Gel Stain Versus Washcoat and Toner

For blotch-prone woods like Cherry and Maple, gel stains may give good results with fewer steps involved. September 14, 2006

I have a cherry kitchen that I need to stain, and that's kind of new to me. Most of the finishing I've done has been clears and paint grade. The last time I stained a kitchen was when oak was still in. Anyway, I need to get an even color throughout, using a medium cherry tone. How do I go about it? And does anyone know of a place here in LA, California that gives classes on finishing all types of wood?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
Take a look at this article by Paul Snyder about using washcoats. His process has worked great on cherry, soft maple and hard maple for me. I use Zinser Seal Coat (dewaxed shellac) reduced to about 5% solids, like he describes.


From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
Here are a couple more links from the Knowledge Base.

Staining Cherry
Staining Difficult Woods

If you do a search for staining cherry in the top right corner of this page, you'll find more information.

From contributor R:
You might want to try what's called a "gel stain." These are very thick based stains that you can easily brush on and wipe off. I'm very impressed with Wood-Kote's line of stains and use them quite regularly on woods such as cherry and maple and red birch. From light tones to dark tones, these stains give me a very clean color and don't turn out blotchy on the woods I've mentioned. Real easy to apply, too - wipe it on and let sit for a moment, and then wipe it off. You shouldn't have any problem finding these stains in Southern California. They fall into the okay category of finishes.

From contributor D:
Do you seal the wood first or just apply the gel stain?

From contributor C:
I am not sure about contributor R's method, but I just apply the gel stains directly on the sanded wood in most cases. The thicker body of the medium prevents the excessive penetration that causes unattractive blotching. It kind of has the wash coat mixed right into the stain so that you can skip the wash coat step. I think it allows for a bit more drama in the way that it emphasizes the grain patterns without causing too much contrast where the panel geometry exposes end grain, but the results from a well-tuned wash coat/stain are very similar. The gel stains can also be used to enhance grain patterns (by adding graining in bland areas or darkening the lighter edges of adjacent planks) when manipulated with a brush. These are also useful as an additional coat over washcoat/stain treatments where darker or slightly altered tints are desirable.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I think I'll try the gel stain method first and see how that works, because if I can skip a couple of steps, that would be great. If I have to play with the stain a little in, say, a lighter area by leaving more on, do I run into any problem with it drying evenly?

From contributor R:
I just apply the stain to the raw wood. I usually sand to 220 prior to staining. Contributor C tossed out some good ideas on how to enhance the wood grain with a gel stain. Just for the heck of it, get a pint of Wood-Kote Butternut stain and apply it to a nice size piece of cherry VC and a piece of cherry solid and see what kind of results you get.

Finishing up a kitchen right now that has the butternut stain, one coat of vinyl sealer sanded real good with 280 and then followed with another coat of sealer. Applied a thin raw umber and paint thinner mixture over the dried sealer and wiped it all off. Followed that up with a few coats of satin, and behold - a real beautiful finish thanks to the gel stain.

From contributor I:
Being as how you're in So CA, in case you use WB finishes, let the gel-coat stain dry very well (2-3 days), then seal with dewaxed shellac before topcoating with WB finishes. WoodKote is a good brand, but I believe it has linseed oil in it, so dries slowly. (I had serious problems a few years ago with it.) Bartleys makes a nice gel-coat, but I think they are only mail order (Woodworkers' Supply of NM).

From contributor C:
Like any finish, the thicker areas will dry more slowly, but most gel stains are intended to be applied reasonably thickly and shouldn't cause any exceptional difficulties. I like the Olympic brand stains but have used several others successfully too. I have recently finished retoning about 30 doors, drawers and panels that had a lot of sapwood streaks in them, as the manufacturer delivered them, and I found that my airbrush was just the ticket for that work. I used tinted polyurethane with a little lacquer thinner added (to help disperse my glycol tinters and minimize clogging in the airbrush). I tinted with raw and burnt umbers and added some black to get my preferred tones. The gel stains will do this work, but the airbrush really moves along when you get the process refined a bit. With the airbrush, you can gently build up the color depth till you get it just about right, whereas with a brush, you may need two or three coats to get to the full depth of color needed. You can't grain very effectively with the airbrush, though... a fairly stiff, thinly bristled bleached hog bristle flat is really useful for that. I have some little fans that I have cut off straight that work good, too.

From the original questioner:
I started making stain samples with the gel stains and I'm liking what I see. I get my doors in about a week. Hopefully my customer likes the samples and I can go to town on the finishing.

From contributor T:
If you've settled on gel stain, you don't need to read beyond this paragraph. Gel stain is a second cousin to paint; it does not penetrate, it just lies in pores or scratches or recesses or on the surface to add color, so it is not blotch prone. Makes a great glaze and will stain fiberglass! However, like paint, it will go a long way toward obscuring the grain or character of the wood. You want to do that to cherry? Also, because of the way it works, I do not sand past 150. If you do, you're just removing places for the pigment to settle.

A wash coat is a second good method. I love Zinsser Seal Coat, but you can thin down most any clear finish to 5/10% solids and do the same thing. You can then color with stains/glazes (which muddy things more) or toners (which muddy things less).

