HOW TO APPLY GEL STAIN TO FINISHED WOOD | VIDEO TUTORIAL
Happy Tuesday! Can you believe it’s already November?!
To kick off the month, I’m sharing how Gel Stains can save you time, money, and effort… while updating ANY existing wood finish!
I just finished re-staining these french hanging doors. They had an existing finish with an orange-yellow stain but not anymore…I can’t wait for you to see the NEW look! Gel Staining works amazing with outdated furniture, kitchen cabinets, stair rails, doors, or pretty much any finished wood you’ve been thinking of replacing. I hope these hanging french doors inspire you to give it a try!
Here’s what these doors looked like before. They hang in my living room to block off the mess that’s usually in my dining room aka my staging/photography room.
And here they are in progress…
THIS POST IS SPONSORED/CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS TO PRODUCTS I USE. YOU CAN SEE MY FULL DISCLOSURE HERE.
- French Doors – SALVAGED
- Sandpaper | Shop Towels
- Applicator Pads | Gloves
- Mythol Hydrate or White Lightening
- Chip Brush | Paint Brush
- Colonial Black Gel Stain
- Satin Clear Coat
How To Apply Gel Stain To Finished Wood
I’m using these french doors as an example but gel stains can be used on ANY existing finish. Kitchen cupboards, cabinets, previously stained furniture, factory finished, wood, veneer or laminate, and even previously painted finishes. This is because unlike traditional stain, gel stains don’t penetrate the surface. Instead, they sit on top of a surface more like paint but gives the appearance of stain because it gives a ‘see-through’ color while allowing grain or the surface below to be displayed.
Here’s the full video tutorial. If you have any trouble viewing it in your browser, feel free to click on my Youtube Channel here… and don’t forget to subscribe! 🙂
Dirt, grease, furniture wax, or polish will interfere with the adhesion of the gel stain so a thorough cleaning is required.
Because Gel Stains are an oil-based product, I recommend wiping down the surface with a 50/50 denatured alcohol and water. Or you can substitute denatured alcohol for a 50/50 Methyl Hydrate and water solution. You can also give it a good cleaning with a TSP or White Lightning. If using the latter, just make sure all the remaining residue is taken off with clean water.
It’s also a good idea to prep your area …and yourself! I always wear gloves when using Gel Stains because it will stain your skin. Drop cloths to protect your floors and work area and good ventilation and masks are a good idea.
Scuff sand the existing finish with a 120-220 grit sandpaper. I like doing this by hand because nothing crazy is needed and sanders can be too harsh. I sand the surface as if I was wiping down my kitchen counter. You want to slightly scuff the existing finish but you don’t want to scratch the finish because Gel Stain does not cover scratches or imperfections.
After sanding, I remove all the dust with a tack cloth.
CHOOSING GEL STAIN COLORS
When staining over an existing finish, it’s much easier and safer to go darker rather than lighter.
Keep in mind, because you’re applying a new stain to an existing color and finish, the color you choose will be altered because the original finish will show through somewhat.
For instance, I tried Walnut and this Colonial Black and decided on the black. It cuts down on the orange-yellow stain of these doors BUT I still don’t have a TRUE black stain. I have a darker stain with the warm undertones showing through which reminds me of a Dark Walnut.
If you’re unsure, I suggest buying a few stains and testing them in an inconspicuous area of your project. If you’re still not 100% happy, you can MIX Gel Stains or layer them. They are very versatile and it’s fun to play around to get the look your after.
HOW TO APPLY THE GEL STAIN
Once you’ve decided on a color, open the can and give it a good stir. Using a shop towel, applicator pad, chip brush, or lint-free rag, apply the gel stain working in manageable areas. I’m working with these doors propped up against my studio wall. Because Gel Stain is thick, like a pudding or shoe polish, there’s no dripping.
After it’s applied, wipe the stain back and smooth it out with the tool of your choice. For these doors, I used an applicator pad and then a shop towel to get the look I liked.
