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Dyeing Bone: A Tutorial

Discussion in 'Maintenance, Tinkering & Embellishment' started by jamesbeat, Jul 25, 2011.

  1. jamesbeat


    Jul 26, 2009
    I've come up with a method to dye bone scales.
    I've had very good results with the following method, but please be aware if you decide to try this that there are many factors involved and something could go wrong and ruin your knife.
    Please don't attempt this on a knife that has sentimental or financial value, and don't blame me if you damage your knife, I'm only relating my personal experience.

    There are many reasons why you might want to dye bone scales:

    You got bored with the color of a favorite knife.

    You found a knife you really want, but it's not available in a color you like. (perhaps a Case CV peanut?)

    You've seen all of those photos of vintage knives, and just can't understand why black or very dark brown scales are so ubiquitous on old knives, yet so rare on modern knives.

    At some point or other, all of the above reasons have applied to me, and I'm sure there are many more.

    In my quest to find a good way to dye bone, I came across an awful lot of posts on this forum and others like it by people who wanted to know how.
    Unfortunately, I didn't find much in the way of useful answers.

    I have experimented a great deal, and have come up with what I believe to be a satisfactory method of dyeing bone, with the following benefits:

    The dye used is readily available, and safe for home use.

    The dye is water based. The process uses no nasty solvents.

    The bone scales can remain on the knife during the dyeing process.

    The materials are inexpensive, and no special equipment is required.

    The process is very fast. A lot of the methods I read about require long dye baths in the order of weeks to months, extensive pre-soaks in various oils etc.
    This method achieves good penetration in minutes.

    With that out of the way, some disclaimers are in order:

    The process involves the use of boiling water, and also makes the knife hot.
    The knife will not get hot enough to alter the properties of the steel, but will burn skin if touched before it has a chance to cool.

    I have dyed quite a few knives without problems, but heating/cooling bone may possibly cause cracks, especially if the dye is accidentally allowed to boil.
    This has not happened to me, but is a theoretical risk.

    I did experience a broken backspring.
    I put a knife in a stream of cold water to check the color, and plunged it back into boiling dye....
    The lesson here is that any temperature changes should be gradual.
    I have modified the process to ensure that there are no abrupt temperature changes, and have not had a problem since.

    Color. I have a 100% success rate, but it's possible that the bone will not turn out the color you expect.
    I have only used black dye so far, other colors may be different.

    Glued-in shields may become unglued!
    The simmering weakened the glue on the knife in this article, and the shield fell out.
    Glued-in shields fall out quite often anyway, so this isn't really a big deal.
    If your shield falls out or becomes loose, simply clean off the old glue, degrease the shield and the hole, and glue it back in.
    I found that gel-type super glue works very well for this. I had a shield fall out on another knife, and glued it back in with super glue gel. Unfortunately, I didn't get it quite straight, and I had a hell of a time getting it off.
    Boiling didn't work, and I ended up heating it for several minutes with a soldering iron before I could prise it out.
    If the shield does fall out, it may actually be a be a good thing because your repair may well be stronger than the factory glue...

    With that lengthy preamble out of the way, the actual process of dyeing may seem a bit anticlimactic!

    For this article, I dyed a Colt congress in stag bone.
    It's a VERY nice knife, I love the congress pattern anyway, and this is a superb example.
    Nice thick heavily jigged bone scales, perfect fit and finish, half stops on all blades, and beautiful long pulls and swedges. All for the princely sum of $15!
    The only thing I don't really like about this knife is the color of the scales, but we can fix that :D
    I actually bought this knife with the express intention of dyeing it.

    So, without further ado, let's get busy dyeing!

    Like an idiot, I forgot to take a 'before' photo, so I borrowed one from the internet.


    Degrease the knife.
    This may be as simple as washing with dish soap. Knives are oily, and this may hamper the dyeing process.
    We want to get rid of any oil, grease, or wax so that the dye can penetrate the bone.

    On the knife in this tutorial, I noticed that water would run off the scales as if they had a waxy coating.
    I decided to degrease the scales with 'Easy Off' fume-free oven cleaner.
    This is the type of oven cleaner that doesn't have sodium hydroxide in it (I thought NaOH might damage the metal parts of the knife) and it seemed to do a good job.

