You might need to stain your wooden furniture or a piece of wood at a certain point in time. You can choose from various options for this, but it could get confusing.

While you might be on a budget, you might also be looking for the type best suited for your work. So if you are left to pick either to work with gel stain or a regular wood stain, which would you go for?

Let us compare gel stain vs regular stain in this article; then, you can decide which you would work with.

What is the Difference Between Gel Stain and Regular Stain?

Gel stain differs from regular stain in their constituents, affecting their penetrating appearance. Regular stain is more liquid, which makes it penetrate better into the surfaces it is used on, while gel stain sits on the surface as it is an oil stain with a thick consistency and more pigment, which makes it harder to get absorbed.

What is Gel Stain?

Gel stain, to define in simple terms, is a kind of stain that is gel-like. Gel, as you know, is a thick substance that is not as fluid as the usual liquid. This is a result of the high concentration of binders present in it.

Gel stain is not commonly used because its formula does not sit as well as the typical stain. When applied, however, it leaves a thin layer of tint over the wood’s surface, making it seem as though it was both painted and stained.

Here are some of the best gel stains.

Pros & Cons

The advantages of using gel stain include:

  • It works on other surfaces asides from wood.
  • Before applying on raw wood, you do not need to sand down.
  • Gel stain can be used to fix patches on unevenly stained wood.
  • A simple piece of rag or foam brush can be used to apply it.
  • Sometimes, a small amount of gel stain is all you need to get the job done.

The downsides to using gel stain are:

  • It is not affordable.
  • Gel stain typically has a longer drying time.
  • It is not easy to clean up if mistakes are made during staining.
  • It is hard to work with due to how thick its formula is.
  • It only works best on vertical surfaces with no corners or hinges.

When to use

As stated earlier, gel stain is thicker and more pigmented. This makes it leave a more concentrated appearance of color that makes painting optional.

It also gives you better coverage in just one coat, so it is advised to use gel stains if you are new to staining. So if you have to work with raw, non-porous wood or one that was just stripped, you want to know how to use gel stain.

How to Apply it

Gel stain is relatively easy to apply and, even more, recommended for DIYers if you follow through with the needed steps involved in the application process. The items you would need to use this stain include:

Step 1: Prep the surface

If the wood is not finished, you can proceed to apply the stain, but if it has finish on the surface, it needs a little prep.

This is where fine-grit sandpaper is required to do a quick swipe across the surface. After which the wood dust can be cleaned using a piece of rag.

Step 2: Apply the stain

Put on hand gloves and then use a foam brush to apply the stain carefully. You want to ensure that the first coat is thick and evenly spread across the wood surface. Then you can apply additional coats if need be.

Step 3: Wipe the excess stain off and dry

Use a rag to clean off the excess stain around the edges after applying the stain. Then you can leave the stain to dry for at least 24 hours. Here is how to make gel stain dry faster.

Step 4: Add polyurethane

Add a coat of water-based polyurethane wood stain as a protective coating for the finish.

What is a Regular Stain?

This is the everyday liquid type of stain used on wood today you would find in any random hardware store. It penetrates well into the wood grains, which makes it preferred for use.

Applying traditional stains requires the usual process of sanding and preparing the wood surface for staining, so it sits on it well. Depending on your preference, this kind of stain can be an oil or water-based stain.

Pros & Cons

The pros to using a regular stain are:

  • It dries very fast.
  • Regular stains are relatively cheap.
  • It is suitable for enhancing the overall appearance of the wood as it sits well.
  • It is easy to apply.

The disadvantages of using regular stains are:

  • It is not durable.
  • The finish will be tacky if the wood is not adequately sanded or prepped.
  • Regular stains do not penetrate well into all kinds of wood.
  • It cannot be used on previously stained or finished wood.

When to use

Regular stain is your best bet if you want to stain cabinets, furniture, wooden floors, or doors. This is because it works well on porous woods.

It is also available in a variety of colors that allows you to be creative and versatile and give your wood the warm finish it needs. The water-based kind is commonly used as it is easy to remove with soap and water.

See Also:

Can You Use Concrete Stain on Wood?

Best Stain for Poplar Wood

How to Apply it

This follows the usual everyday steps involved in staining. To apply liquid stains, you would need:

  • A piece of rag.
  • A paint scraper or stripper.
  • Hand gloves.
  • Wood conditioner.
  • Wood stain.