Thin even layers give the best results. And if the first coat is not dark enough, you can always apply additional layers to darken the effect. Here’s the finished look. Big difference don’t you think?
Here’s a close-up.
I’m SUPER happy with one coat. It really cut down on the yellow-orange stain and the grain is still showing through beautifully.
TOPCOATING THE GEL STAIN
It’s recommended to let the gel stain dry for 72 hours before top-coating so I haven’t top coated these doors yet because I wanted to get the post out to you. You can apply a water-based topcoat over this oil-based stain but it MUST be 100% dry!
12 GEL STAIN FAQ’S
1. Do I need to stir the product before using it?
2. Can I use a slip coat for easier application and longer working time?
Yes. Mineral spirits work well as a slip coat or you can mix in a little spirits in with the stain to slightly thin the gel stain.
3. Can I custom mix Gel Stains to create my own colors?
Yes! Gel Stains colors can be mixed together OR you can layer them. For instance, you can use a Walnut on your first coat. Let dry. Use a Colonial Black on the second coat. This adds really nice depth to the stain.
4. What will remove the Gel Stain if I make a mistake?
Mineral Spirits will help remove any mistakes on finished wood. For your hands and skin, you can use baby oil or ANY oil like vegetable oil or olive oil for your fingers and hands.
5. Can I apply a gel stain and let it absorb into the finish?
No. Gel stains are topical. They don’t penetrate into the wood as traditional stains do. It’s more like a paint stain. Gel Stains are highly pigmented like a paint/stain combo and they do not sink into the wood but rather sit on top of it. This is why they CAN be used to cover up an existing finish! Light even coats are recommended so you don’t end up with a tacky mess. If it’s applied too heavy or unevenly, you want to wipe it back and even it out for a beautiful uniform finish.
6. What brands of Gel Stain are available?
I’ve used Varathane, Minwax, General Finishes, and Dixie Belle but there are probably others I’m not aware of or haven’t tried yet.
7. What should you use to apply the Gel Stain?
I usually use a variety of tools to apply and remove my gel stains. My go-to’s are cheap chip brushes, foam brush, applicator pads, shop towels, and lint-free rags. If you’re working with a really large surface, you can even use a foam roller.
8. Do Gel Stains only work on wood?
Gel stains work beautifully on wood, veneers, laminates, and/or painted surfaces!
9. How many coats are required?
This is totally up to you. For these doors, I was really pleased with just one coat! However, if I were to want a darker opaque finish, I could have applied another one or two thin coats. The more coats, the darker and more opaque your finish will be.
10. Do I need to sand between coats?
You can give it a VERY light sanding between coats with a finishing pad (320 grit or higher). For these doors, I didn’t bother but if I were doing a dining table and wanted a perfectly smooth finish, sanding in-between is helpful. Do not sand the last coat before topcoat though. In my opinion, it’s not needed.
11. Does Gel Stain cover scratches or imperfections?
It won’t cover water spots, scratches, or gouges but you can “hide or disguise: them by using a little heavier gel stain or doing faux finishes.
12. How long does it take Gel Stain to dry?
Depending on the temperature and humidity, gel stains can feel dry to the touch in 6-8 hours but you should give them a proper 24 hours to dry between each coat. For top coating, 72 hours is recommended.
Can I use Gel Stains like a glaze?
Yes! Gel Stains can be used to glaze, distress, OR create faux finishes!
My french doors are hanging back up …somewhat hiding my staging room mess. 😉 I love the new look!
Gel Stains are an amazing way to save time, money, and effort. They are a time saver because you don’t have to strip and sand down to bare wood to start from scratch. Gel Stains can totally transform an existing finish so you can save $$$ on DIY rather than buying new cabinets or furniture. And they are easy to apply. No drips. And YOU control how light or dark you want the finish.
I hope I’ve inspired you to give them a try!
