How to Apply Gel Stain

Gel stain – a term that might sound alien to the uninitiated, but for those in the know, it’s a game-changer in the world of woodworking and furniture restoration. This unique product has revolutionized how we approach staining, offering many benefits that traditional stains can’t match. But what exactly is gel stain, and why should you consider using it? Let’s dive in and explore!

What is Gel Stain?

Picture this: you’re working on a piece of furniture and have a can of stain in your hand. You open it up, and instead of the usual thin, watery liquid, you find a thick, gel-like substance. That’s gel stain for you!

Unlike traditional stains, which penetrate the wood, gel stain sits on the surface, creating a more consistent and even color. It’s composed of colorants and a thickening agent, giving it unique consistency. This difference in composition results in a product that’s easier to control, reducing the likelihood of blotchy patches or uneven coloring.

So, if you’ve ever found yourself wrestling with a regular stain that seems to have a mind of its own, spreading where it pleases and soaking unevenly into the wood, then gel stain might just be the answer to your prayers!

Why Use Gel Stain?

Now that we’ve covered the “what,” let’s move on to the “why.” Why should you consider using gel stain? The answer lies in its unique properties and the benefits they offer.

First off, gel stain’s thicker consistency means it’s less prone to dripping or running, making your staining projects less messy and more manageable. No more worrying about stain dripping onto your floors or clothes!

Secondly, gel stain enhances the beauty of the wood grain and patina. While regular stains can sometimes obscure the natural beauty of the wood, gel stain works with it, enhancing the grain and patina and giving your piece a rich, lustrous finish.

Finally, gel stain is versatile. It can be used on a variety of surfaces, not just wood. So, gel stain covers you whether you’re working on a wooden table, a fiberglass door, or a laminate cabinet!

Choosing the Right Gel Stain Color

Choosing the right color for your staining project can feel daunting. With many options available, how do you decide which shade will best enhance your piece? Fear not, for we’re here to guide you through the process!

The first thing to consider when choosing a gel stain color is the type of wood you’re working with. Different woods have different natural colors and grains, which can significantly influence the final look of your stain. For instance, a dark gel stain might look stunning on a light wood like pine, but overpowering on a naturally dark wood like walnut.

Next, consider the overall aesthetic you’re aiming for. Are you going for a rustic, vintage look? Or perhaps something sleek and modern? Lighter stains tend to give a more casual, rustic vibe, while darker stains can lend a sense of sophistication and modernity.

Finally, don’t forget to consider the surrounding décor. Your newly stained piece should complement the other elements in the room, not clash with them. If you’re unsure, neutral colors like browns and grays are generally a safe bet, as they tend to work well with various color schemes.

How to Apply Gel Stain

Now that you’ve chosen your perfect color, it’s time to get down to business and start staining! Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you through the process:

  1. Prepare the Surface: Clean your piece thoroughly to remove dust or grime. If you’re working with a previously stained or painted piece, you might need to sand it lightly to help the gel stain adhere better.
  2. Test the Stain: Before you start staining, it’s a good idea to test the stain on a hidden area or a scrap piece of the same wood to ensure you’re happy with the color.
  3. Apply the Stain: Using a brush, rag, or roller, apply a generous amount of gel stain to the wood, working in manageable sections. The tool you choose depends on the size and detail of your piece. Brushes work well for detailed areas, rags are great for large, flat surfaces, and rollers can make quick work of very large projects.
  4. Wipe Off Excess Stain: After letting the stain sit for a few minutes (check the manufacturer’s instructions for exact timing), wipe off any excess with a clean rag. The longer you leave the stain on, the darker the final color will be.
  5. Let it Dry: Allow the stain to dry completely before applying another coat. Remember, adding more stain than taking it away is easier!
  6. Seal the Stain: Once you’re happy with the color, seal your piece with a topcoat to protect the stain and give your piece a beautiful finish.

Applying Gel Stain to Different Surfaces

Gel stain’s versatility is one of its greatest strengths. It’s not just for raw wood – you can use it on various surfaces, including kitchen cabinets, finished wood, and even fiberglass doors. Let’s look at how to apply gel stain to these different surfaces.

Kitchen Cabinets

Revamping your cabinets with gel stain can give your kitchen a new look. Start by removing the doors and hardware. Clean the cabinets thoroughly to remove any grease or grime. A light sanding will help the gel stain adhere better if the cabinets are already painted or stained. Apply the gel stain in the direction of the wood grain, let it sit for a few minutes, then wipe off the excess. Remember to apply a topcoat to seal and protect your newly stained cabinets.