Follow these steps:

Step 1: Prepare the area you want to stain

Prepping the surface involves removing hardware attached to the furniture or piece you want to stain, such as hinges and drawers. I suggest you consider spray painting door hinges, as this method allows for even coverage and avoids unsightly brush strokes, ensuring a seamless and polished look when you’re done.

Also, you want to cover the areas you do not wish to be covered in stain with old newspapers or a piece of rag. spray paint door hinges

Also, the environment in which you would be applying stain should be properly ventilated, do not forget to wear your gloves.

Step 2: Apply wood conditioner

After sanding the surface to be stained, a pre-stain conditioner should be applied using a paintbrush. It should be left to soak in for about 15 minutes before proceeding to stain.

Step 3: Apply the stain

You can use a cloth or brush to apply the stain evenly across the surface without omitting the corners and edges.

While at this, you want to be careful not to leave any splatter or spot where the stain accumulates. If you need an extra coat of stain, you can apply it to protect the finish.

Step 4: Wipe off excess stain

You can use a damp rag to carefully clean off any excess stain at the edges of your workpiece.

Step 5: Apply a topcoat

After the previous stain applied has dried to an extent, and the excess has been wiped, you can sand lightly once again before applying a final and top coat of stain.

Does stained wood need to be sealed? Find out what to do next.

Other Post: Easy Hemlock Wood Staining

Gel stain vs wood stain: Verdict

There is no definitive answer, as both gel and wood stains have their pros and cons.

Gel stains are more translucent than wood stains, so they can create a more subtle effect. However, they can also be streaky if not applied correctly. Wood stains, on the other hand, are less likely to streak but can be quite opaque, making it difficult to achieve a consistent finish.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and the look you’re trying to achieve.

Use Gel Stain When:

  • You want a finish between staining and painting, or you cannot decide on what to do.
  • You do not have the time to sand raw wood, or you are working with already finished wood.
  • You want to save time used in preparing traditional stain before applying it.
  • You want to stain soft wood like pine or most wooden boards used in home improvement projects.
  • You have to apply only a thin coat of stain.

Use Regular Stain When:

  • You are working with hardwoods like oak, and mahogany, as it penetrates easily and would not leave any blotches.
  • You have to apply more than one coat on the surface of the wood.
  • You are working with already sanded wood that has not been finished.
  • Working with wood projects with many corners and details, so the stain does not accumulate in those areas.

So, what is the verdict? Which is better? Overall, gel stain ticks more boxes than regular stain as long as you can afford it.

In fact, when applying stains, gel stains are more suggested for DIYers and beginners. Just ensure you carefully read the instructions on the stain container before proceeding to use, so you do not do a bad job of staining and ruining your piece.

See Also: Alder Wood Stain Color


Is gel stain water-based or oil-based?

Gel stain is predominantly oil-based due to how thick its formula is. How viscous it is is why the stain does not drip or run over as with other commonly used stains. There are also water-based gel stains, but they are not as common as the oil-based type.

Can I apply gel stain over regular stain?

Yes, you can apply gel stain over regular stain. This is because gel stain can be used on previously finished, painted, or stained surfaces without interfering with how well it holds or penetrates on the surface. Also, the already stained does not require being sanded thoroughly before gel stain is applied.

Is gel stain better than regular stain?

The simple answer to this is no, but it depends on the kind of surface you are going to stain. When dealing with a wood project with many corners and crevices, a gel stain is not better than a regular stain as the stain accumulates in those parts. The liquid stain is a better option for staining floors, cabinets, and other furniture in the home.

Is gel stain easier to use?

Gel stain is very easy to use as a simple foam brush can apply it across a surface without needing multiple coats. However, it takes longer for the oil-based gel stain to penetrate into the wood grain and dry on the surface due to its thickness and density.

Can I paint over gel stain?

Yes, you can apply paint over gel stain. As long as the stain is not too old or already peeling, the surface can take on an extra layer of finish in the form of paint. However, the surface would still require sanding or priming before it can be painted, so it does not come out tacky.


Now you know the differences between gel stain vs regular stain and how to apply them. You can hardly go wrong with gel stains as they are easier to apply and are not selective with surfaces they can work on.

But regular stains offer you more versatility with colors as well as affordability. Hopefully, this article will help you make a good decision in choosing which of these wood finishes to use for staining your wood.

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