Gel Stain Top Coat: The Final Touch to Your Staining Project

Regarding woodworking and furniture refinishing, the importance of a top coat in the staining process cannot be overstated. It’s like the cherry on top of a sundae, the final touch that brings everything together. The top coat not only enhances the appearance of your project but also adds a layer of protection, ensuring the durability of the stain beneath.

In the realm of stains, gel stain holds a special place. It’s a unique product that combines the depth of color of traditional stains with the ease of use of paint. And when it comes to sealing and protecting this type of stain, a gel stain top coat is the perfect partner.

Gel stain and top coat go together like bread and butter. They work in tandem to provide a finish that is not only visually appealing but also long-lasting. So, let’s dive deeper into this topic and explore the fascinating world of gel stains and their top coats.

Understanding Gel Stain

As the name suggests, gel stain has a gelled or thick consistency. Unlike traditional liquid stains, it doesn’t soak into the wood as much. Instead, it sits on top of the wood, allowing it to be used on various surfaces, including those that aren’t typically receptive to staining.

There are several benefits to using gel stain. First and foremost, it’s incredibly user-friendly. Its thick consistency reduces drips and runs, making it easier to control. This is particularly beneficial for beginners or those working on intricate projects.

Moreover, gel stain is versatile. Whether you’re working with a brand like General Finishes Gel Stain or Minwax Gel Stain, you’ll find it can be used on various materials, including wood, metal, and even laminate.

Unlike other stains, gel stain stands out for its ability to provide a more even and consistent color. Traditional stains can sometimes appear blotchy, particularly on woods with varying densities. On the other hand, gel stain sits on the surface of the wood, allowing for more uniform color distribution.

Does Gel Stain Need a Top Coat?

A question often arises when discussing gel stains is, “Does gel stain need a top coat?” The short answer is yes. While gel stain provides a rich, vibrant color, the top coat seals the deal, quite literally.

A top coat plays a crucial role in the staining process. It acts as a protective shield, safeguarding the stain from wear and tear, moisture, and other damaging elements. Without a top coat, the gel stain is left vulnerable. Over time, the color may fade, and the stain may wear off, especially on frequently used items like furniture.

Moreover, a top coat enhances the appearance of the gel stain. Depending on the type of top coat used, it adds depth to the color and can provide either a glossy or matte finish. It’s like the difference between a photo and a framed photo. Both are pictures, but the framed one has an added layer of protection and aesthetic appeal.

So, while you might be tempted to skip the top coat, especially if you’re pleased with the color and look of the gel stain alone, it’s a step that shouldn’t be overlooked. The benefits of a top coat, from durability to enhanced appearance, make it a must-have in the staining process.

How to Apply Topcoat to Gel Stain

Now that we’ve established the importance of a top coat let’s move on to the application process. Applying a top coat to gel stain is a straightforward process, but there are a few key steps to keep in mind to ensure a smooth, even finish.

  1. Wait for the Gel Stain to Dry: Ensure the stain is completely dry before applying the top coat. This can take anywhere from a few hours to overnight, depending on the brand and the conditions in your workspace.
  2. Prepare the Surface: Lightly sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper. This will help the top coat adhere better. Wipe off any dust with a tack cloth.
  3. Apply the Top Coat: Using a high-quality brush or foam applicator, apply a thin layer of top coat toward the grain. Avoid overloading the brush to prevent drips and runs.
  4. Let it Dry: Allow the top coat to dry completely. Depending on the product and the environmental conditions, this can take a few hours or more.
  5. Sand Between Coats: Lightly sand between coats with fine-grit sandpaper for a smooth finish. Be sure to wipe away any dust before applying the next coat.
  6. Repeat the Process: Apply a second (or third) coat, following the same steps. Two to three coats are usually sufficient for most projects.

Best Top Coat for Gel Stain

Choosing the right top coat for your gel stain project can significantly affect the outcome. There are several excellent options available on the market. Still, three stand out for their quality and performance: General Finishes Gel Stain Top Coat, Minwax Gel Stain Top Coat, and Varathane Gel Stain Top Coat. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

General Finishes Gel Stain Top Coat

General Finishes is a well-respected brand in the world of wood finishes, and their Gel Stain Top Coat is no exception. This top coat is known for its durability and ease of use. It provides a strong protective layer that can withstand daily wear and tear, making it an excellent choice for furniture and other high-use items.

The General Finishes top coat also offers a beautiful satin finish that enhances the depth and richness of the gel stain. It’s easy to apply and self-levels to minimize brush strokes.

Minwax Gel Stain Top Coat

Minwax is another trusted name in wood finishes. Their Gel Stain Top Coat provides a protective layer that seals and protects the gel stain. It’s a clear coat that allows the beauty of the gel stain to shine through.

The Minwax top coat is also easy to apply and dries quickly. It provides a durable finish that resists scratches and provides long-lasting protection.

Varathane Gel Stain Top Coat

Varathane Gel Stain Top Coat is a high-quality product that offers excellent protection for your gel stain projects. It’s a clear top coat that enhances the color of the gel stain and provides a smooth, even finish.

The Varathane top coat is also known for its durability. It’s resistant to scratches and provides excellent protection against household chemicals, making it a great choice for kitchen cabinets and other high-use items.

