What Is the Difference Between a Gel & a Liquid Stain?

Ready to update wooden furniture, trim, doors or even floors? Stain lets you change the color of your existing wood piece and enhances or conceals the grain of wood products, depending on your desired results. Staining wood takes time and patience, but the job is much easier when you choose the right type of product. Comparing gel and liquid stain helps you figure out which option is best for your next wood project.

Half painted wooden boards
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What Is the Difference Between a Gel & a Liquid Stain

Gel Stain Basics

Gel stain takes on a gel texture until you shake it, which liquefies it. Gel stains give wood an even color without raising the wood grain. They're durable and long-lasting, and they work well on wooden surfaces that were once painted. Gel stains often come in traditional colors.

Gel stain is usually oil-based with a thick consistency and high viscosity. The thickness means the stain doesn't splatter or run, which keeps your work area cleaner. It also covers porous and nonporous surfaces equally, making it easier for novices to apply. Despite that thickness, gel stains dry quickly, which keeps your project moving. Keep mineral spirits on hand to clean up the gel stain.

Liquid Stain Basics

Liquid stains are typically water-based and penetrate the wood as you apply the color. They clean up easily with soapy water and dry quickly on your projects. You may notice that liquid stains come in a much wider variety of colors and hues than oil-based stains. Some of the colors are more contemporary, which gives you more creative freedom in your projects.

Water-based stains eliminate the strong odor you get with oil-based products, so they're easier to work with. Plus, they're more environmentally friendly. The top coat of liquid stain is clear. Like oil-based stains, liquid stains are very durable.

Project Type

Choosing between gel and liquid stain often comes down to the project you're doing. Gel stain works well on nonporous wood such as Masonite and hardboard because it doesn't enhance the wood grain. Gel stains are also good for fiberglass and metal and for use on vertical surfaces. Gel stains are not good for pine, birch or cherry because the swirly texture encourages blotches. Do not use gel stains on projects that have a lot of corners, details and crevices because the stain pools in these areas.

Liquid stains are best for furniture, cabinets, moldings, wood floors, doors and porous surfaces where you want to enhance the wood grain. Porous woods, such as mahogany, walnut, ash and oak, look their best with liquid stain to bring out the character and grain in the wood.

Application Tips

Both types of stain need vigorous stirring prior to the application. Test the stain on a piece of scrap wood or in an inconspicuous area before you start staining. Sanding the wood first lets the stain go on smoothly and evenly. Stain in a ventilated area, and wear a face mask and gloves to protect yourself.

You can use either a paintbrush or rag to apply either type of stain. Using a rag gives you more control over the stain penetration. Rub the rag in a circular direction after you apply the stain, and then wipe the rest off. When using a liquid stain, wipe it off quickly for an even finish, as liquid stains dry quickly. Always wipe the stain in the direction of the wood grain. Carefully read the instructions on your particular stain, and keep temperature and humidity in mind before you begin your project.


Rebekah Smith

Rebekah Smith is a writer and editor from Montana and the owner of several businesses. Smith has consulted and worked with businesses in the fields of commercial greenhouses, ecommerce, technology and home improvement. She holds a Master of Business Administration and is working on a Ph.D. in business.