Dyeing either rough or tumbled rocks can help add interest for less-dedicated collectors and bring out details of the stones that are not easily apparent otherwise. There are several methods for dyeing stones, and the type of stone has a part in determining what method would work best.
There are collectors that find the idea of dyeing natural stones offensive. However, there is no doubt enough quartz, feldspar, and other common stones in the world to satisfy all tastes. Children may especially enjoy dyeing their rocks and may spend more time looking at and learning about the stones themselves after such a project.
The Best Types Of Rocks For Coloring With Dye
The best rocks for dyeing are porous in nature. Igneous rocks such as basalt, soapstone, pumice, and scoria are some of the best for soaking in the dye and retaining color. However, quartz is probably one of the most popularly dyed stones. Fractured quartz is best for a more dramatic result. Agate, marble, limestone, and various gemstones can also be dyed. You may certainly try dyeing any collected stones to find out which will give you the most vivid coloring.
What You Need To Dye Rocks With Food Coloring
If you decide to experiment with dyeing your rocks, first decide what method you will use. I’ve covered a few below. Food coloring is safe for children and easy to use, so that’s the medium of choice in this article. Make sure you have everything you need ahead of time.
Collecting the stones you’d like to tumble will take time and can be a family adventure. If you are using the project to introduce kids to the art of rock collecting, coloring them like easter eggs may be a good motivator. It will be an opportunity to teach young rockhounds how to identify several different kinds of rock. Point out the most prolific stones in your area and let them ask about any unusual stones they find. Then they’ll feel like they’ve found a real treasure.
If you plan to tumble the rocks yourself, it will take a lot longer. Small rock tumblers are available online. I recommend the Lortone 3A Single Barrel rock tumbler to most folks. If you’ve not tumbled rock before, it is a process that takes many days and is noisy! Place the tumbler in the garage or, even better, a detached building if you have one with electricity. Again, rock tumbling is really noisy, but an interesting process.
This rock tumbler is the same one that I use to polish all of my rocks, and I can't recommend it enough. Compared to other rotary tumblers it's very quiet, which cannot be said for many other tumblers. This one is built to last and is used by professional rock tumblers around the world.
Of course, tumbled stones can be bought online or at some local shops or state and federal park gift shops. Just make sure the rocks you buy have not already been dyed. You can check a stone by testing a small area with a cotton swab soaked in nail polish remover. Only test stones you would be okay with losing. If any color comes off on the swab, that rock has been previously dyed.
Read More: The Best Rock Tumbler For Beginners
Food coloring comes in various forms. Liquid dye is the least expensive and most familiar to most cooks. However, if you prefer, you can use gel or powdered food dye. The dye will be prepared with vinegar and warm water.
Oven Safe Pan
Oven-safe pans, such as cookie sheets, will be needed for this project. You’ll need enough to hold all the rocks you plan to color. If this is a kid-friendly project, you’ll need an old oven mitt for each child, or they’ll have to take turns touching hot rocks.
When dyeing rocks, it’s not enough to have one container for each color as you’d use with Easter eggs. The rocks will need to soak in the dye, preferably overnight. The easiest thing to do may be to buy styrofoam disposable coffee cups. Arrange the cups on a tray or pan that can be placed safely out of the way of being bumped or tipped.
Golves or Tongs
Wear gloves or use tongs to touch wet, dyed rocks. Or use both. Wear old clothes so you won’t have to worry about stains. You’ll also need old rags or paper towels along the way.
Instructions for Coloring Rocks With Food Coloring
Once you’ve gathered all the needed tools and materials into one place, you’re ready to start dyeing.
1. Clean the rocks.
Wash rough or newly tumbled rocks in clear water to remove any dirt still clinging to them. If you purchased already tumbled rock, you may want to use a mild soap to remove any oils from multiple handlings. Rinse thoroughly and let dry completely.
2. Heat the rocks.
Preheat your oven to 200º F. Put the clean, dry rocks on the cookie sheets and place them in the oven. If the idea of kids and hot stones doesn’t sit well, you could skip this step. Although heating is not absolutely necessary, doing so will open the pores of the stones so they can absorb the dye deeper into the surface. This will mean a much more noticeable contrast in detail as well as a longer-lasting stain.
For safety’s sake with small children, you may handle the heated rocks yourself, allowing the kids to “supervise” by telling you which color to drop them in.
3. Prepare the dye.
While the rocks are heating, prepare your dye mixture. In each cup, pour 1/2 cup warm water, 1 tsp. vinegar, and 1 1/2 tsp. liquid food coloring. If you are using another type of food coloring, follow the directions for that dye. Make sure your water is nice and warm to help the dyeing process to proceed slowly for maximum absorption.
If your stones are small enough, you may be able to put more than one in a cup. But make sure the stones are not touching.
4. Place the rocks in the dye.
Remove the rocks from the oven and place them as quickly as possible in the dye. Again, if this is a kid project, you might want to discuss ahead of time which rocks will go in each color.
Leave the rocks in the dye overnight. If this is not possible, at least leave them in for several hours. Obviously, the longer the rocks can soak, the deeper and more durable the outcome will be.
5. The Final result.
After the rocks have soaked, remove them from the dye and rinse them until the water runs clear. Place them on paper towels, newspaper, or old rags to dry.
Food coloring is water-soluble, so rocks dyed in this way can be ruined by becoming wet. They are also subject to fading if left exposed to the sun. So keep your dyed rocks inside and don’t touch them with wet hands. The stones are fun just to look at, make great conversation starters, and can be creative gifts.
Another Method of Dyeing Rocks
If older children or just adults are doing the dyeing, there is also a method called “quench and crackle” that may be fun to try. In this method, the stones are heated with a butane torch and then dropped quickly into a cold dye solution. The stones make a crackling sound as they quickly cool, drawing the dye into every tiny crevasse.
As mentioned above, any stone can be dyed with varying results. Striated or spotted rocks such as howlite or dalmatian stone can produce lovely patterns. Dyeing can also emphasize the varying layers of agate. Geodes can also be dyed, but require a different method than covered here.