If you've never tried gel stains, you're missing out on what could be an important part of your finishing repertoire. In certain situations (that we'll tell you about) these thickened stains perform better than thin-bodied (liquid) stains. But, they do have limitations. And, as we discovered, subtle differences exist between the three major brands we tested.
To understand how these two types of stains behave differently, imagine a piece of wood as if it were a slice of bread. Applying a gel stain to wood is like spreading peanut butter onto bread. The peanut butter sticks, but it doesn't penetrate the porous surface of the bread. You can spread the peanut butter, but you can't apply it in a thin or translucent layer the way you can, say, warmed butter. Like fluid butter, thin-bodied stains go on thin and penetrate the surface.
Because gel stains lie on a wood surface instead of soaking into it, they uniformly color porous and nonporous areas alike. That makes them relatively goof-proof, and a great help to novice finishers. And, because they don't run or splatter, they're especially handy for applying to vertical surfaces.
Nevertheless, gel stains do have certain drawbacks. We avoid them on projects with lots of tight corners and crevices because the stain collects in these tight spots and is hard to remove. Thin-bodied stains don't have this problem because they wick into tight spots and the areas adjoining them. And, because gel stains don't penetrate as well as thin-bodied stains, they don't bring out the "depth" of the wood grain as well as thin-bodied stains. That's why we prefer thin-bodied stains for porous woods such as oak, ash, mahogany, and walnut.
Nonporous woods. Species such as pine, maple, cherry, and birch have relatively nonporous surfaces that don't absorb stains well. These woods have areas where edge or end grain pops to the surface. So, when you apply thin-bodied stains to them, you can get splotchy areas of light and dark staining because of uneven absorption.
As shown in the photo above, gel stains help you achieve uniform coloration on these woods. Although you can buy "conditioners" specially made for sealing hard-to-stain woods prior to staining with thin-bodied stains, that combination did not give us as good a result as gel stains did.
Woods of different species or grain appearance. Some-times you can't avoid combining woods of slightly different coloration or mismatching grain patterns in the same project surface. For example, various red oak boards may vary from pale white to pink in tone, and they may have flatsawn or quartersawn grain patterns. If economics dictate that you must use such boards together, you can help give the surface a uniform appearance by using gel stains.
Wood graining on man-made surfaces. Today, you can buy fiberglass and hardboard doors with a wood-grain embossed surface, and steel doors with nonembossed surfaces. Gel stains help you give both types of surfaces a grain-like appearance.
With embossed surfaces you simply apply a gel stain. Because it doesn't spread out, the stain stays on the flat surfaces and collects in heavier amounts in the embossed crevices of the grain.
This same nonspreading quality makes gel stains ideal for applying artificial wood grain to flat surfaces, such as steel doors, with a wood-graining tool. The photo above shows what happened when we used this tool with thin-bodied and gel stains.
Note: Zar wood stain, although not a gel stain, is thicker than thin-bodied stains and also works for wood graining. Zar products are made by UGL (800/845-5227).
Adding a patina look to country projects. Because gel stains collect in crevices, they also help you give country projects such as the candle box left a faux patina. You simply wipe on the stain, then wipe it off, leaving the stain in crevices and other spots where dirt would accumulate over the years.
As the photo above reveals, the three gel stains we tried varied considerably in thickness. The Minwax product was just slightly thicker than the Bartley product, and the Wood-Kote stain was considerably thicker than the other two. So, the Wood-Kote product possessed all of the qualities-and drawbacks-of a gel stain to a greater degree than the others.
For example, the Wood-Kote did the best job of masking uneven wood coloration and graining, but it was also the hardest to apply and wipe off. Removing it from crevices was a chore.
If you're a novice and you like the goof-proof nature of gel stains, you can use the Bartley and Minwax products for all of your staining work. Regardless of your skill level, the Wood-Kote seemed best suited to the tasks described in the previous section.
So go ahead and give gel stains a try. Just remember to always test your stain on a sample piece before applying it to your project.
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