Article: Gel Stain "How To" Guide

Wipe-on stains have become enormously popular in the last few years, and none more so than the gel versions. Sold as one-step, foolproof finishes that need only a rag as an applicator, gel stains appeal to that large group of woodworkers who dislike finishing.

Easy to apply, these stains are forgiving, even on blotch-prone woods

Wipe-on stains have become enormously popular in the last few years

Wipe-on stains have become enormously popular in the last few years, and none more so than the gel versions. Sold as one-step, foolproof finishes that need only a rag as an applicator, gel stains appeal to that large group of woodworkers who dislike finishing. While many serious finishers spurn these stains assuming they have few good qualities, others find ideal use for them.

Gel stains are forgiving, but they won’t hide the sins of bad sanding marks, spots of filler or glue smudges. Contrary to popular belief, these combination finishes still need a clear topcoat in most circumstances. Different brands of gel stains also vary both in their handling characteristics and in their color rendition of the same named stain. However, for those projects made of difficult, blotch-prone woods, such as cherry and pine, gel stains may be the best solution. Their ability to layer color makes them easy to use as glazes. For these reasons and others I will demonstrate, these small cans of thick color deserve a spot on everyone’s shelf.

Where gel stains prove their value

One of the strongest selling points of a gel stain is its ease of application. There is no need for a spray gun, a specialty brush or even a spotless shop—only a nice, soft cloth, such as an old T-shirt. Gel stains are all wipe on/wipe-off products, which results in very little wet surface (tacky at most). A gel stain is not like a traditional thin pigment stain that never gets deeper in color no matter how many coats are applied. Rather, a gel stain builds up color with each application, so don’t apply a heavy first coat for a darker color. Simply apply a second one.

Gel stains work well on blotch-prone woods

The end grain on tabletops and raised panels often absorbs regular stains in dark, ugly contrast to the straight grain around it. Likewise, some cherry and pine boards turn blotchy when a stain has been applied. One solution is to use a stain controller , such as a thin wash coat of clear dewaxed shellac, but using a gel stain may negate the need for this step.

Gel stains color in increments

Woodworkers often combine solid wood and plywood in the construction of cabinets. It is a common struggle to make these components blend together when it comes to staining them. A gel stain is an ideal solution for this problem. If one component is lighter than the other, a second application on the lighter area pulls in the tones nicely. Sapwood sometimes can be concealed by applications of gel stain on the light stripes. Usually two coats will successfully blend the light with the dark, but if necessary, you can alter the tone of the gel stain by adding concentrated pigment such as Japan colors or artist’s colors.

Gel stains color in increments

Woodworkers often combine solid wood and plywood in the construction of cabinets. It is a common struggle to make these components blend together when it comes to staining them. A gel stain is an ideal solution for this problem. If one component is lighter than the other, a second application on the lighter area pulls in the tones nicely. Sapwood sometimes can be concealed by applications of gel stain on the light stripes. Usually two coats will successfully blend the light with the dark, but if necessary, you can alter the tone of the gel stain by adding concentrated pigment such as Japan colors or artist’s colors.

Gel stains are a good medium for glazing

Start by applying a base stain either with a dye or a pigment stain. Seal this with a clear gel varnish or a thin coat of dewaxed shellac. Scuff-sand with 320- or 400- grit paper and then apply a thin glaze of gel stain. This imparts a small amount of tone to the wood without being heavy and creates a deeper look from the layers of color.

You also can use two different gel stains to match the color of another finished piece. To match a tabletop to its base, for instance, I used an initial coat of Clearwater stain, followed by an application of Bartley gel stain.

Gel stains do have a downside

For everything good about gel stains, there are a few drawbacks. Lack of clarity is certainly a common complaint. A gel stain on a figured wood, such as tiger or bird’s-eye maple, is a crime. The resulting appearance is muted and lacks intensity. Even on straight-grained wood, application of multiple coats of gel stain risks muddying up the wood.

Topcoats receive special consideration

Most gel stains remain on the surface, especially on hardwood, rather than penetrating the wood as dye stains
do. Unless they are well protected with a durable topcoat, heavy-use areas such as tabletops are at risk of the color wearing through. With the exception of Clearwater, topcoat options are limited with these gels. Bartley, Wood-Kote and Olympic all recommend a gel varnish or liquid polyurethane. Because gel varnish is actually gelled polyurethane, which is softer than its liquid counterparts, it is not a good choice for tabletops.

Care should be taken when topcoating oil-based gel stains with solvent-based lacquer. These stains have a resin binder that, if left on too thick or still curing, may cause the lacquer to crinkle.

Gel stains can be the answer to challenging staining situations. For those unwilling to take chances with the unfamiliar world of dye stains, spraying stains, prestain conditioners, presealing or presizing, these gels will work beautifully as a one-step staining process.

Happy Finishing