    Edit: regular sodium hydroxide based oven cleaner works great too.

    Put the knife to be dyed in the smallest saucepan you have that it will fit into, and add just enough water to cover the knife. Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid, brand is not important.


    Slowly bring the water to a simmer.

    Once the water is simmering (but not boiling), dump in the dye.
    I used 'Tintex' brand dye, but any similar clothing dye should work.
    I used the whole pack (2oz).
    Tintex comes with salt added, but with some dyes you need to add your own salt.
    If your dye instructions tell you to add salt, do not skip this- the salt is important. We'll wash the knife thoroughly afterwards anyway.

    [​IMG]Edit: I have had identical results without adding salt, so it is not necessary after all, at least not with Rit black.
    Try it without salt first, and only add salt if the bone is not absorbing the dye properly.

    Cover, reduce heat and simmer for around fifteen minutes.


    It's ok to check progress by lifting the knife out of the dye with tongs, but do not be tempted to rinse it off with water, as this may cause an abrupt temperature change and damage the knife.
    Just have a quick look, and then put it back into the dye.


    After fifteen minutes or so, turn off the heat and allow the pan and it's contents to cool naturally.

    When the contents of the pan are reasonably cool, remove the knife with tongs and place it on a paper towel to finish cooling.


    Flush the knife thoroughly with water to get rid of excess dye.
    Carefully open all of the blades and use Q-tips to get into all the nooks and crannies.
    Dry the knife thoroughly.

    At this point, I suggest a good oil bath to condition the surface of the bone, and also to protect the metal.
    I saturated my knife in mineral oil and let it sit for half an hour.


    Give the knife a good rub down with a paper towel to get rid of the excess oil and dye.

    Admire your 'new' knife :D




    This method can also be used to dye synthetic materials, BUT results are highly variable and the heat can damage many plastics!
    If you try to dye plastic, you may get good results, but you do run a very real risk of ruining the knife.

    I'd love to hear from people who try this for themselves, especially colors other than black, or materials other than bone, like stag for instance.

    A google search will turn up loads of information about mixing colors, overdyeing etc.
    I was only really interested in black, but I bet there are some really interesting effects that could be achieved with a little experimentation.

    I hope you enjoyed this tutorial.
    If you decide to try this, please post your results for others to see :)
    Last edited: May 25, 2018
  2. jamesbeat


    Jul 26, 2009
    Here's a link to the original thread discussing this project:


    So far, this process has worked on knives made by the following manufacturers:

    Rough Rider
    Colt (made by RR)
    Steel Warrior

    Dyes used successfully:

    Tintex powder dye
    Rit liquid (and I expect the powder would work fine too)

    I also tried dyeing Case Delrin, and RR imitation tortoiseshell, which worked perfectly.

    I tried a Victorinox SAK, and the scales distorted horribly due to the heat, so DO NOT try this on a vic sak!
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2011
    filedog likes this.
  3. dannyp

    dannyp Gold Member Gold Member

    Nov 25, 2007
    Nice tutorial.:thumbup: I think the reason the SAK scales distorted while the other plastics didn't was because they aren't held in place with pins, only friction. They are also a bit thinner and softer to start out with. I'm curious to see how the color holds up over time. Have you noticed any bleeding of color in your pockets yet?
  4. jamesbeat


    Jul 26, 2009
    That may well be a factor, but the main thing must be the type of plastic used, it was very visibly melted.

    The color is holding up just fine so far, I did a couple of tests (see the link to the other thread for details) and the dye penetrates surprisingly far.
    Also happy to report no color bleed whatsoever, but even if it did bleed a little, it would only be excess dye.
    The oil bath seems to take care of any excess though, I haven't found any dye on my hands or pockets.
    The color is definitely not just sitting on the surface.

