The Beginner’s Guide to Gel Stain
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but the first time I tried gel stain was last summer. It took me years to progress from traditional oil-based stain to the gel stain variety. And guess what? Gel stain is so much better! But what exactly is it?
Gel stain is an oil-based varnish (like polyurethane) with a colorant added. It is significantly thicker than traditional wood stain, and is designed to sit on top of the wood instead of soaking in. This reduces blotching, a problem common with traditional stain.
Gel stain has many useful applications, so lets take a look at why it’s my favorite type of stain!
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When to Use Gel Stain
Because gel stain is a thick, colored varnish, when it’s applied to wood it mostly sits on top of the piece. It will soak in a little bit if you’re working with unfinished wood, but not anywhere near the amount traditional stain does because it’s so thick.
Softwoods blotch when traditional stain is applied because the pores soak stain in unevenly. Some pores accept a lot of stain, some accept less, which creates the blotchy appearance.
Because gel stain only soaks in a little bit, this is less of an issue. All the pores of the wood only have access to a small amount of stain, and so therefore they have a more even appearance.
Therefore, it’s best to use gel stain when you’re staining softwoods like pine or common boards that you purchase at the home improvement store. Gel stain means you don’t have to use wood conditioner or other methods to get a nice appearance on those types of boards.
Because it’s a varnish, gel stain also has the ability to dry on top of wood. Therefore, unlike traditional stains, it can be applied on top of prior finishes.
There are a few caveats: you can’t make the piece any lighter, the coats must be thin, and too many coats will obscure the wood. But it is a valid refinishing option if you only need to touch up the wood or make the shade a little darker, and is much easier than sanding down the piece and refinishing.
Gel Stain Vs Regular Stain
|Gel Stain||Traditional Stain|
|Pros||– Can be used on top of existing finishes|
– Best for staining softwoods
– Good for vertical surfaces
|– Best for staining hardwoods|
– Less expensive
– Multiple coats can be applied
|Cons||– More Expensive|
– Multiple coats obscure the wood
|– Produces blotching in softwoods|
When asked to choose between gel stain and traditional wood stain, I almost always pick gel stain. The reason? Gel stain is best for staining softwoods, and the majority of my budget-friendly projects use cheap pine or “whitewood.”
It’s also great for vertical surfaces, since gel stain is thicker and won’t run down the surface like regular wood stain would.
Additionally, gel stain can be used on top of prior finishes, which is fantastic when refinishing furniture pieces. These three things make it a lot more versatile to me, which is why it’s my go-to stain choice.
However, gel stain is more expensive; this quart of gel stain is around $16, while this quart of traditional stain by the same manufacturer is around $7. I do think gel stain goes further because you can apply less of it at a time, however I haven’t actually tested this. Also, gel stain negates the need to buy wood conditioner, so maybe that helps make up the difference.
And there are times when gel stain isn’t the right choice. If you’re mostly staining hardwoods like oak, traditional stain is probably the way to go. It’s cheaper, and because it soaks into the wood, it really allows the wood to shine, even with multiple coats.
When multiple coats of gel stain are applied (typically to try and deepen the color) the wood eventually gets obscured by the stain, since the stain is not soaking in. If you’re working with expensive hardwoods, or worried about getting a deep look, traditional oil-based stain is the way to go.
Both gel stain and traditional wood stain require 2 hours of dry-time, so that shouldn’t be a factor when deciding between them.
How to Apply Gel Stain to Unfinished Wood
Step 1: Prep the Wood
I always sand wood before staining. Always. You may think this is unnecessary, but there’s typically at least some saw marks from manufacturing that are invisible until you stain the wood. Sanding eliminates those. I have a whole process for this, which you can read about here.
Additionally, if you need to apply wood filler to any holes, now is the time. I don’t know if I actually recommend this unless you have no choice – I tested a bunch of different wood conditioners to see how they took stain (see the experiment here,) and while some were better then others, all of them stood out from the rest of the wood at least a little.
Finally, I recommend testing your stain on either scrap wood or an inconspicuous part of your piece before starting. That way, if something goes dramatically wrong, you’ll know before you apply the stain to the entire piece. I know you might be tempted to skip this step. Don’t.
Step 2: Apply the Gel Stain
Applying gel stain to unfinished wood is actually pretty similar to applying traditional wood stain.
Using a rag or a foam brush, apply the stain. Start by going against the grain of the wood, in order to push the stain into the pores. Then go back over the stain, brushing with the grain.
The order matters here, since the stain ultimately sits on top of the wood. You want the second pass to go with the grain, so that any staining marks blend into the grain.
When staining unfinished wood, we’ll wipe the excess stain off with a cloth in the next step. That means it doesn’t really matter if you use thick or thin coats (since it’ll all get wiped off anyway,) but you’ll save on stain and therefore money if you use thin coats.
Step 3: Wipe Off Remaining Stain
Once the gel stain has sat for 5-ish minutes, wipe the excess off with a rag. Be sure to wipe in the direction of the grain, so that any marks blend in with grain of the wood.
Let the stain dry for 2 hours.
Step 4: Reapply as Necessary
Once the stain has dried (2 hours!) reapply if you’d like to deepen the color. However, note that the more layers of gel stain that are applied, the more the wood gets obscured.
