Wood Finishing, Gel Stains
Gel stains stay put. Their consistency varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so depending on brand you may have the consistency of mayonnaise or peanut butter to work with. Either way, for many vertical applications they are a good choice over liquid stains.
by Susan Brimo-Cox
It depends who you ask.
According to Liz Whiteley, general manager of Bartley Gel Finishes in Denton, Md., Dick Fitch (his parents owned Turco Coatings Inc. outside of Philadelphia) developed gel varnish and added pigments to it to create gel stains in the 1960s.
Gary Velikanje, president of Wood Kote Products Inc. in Portland, Ore., reports that Spe-de-way Products Co. Inc. developed the original gel stain in the early 1960s.
While the heritage of gel stains may be up for debate, there’s no argument about their many benefits.
Simply stated, gel stains stay put. Their consistency varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so depending on brand you may have the consistency of mayonnaise or peanut butter to work with. Either way, for many vertical applications they are a good choice over liquid stains. Gel stains don’t run or drip and, unless you do something wrong, produce no lap marks.
Bob Flexner, author of “Understanding Wood Finishing,” explains that gel stains and glazes are very similar. “The essential quality of both is that they thicken up real quick and stay where you put them.”
“We came out with gel stain because it was great for vertical applications — doors, window frames, molding, trim,” says Paul Genovese, product manager of Minwax interior stains in Upper Saddle River, N.J. “You could gel stain cabinets if they’re up on the wall already,” he adds.
Michael Kirkwood, brand manager at Olympic Paints & Stains in Pittsburgh, recommends gel stains for doors, paneling and staircase spindles. A gel stain is “one of the most forgiving products you can work with compared to penetrating stains because with gel stains you can add or subtract,” he explains.
Because they don’t penetrate like a liquid stain, gel stains also give you a nice even color. “Some gel stains are particularly good, compared to conventional stains, at providing uniform absorption and darkening over porous areas, including end grain of the wood,” observes John Stauffer, technical director of the Rohm and Haas Paint Quality Institute in Spring House, Pa.
Contractors who need to stain wood that has a tendency to blotch when liquid stains are used can save themselves the step of applying a wash coat or wood conditioner by using gel stains, says Flexner. “It’s a good use for gel stains …. Painters don’t want a second step.”
There also are several alternative door substrates that gel stains work well on: fiberglass, steel and molded fiberboard.
Ron Franklin, owner of Ron Franklin Painting and Decorating in Sacramento, Calif., reports he has had good success using gel stains on fiberglass entry doors. “People don’t always want the painted look and if you have fiberglass you might ask, ‘Now what do I use?’ A gel stain is a solution,” he says.
You don’t need a lot of paraphernalia to work with gel stains. Most people experienced with them will tell you that a soft cloth or lamb’s-wool applicator works best.
Application techniques on wood vary. Some experts recommend applying gel stain in a circular motion to rub it into the grain. Others say to apply gel stain with the grain. All agree that you should wipe the excess off in a direction with the grain.
“Gel stains are so easy to control—you have total control,” says Barbara Carbiener, owner of Olde Century Colors in South Bend, Ind. “You can almost never make a mistake,” she adds.
On fiberglass and metal doors, work a panel at a time, being sure to use a wood graining tool (if desired) before the stain sets up.
Temperature and humidity can affect set up and dry times in the same ways they affect paint. Warm temperatures speed the set-up time. High humidity slows the dry time.
How many coats of gel stain to apply varies. Some manufacturers, such as Wood Kote, say one coat should be enough. At Minwax, Genovese says you can build up the color by applying several thin coats.
While gel stains may seem dry to the touch quickly after wiping, you will need to wait a bit between coats. Read the label for dry times specific to the product you use. A major plus with gel stains is that there is no need to sand between coats.
As with any other painting project, be sure the substrate is sanded, clean and free from dust — with special focus on the sanding. “Ninety percent of the problems relating to uneven coverage have to do with sanding,” Velikanje reports. “You must have uniform sanding.”
Beware, however, of fine sanding. “You’ll get a deeper color with lower grit sandpaper. It leaves the pores open more for [better] penetration of the stain color,” Genovese says.
As with any stain, do a test spot in an inconspicuous area or do a test board to ensure you’ll get the results you desire.
Most gel stain manufacturers recommend a protective topcoat. Polyurethanes and varnishes are mentioned most often, but check compatibility. Olde Century Colors makes gel stains that include varnish for a single-step stain and finish.
When it comes to gel stains, “Your imagination can take you wherever you want to go,” exclaims Carbiener.
Velikanje points out, “A lot of faux finishers use it as a glaze.”
Have a client that wants the “distressed” or “aged” look? Carbiener says, “Gel stains are ideal for this!”
Need to create a wood grain look on a metal door? Use a wood graining tool with gel stain.
Gel stains work well in creating other faux finishes, too, such as sponging and stenciling.
While gel stains aren’t available off the shelf in as many colors as liquid stains, that doesn’t mean you can’t improvise and create your own colors. As Kirkwood observes, “People are taking more chances on color … [they] are more attuned to color.” So it’s good that many gel stains are tintable. Typically, universal tinting colorants can be used.
Whiteley says other techniques you can use to achieve special effects and custom tones are to blend gel stains together before application or layer different colors (overstaining).
Despite their obvious advantages, Flexner says gel stains can be messy to use.
Also, because they only stain the surface, he says gel stains may not be the best choice if you want the depth of the wood to show. “When you want depth, use a liquid stain because it brings out the beauty in the wood,” he says.
Does the application have a lot of tight spaces or intricate carving? Gel stains might be hard to work into the tight spots and, once there, it may be difficult to remove the excess.
Also, many gel stain manufacturers do not recommend using gel stains for exterior applications. If used on exterior doors, a top coat that protects against UV and the elements is a must.
Gel stains cost a little more than liquid stains, but most manufacturers say gel stains get better coverage. Coverage will vary depending on the substrate and manufacturer.
Most gel stains are oil-based, so you’ll need mineral spirits or paint thinner for clean up. “Water-based products are available, but a sealer or conditioner may be needed prior to application to ensure uniform penetration of color,” advises Stauffer.
Should you use gel stains? Probably, but be sure to weigh the pros and cons for each job. For example, gel stains are touted as ideal for floors. If you have a pine floor and you’re worried about blotching, a gel stain might be the ticket. If you’re working on a hardwood floor and deep stain penetration is desired, a liquid stain may be the way to go.
Are you staining crown molding over a white rug? Gel stain may eliminate the dripping problem of a liquid stain, but a gel could be tough to apply and remove if the molding has a lot of detail and crevasses.
As Kirkwood observes, the biggest deterrent to gel stains is that “most people don’t know what a gel stain is.”
Experiment with gel stains. Not only may you find you like them, but they may be just the solution you need in a variety of applications.