    I probably should add that I have dyed ten bone knives so far, as well as a couple of synthetic handled ones, and carried and used a couple of them pretty extensively.
    I also did a test run on a dog bone, and had to scratch it really deep with a screwdriver to get through the black (and even then it was still very dark grey)
    Tests using abrasive paper on a knife scale suggest that it would take many years of heavy use and carry to wear away enough bone to fade the dye even a little bit.
    I cracked a scale, and the dye had in fact penetrated all the way through. While it wasn't completely black in the center, it was very dark.
    In short, this should be considered a permanent color change that should last just as long as factory dye if done correctly.
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2011
  5. dannyp

    dannyp Gold Member Gold Member

    Nov 25, 2007
    Thanks for the reply. It's good to know how deeply the dye penetrates. That seems like it should hold up for a long time.
  6. jamesbeat


    Jul 26, 2009
    ...And of course, the ultimate test, agitation with coins and keys :D
    I have had a peanut rattling around in my pocket with coins and my house keys 16 hours a day for weeks now, and it's fine.
    The scales are covered in fine scratches (the knife was brand new when I dyed it), but they are still as black as when I dyed them.
  7. sappyg


    Jul 21, 2010
    Hey Jamebeat, thanks for the experiment and research for this great thread.

    I have a Case Stockman that I've never been happy with the scales color match. I was considering sending it back to Case but it is and always has been a user. Some before and after pics for you:






    I'm in the process of waxing the scales with Carnuba wax and I'm well pleased with the results. So much so that my SBJ is is the pot as I write this. :thumbup:
    filedog likes this.
  8. sappyg


    Jul 21, 2010
    Here is a before and after pic of the SBJ.



    I wouldn't do this to just any particular knife but in these two cases the stockman scales always annoyed me and the SBJ just needed to be a bit darker IMO. At first I was not happy with the dye job on the SBJ but now it has grown on me.

    Thanks again for the excellent tutorial.
    filedog likes this.
  9. jamesbeat


    Jul 26, 2009
    You're most welcome, and thanks so much for posting your results :)
    I noticed that the shinier areas of the bone where it is polished (the areas nearest the bolsters) still has some of the original color.
    I found this too on a couple of knives I dyed, but I was able to get solid black by stripping the bone with fume-free oven cleaner first.
    I guess that the scales were waxed during manufacture, but it might also be that the pores in the bone were burnished closed during polishing.
    Either way, the oven cleaner and a second dye bath gave me jet black scales.
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2011
  10. sappyg


    Jul 21, 2010
    The stockman has a way better color match than before. I used a degreaser prior to dying both knives. The one thing I did not do was add detergent to the water prior to the dye. I forgot.
    The SBJ is very even on both scales and so far today I had little or no bleed from the dye. IMO It has the look of a much older Case as far as scale color goes. Both knives were waxed and polished after. Seems like the dye did a bit of a number on the CV blades. I had to clean a lot of crusted dye from the blades with 0000 steel wool. I can't say for sure but they blades seem just a smidge darker even after the steel wool. The knives have taken on an aged look to them that was completely unexpected.
  11. jamesbeat


    Jul 26, 2009
    In a good way I hope!
    I guess the 'ageing' comes from the salt in the dye, the stuff is loaded with it.

    I was mistaken with my previous post, I thought the dye hadn't taken properly, but that was because I managed to miss the fact that you used brown dye not black...
  12. sappyg


    Jul 21, 2010
    I'm ok with how the process worked out.

    A word of caution to others that would dye the scales of a carbon knife. Rinse, rinse, rinse.... I rinsed the SBJ well enough but not so much the stockman I guess. I think I caught it just in time but the blades had gotten stiff and lost most or all snap. I've been oiling the joints and working the blades and it's back to the way I remember but, keep a close eye on any carbon knife treated this way for at least a week or two. You have to get all the residue of the dye washed away or your knife will rust shut.
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2011
  13. Flying Guillotine

    Flying Guillotine

    Jan 2, 2011
    Just followed this method today with excellent results. I had a Case large stockman with blue bone scales and a big ol red enamel filled shield (ss blades) that never quite did it for me. I used about 1/4 of a bottle of liquid RIT dark brown dye + the slowly warmed water + soap for approximately 15 minutes and now have a cool dark dark brown (nearly black) large stockman. NOTE: the dye also took care of the red in the shield, now it has a black enamel shield which is pretty sweet looking. I'll try to post some pics later on of the final results, and no I didn't snap a before shot either.