I wouldn’t recommend applying more than two layers of gel stain. If you’re worried the color isn’t dark enough, pick a darker stain for your 2nd coat.
Additionally, note that oil-based stain is better at getting a deep stain from the get-go. If you know you want a really deep color, you might consider using an oil-based stain so you won’t obscure the wood with multiple layers of gel stain.
How to Apply Gel Stain Over Finished Wood
Step 1: Prep the Finish
I know I’m probably about to make someone unhappy when I say this, but yes, you need to sand the finish. Otherwise, the gel stain won’t have anything to stick to.
If you’re one the people who hates this step, do you have a good orbital sander? It makes everything easier. I have and love this Dewalt one, and you can read more about my experience with it here.
Since you’re just scratching up the surface a little, 180 grit sandpaper should work well.
I also recommend testing your stain on an obscure part of the wood before putting it on the whole piece. That’ll help you determine how it will look in-advance, before you apply it everywhere and have a disaster on your hands.
Step 2: Apply a Thin Coat of Gel Stain
Since you won’t be wiping off the stain afterward, it is absolutely crucial that you apply thin coats. Whenever I apply gel stain on top of former finishes, I always use a rag, because it ensure my coats are thin.
Rub the stain onto the piece, applying the stain against the grain at first, then with the grain second. If there are any exposed wood pores, this process will help the wood stain reach these pores, while still making sure the final swipe is in the direction of the grain so any stain marks blend in.
Step 3: Wait for the Gel Stain to Dry
The gel stain indicates it can be recoated in two hours, and with unfinished wood, this is typically the case. However, when using gel stain on finished wood, you’re going to want to make sure it’s no longer tacky before applying another coat or finish.
When working on this cedar chest makeover, that took 6 hours. It was a particularly hot and humid day, which probably contributed to the dry time.
Step 4: Recoat
As I mentioned above, I only apply a maximum of two coats of gel stain, otherwise the wood grain gets obscured. On finished wood, this will change the look of the wood a little, but it’s probably not going to make a drastic change to your piece.
The cedar chest makeover (full tutorial here) is a great example of that. Here’s how it started:
The color and finish were worn in the front, and my main goal was to even out the look of the chest, and darken it a bit. I applied two coats of gel stain, and some wood finish, and here’s what it looked like after:
It looks great, but I would have been disappointed if I’d been going for a deep expresso look, because that just wasn’t going to happen in two coats.
Have realistic expectations for what your gel stain can do, and it’ll look great!
Finishing Wood Over Gel Stain
Oil-based polyurethane, varnish, and shellac are all great choices for finishing gel-stained wood, given the gel stain has dried for at least 24 hours.
I wouldn’t use water-based polyurethane directly over gel stain. This is because gel stain is oil-based and oil-based stain and water-based polyurethane don’t always play nice. Sometimes it works, but it often leads to issues.
If you want to apply a water-based topcoat over gel stain, I’d apply a coat or two of Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat first. That will seal the gel stain in the wood, and prevent the water-based polyurethane from interacting with it.
In fact, Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat is a great finish in general (I love it so, so much,) because it dries super-fast and can be recoated in 2 hours, unlike oil-based products. It’s what I used on the cedar chest above.
Other shellacs also dry quickly, however Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat is the only wax-free, pre-mixed shellac on the market, which is why I recommend it so much. Other shellacs come in flake form, and have to be mixed with denatured alcohol before use, which is just complicated.
Troubleshooting Gel Stain
The most common issue with gel stain is that it never dries, and is still sticky a few hours later. This problem is caused by two things:
- Humidity is high, and therefore the stain is taking a while to dry.
- The coats applied were too thick.
Extra dry time might help the humidity situation, but if the coats were too thick, there’s not really anything that can make it dry.
Instead, grab some mineral spirits and apply it to the stain with a rag. That should help dissolve the stain so that it can be wiped off the piece and reapplied in thinner coats.
If you’re looking on more information on troubleshooting wood finishing, check out my Fabulously Finished Reference Bundle. It walks you through exactly how to stain, finish, and troubleshoot your project, so that you’ll have a flawless finish everytime!
Other Gel Stain FAQs
What is the best gel stain?
I’ve had good luck with Varathane’s Interior Gel Stains. They’re readily available at the big box stores, easy to apply, and look great.
Is gel stain oil-based?
Just like regular wood stain, gel stain is an oil-based stain, and should not be combined with water-based products.
Can you paint over gel stain?
Given the gel stain is fully cured, it can be painted over with latex paint. If one is particularly concerned about adhesion, a quality oil-based bonding primer can help, although it’s not truly necessary.
Can you use gel stain on veneer or laminate?
Gel stain can be used on both laminate furniture and wood veneers. Lightly sand the surface with 180 grit sandpaper, then apply very thin coats of the gel stain, allowing at least 2 hours of dry time between coats.
See the section above on applying gel stain on finished wood for more detailed instructions.
Can you thin gel stain?
Gel stain can be thinned with mineral spirits. This will dilute the stain (resulting in a lighter color) and create a glaze, which can be used either for staining or adding a unique antiquing appearance on top of paint.
Will mineral spirits remove gel stain?
Mineral spirits will remove wet or tacky gel stain. However, once the gel stain is fully cured, the mineral spirits will have no affect. In that situation, the most effective way to remove gel stain is by standing.