Gel stain or regular stain?

LinelleOctober 20, 2013

This is cross-posted in Woodworking. This forum gets so much more traffic AND many of you have gel stain experience. This little desk isn't technically in my kitchen, but it could be. :)

I have a little oak desk that I use for extra storage and as a makeup station. So, it's functional but needs to be refinished. It's got some black marks on the surface (probably Sharpie from its time as a middle-schooler's desk) so it needs to be sanded down somewhat and probably have its original finish removed. The lighter area of the top is where I sanded a bit already.

I'm wondering whether I should use gel stain or a regular wood stain. My understanding of gel stain is that it's like a paint and sits on the surface of the wood, whereas a regular wood stain penetrates the wood more. Is that correct? Since a desk surface is more likely to be scratched than a vertical one, and this won't have a stone counter, is gel stain practical? Or will the poly finish provide enough protection? I want to go somewhat darker; I've seen a 50-50 mix of Candlelight and Java that I like. I don't really care if the grain shows.

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If you don't care too much about the grain showing, I'd go with gel stain. it's a lot faster to work with, i.e. only minimal sanding, and a lot more forgiving, i.e. I find it easier to get more professionally looking results. My bathroom vanity has held up very well.

I also gel stained a nightstand in General Finishes Wheat, and the grain shows through very well, i.e .it doesn't look like a paint at all.

This post was edited by nosoccermom on Sun, Oct 20, 13 at 19:02

    Bookmark   October 20, 2013 at 7:00PM
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General Finishes is definitely the way to go! I just did all my lower cabinets- and the results are amazing. If you do multiple light coasts, you can get the grain to show through.

I would wash with TSP, or even bleach wipes-sand, and wash again. There are lots of tutorials out there! Good Luck!

    Bookmark   October 21, 2013 at 9:05AM
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Yikes. Looks like I contradicted myself about grain. Anyways, I gel stained with Java, and the oak grain does not show through that much. I also gel stained maple with GF Prairie Wheat, and it looks just like this (note; not my washstand).

    Bookmark   October 21, 2013 at 10:11AM
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I am redoing an old honey oak kitchen cabinet to go into our laundry room. I am using Minwax mahogany gel stain. It seems most people go really dark with their gel stains. You really don't have to, unless you really like that look. It is turning out pretty good and the grain is still very much visible.

All that I have done for prep is sanding with 220 grit sand paper. Applying the gel stain is pretty forgiving compared to applying regular stain to unfinished wood. Once everything is stained, I'll put on a couple of coats of clear poly for durability sake.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2013 at 10:46AM
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Thanks all for your replies. I don't want to go as dark as java, something more mahogany-toned. I don't care if the grain shows or not, I just want to remove the funky patina (not a good one) and not go ewww! every time I look at it.

It's not a piece I'm attached to and wonder if replacing it would be cheaper/easier in the long run. Still, I love the idea of giving an ugly duckling a new lease on life. Add some simple hardware on the drawers.

Sounds like GF gel stain is the way to go. I do need to sand out the black marks and will probably do the whole thing since it's so small. I just need one of you to help me carry it out into the garage. :)

    Bookmark   October 21, 2013 at 11:22AM
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Elraes Miller

Just use TSP and clean well, then try Restore touch up. I actually ended up with oak furniture like yours heading into the darker color just using this when cleaning/dusting. The top should be easy to sand down and get rid of the blotches. As mentioned above, bleach will get rid of stains too. Use a Q Tip on those areas.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2013 at 2:17PM
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Now I'm wondering about the top coat.

I thought I was ready to go with GF gel stain so I watched some Youtube videos to see application techniques. I decided I did NOT like the finished product of anything I saw. Maybe it's because they all seem to use Java, but it all seems to end up looking like paint. Not saying that my desk with its multi-hued grainy oak is a fine example of wood furniture, but the Java just ends up looking murky. Ugh.

Also, whatever they apply as a final poly coat is SHINY. I wonder if they're using satin or not. A luster is okay, but I don't want a shine.

Any of you guys use anything other than Java?

    Bookmark   October 22, 2013 at 11:01AM
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I used a Minwax Mahogany gel stain. Here's a door to the laundry room cabinet that I am currently working on finished with that stain. The grain is still very visible and the color has been darkened from the original honey oak color. The key was to wipe off the stain after it had set on for about 15 minutes. I still need to do a couple of poly coats.

Here's the original cabinet color in our before renovation picture.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2013 at 1:33PM
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What I would suggest is that you remove one of the drawer fronts from your desk and test stain the back side. If you like the results, then go for it.

