it’s especially important to scrub it well because you don’t want the dye to get on anything it can stain.
After the cleaning process, you’re done! I want to mention a few different ways to inspect your finished stones. It’s valuable to know when a stone is dyed and when it is in its natural coloration.
Rock shop owners will usually label stones that are dyed, but not always – in fact sometimes they label such collections just as “souvenir rocks,” which usually means up to 50% of the mix is dyed artificially.
There are three main methods to tell if a rock has been dyed – you should inspect yours for these signs.
When rocks are not completely smooth before they are dyed, it’s common for a small divot colored slightly more after the process. Such divots would be nearly visually indistinct without dye.
Similarly, larger cracks at the surface of the stone will absorb more dye and lead to a darker color.
As described in preparation, any small scrape on a dyed stone will reveal the natural colored inside of the stone. If any scrapes already exist, it’s a telltale sign, but don’t perform a scrape test on the stone unless you’re comfortable with the discoloration.
Another popular method which is performed by rock shop owners or other rock sellers uses a blowtorch instead of an oven.
A bucket of cold dye solution is prepared, and the dyer (safely) uses metal tongs to hold the rock while they blowtorch it for 30 seconds to a minute.
They then drop the rock in the cold dye solution. This is a quick way to dye stones, but requires special equipment and is a bit more dangerous.
One thing to be aware of when trying this method is that the quick temperature change of the rock can leave a non-homogenous stone with many cracks on the surface. If you try this one, just make sure to wear safety goggles!
TIP: Don’t forget to stay safe during this process. If you are looking for safety equipment, check out my recommended safety gear for rockhounding and working with rocks:
Recommended Colors and Patterns
The main thing when using rocks for art is to incorporate their natural aspects in the design. If you can use the fractures, patterns, and natural flow of the stone together with the dyed color, that’s what every rock artist tries to achieve.
For example, clear fractured quartz and light rose designs with soft, warm colors could capture the natural feel of the stone and integrate it into the design. Generally, softer colors work better than bright, neon colors.
So what are my recommendations for the best food colors for dyeing rocks? Here they are:
- AmeriColor Student Kit (Amazon link)
I’ll always recommend this set because one of the most fun things about dying rocks is the ability to use any color, pure or mixed. This set provides that artistic freedom with enough value that it can sustain the hobby, even with many batches! It’s great for dyeing rocks because of the gel fade-resistant compound which it uses.
- Wilton Icing Colors Gel-Based food color set (Amazon link)
The gel-based compound does the same trick as the AmeriColor set but comes in much smaller bottles. Also, don’t forget to follow the mixing instructions! Some dyes use different ratios or even materials for a solvent. This set is cheaper so it is great if you’re just starting out.
With all the artistic freedom, if you’re like me, you’ll value some artistic inspiration. I can recommend a book that has helped more than a few rock artists – The Rock Art Handbook (Amazon link). It will show you the truly limitless possibilities of coloring rocks.
To wrap it up, don’t forget to identify the rocks you want to dye and be extra careful when tumbling or polishing the stones so that they’re smooth and able to absorb the dye uniformly.
Have fun and be artistic. Dyed rocks and naturally colored rocks can both be beautiful, so use their qualities creatively!
TIP: Some of the dyed rocks are really cool. But you can find cool rocks in nature too. Do you know when and how? Check out this complete guide about cool rocks and the best locations in the United States where you can find them.