    Here's a stock image of my "before":
  14. Flying Guillotine

    Flying Guillotine

    Jan 2, 2011
    Here are the results:




    hughd likes this.
  15. gull wing

    gull wing

    May 4, 2002
    Glad I looked at this post. I didn't know Rit die would dye bone.
    I have a Case Stockman like that, hummmmm. I like yours now.
  16. mrbear


    Sep 17, 2009
    I tripped across this post and it caught my eye as I have a Case Canoe that is PINK. Yes it is pink. It's suppose to be a darker red pocket worn and I LOVE the canoe pattern. But this pink color from Case really bugged me. I decided I had nothing to lose and threw her into the dye based on this thread. I used RIT Liquid Black Dye and added salt. Other than that I followed this post to a "T".
    I cannot believe how nice this Case came out! I absolutley love it! I will try to post a pic but it's from my camera phone and not the greatest but you can see the color.
    Good post Sir!
    filedog likes this.
  17. mrbear


    Sep 17, 2009
  18. redrighty


    Jun 29, 2012
    New guy here.

    I just stumbled across this thread today and I can say that the OP's tutorial is right on the money. RIT dye works great on natural bone knife scales.

    My story:
    I purchased a beautiful Case XX Trapperlock in Smooth Chestnut bone. Beautiful knife. But about a day into ownership I noticed that the color on one edge of one of the handle scales had a pink, faded look, as if the color had worn off. I spent about three days of surfing the 'net trying to find out what would work to restore the color, and coming up with a big fat goose egg (I tried the wood stain, the permanent marker idea...everything just wiped off and the ugly pink faded edge remained). Strangely enough, I decided to try RIT liquid dye, on the off chance that it would do anything. I had no idea how to proceed, except reading the bottle instructions said to use HOT water and add the dye to it. So I simply took a cup of hot water from the office coffee machine, poured about a quarter cup of dye in it, and plunked in the knife. I expected nothing. To my amazement, after about five minutes of the knife sitting in the cup of hot water with the RIT dye, I took it out, rinsed it off with cold water, and got the shock of my life. Not only was the worn "pink" edge now a perfect matched chestnut brown, but the rest of the knife scales took on a slightly richer, deeper (but not dark) brown. could not have gotten a better result if I sent the knife back to Case and had them replace it with a flawless new one.

    So, the moral: RIT works. And it is about as easy as it could possibly be. The knife dried and the dye has not given the slightest hint of bleeding yet. Time will tell if there will be any wear factor but so far, so good!

    Thanks to the OP for putting out his tutorial. Although I kind of stumbled onto it after I tried and successfully dyed my knife myself, I thought I would add my two cents to back up the OP and let others know that "RIT dye works well on bone knife handle scales". So the next poor guy who surfs the net for a solution might find this thread in Google or Bing and not waste time banging his head against the wall trying to fix a color issue on an otherwise nice knife.
    filedog likes this.
  19. CB-R


    Nov 25, 2011
    I've been wanting to dye this knife for a while as the og color is like babe repellent-a characteristic which my wife say's I shouldn't be concerned with.


    So I went to the store in search of Rit brown and came home with green and brown thinking that I could easily make a green knife brown. I followed the op's method and also added my Sod Buster Jr. to the mix to see what would happen. No before pics of the soddie, but here's my stockman for comparison.


    As you can see, green is not in the realm of colors that you could describe these knives as. Thinking back, it makes sense that if you desired black, then the more black dye the better. But if you want something else, moderation of color additives may be prudent. I used the hole pack of green and these knives look almost black out of the light. I'm happy with them, but it's not the result I was hoping for.

    Also, both these knives being CV with patinas, the dying process really exploited all the imperfections in the blade. It
    makes sense considering they were simmered in salt water for 20 min., but they now have a lot of small pitting, especially the edges which I had to sharpen out. Just be wary of this when carbon steel is being used.
  20. 9blades


    Dec 29, 2012
    Thanks cool tutorial!

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