Gel Stain vs Regular Stain | What’s the Difference?

You are probably interested in staining a piece of furniture, or maybe another project of some sort. Either way, you are wondering what stain you should use and what stain is best for your project, right? You start searching for a wood stain, then you see dozens of colors, great you have options! But all of a sudden you see things like “oil-based” or “gel stain” and you start to get overwhelmed.

There are a number of different stain products that I will make sure to go over to help you figure it out, but this article is dedicated to explaining the difference between gel stain and regular stain.

The difference between gel stain and regular stain is gel stain is a thick pudding-like substance that you apply over the top of the wood, while regular stains are more watery-like and will penetrate into the wood. However, when both stains are applied, within a few minutes, you wipe away the excess stain.

Both of these stains have their advantages and disadvantages, which we will cover below, but it really comes down to testing each and figuring out what option works best for you.

What is Gel Stain?

Gel stain is a thick non-liquid material that is applied over wood to “stain” it. Basically, you take a clean rag or foam brush and dip it in your gel stain. I usually take a liberal amount of gel stain and then rub it all over the surface I want stained. The gel formula isn’t actually penetrating the wood like a traditional stain does, but instead, it creates a very thin layer over the surfaces tinting it to look as if it were stained.

It is almost as if gel stain could be a mixture of painting and staining, essentially you are doing the same steps as if you were staining a piece but the product sits above the wood as paint does.

To say this part in simple terms, there are particles (ingredients) in paints and stains that are called “binders”. These binders are what create the adhesion performance, how durable it will be, and many other factors. But when looking at gel stain there is an increased amount of binders when compared to regular liquid stains, this is why gell stain is so sticky and thick. It instead grabs the surface like a paint, while regular liquid stains penetrate into the surface not requiring as many binders to hold on.

Advantages of Gel Stain

  • You do not have to sand down to raw wood when using gel stain.
  • Gel stain is super easy to apply, use a brush or a rag.
  • You can apply gel stain on non-wood surfaces.
  • Gel stain is great to use on wood that doesn’t typically stain evenly, if you made a mistake with regular wood stain you can apply gel stain over it to fix the issue.
  • A small amount of gel stain can go a long way, a quart can last 200 sq ft (that’s 50 more than regular stain).

Disadvantages of Gel Stain

  • Gel stain takes a long time to dry compared to traditional stains.
  • It may remain sticky for days if you do not wipe excess gel off.
  • I think gel stain can get really messy if you are not careful, it is difficult to clean up.
  • Gel stain is typically more expensive, but only by a couple of dollars with popular brand names.
  • If you wipe excess off unevenly you can make the surface look blotchy, this is less likely to happen when wiping liquid stain off.
  • It is super sticky, which can make it hard to work with. Make sure you wipe it off within the recommended time.

What is Regular Stain?

Although it isn’t termed “regular stain”, it is also known as traditional, oil-based, water-based, penetrating, or just classic wood stain. I like to call it penetrating wood stain because the wood is being penetrated with the stain. That is what makes it different when compared to gel stain. Regular wood stains require sanded and prepped raw wood so the stain can sink into the surface. If you try to stain a finished piece, the stain will just sit on top remaining wet and sticky.

There are a variety of stains that people call “regular”, you can use water-based or oil-based stains, similar results but totally different products. Water-based stains have less harmful fumes and can be cleaned up with water, while oil-based stains are more toxic to breathe and must be cleaned up with mineral spirits. I mostly use oil-based penetrating stains, but I make sure to wear a respirator and keep my garage door open a nice bit.

Advantages of Regular Stain

  • Easy to apply using a brush or a rag.
  • Dries much faster than gel stain, and you can apply topcoat much sooner.
  • Penetrates into the wood making it last longer when it comes to scratches on the surface. They would be less noticeable.
  • Costs less per quart.
  • Penetrating stain can bring out the natural beauty in a wood’s natural grain, while gel stain will typically hide this.

Disadvantages of Regular Stain

  • You can only apply traditional stain to raw wooden surfaces.
  • Doesn’t last as long as gel stain based on square footage per quart.
  • You can easily spill liquid stains and make a terrible mess. (I have kicked multiple cans over and its not fun).
  • If wood isn’t properly prepped you could have a super blotchy finish. Wood conditioner may be required to get an even stained finish.
  • Certain woods will not penetrate and there is little change when trying to stain it, this is when gel stain results are better.

What’s the Verdict?

Did this information help you determine which wood stain is best for you? I hope so, but really you never know what option is best until you test them out. After refinishing dozens of furniture projects, from staining laminate furniture to water-damaged wood, you begin to get a “feel” for what product will work best. Time is valuable, and with the right amount of experience in furniture refinishing you will eventually get it right from the start.

If you want me to give you a simple answer for which stain you should choose than pick up some gel stain, you can’t go wrong. No, I am serious, you can’t go wrong. You can pretty much put gel stain on any surface in super light coats, it may take a long time but it will work. The only time you choose regular stain is when you have a fully sanded raw wood surface that needs some penetrating.

Thanks for reading in and if you want to watch my work just type Furniture Flippa on and I am sure you’ll learn a thing or two.