HAVE YOU OR WOULD YOU TRY GEL STAINS ON AN EXISTING FINISH? FEEL FREE TO ASK ANY QUESTIONS YOU MAY HAVE. I ALWAYS LOVE HEARING FROM YOU. 💕
Thanks for reading. 🙂
Wishing you a beautiful day filled with inspiration and Happy Staining!
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Hi Denise. Thank you so much for your info on gel stain. I really want to try it on an old oak table. But…somewhere along the way a couple of different woods were used to “fix” the top and the original stain is not conform. Would gel stain correct this difference? I’m stuck as I don’t really want to paint the top so I think gel would be my best bet. (i’m trying to avoid sanding to raw wood as I don’t think the woods would match anyway). Any advise would be greatly appreciated . I always look forward to your emails in my inbox so thanks again. Ellen
Hi Ellen! Gel stain works more like paint than a stain. It sits on the wood rather than penetrates it like traditional stains. That said, it does look different when applied over different colored stains or different types of wood. So testing would be your best bet because it’s really hard to say. Your first coat may look off. But then your second coat may even everything out. I wish I could give you a yes or no answer but I’d rather be honest and have you test on the backside of your table if possible.
I have kind of orangy oak cabinets and the former owners put in new flooring the same color. Do you think if I used a walnut stain, It would look nice with the floors or would you recommend a different stain color.
I’m not sure Julie. The best way to see if you like it is to try a small sample area in an inconspicuous area. 🙂
The exact look I’m going for! How did you Stain the smaller areas between window panes? And did you tape off the windows or use a masking liquid to protect the glass?
I have a dining room sent that I’ve started gel staining and my tabletop has wood grain going in all different directions. I’m having the most difficult time because of the grain patterns. What do you do to avoid a “seam” where two different wood grains meet, or avoid it looking like o just slapped a coat of stain over the whole table with complete disregard to the grain patterns?
If I’m understanding your questions correctly, a pin or toothpick can be used to get any excess gel stain out of the seams, and then wipe the remaining. As for the grain going in all directions, if you’re not able to achieve the look in one go, you can stain the table in sections and wipe in the direction of the grain. Once that section is dry, mask off and continue in another section.
I just stained my hallway with gel stain and the last coat made it too dark to see the wood grain. If I LIGHTLY sand it with a fine grit, can I remove just enough stain to get my wood grain back, or would I have to remove it all and start over?
Hmm, a few things you could try before removing it all to start over. 1. Use Mineral Spirits to dampen a cloth and rub down. 2. Apply another coat of stain, wait for the original stain to reactivate and rub away. 3. Sand lightly as you suggested. These methods work best while the gel stain is still ‘freshly’ applied but if it were me, I would try these in an inconspicuous area before starting all over again. Hope this helps and good luck!
Gerald May says
I want to put black gel stain in fiberglass groves, then finish the fiberglass with a lighter color.
Hi, I have urethane wood walls that I really want to lighten without having to do much sanding. They are an orange color. Do you have any suggestions that would work over urethane? I wanted to try and keep the knots and grain showing. I was going to try the gel stain but saw that you don’t recommend trying to go lighter. Do you know of anything that would work to lighten?
Theda Jardanowski says
Hi Denise, Love the doors so much. I am planning on gel staining some very orangey baseboards and closet doors to match the dark walnut stain (as close as I can) on the bedroom door. I have been struggling with using an espresso gel stain or the ebony~which is probably close to the colonial black you used. Do you think the espresso will give me the warmer undertones of the dark walnut?
Hi Theda! I have a really hard time picking the right color stain for my projects as well. I find it really helps to try my options out on the piece… in an inconspicuous area before deciding. It’s my guess that if your baseboards are already very orangey, the ebony might be a closer match to dark walnut.
I love your doors! I have a traditional style cherry bedroom set. I’d like to update the dressers and get rid of the slightly reddish look. How would Colonial Black or Java look over cherry stain?
It would look amazing. The Colonial Black will cut down on the red/cherry more than the Java but it’s a good idea to do a test area on the back to see which you like better. And how many coats you like the look of. Have fun Sarah!