Finished Wood

Applying gel stain to finished wood is a great way to change its color without stripping the existing finish. Lightly sand the surface to roughen it, then apply the gel stain. Because the existing finish may prevent the stain from penetrating as deeply as it would on raw wood, you might need to leave it on longer to achieve your desired color. As always, finish with a topcoat to seal and protect the stain.

Fiberglass Doors

You read that right: you can use gel stain on fiberglass doors! This can be a great way to give your door a wood-like appearance. Clean the door thoroughly and let it dry. Apply the gel stain with a brush, working toward the faux wood grain on the door. Let the stain sit for a few minutes, then wipe off the excess. Once the stain is dry, apply a clear exterior-grade topcoat to protect the stain from the elements.

Common Gel Stain Problems and Solutions

As with any DIY project, using gel stain can come with its own set of challenges. But don’t worry – most issues are easily solvable with some know-how. Let’s explore some common gel stain problems and their solutions.

Problem: The stain is too dark.
Solution: If your stain is darker than you’d like, don’t panic! You can lighten it by wiping the surface with a rag dampened with mineral spirits. This will remove some of the stain, lightening the color. Remember, adding more stain than taking it away is always easier, so start with a lighter coat than you think you’ll need.

Problem: The stain is blotchy or uneven.
Solution: Gel stain is designed to be easy to apply evenly, but sometimes blotchiness can still occur. This is often due to uneven absorption by the wood. To fix this, lightly sand the blotchy area and reapply the stain.

Problem: The stain isn’t drying.
Solution: If your stain isn’t drying, you’ve likely applied it too thickly. Gel stain should be applied in thin coats and wiped off after a few minutes. If your stain isn’t drying, try wiping off the excess with a clean rag, allowing more drying time.

Top Coat Application After Gel Stain

Applying a top coat after staining isn’t just an optional extra step – it’s a crucial part of the process. A top coat seals in the stain, protects the wood, and gives your piece a beautiful, professional-looking finish.

Here’s how to apply a top coat after using gel stain:

  1. Choose Your Top Coat: There are several top coats, including polyurethane, polycrylic, and wax. The best choice depends on your project and the level of protection needed.
  2. Prepare the Surface: Completely dry the stain before applying the top coat. Any damp spots can cause the top coat to bubble or become cloudy.
  3. Apply the Top Coat: Using a high-quality brush, apply the top coat toward the wood grain. Work in long, even strokes to avoid brush marks.
  4. Let it Dry: Allow the top coat to dry completely. Depending on the product, this can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
  5. Sand Between Coats: For the smoothest finish, lightly sand between coats using fine-grit sandpaper. This helps the next coat adhere better and removes any dust or imperfections.
  6. Apply Additional Coats: Depending on the level of protection you want, you may need to apply several coats of top coat. Just remember to let each coat dry completely and to sand between coats.

Review of Popular Gel Stain Brands

Regarding gel stains, two brands often stand out from the crowd: General Finishes and Varathane. Both have earned a solid reputation in the world of woodworking, but how do they stack up against each other? Let’s take a closer look.

General Finishes Gel Stain

General Finishes is often hailed as the gold standard of gel stains. Known for its thick consistency and rich, vibrant colors, this brand offers a high-quality product that’s easy to work with and delivers stunning results.

One of the standout features of General Finishes is its excellent coverage. A little goes a long way, making it a cost-effective choice for larger projects. It’s also available in many colors, giving you plenty of options.

On the downside, General Finishes gel stain is on the pricier side. However, most users agree that the quality of the product justifies the higher cost.

Varathane Gel Stain

Varathane is another popular choice among DIYers and professionals alike. This brand is known for its easy-to-use formula and durable finish.

Varathane gel stain is a bit thinner than General Finishes, which some users find easier to work with. It spreads smoothly and evenly, reducing the risk of blotches or streaks. It’s also slightly less expensive than General Finishes, making it a good choice for budget-conscious woodworkers.

However, Varathane offers fewer color options than General Finishes. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s something to remember if you want a specific shade.


And there you have it – a comprehensive guide to the wonderful world of gel stain! From understanding what gel stain is and why it’s a fantastic choice for your staining projects to choosing the right color and applying it like a pro, we’ve covered it all.

Gel stain is a versatile and user-friendly product that can transform your woodworking projects, whether you’re a seasoned professional or a DIY enthusiast. It offers a level of control and consistency that traditional stains can’t match, and the results speak for themselves – rich, lustrous, and professional-looking finishes that enhance the beauty of the wood.