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Gel Stains – Pros, Cons, Uses, and How to Apply Gel Stains

As a wood finisher there are many different options available on the market today to get a desired wood finish result. From pigmented stains, to conversion varnishes, water based coatings wood finishes have undergone a lot of change over time. One interesting wood coating that can often be overlooked are gel stains. Were going to do a in depth guide on gel stains, their pros and cons, and their uses so you can decide if gel stains are a good addition to your wood finishes.

Pros of Gel Stains

Gel stains are thick stain that you apply to a wood surface. Unlike traditional stains that soak into the wood creating a new color, gel stains are applied to the surface of wood and can be built up similar to a paint. Unlike paint, gel stains still allow you to feel the underlying texture of the wood.  Gel stains have relatively good hiding strengths in that they will mask the underlying color of a previously stained or painted wood project. Additionally due to their thickness they do not run as much making them well suited for vertical surfaces as well as easy to apply for novice finishers.

Cons of Gel Stains

Gel stains take a while to dry before you can apply a topcoat for protection or a second layer of a gel stain. This makes them impractical for projects that you want to have a finish that is quickly applied and finished. Additionally Gel Stains cannot be sprayed on so if you want a finish that doesn’t appear brushed or rolled than gel stains will not be right for you. Gel stains also do not bring out the beautiful natural grain of woods which can make them less useful for woods that absorb well like oak, ash, mahogany, and walnut. Finally due to their thickness they can have issues with projects with lots of corners and small spaces as the gel stain can build up excessively in these areas resulting in an uneven finish appearance.

Ideal Applications for Gel Stains

With their unique pros and cons gel stains have particular applications where they make perfect sense. One great application for gel stains is for general finishing on small projects. Their friendly applicability make them well suited for coating a one time project as they will not require any special equipment other than a brush and roller. Additionally, their ability to mask porous and non porous areas with similar competency make them a good finish to apply when you may have used different wood species in a single project or on non porous woods that do not absorb stain naturally (species like pine, maple cherry, and birch). A final potential application for gel stains is applying it over man made surfaces with a tool to create wood grain appearance. The key to using gel stains on a man made surface is to apply a small amount of gel stain on an area as a test allowing it to dry for a sufficient time at which point you can determine if it will adhere to the surface. If you can rub the gel stain off easily after it has cured then it will typically not adhere well to the man made surface you may be trying to apply it to.

Proper Steps to Apply Gel Stains

Step 1 - Prepare the Surface

For the stain to adhere well you should ensure the wood surface is free from any contaminants and is roughed up to promote adhesion of the gel coat stain. This will involve using a cleaner on the surface (denatured alcohol works well) and rubbing the wood surface. This will remove any oils or similar contaminants that have built up. Then you should proceed to roughen the surface up by using sandpaper. You can usually use 400 grit sandpaper to slightly roughen the surface for application of gel stain. After the surface has been sanded ensure that you have removed any residual dust with a quick solvent wipe. After the surface is wiped down you should wait until the solvent evaporates from the surface.

Step 2 - Apply the stain

Method 1 -  Wipe Stain

Once the surface is completely dry you can begin applying a coat of gel stain. The key with gel stain is that you should apply it in thin layers so that it doesn’t glob on the surface creating an uneven appearance (if you do get blobs you will want to wipe them up quickly so that you can still achieve a relatively consistent finish). You should also apply the gel stain liberally and then wipe away excess stain with a cloth ensuring you continue to use a fresh area of cloth to ensure you absorb extra stain as you are applying it. When wiping you should try to wipe with the grain to ensure that the grain maintains its natural appearance. Most of the time wiping the gel stain is the common way that the stain will be applied.

Method 2 - Brush Stain

Brushing stain will apply a lot more stain than wiping. Brushing is typically reserved for when you want a dark stained appearance. You will brush the gel stain on in the direction of the grain and then remove excess after 20 – 30 minutes.

Additional Coats

After the initial coats of stain you will have to wait until the stain has dried completely before applying an additional coat of stain. This can take 48 – 72 hours. You will want to ensure that the first coat is completely cured prior to applying an additional coat of gel stain.

Top Protective Coats

After you have applied the gel stain the last step is to provide a protective top coat to your project (unless your gel stain has a protective coating included like a polyurethane). You can also get further details on which protective top coat whether it be shellac, lacquer, varnish, or conversion.
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