How To Gel Stain Wood

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“Paint Remover” is not in my DIY vocabulary. I can think of few activities more miserable than applying a noxious chemical onto a piece of furniture in an effort to scrape off every bit of old paint or stain. Sometimes it is necessary, but more often, you don’t have to strip a piece of furniture to refinish it.

Gel stain allows you to cover almost any painted surface (including laminate and metal).  It’s easy to get the look of a dark, rich stain on a painted piece of furniture as long as you know the right process.

Here is what you need:

Mouse Sander (a must-have)
Fine(320) and rough(180) sanding pads
Zinsser Bullseye 123 water-based primer
Minwax Gel Stain in walnut or hickory
Peanut butter shade of latex paint (I used Behr Honey Bear)
White latex paint
Floetrol (optional)
Minwax Polyurethane in satin
Rags and brushes
(You can find all of the above at Home Depot or Lowe’s.  I got my mouse sander here for $15)

I eyed these two “beauties” on a Facebook page. Knowing they were solid wood and in good shape, I knew they had serious potential.

You can see a funky inlay pattern and also some deep-set water stains. I decided to do my favorite combination of a dark stained top and white bottom.

Prep Work

As with any piece, the first step is to make sure it is structurally sound. I tightened all the bolts underneath and would have added wood glue or wood epoxy if needed. Nobody likes wobbly furniture.

Sand

Next, I sanded….I sanded like I have never sanded before with one of my rough sanding pads in order to get rid of the water damage and to even out the inlay design. I then wiped the table with a slightly damp rag.

A Fresh Start

To prime, I used Zinsser Bullseye 123 and painted one coat on the tables.  There are no ads at Renovatedfaith.com, but I really like this product. It settles very well for a primer, leaving few brush strokes, and it dries fast with very little odor. Although it is water-based, it still blocks out the old stain. Always sand beforehand to be safe.

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Spindles

I like to get the most difficult painting tasks out of the way first, so I decided to work on the legs next. I added Floetrol to my paint (according to the directions on the back) which makes the paint settle better, leaving fewer brush strokes. Normally, this isn’t a big deal because you can sand out obvious brush strokes but any kind of woodwork with spindles is not easy to sand. Because Floetrol also thins the paint some, it took me 4 to 5 coats of paint on the legs. If you aren’t a stickler about brush strokes, the Floetrol is not a must.

Base Coat for Staining

Now that I was ready to refinish the top, I decided to tape off the bottom with trash bags so as to not get any paint on the bottom portion of the tables. (This is the point that you would fill holes on the top. Always prime first before filling holes because you can see them better.)

Then apply a layer of your peanut butter colored paint. This time I used Behr Honey Behr in Latex Satin. This shade, although hideous, will serve as the base for your stain. Where part of the brush strokes are slightly translucent (like the grain pattern in stained wood) you will see a little of this shade peak through. It took one thick coat of this.  Notice I didn’t cover it very well but that’s ok – the surface will take on a completely different look regardless.

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Sand the top and then wipe it with a damp rag. This makes the surface slightly less smooth and gives your brush some drag when you use the cover stain. That will give you the wood grain look.

Congratulations – you are officially done with sanding portion of this project!

Gel-Stain

Now is the fun part – applying the gel stain! I used Minwax Gel Stain in Hickory. Walnut is also really pretty. Now brush on the gel stain in the same direction. Your goal at this point is to cover every bit of the top with a good coat of gel stain. It doesn’t dry very fast so you have a few minutes to work with it.

Now that the top is covered in gel stain, apply long even strokes in the same direction. You cannot screw this part up!

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If you want your stain darker, add some more gel stain. The key is to work in the same direction to resemble wood grain. This is actually the same process many high-end furniture retailers use because different cuts of hardwood can have different shades. Therefore, to have continuity in their final product, a gel-stain is used.

Here is how the top looked after one coat:

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After a 24 hour dry time, you can add another coat of gel stain if you want it darker like I did.

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Let your final coat of gel stain dry 24 hours. Then apply a coat of polyurethane. Add another coat after 24 hours for extra insurance.   On our coffee table, I used this same process and applied 6, yes 6, coats of poly because I knew we would be leaving cold glasses on it all the time. It was well-worth the extra effort as it still looks amazing, as you can see below.

These coffee tables made a major transformation and I’m happy with the results!

I love my “project time” as it is restful and recharging in so many ways. As a time for me to zone out from the chaos that life brings, I often find myself reflecting on how God has transformed me just like whatever furniture piece I am working on.


As I brushed the gel stain onto each table, I noticed how effortlessly the new stain covered, making a new surface instantaneously. The thick stain seeped into every nook and cranny embracing and covering every bit of the old raw surface. I watched as it restored the dated, worn-out wood to something fresh and new.

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This is a beautiful picture of how God restores us to become who He always meant for us to be. When we come to accept Christ as our Savior, He wraps us in a robe of righteousness so we will no longer see the old stain of sin.

Looking at the new surface, I no longer saw water stains and scuff marks, I saw a pristine reflection of myself in the surface. God is always faithful to make us into something beautiful, transformed and useful for His purposes when we seek Him. We often long to fix our broken places but in reality His grace fully covers them, like they never existed in the first place.

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You might also like my post on how to build and finished your own Turned-Leg Coffee Table.

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If you enjoyed this tutorial, please share!

‘Til Next Time,

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13 thoughts on “How To Gel Stain Wood

  1. This process turns out beautifully. I have a Drexel 5-sided lamp table in pecan that needs the top refinished after 35 years of use. I would like the top a bit lighter to match the other tables in the room. Is this possible? The sides on this table are still like new.

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    1. Great question Sheryl! These particular end tables had a wood inlay in a funky pattern and I wanted to make sure that you could not see that inlay through the stain. That’s why I painted it. If your furniture is light and has an even finish, by all means continue with the gel stain without the layer of paint. Just make sure you sand it really well first. 🙂

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  2. Thanks for the easy to follow and inspirational tutorial! I am doing this exact process to make my parent’s dining room table to give it a new life:-)

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  3. These came out beautiful! You say that gel paint can be used on laminate, is it the same process? Sand it first then apply the gel stain? I bought a dresser and I want to do the same as these tables with the dark top and I keep reading that laminate cannot be stained. Can you help me with this question?

    Thank you!

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    1. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Yes, it can be used on laminate. You might want to sand more and use a primer like Zinsser 123 Bullseye (thick coat) before your base coat. I just used Gel Stain on some plastic picture frames and it worked really well. The gel stain would have no problem adhering but you just want to make sure the base coat (if you use one) adheres. Let me know if you have any other questions and thank you for reading!

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  4. I am working on a piece using this process now. I am putting it on veneer which the Minwax can says is ok. However, it’s been 24 hours since the gel was applied and it’s still tacky. Since I knew I would put two coats as you did, I made sure not to put the first coat too thick. Any advice? Thanks.

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      1. Karin, thanks for replying so quickly! I was beginning to wonder if I should remove and start over but I’ll just wait it out. The piece is looking really nice so I wanted this to work.

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