Before we moved into our home the builders stained the hand railings a red stain which looked awful with the floor. Their solution was to gel stain. They did not lightly sand the glossy finish, nor did they put on a top coat. I’m sure you can imagine the mess we have now. Globs of gel stain where the kids ran their hands down the railing.
What do you suggest I use to remove the stain so I can attempt to start the process over, the correct way?
Hi Jody, sorry to hear this. Gel stains are oil-based so a paint thinner or mineral spirits are required to remove unless you were to sand it all off. Just be sure to where a resperator, gloves and have really good ventilation. Be safe. 🙂
I would like to use a gel stain to lighten a cherry stained veneer coffee table. What are your thoughts on this since earlier you mentioned it’s easier to stain darker than lighter. Should I even attempt this or am I wasting my time? Thank you!
I have used gel stains over painted wood. You could paint a light color and stain over the painted surface. I did this to a maple coffee table, looked great.
We recently had some loooong past-due updates done to our house…new flooring, whole house painted, and all cabinetry painted. We went from 90’s blah/brown to modern farmhouse. Everything is so light and airy, and then there’s the orange-y kitchen table. We got new dining room furniture, but the style of the kitchen table still works. It’s a farm table bought from Pier 1 in the 90’s (LOL, I’ve liked the farmhouse look for a long time.). I could get rid of that orange with a gel stain, It has grooves in the tabletop, so how would you treat those? Use a tiny paintbrush for the stain or what? Thanks!
Hi Jennifer! Your updates sound lovely. Yes, a Gel Stain works great to update orange stain. And as for the tiny grooves, you may need a little brush to get in there, or often when I spread on the gel stain with a shop towel, it gets into the grooves and then I can use the shop towel and my fingernail to wipe it out.
Hi Denise, this is a fabulous article about the application of gel stain, which I never used. I want to give it a try, may I please get your opinion,
I want to deepen the color on my blanket chest, which I use as a coffee table.
I am a bit nervous about this project, but I will rely on your advise. Thank you kindly, your new friend Gina
Hi Gina! Every time I use a new-to-me product I get a bit nervous myself… so I totally get it. Gel Stain is a great way to deepen an existing stain and easy to use as well. If you take it step by step, I’m sure you’re going to love your new blanket chest/coffee table. 🙂
Can this method be used on hardwood floors?
hmmm, really good question Jill! I just googled it and there are a few bloggers who have tried it but by the sounds of it “professional floor finishers” don’t recommend it so I’m not sure.
Great project! Can you talk more about the top coat process? What type did you use? One coat, two coats? Etc thanks!
Michele M. says
Oh my word, Denise – those look fantastic!!!!! And I love what you did with them!!! What a clever idea. Love it.
I am your newest follower. : – )
A BIG WARM WELCOME Michele and I LOVE your enthusiasm! Have a super weekend. 🙂
Thanks so much for the post!! It appears that your doors are more decorative rather than functional? Have you used the gel stain on operational wood doors / frames? Wondering how it holds up since I know sometimes paint will stick / peel when doors / frames are painted. Wondering if the same issue might happen with the gel stain. Any thoughts / insights are appreciated 🙂
Hi Brianna! Yes, gel stains are VERY durable especially when top coated and sealed. Perfect for high traffic areas like doors and cabinets. They are oil-based so you have to wait at least 2-5 days (or until 100% DRY) to seal and topcoat but well worth it. Then it’s easy to clean and super durable. Hope this helps.
Thank you for sharing. I have used gel stain on a couple of tables, but not having good luck on my doors. We purchased a home with all trim and doors in honey oak. I am desperate to make this work.
Do you find one brand that seems easier to work with?
