Gel Stain Pros and Cons

Is gel stain "second cousin to paint?" (And is that bad?) September 26, 2006

I recently used gel stain on a cherry kitchen. So far, so good. The color seems to be pretty even. At the advice of some of you, I am letting the stain dry for 48 plus hours. How good is the gel stain method on hard-to-stain woods in general, using the type of finish that I normally use, which is Chem-craft precat?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
I can't comment much on the adhesion of precats to a gel stain, but the 48 hour dry time would kill us!

My knowledge of gel stains is that they are designed not to penetrate into the wood the way oil and alkyd-resin stains do, which is why gel stains don't blotch. Yet gel stains do not supply the grain pop the way a good oil based or alkyd-resin stain does. Gilsonite is the black medium in most stains that colors the grain lines, aka fiber-free roofing tar. However, gilsonite is what also causes blotch for the same reason it causes nice grain patterns - it gets absorbed into less dense areas.

I would avoid gel stains for the curing time, if 48 hours is really needed. I would try using a spray-only stain or even a straight spray-dye stain (MLC makes two good versions of these) rather than the gel stain. I'm sure you'll get nice results. Note that neither of these will make the grain pop like a wipe-stain will, but will give at least as good a look as a gel stain.

From contributor S:
I use primarily a gel wiping stain (Bartley's) and have had great results with it. As I work with mostly clear pine, it does a great job of controlling the blotching. I let it dry for 4-6 hours, then topcoat with a WB gloss (Beckers 318). I haven't shot pre-cat on it, but a sealer may be needed first. I'd be surprised if you really had to wait 48 hours to topcoat.

From contributor R:

It's good to hear from someone who has used a gelled stain and seems comfortable enough with the results to post their opinion. Many companies make a gelled stain and it's good to hear from someone who has used one and likes how they perform. A question for both of you. Did you find that they blocked out the grain like a paint would, or that they were overly heavy as to give the impression of a painted finish as opposed to a stain finish? Did they give an overall even look to a hard-to-stain wood like maple or cherry?

Gelled stains are about as close to an oil stain as you can find. One reason they are of a thicker consistency is because they're emulsified. Look at a fat free milk that's put in a blender for a few minutes… Comes out just like whipping cream.

Try it yourself - mix up an oil stain to your liking, add a little linseed oil to your mixture, put a mixing paddle on an air drill, and go at it for a few minutes. In other words, beat the ship out of it and you'll get a gelled stain.

Is it as good as a dye stain or a water stain or a spray on metalized acid stain? Course not, but it does one hell of a job on cherry and maple, and if you need to add some powdered aniline dyes to it, it can give you about as much grain popping as the Fourth of July would allow. Play around with this newest of stains, because it's a money saver and a cure-all to blotchy stained woods.

Yes, you do need to allow for a proper dry time prior to sealing it. In my shop, that's no big deal, since there is always something to do during the drying cycle.

From contributor S:
I do believe the gel muddies the grain a bit, but not enough to fight blotching using solvent or WB wiping stains. I just tried a Beckers WB wiping and it looked terrible. I attached a picture of a recent mahogany chest I made for a customer using the cherry gel stain. I'm curious to try adding a little dye to the gel - thanks for the tip.

From contributor T:
Gel stains are a second cousin to paint, are very useful in many situations and for different purposes, and deserve a section of shelving in most finishing rooms - they're on mine.

The colorant in gel stains that I am familiar with is 100% pigment. It is added to a binder and carrier, and a thixotropic agent is added to make it a gel. Most penetrating oil stains are the same pigment/binder/carrier formula, but they very often add oil soluble dye to the pigment for their color. Some are much more dye than pigment. Gel stains do not penetrate the wood, which is the reason they're great for staining blotch-prone woods and this is one of their primary advantages. Gel stains operate by adhering to or filling surface irregularities in the wood (or whatever it is being applied to), which is important in helping decide when and where to use it and how to prep the surface.

Fine grained wood (maple) sanded to a very fine grit (220) does not have enough tooth to really grab and hold much gel stain. If you wipe it down aggressively, you can get most of the pigment off. On the other hand, an open grained wood (oak) sanded to only 120 or 150 will have much more tooth and natural pores to grab and hold the pigment and you will find that it usually stains up darker despite your best efforts to wipe it off. In either case, you do not need to be aggressive in wiping it off. You can leave fairly thick coating if that suits your purpose. In fact, you can leave it so thick that it completely obliterates the qualities of the wood itself or, if you manipulate it properly, make a piece of MDF look like wood. Your objective should be to wipe it down enough so that you get a good, consistent appearance. Penetrating stains often do not have enough pigment to allow darkening of the finish with a second coat: the wood is sealed by the binder and no additional penetration will occur. Gel stains do not depend on penetration and will darken with additional coats (up to a point). This means if you're going to err, it should be on the side of wiping off a little too much.

These qualities are a distinct advantage if you're trying to make 2 dissimilar pieces of wood look the same. Furniture made up of several different species, heartwood/sapwood transitions, and cabinets combining solid wood with veneer are a few examples.

Gel stain also makes a good glaze. It will adhere to a sealed surface very nicely (thank you) and can be used almost anywhere a glaze can be used. It will add depth and/or color and is useful when an antiqued look is desired. With multiple glazing steps you can make a piece look like something it isn't, except you can't fake chatoyance - at least I can't.

Gel stain is also a good filler when a partially filled finish is the objective. It sits down in the pores, partially filling them before the top coats are applied. You can select colors that accentuate the pores or colors that make the pores blend in. On open grain wood, this can be the difference between first class and no class.

Is there a down side? Yes. Pigment is opaque and the more you add, the more you will hide what is behind it (wood). If there's nothing to hide - no problem. But if your wood has a lot of natural character that you want to preserve or emphasize (pop), you may want something else or at least go very easy in the application of gel stain.

Drying time? I use Bartley's and all of my cans are smudged. There should be a PI sheet available to give a better recommendation but I usually top coat or move on in the finishing schedule the next day.

Adhesion? Don't know how you'll get an answer to that without running a test. Maybe there's someone out there who has tried the exact stain and top coat you're using, but that isn't me.

I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there who understand things differently or who use it differently and their perspective is valid. What you got is my perspective, my understanding and some examples of how I use gel stain. Gel stain is a second cousin to paint, albeit, a very useful one.