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

Looking to update cabinets or wood furniture. Consider using gel stain, it has many advantages over traditional stain and won't cover the wood's natural grain like paint.

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 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!

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  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.
  7. Once the product has dried, reassemble if necessary and it’s ready for display!
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