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

Stain changes the color and enhances or conceals the grain of wood products. Stain can breathe new life into old furniture, fixtures, doors or even wood floors. The application of stain takes time and patience. You must choose the right type of stain for the project you are working on, either a liquid or gel stain.

To enhance the character of the wood, use water-based, liquid stains.

Gel Character

Gel stain liquefies when shaken and is a gel-like when it is allowed to sit. Gel stains give wood an even color without raising the wood grain. Gel stains are typically oil-based and they are thicker and have higher viscosity; however they dry quickly. Gel stains focus on traditional colors. Gel stains require mineral spirits to clean up and they are very durable. Gel stains work well on surfaces that were previously painted. Gel stains do not splatter or run and cover porous and nonporous surfaces equally, making them easier for novices to apply.

Liquid Character

Liquid stains are typically water-based and clean up easily with soapy water. Liquid stains dry quickly and are available in a much wider variety of colors and hues than oil-based stains. Some of the colors are more contemporary. Stains that are water-based do not have the odor of oil-based stains and they are more environmentally friendly. The top coat of liquid stain is clear. Like oil-based stains, liquid stains are very durable. Liquid stains penetrate the wood.


Gel stain is good for nonporous wood such as Masonite and hardboard because it will not enhance the wood grain. Gel stains are good for fiberglass and metal, and for use on vertical surfaces. Liquid stains are best for furniture, cabinets, moldings, cabinets, wood floors and doors, and porous surfaces where you want to enhance the wood grain. 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 will pool in these areas. Porous woods, such as mahogany, walnut, ash and oak, need liquid stain to bring out the character and grain in the wood.


Both types of stain need vigorous stirring prior to the application of the stain. Test the stain you are using on a piece of scrap wood or in an inconspicuous area of the piece you wish to stain. Sand your piece until it is smooth prior to staining. Stain in a ventilated area and wear a face mask and gloves. All gel stains are applied with a paint brush or rag and wiped with a rag to control the stain penetration. Rub the rag in a circular direction after the stain is applied and then wipe the rest off. You can use liquid stain in the same way but you can also use a sprayer outdoors. Wipe liquid stains quickly so your stain is not uneven, 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.