Hmm, I’ve used Minwax, General Finishes, Varathane and now I’m using the DB Gel Stains. I’ve had good results with all of them except the Varathane but that could be because I bought it from the ReStore and it may have been old. ??? If the big brand’s arent giving you the results, I would recommend trying the ’boutique’ brands like GF or DB. I’ve had outstanding results with these. Hope this helps.
do you think i could use a light gel stain on dark wood cabinets? i want to lightn them up but still keep the dark wood appearance coming through…maybe just wipe the stain almost off??
It’s more of a challenge going from dark to light but you could always try to apply the lighter gel stain on an inconspicuous area (back of one of the doors) and see how you like it. I’m guessing it would be more of a ‘washed’ look rather than lighter wood stain.
I have used General Finishes Java gel on on my trim in my 1950’s ranch that hff ad orginal stain finish. The look is fabulous!
I will say that I go the extra mile and sand all my wood to raw before staining or painting.
Hi Denise! Love all your helpful info on here. Decided to try and stain a piano bench, I cleaned it really good and then sanded and wiped down again. Then I applied my gel stain and wiped it off… it’s looking gorgeous! BUT… it’s been like 5 hours and it still feels kinda sticky/damp to the touch… is this normal???
I would wait 24 hours before worrying. If you wiped off the excess, I’m sure it will dry but sometimes it takes a little longer depending ont the temp/humidity. 🙂
Hmmmm….I have a front door that is made of??? Lol, it looks like wood but its not. A Home Depot purchase. Thoughts for using on that?
I would test on the very top or bottom before I tackled the entire thing, but I think it would work just fine. Gel Stains sit on top rather than sink into… so it’s my guess it will work beautifully. 🙂
I have a mahogany front door.that is over 20 years old. We had been keeping the stain up and polyurethane on it. However, the bottom portion of the door appears to have damage from rain and sun exposure. I was told that even if we had the door stripped and sanded down, any new stain would not look consistent from top to bottom of the door. So I guess our only option is to sand and paint the door.
Hello! I know you mentioned some other things it can be used on = do you think it could be used on old 60’s fake wood doors?
Hi Mindy! It sure can! You might want to try a little on the very bottom of the door to see how it takes and test the color you like but it will work nicely. 🙂
Thank you so much., Even though I have used gel stain before, I really didn’t understand it, You really cleared it up and the doors look great!
Thanks, Robin and I’m SO glad you found this helpful. 🙂
I have a black painted table that I thought I would lighten a little. I thought of using a grey gel stain over Or should I use a watered down grey paint? Not sure. I love your work and would value your opinion. or suggestion’s.
Hmm, not sure Sharon. If you have the gel stain and paint on hand, maybe try them both under the table and see which you like better. I’m guessing the paint wash will lighten it up a little more with fewer coats tho. I’d love to hear how it all goes. 🙂
Okay….getting ready to paint our natural maple finish cabinets white. Would gel stain work in white or should I just keep with the Sherwin Williams white paint I have already purchased. They are Amish made cabinets but just getting tired looking. Your doors are lovely!! Thanks.
Hi Sharon and thanks. Just my 2cents, but I would go with the original plan with your SW White. The reason being, going from lighter to darker is really easy to achieve with gorgeous results. Going from dark to light can be hit or miss. Plus SW is just fabulous. 😉 Good luck and have fun!
Christy James says
These look amazing, Denise!! I did the same over the ugly orangey stain that used to be on several areas of our stairs…like magic!! XOXO
Thanks! And yes… like magic!!!🤗
Terry K Milin says
Gorgeous and rich- looking!
Kimberly O'Donoghue says
Two questions how well does it hold up in particular on cabinets and doors? Would it scratch easily bc it’s topical?
Also can I use it in a raw wood or would it not have any benefit or would it react like a typical stain
I agree with e setons you always give such wonderful detailed suggestions in an easy to understand format ty!!
Hi Kim! If prepped and applied and topcoated properly, Gel Stain holds up extremely well on cabinets and doors. And yes, you can use it on raw wood like I did here. There’s a video in that post so you can see it in action. 🙂
jackie cooley says
What a great rich look! Love Gel Stain!
