Woodworking Tips
Woodworking Tips Index
Gel Stains and Woodworking
When I got into woodworking in the early 80's, choosing a stain was pretty much a matter of selecting a color -- I don't recall a choice of types of stains. But now, in addition to liquid stains, there are also gel stains.

Today, I'm going to talk about what's different or similar about gel stains, and when they might be a better choice than a liquid stain.

As the name implies, gel stains have a much thicker consistency than liquid stains. Because of this, a gel stain doesn't run all over the workpiece and the floor, even when you apply it to a vertical surface like a chair leg.

The thickness of a gel stain depends on the brand you use. Some have the consistency of a milk shake and are squeezed out of a bottle, while others are more like a thick malt.

One other nice thing about gel stains is you don't have to keep stirring them as you work. Because they're thicker, the color pigment stays suspended instead of settling out in the bottom of the can. This means you get a consistent color from the top to the bottom of the can.

But the real test of a stain is whether it creates a nice, even color when it's applied to the workpiece. Unlike the light and dark blotches you sometimes get with liquid stains, gel stains produce a much more uniform color.

The reason is simple. There's less solvent in a gel stain. (Both oil and water-based gel stains are available.) Because the solvent carries the color into the wood, the stain doesn't penetrate as deeply. As a result, you don't get as many splotches -- especially on end grain.

There's nothing complicated about applying a gel stain. The guys at ShopNotes magazine like to use a foam brush. They're not dainty here. They just load up the brush (or squeeze the stain onto the wood). As they brush the stain around, the gel flows across the workpiece.

But just because the gel doesn't soak into the wood as much, don't be fooled into thinking you have a lot of time to work the stain. Like liquid stains, if you leave it on too long in one place and then brush over it, you'll get lap marks where the wet stain covers a section that's already dry.

So once the surface is covered, use a clean rag to wipe off as much excess stain as possible.

To prevent streaking, the idea is to wipe in the direction of the grain until the workpiece is almost "dry."

To prevent lap marks when working on a large area, try dividing it into smaller sections and keep a "wet edge" between each section. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work. In this case, you can remove some of the stain with a cloth dampened in mineral spirits (or water if it's a water-based stain). Then apply more stain as work both sections together.

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