Also, in terms of poly, they do make poly with a satin finish..

This post was edited by gpraceman on Tue, Oct 22, 13 at 13:41

    Bookmark   October 22, 2013 at 1:37PM
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gpraceman, that door looks good, natural, like it's still wood. And it's not overly shiny. I suspect I'm dealing with veneers, since the back side of my drawer fronts do not look like oak. Wood, but something different so I doubt I'll get a similar effect as the front. The pieces of the drawers are all permanently attached to one another, so no way to just take the front off.

Yesterday I took a drawer into the garage and sanded the front with a sponge, something like 180. It didn't take the original stain off, but it now feels like a baby's bottom.

I'm inclined to just try a drawer front. If I don't like it, it's not a big deal, I'll just strip it off.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2013 at 1:58PM
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I haven't yet put any poly on it. When I do, it will be a satin poly. I was going to try out a wipe on poly, as that seams easier than brush on.

Here is a link that might be useful: Minwax Wipe-On Poly Clear Satin

This post was edited by gpraceman on Tue, Oct 22, 13 at 14:19

    Bookmark   October 22, 2013 at 2:16PM
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Just to provide continuity, I'm again cross-posting from the Woodworking forum. I've decided that GF gel stain is not the tool for this job. :(

Any suggestions for a good penetrating oil stain?

I am NOT HAPPY with GF gel stain. I was until about 30 minutes ago. :(

Yesterday I put on the first coat (Brown Mahogany), which I did not wipe off. It looked utterly fantastic. Seriously. The ugly yellowy oak came alive and I realized I really love oak. Gorgeous. I let it dry 24 hours and knew I needed a second coat to even things out. I really didn't want to go darker or more opaque because I actually think the grain looks fantastic. I don't want to obscure it the way some folks do with deep dark java.

So I started with the drawer fronts (and got no further). As I wiped the second coat on, some of the first coat stayed put, while it pulled some of the rest right up, in very strange patterns, like drips. I realized the only hope of obscuring those would be to put on more coats, which I don't want. Did I say I loved how the grain looked?

I got so mad, I wiped mineral spirits over the second coat and some of it lifted right off and some didn't. It's nasty.

I think gel stain is not the tool for this job.

I know wood people swear by Keda dyes, but I'm not ready for that. I actually own a set of the dyes I bought for some craft phase I was in, tried mixing up a color and it was bizarre. I'm just not competent.

Before I chuck the desk, I'm going to strip everything off and approach it with an oil stain. I've read too many negatives about Minwax. What brand do you suggest?

I hate like hell that the gel stain let me down. One coat was gorgeous. But now I don't trust it at all.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2013 at 5:59PM
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Linelle, you should ask in Decorating. They're always fiddling with their Craigslist finds. I also remember beekeeperswife recommending a product she liked better than GF, but I can't remember what it was.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2013 at 7:28PM
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may_flowers, thanks, I'll do that.

I bought some 3M Safest Stripper and the drawers are already down to bare wood. That stuff seems pretty mild compared to Jasco, but everything came off with very little effort.

I don't know how people love gel stain unless you go very dark and/or put on one coat so perfectly that's all you need.

One good thing came out of this. I had a real epiphany: I love oak. Not golden oak with funky details, but a richly stained oak, grain and all. That's a relief.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2013 at 8:33PM
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It almost sounds like there was some other finish (wax? furniture polish?) that was embedded in your wood to make the stain so uneven. Hmm.

Anyway, I just finished using the General Finishes HP Poly-Acrylic (green can) which is a water-bourne polyurethane, on some old woodwork that I had lightly sanded. Wow, it just brought it back to life! I used the "gloss" but it comes out as a buttery satin look. Very low odor and this stuff dries FAST. I was working inside the house and was able to put 3 coats on in one afternoon. Really. It dries that fast. Obviously it has to cure for several days - and I would let anything cure before using it but it would be the perfect finish for your desk. It is a milky white color in the can but dries clear.

Several people on here have used GF Polyacrylic satin on their kitchen cupboards. (Its in the blue can) There are two well-known companies online that sell both the regular polyacrylic and the HP poly. ( I will never ever use oil base poly again because I can't stand the smell.) So...just sharing that info. Great stuff. I'm looking around the house for a new project now to use up my leftover

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 1:24AM
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sippimom, thanks for sharing your experience with GF poly finish. I will probably end up using oil-based, since on their site they recommend it for pieces like desks where the surface gets more action. Did you apply yours with a brush or cloth?