Thanks… me too!💕
Denise Morle says
You mentioned that a water based poly can be used over an oil stain!?!? This is super exciting as I always thought you had to stay with the same. I just did some tables with gel stain and have been waiting for a nice day to do the poly coat outside. If I can use the water based, I can do them indoors! Thank you for the info!!
You sure can Denise! Just make sure you’ve waited the recommended 72 hours and it’s 100% dry before applying. 🙂
Arlene Fox says
Beautiful transformation! I always wait in anticipation for your emails – very detailed and well explained 😀. I too live in Canada and wonder if you could advise me the best place to buy Dixie Belle paints and which is your favourite and most versatile white from DB? Thanks !
Thanks, Arlene! I’m not sure where you’re located but if you use this Retail Locator, hopefully you can find a retailer close to you. The most versatile ‘true’ white is Cotton and then Fluff. Hope this helps. 🙂
This is exactly what I want to do to all of the doors in my house. I have spent the last 2 years getting rid of the 90’s orange (cabinets, trim, closet doors). Haven’t been motivated to start the doors because, as I said, ALL the doors. I think your post is the universe’s way of telling me to get started. Thanks for the inspiration!
Now that I’ve hung mine back up, I’m wondering why I didn’t do this years ago! If/when you do your doors Jen, I know you’ll probably feel the same.😊
Have you ever used Briwax? I came across it in my research. It looks like it provides a similar finish to one coat of the gel stain. From what I’m reading, it doesn’t need a top coat.
Hi Jen! I haven’t try Briwax. I’ve heard good things about their wax though. 🙂
I didn’t know you could do this! Your doors look gorgeous. This has given me an idea for a bathroom vanity I have! ~ Nicki
Thanks, Nicki and I’m so glad! If you give it a try I’d love to hear how that bathroom vanity turns out for you. 🙂
Sue H Mellette says
I love the transformation. Your doors look amazing with the dark stain. Thanks, too, for the FAQ section as well.
Thanks, Sue and so glad you found it helpful! XOXO
Denise, I LOVE this idea. I’m going to test some on our very old (and nice) pine paneling in our living room and entryway! thanks for the idea and the tutorial!
My pleasure and if you give it a go on your pine paneling, I’d LOVE to hear how it all works out for you. 🙂
Kellee Kroll says
Denise, this post came at the best time! I’m doing a black wash on a buffet for a client but didn’t really want the orange-red finish to be the original color beneath. Do you think deglossing it, then staining with Antique Walnut gel by GF before the black wash would work? The top and drawers will be sanded and restained in the antique Walnut so I didn’t want two different browns happening, you know?
Your clients are lucky. You take such good care of them and do beautiful work. Yes! Your idea is brilliant. The dry time between the stain and wash might be a few days depending on how many coats/temp etc, but I know it will look great!
Kellee Kroll says
Awesome! You’re the best!!!
💙 💙 💙
Can you explain what black wash is?
Hi Patty! A Black Wash is when you mix black paint with water and apply it as a finish. The paint becomes much thinner and it leaves a translucent finish showing some of the original finish peeking through. https://salvagedinspirations.com/how-to-create-a-black-wash-paint-finish-painted-nightstands/
Hi Denise. Wow…what a gorgeous update. I never would have thought to use black gel stain to achieve the dark wood effect. Thanks for the detailed explanation of how gel stains work. My kitchen cabinets are orange oak and I’ve been considering painting them, but now that I see what a rich color gel stain can do, I need to re-think my plan:)
Thanks, my friend! I wasn’t sure about the Colonial Black either but once I tested it over the finish… I LOVED it! And this is a great solution for orange oak cabinets. Just be sure to topcoat so your work is protected and can be easily cleaned.😊
I have 20 year old oak kitchen cabinets, they are looking a little orangey. Would a gel stain work on these? Would it be durable?
Hi Linda! Yes and yes. But a topcoat would be required as kitchen cabinets are high traffic items and you want to keep them easy to clean.