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Henna on Wood Experiments

Warning! Science content! If you can’t cope with a chemistry lesson today skip the following paragraph and move right on to the pictures.

I’ve been learning a lot about the chemistry of henna in the last few years. One of the most confusing and notable things about henna is the apparently contradictory information on pH. Henna powder needs a mildly acidic solution (pH of about 2-4) in order for the dye to be “released” from the plant material. What that means is that the dye molecule (lawsone) is attached to a sugar molecule in the leaf. A process called hydrolysis breaks the sugar and lawsone apart so that its free to do its job. The next thing that happens is that the lawsone attaches its self to cellulose (in the case of paper and cotton) or keratin (in the case of skin, hair, and silk.) This happens by a reaction called Michael Addition which prefers alkylin (above a pH of 7) environments. So, lawsone requires a low pH to be made available for use, but a higher pH in oder to be used! What can we do? Here’s what I did:

I soaked one craft stick in ammonia (A) and the other was left alone as a control (C.) The pictures below show the result immediately after removing paste, several days later, and after exposure to heat several days after removing the paste.

We can see clearly that the ammonia soaked stick is darker, especially at first. We can also see that with the addition of heat and time, the stick that was not soaked in ammonia nearly “caught up” with the other. This brings me to the conclusion that the dye will attach to the wood even in a neutral envirnonment it just takes more time. You may also notice that the color is warmer in the stick that was not soaked. In the end, you may prefer not to use ammonia on wood if you like the warmer color. If your in a big hurry, on the other hand, you may want to give it a try!

This Post Has 16 Comments
  1. Forever!

    As long as you leave the paste on several weeks two several months.

    Don’t use essential oils in the mix because they cause bleeding. Don’t use sugar because that makes it too hard to get the paste off. If you have to chisel and scrub you buff the stain right out while getting the paste off!

  2. I like acrylic lacquer because its easy to use and doesn’t risk yellowing. polyurethane is a good choice too, but I suggest a water based polyurethane. Solvent based polyurethane undergoes a chemical reaction that may change the color of the stain in unpredictable ways.

    You can also use a stain between the henna staining and finish if you like, just make sure to choose a very light color so you don’t loose the contrast between your art and the wood.

  3. Ingredients for this paste is just henna powder and lemon juice. Very simple!

    I have done large solid areas, but I have done large boxes in patterns.

  4. I build furniture and am looking for an alternative to commercial stains. They are so toxic, and so is the clean up. I bought some henna hair dye and am going to try mixing that to stain the wood. If I immediately seal w/ polyurethane after scraping off the paste, do I still need to wait weeks or months before scraping off the paste? Thanks so much!

  5. The color of the stain depends on how long you leave the paste on. If you don’t leave it on long the stain will be orange. Leave it on some weeks for a light brown, and some months for dark brown.

    Even after you remove the paste, the color will continue to deepen for some time, but when the paste isn’t left on for a good month or two… or even three, will never get as dark as when the paste has been left on, no matter how long you wait.

    You can seal as soon as you take off the paste, and the stain will continue to mature.

  6. i want to decorate henna on paper and posterboard.. what do i seal it with henna design. will henna spread on the paper/ posterboard or do i apply something before then apply henna..

  7. There’s two different ways to do henna on paper. Either way you want to make a paste without essential oils or sugar and make the paste a little stiffer than usual. This keeps the henna from spreading and bleeding.

    The first method involves leaving the paste on forever and sealing it in with a spray sealant or carefully painting over it with mod podge.

    The other way is to leave the paste on for a few days, iron it with a dry setting on your iron, then gently remove the paste. This method doesn’t require a seal.

  8. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been trying to find more information about the chemistry of lawsone.

    Given that human skin has a pH < 5, how does that influence the development of a henna tattoo?

  9. Oh! Then you’ll want to read this one too!

    Great question! Oxidation will occur causing the dye to darken over time, even in a neutral or acidic environment. The ammonia just speeds the process, and ammonia fumes have been used with henna “tattoos” for the same effect, but its not recommended AT ALL due to the harshness of the chemical.

  10. This is amazing! As a chemistry student, I really appreciate the science breakdown– I didn’t know anything about henna except that it was a dye. I’m going to try an experiment with henna on wood soon, just for fun, and this has made it a whole lot easier. Thank you so much!

  11. I have a question, have you ever worked with henna on wood that has already been stained? Or do you think it is possible to stain the wood after the henna has been layed?

    1. Great question! It SHOULD work, but I have not tried personally. This is only if it is JUST stain, not a stain/seal combination. Stain will leave the wood darker though, which will lesson contrast between the hennaed wood and the stained wood. Also, the stain may inhibit dye absorption to a degree, but not completely. I’d advice a test spot on a less visible area before you dive into the project.

  12. I’m thinking of doing a henna pattern on my ukulele and your article confirmed that I can stain wood with henna. Thank you!

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