Dyeing the wood to get 70/80% of the color you want or at least a good background color is a third alternative. The recommendation to work up to your final color with thin coats of thinned dye is a good one. Again, glaze or tone for your final color.

A 4th alternative is a pre-conditioner which you soak into the wood just prior to a penetrating stain application. It fills the absorptive areas with a clear stain so the colored satin will not. The stuff is available commercially. I make mine using 10/20% boiled linseed oil and 90/80% mineral spirits and use an oil based stain.

If you want to minimize steps, gel stain is probably your best bet. But if you want a really nice finish where the quality of the wood shows, a wash coat or dye approach will serve you better.

I know that Marc (Mark?) Adams has classes on finishing, but I think they're mostly in the Midwest someplace. Greg Williams at Mohawk does traveling classes for a few days in various parts of the country. And sometimes woodworker's stores (Rockler, Woodcraft) will have a one or two day session if they exist in your area. How about a good book? Bob Flexner's book is very good, as is Jeff Jewitt's. Bob just put out a new one and I believe Jeff is in the process.

From contributor R:
I'm not sure which type gel stains were used, but I would not put the Wood-Kote brand in the same category as a paint. On the contrary - I have gotten good results using it. I use water based dye stains as well as solvent dyes and oil stains. Each of these products have their place in a finisher's arsenal.

You can add powered dyes to it to shift a color or mix it into some L/T to make a shading stain. It can be used to accent the grain on oak or walnut, etc. As with any finishing process, it's vital for a finish's longevity to apply a product in a proper manner and to allow a product to fully dry prior to proceeding to the next step.

From contributor C:
So much depends upon the skill of the finisher and his integration of the products into his personal technique. I recently had a customer comment that he "can't believe that the new [much darker] finish hasn't obscured the grain... In fact, it seems to bring out *more* grain." He had forgotten that I'd told him that I would add some graining with my brush so that we wouldn't lose too much of the wood look with the new finish. Personally, though, I like the look that dyes can achieve. I am careful to minimize their use in my finish schemes because I have found that I can usually achieve an extremely similar result with pigmented stains and glazes, which are mostly far more durable. Because I came to finishing via a fine woodworking passion and vocation, I understand how you feel about cherry... But now I am a jaded old finisher that has faced too many carelessly assembled panels and has way too many sloppy striped doors waiting for my little magic, and it is just a troublesome, inconsistent problem species for me now. I fix it and move on without sentimental baggage.

From the original questioner:
As far as working with dyes, alcohol, and lacquer stains, I will admit I am but a babe. But I sincerely do care a lot about my finishing. Up to this point in my life I have always made a living with my clear and paint grade finishes. When it came time to doing specialty finishing, I was usually able to sub it out. Unfortunately, it is extremely hard to fine good, reliable finishers who care about their work today. So because I care about the quality of my cabinets from design to finish, I need to learn much more about the finish end of this business. Thanks for all the help!

From contributor T:
You're on the right track. I do think you'd find the two books I mentioned very useful.

For contributors C and R, I'm sorry if I wasn't very clear - I'm not down on gel stains at all. In fact, they are the answer if you want a simple finishing schedule for blotch-prone woods. They offer additional advantages in the fact that additional applications will darken the results so treatment of heartwood/sapwood transitions is easy. It's very useful as a glaze and I use it to fill the grain on open pored woods when I need a semi-filled finish. Properly used, it's great stuff, but it's not the only way to deal with blotchy wood. Like paint, gel stain is pigment/binder/carrier. The only differences are the concentration of the pigment and gelling of the carrier. Gelling allows it to be left on fairly thick, even on vertical surfaces. But pigments are opaque particles: they will not penetrate wood and they will obscure whatever is behind them, which is true for any pigmented stain. If I want to pop the grain on a piece of burl or birdseye maple, I don't use gel stain. Yes, I am still sentimental about good wood.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor L:
As I read about the Gel stains I thought that it would be a long process. I highly recommend using ML Campbell’s pre- catalyzed lacquer and their spray stains and dye. I mainly finish hard maple. I pre-seal the wood with a 7 to 1 ratio of lacquer thinner and top coat, and then do a light sanding. This works perfectly - it prevents blotchiness, but more importantly it still allows the stain to penetrate the wood. Next I use the dye which I spray on, Ratio 3 parts lacquer thinner to 1 part dye. I spray at 30-35 PSI. I let it dry 1 hour, then use the spray and wipe stain. I use same PSI, then spray it on and wipe it off. The longer you wait the more penetration you will get. Wait 1 to 2 hours then seal, and then sand lightly.

What I do next is begin the toning process to bring it to its final color. I generally use 40/60 ratio of lacquer thinner and top-coat and mix in a couple oz. of dye. Spray the entire door. This step can be modified to your preference. Once this is done I'll examine my doors for continuity of color between all the doors and shade and tone as needed. I spray a clear coat, sand, and then put on the final clear coat. Using the dye prior to the spray stain really enhances the finish. Our final product looks exceptional and the process is fast.