Gel Top Coat vs Polyurethane

Gain top coat and polyurethane are viable options for protecting and enhancing your gel stain projects. However, each has its unique characteristics that may make one more suitable than the other depending on the specific requirements of your project. Let’s delve into a comparison of these two popular finishes.

Gel Top Coat

Gel top coats are known for their thick consistency and ease of application. They provide a robust protective layer that enhances the color and depth of the underlying gel stain. Gel top coats are excellent for projects where you want to highlight the richness of the gel stain and provide a durable finish.

One of the main advantages of gel top coats is their self-leveling properties. This means they spread out evenly, reducing the appearance of brush strokes and making them a great choice for beginners or those looking for a smooth, professional finish.


Polyurethane, on the other hand, is a versatile finish that can be used on both stained and painted surfaces. It’s available in various sheens, from matte to high gloss, allowing you to choose the shine that best suits your project.

Polyurethane is renowned for its durability. It provides a hard, protective layer resistant to scratches, heat, and household chemicals. This makes it an excellent choice for high-traffic items like kitchen cabinets or dining tables.

However, polyurethane can be a bit more challenging to apply than a gel top coat. It tends to be thinner, leading to drips or runs if not applied carefully. It also doesn’t self-level as well as gel top coat so that brush strokes may be more visible.

The Verdict

The winner of the gel top coat vs. polyurethane battle depends on your needs. If you’re looking for a finish that is easy to apply, self-levels, and enhances the depth of your gel stain, a gel top coat is the way to go. However, if you need a finish with superior durability and a range of sheen options, polyurethane might be your best bet.

Do I Need to Sand After Gel Stain?

Sanding is a critical step in the staining process, but its role after applying gel stain can often be confusing. The question arises, “Do I need to sand after gel stain?” The answer is it depends.

Sanding after applying gel stain is not typically necessary, especially if you plan to apply a top coat. This is because gel stain, unlike traditional stains, sits on the surface of the wood rather than soaking in. This means that sanding won’t significantly affect the color or depth of the stain.

However, there are situations where you might want to lightly sand after applying gel stain. One such scenario is if you’re applying multiple coats of gel stain. Lightly sanding between coats can help the subsequent coat adhere better, resulting in a smoother, more even finish.

Another situation where sanding might be beneficial is if you notice any drips, runs, or uneven areas after applying the gel stain. In this case, waiting for the stain to dry and then lightly sanding can help smooth out these imperfections.

If you decide to sand after applying gel stain, use fine-grit sandpaper and lightly sand. You want to smooth the surface without removing too much of the stain. After sanding, remove any dust or debris before applying your top coat.

How to Apply General Finishes Oil-Based Top Coat

General Finishes Oil Based Top Coat is popular for sealing and protecting gel stain projects. Known for its durability and ease of application, this top coat can provide a beautiful, long-lasting finish. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to apply it.

  1. Prepare the Surface: Before applying the top coat, ensure the surface is clean, dry, and free from dust or debris. If you’ve applied a gel stain, ensure it’s completely dry.
  2. Stir the Top Coat: Unlike paint, top coats should not be shaken as this can introduce bubbles. Instead, stir the top coat gently until it’s thoroughly mixed.
  3. Apply the Top Coat: Using a high-quality natural bristle brush, foam brush, or a cloth, apply the top coat in the direction of the grain. Try to apply a thin, even coat to avoid drips or runs.
  4. Let it Dry: Allow the top coat to dry completely. The drying time can vary depending on the temperature and humidity, but it typically takes 6 to 10 hours.
  5. Sand Between Coats: Once the first coat is dry, lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper (220 grit is ideal). This helps the next coat adhere better and results in a smoother finish. Wipe away any dust with a tack cloth.
  6. Apply Additional Coats: Repeat the process for at least two more coats. Three coats are generally recommended for most projects, but you may want to apply more for high-use items like kitchen cabinets or dining tables.
  7. Let it Cure: Once you’ve applied the final coat, let it cure for at least 7 days before using the item. This allows the top coat to harden fully, providing maximum protection.

What to Do After Gel Stain?

Once you’ve applied your gel stain and admired the rich, vibrant color it brings to your project, you might wonder, “What’s next?” The answer lies in a few important post-staining procedures ensuring your project looks its best and stands the test of time.

First and foremost, after applying the gel stain, it’s time to seal and protect the stain with a top coat. As we’ve discussed, a top coat provides a protective layer that enhances the appearance of the gel stain and safeguards it from wear and tear. Applying a top coat is a straightforward process, but it requires patience and attention to detail to achieve a smooth, even finish.

Once the top coat is applied and fully cured, your project will be admired and used. But the care doesn’t stop there. Maintaining your gel-stained surfaces is key to preserving their beauty and longevity. Regular dusting with a soft cloth can keep the surface looking its best. Use mild soap and water for deeper cleaning, but avoid harsh chemicals that could damage the finish.


In woodworking and furniture refinishing, gel stains and top coats are dynamic. They work together to provide a finish that is not only visually appealing but also durable and long-lasting.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a DIY enthusiast, we hope this guide has provided valuable insights into gel stains and topcoats. Remember, the key to a successful project lies in patience, attention to detail, and the right products. So, don’t rush the process; take your time, and let the beauty of your work shine through.