It's a mystery to me what happened with my second coat of gel stain. I lightly sanded everything before I began. The first coat went on evenly and beautifully. Honestly, I was in love with how it looked and would have stopped with one coat except there were some areas of unevenness and sock strokes. I'd read that the second coat might appear to liquify the first coat, so I was ready for that. But some first coat stuck firm and the rest lifted off completely in a strange pattern. I don't understand why the first coat would go on so evenly but adhere so unevenly.

Anyway, it's coming off, all of it. I'm planning to restain, not with gel. I'm not sure if I should condition the wood first. There's a store in the next town that sells General Finishes, so I'll probably go back there, since Minwax is all you see in most of the local stores.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 9:56AM
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Linelle, would you consider a chalk paint instead? I know you mentioned you like the grain, but if these stains don't seem to work, maybe another alternative?

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 10:31AM
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Linelle, give GF a call. They are very helpful and may have suggestions as to what happened and how to avoid it. That is, if you still want to give it a try.
It could be that the first coat wasn't completely dry or that the first coat was too thick. Gel stain has higher viscosity, so you may have to wipe more off and reapply a second or even third coat. When I did my first piece, I freaked out because the first coat looked terrible.

Here is a link that might be useful: gel stain lifed

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 10:55AM
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I waited more than 48 hours before applying the GF waterbourne poly over my oil-based stain. This is what I did: I stained one weekend. Then went back the next weekend to give all a light sanding, wipedown, and then applied the finish coat. Oil-based anything takes a while to soak in, and set up. If it's humid, it takes a lot longer. Basically, the longer you wait, the better finished product you'll have.

Oil-based anything gets gummy if you try to put a 2nd coat over it before it has set up. And don't forget to very lightly sand between coats, then wipe down with a microfiber cloth because even stain will raise the grain a bit. (Commercial tack cloths have something waxy-like in them that can gunk up the next layer of whatever, stain or poly. I've stopped using them.)

With the water-base, once it's dry you can put your next coat on.

And, just sharing something else I learned with this latest project - One woodworkers blog said you can put a water-base finish over oil-base stain after it's cured, but never the reverse. Don't know if that's true but I'm not going to test fate!

Good luck with your desk!

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 12:33PM
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ellen, I just want to keep the desk stained. I was ready to get rid of it because it's not a particularly beloved piece and I'm thinking of rearranging my office. But gel staining sounded so simple and duh that I figured it was worth a try. When those drawer fronts had their first (successful) coat, it was a revelation. I loved it. The second coat totally mucked it up. It was hideous. I should have taken a picture to share, but it's all off now.

Now I guess I'm looking to redo this again because I hate to just give up and this piece isn't the worst place to learn. Thank God it's not a bathroom vanity or a kitchen full of cabinets.

sippimom, thanks for the practical advice. How did you apply your stain and poly? Brush or cloth?

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 2:53PM
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I used a foam "brush" - which is a little piece of foam on stick - for the stain - let it sit on for about 5 min and then wiped off the excess with a clean rag. The longer you let the stain sit, the darker it will be. Tossed that foam brush after I was done. Used another one for the 2nd coat of stain. Get a little piece of oak at the big box store or a lumber yard might give you some scraps to test your stain first. Sand, stain, wipe, and maybe lightly sand again before 2nd coat of stain.

For the poly - since it is water based it cleans up with soap and water! So I used a foam brush and was able to clean it out, squeeze out excess water & let it dry, and use it again for the subsequent coats. The water base poly goes on thin so several thin coats are better than trying to glop on a thick coat. Try your poly out on the test board so you can get a feel for how to work with it.

If you're using oil base poly you can still use a foam brush or a regular brush but go lightly with the strokes because it tends to bubble more. Which means a light sanding between each coat, not just the first coat. And then toss the brush. It can be cleaned - they sell brush cleaner - but I'm personally not a fan of all those chemical smells.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 3:15PM
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As I wiped the second coat on, some of the first coat stayed put, while it pulled some of the rest right up, in very strange patterns, like drips.

How did you clean the surface?

That sounds like silicone-based furniture polish soaked into the desk and is preventing adhesion.

That's what the scrubbing with mineral spirits removes.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 3:30PM
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sippimom and lazygardens, thanks for hanging in with me. :)

I guess I didn't clean the surface at all. I sanded it to make it smooth and even. Now that I think about it, a month or so ago I used some Pledge to spiff it up a bit. It's probably the first time I've ever done that. I never imagined that would soak in and not have been removed when I sanded it it. The patterns formed by the second coat didn't resemble anything remotely like Pledge applied with a cloth.

