Use Gel Stain to Spruce Up Cabinets, Lamp Bases and More

I happened upon gel stain when I was looking for ways to transform the oak kitchen cabinets in my old home. Me and the gel stain quickly went from being strangers to BFFs during that period of time last summer, and my kitchen cabinets were converted from honey oak into a beautiful, rich mocha brown. The change was great for my kitchen at the time, because it was an easy and inexpensive solution to change cabinetry that wasn’t in poor condition. The honey oak seemed economical, but the stained oak ended up looking luxe. Check out the before and after here.

Gel staining kitchen cabinets, before and after.

Gel stain is a great way to update salvaged or thrifted finds too. Someone even sent me pictures of how they refinished their wooden front door, if you’re looking for that type of inspiration. The investment is minimal, and the impact is great.

How does gel stain compare to traditional wood stains?

  • Gel stain is applied to the surface of the wood but not rubbed-in like traditional stains; the application is more comparable to painting on multiple thin layers.
  • The gel stain is thick like pudding, not a liquid.
  • While gel stain does go on thick and sit on the surface of the wood, I found that you can still see and feel the natural wood grain beneath, unlike paint. With the oak cabinets, the grain was very evident post-staining.
  • Gel stain will not require you to sand the product to a raw wood finish. It can be applied over only lightly sanded pieces just as well.
  • The condition of the wood does not play as big of a role in the finished result of the gel stain – the knots in your knotty pines will look less pronounced when the job is done.
  • I found gel stain to be more forgiving; because you will need to do multiple coats, you can even out the finish over time.
  • Because gel stain is thicker, it can be used for more creative applications too, like for painting a faux wood grain.

If you’re looking to stain cabinets the traditional way, check out this tutorial for staining wood cabinets. If not, keep on reading through the how-to to see the gel stain in action!

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Step 1

 Open GallerySalvaged wooden lamps for $5, the perfect base for a gel stain test.Start with your products. I chose a gel stain in Walnut and found two “new” lamps at a salvage shop. I prefer a thin cloth for application (a foam brush will work well too).

Step 2

 Open GalleryDisassemble the lamps in preparation for gel staining.I disassembled the lamps as best as I was able. I was also planning to spray paint the metal bases with a glossy bronze spray paint.

Step 3

 Open GalleryLightly sand the product using a medium-grit sandpaper.You will need to sand the surface of the product, but just enough to break the previously finished seal. Unlike with traditional liquid stains, you will not need to remove all of the existing finish to achieve a smooth and even finished coat. I used a low- to medium-grit sandpaper (the lower numbers!) with success.

Step 4

 Open GalleryThe first coat of gel stain should go on thick.The first coat of stain is an important one. Specialists and makers of the product have advised me to apply the first coat thick — so thick that you could theoretically finger paint in it. Do not wipe it clean like you would a normal stain, but also do not leave it so heavy that it is inclined to drip.

Step 5

 Open GalleryApplying the third coat of gel stain.In all of my experiences, I’ve had to apply 3-4 coats of gel stain. Each coat of stain needs about 24 hours to dry, so plan accordingly. Continue doing daily layers of stain in the same way until you can no longer see streaks in the finish. I also spray painted the metal bases at this point.

Step 6

Once the final coat of stain is dry, you may want to apply a polyacrylic finish to seal the stain. This was especially helpful when I stained the kitchen cabinets (prevented chipping from bumping against and closing cabinet doors often). Roughly 1-2 coats will do.

Step 7

 Open GalleryRefinished lamp using gel stain.Once the product has dried, reassemble if necessary and it’s ready for display!

Materials

  • Sandpaper
  • Rags
  • Gel stain
  • Polyacrylic

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About Emily Fazio 

204Posts

I caught the home improvement bug at an early age, and now I'm a full-time DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects I cover on my blog Merrypad range ...

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25 Responses

  1. Kacy says:

    You said you DONT wipe off the stain, the can says TO wipe it off. I just started my kitchen cabinets and I wiped off the stain after 5 mins. not seeing any color difference. I'm nervous it's my kitchen and the budget does not allow new cabinets. Please help.

  2. Jan says:

    do you need to prime

  3. Guest says:

    Do you suppose you could stain really high-gloss cherry furniture? (you know, the really formal kind of super dark, super shiny cherry furniture).

  4. steve hayes says:

    Thanks for posting such a nice information. I have a brown colored wooden cabinet in my kitchen and they get fade off and i think your information wold really help me out
    rtacabinetsupply.com

  5. Julie B says:

    Did you have to sand your cabinets first?

  6. Debbie says:

    can you use a stain over gel stain to create an antiqued look before applying your poly?

  7. kathy says:

    AlexisAnne, I tried to ask you what color you used also, but your blog is messing up and not allowing any comments.

  8. Kathy says:

    What color gel stain did you use?

  9. Kandee Koleski says:

    What about staining over painted cabinates.
    Ed cabinatr

    Can you gel stain over painted cabinates?

    • Madeline says:

      I used the gel stain over painted cabinets and it looks good. Of course, you cannot see the wood grain, but then again you could not see it with the original paint.

  10. Vicki Clardy says:

    Can you use gel stain on a white painted fireplace mantel?

    • merrypad says:

      I wouldn't. I don't know if the excess would dry well if left heavy in crevices, In general, I think it is a good product for smooth wood.

  11. Tiffany says:

    Good evening the kitchen looks great! Question did you use a top coat? If so did you use the stain or matte finish? Am working to start my project but am torn between the two finishes.

    • merrypad says:

      I was torn too Tiffany, I used Satin, which was nice, but if I were to do it again I may start with matte and then upgrade to satin if I wasn't happy.

  12. Marie says:

    can gel stain be used on stairs?

    • merrypad says:

      I would be reluctant. Because it sits atop the wood, it would be more apt to chip under dog nails and foot traffic… like paint.

  13. Brenda Loveless says:

    Will gel work on veneer? How much sanding on a veneer piece?

  14. culainne says:

    If you have oak cabinets that are in an original darker stain, is it at all possible to stain the in a much lighter stain? Or does this require stripping & sanding?

  15. Chandra says:

    I'm buying a house that needs updating on the cabinets but since we are buying the house now we can't get new cabinets yet and I thought about staining the old ones and I wondered about the gel when I saw it in the store. I'm so glad I saw this. It's so helpful. Now I know I'm definitely going to use the gel stain in a dark cherry color.

  16. AlexisAnne says:

    Ooh I love the lamp base idea! I recently discovered gel stain as well, and just in time to update the kitchen in our new house. Everything you said rang true for us as we'll in terms of how the gel handled and covered on cabinets in rough shape.
    Here's how my project turned out http://www.cleansmartsimplestyle.com/2013/06/gel-

  17. Jennifer says:

    What brand of gel stain did you use?

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