Once I finish stripping, I had planned to scrub with mineral spirits to remove any residue before sanding. Is that a good or bad idea?

sippi, thanks for the foam brush advice. I've never been too lucky with them (bubbles), but I'll practice on scrap wood.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 4:12PM
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Link to a previous thread below. I still think it may not have been dry enough, especially if your layer was a bit thicker. I have slapped gel stain on oil paint, and it stuck beautifully.

I would try it again once you've used the mineral spirit.

Here is a link that might be useful: gel stain problem

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 6:37PM
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The GF gel stain can said 8 hours drying time between first and second coat. I waited 24 and it felt quite dry. I didn't think my layer was particularly thick. Sigh.

Meanwhile, everything has been stripped off and I'm down to bare wood. Wiped off well with mineral spirits.

Needless to say, the grain has been raised and I need to do some sanding. Tomorrow, after everything dries out and the smell of the thinner dissipates.

I found a piece of unfinished wood of unknown species in my garage. I used a foam brush to apply a thin layer of gel stain. Yeah, I know, never again. :) I wiped it down before it set up. I will let that sucker cure 48 hours and then I'll put on another thin layer and see what happens.

At this point I still don't know why I would want to use gel stain over GF regular oil stain. Is it ease of application? Thick and pudding-like, not runny? Because I don't need to cover or hide. I just want a nice rich deep color through which the grain is evident.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 8:32PM
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I found that the gel stain is easier to work with, i.e. not runny, but also that it seemed to be less blotchy than the oil stains.
Hard to say what was the reason for your problem, but it sure is frustrating. I'd still call GF and hear what they suggest, just to make sure it doesn't happen again.

This post was edited by nosoccermom on Mon, Oct 28, 13 at 21:11

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 9:28AM
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nosoccermom, good idea about calling GF. I don't mind as much when things go wrong if it can be turned into a learning experience, this happened because you did that. At least the stripping is done. I used a product recommended by Bob Vila, 3M Safest Stripper, and it's way less nasty than Jasco. I don't know if it would cut through thick layers, but it was perfect for this job.

Because this is a relatively small item and I'm working in the garage, ease of application isn't my foremost concern. Oak seems to take stain fairly well. The flat surfaces are made with varied boards anyway, so I'm not expecting a super uniform look.

From what I've read on GF's site, using gel stain or their penetrating oil stain requires different sanding techniques.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 10:11AM
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I just got off the phone with GF. Talked to an incredibly nice, helpful guy who answered the 800 number on the first ring. That's the kind of company I want to do business with.

I told him my gel stain tale of woe. He actually didn't make excuses or offer a workaround. He asked me if I was working with bare wood. I said, I am now, and we both had to laugh.

He said he was thrilled GF gel stain is so popular, but for my situation, a piece of furniture sanded bare, where I don't want to obscure the grain, he recommends their regular, penetrating oil stain. It's what he would use. One coat should do it, maybe two. Then he said that their water-borne poly would be a good finish.

To be continued...

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 1:37PM
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Great that at least your phone call wasn't even more frustrating. So, it sounds like oil stain is the way to go.
Of course, I'm curious whether he had any idea what caused the lifting off of gel coat No. 1.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 9:14PM
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You can put a water based product on top of an oil based, but you can't put oil on top of water based. Oil based products burn into the previous layer. Water based sits on top, Before you put down a water based product, you must be sure that the oil based coating is absolutely dry. Other wise the water based will walk away. When you sand between coats, make sure the sand paper is not silicone. Don't use a commercial tack cloth. Use a slightly dampened clean rag.

Plain ordinary stain, whether it is water or oil is not a top coat. A gel coat has both stain and topcoat combined.
It's really not a hard job and the results will be lovely.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 9:22PM
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nosoccermom, I didn't pursue an answer to the lifting off of coat #1. By the time I finished a quick recap, he asked if the wood was bare (I think he meant when I first started). When I told him it was now bare wood, he said that penetrating oil was the way to proceed. Since I'd already decided I was done with gel stain, I saw no point in getting him to explain why it failed for me. Who knows? He did say he was sorry, but I kinda got the feeling he was a conventional stain guy. I'm sorry I can't bring back a definitive answer to pass along.

sixtyohno, thanks for the tips!! I know about water on oil, not the other way around, but I never knew why. The GF guy told me about dry time. He told me to sand very lightly with 320 grit between coats of poly. I bought some GF High Performance water based poly and he said it would be fine. I don't know how people use tack cloths; for me they leave sticky residue.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 9:46PM
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Reveal of finished desk is in Home Dec. forum.

Here is a link that might be useful: Refinished desk

    Bookmark   November 25, 2013 at 6:50PM
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