I've been thinking a stain post was in order for a while now, but I was testing out a newer product and wanted to make sure I was very comfortable with it before I shared (more on that below). So in this post I want to talk about 3 different kinds of stain and the pros/cons/usage of each one. We're going to talk Gel Stain, Water Based Stain and Oil Stain.
Stain can be trickier than paint in application and appearance, so I hope to offer some tips and tricks along the way to help you out! Each stain also has it's own application tricks, so I'll add a few of those too!
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Oil Based Stain
This is probably the most well known and easiest product to come by. For the longest time my very favorite stain color has been Minwax Dark Walnut. I have used it on numerous pieces, and it never seems to disappoint. It's readily available in hardware stores, and online!
Note - General Finishes also has an oil based stain line, I have yet to try it. Once I like something I tend to stick with it - Minwax is what I used most often for oil based stain.
PROS: Oil based stain is usually more transparent, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the piece you are working on. It is the best product to give color without covering the grain of the wood. It soaks into the wood, giving longer wear and durability.
CONS: It stinks. Oil based products can be a dangerous to work with. Spontaneous combustion can occur with oil soaked rags, and working in my home workshop - this always made me a little nervous. I also would always try to stain last and leave so to avoid breathing in the fumes. Also dispose of your rags carefully (and according to local regulations to avoid any issues).
Oil based stain must dry for 24 hours before you begin top coating. So it can be a lengthier process than some other stain options.
RECOMMENDED USE: If you have a piece with really pretty grain you'd like to accentuate - this is the stain to use. It really makes the wood the center of the show. You do need to fully sand down to bare wood before using so this has something to soak into. Seal with High Performance Top Coat or Arm-R-Seal for a beautiful finish.
APPLICATION TIPS & TRICKS: I really like applying this stain with a rag - just an old cotton t-shirt will do. Using this method it will be easy to control the amount of stain you are using. Once the stain is applied over the piece, wipe off any excess with a clean rag and let dry.
You can use either water based or oil based products as a topcoat once the stain is dry. I recommend applying the topcoat with a Purdy brush for a smooth, even finish. I always apply 3 coats, sanding in between with 400 grit sandpaper.
I'm talking specifically about General Finishes Gel Stain (there are other gel stain products out there, but I haven't used them - and I think General Finishes Gel Stain is the best!). The most popular color is the famous "Java Gel". I've used other colors but all the photos here are in Java (here are all of the Gel Stain Colors). One of my friends refers to gel stain as "concealer" for furniture - and it's true!
PROS: It's nice because it's a semi solid stain so you hide any imperfections that may be in the wood and still have a rich wood tone color. You are also hiding some of the grain in the process. You can use this product with or without sanding down to raw wood. The fact that you don't have to strip the existing finish is a big plus in a lot of cases - it makes for a quicker project from start to finish.
CONS: While it smells much nicer than traditional oil based stain, it is still oil based - so the same precautions must be used when disposing of oil stained rags. (Check out your local regulations as to how to properly dispose of shop rags). Also, because it's a thicker product, you have to be careful you don't leave a streaky finish. It doesn't sink in, but is more of a topical application so what you see upon application is how it will dry.
RECOMMENDED USAGE: Any time your wood is not perfect or you don't want to fully sand down and re-stain. Having this product in your arsenal can save you tons of time! Just make sure you get an even, consistent color finish so your piece doesn't look streaky.
APPLICATION TIPS & TRICKS: I like to apply Gel Stain with a foam brush. They are disposable so easy to toss when finished. I'll wipe down any extra with a cotton cloth being careful to leave even coverage and no streaks.
The quicker you wipe down the stain, the more grain you will see underneath. If you want a lighter color, wipe away more quickly. A darker color, let sit a bit longer. However do not let excess stain dry on top of the wood.
Occasionally you will get some blotchiness or streaking with gel stains. In this case, go over the dry stain with a coat of Top Coat, let dry and re-stain. This will even out your surface for application. Even though the Gel Stain has some urethane in it, I recommend 2-3 coats of Top Coat for protection.
Water Based Stain
General Finishes also carries a line of water based wood stain. I was interested in it because water based products are safer to be around and easier to clean up. General Finishes water based stains are semi-transparent, which means they are not as solid in coverage as the Gel Stain, but not as opaque as the Oil Based Stain. It's a good happy medium, and I've grown to really enjoy the product!
PROS: Like the Gel Stain, GF Water Based stain can be used with or without sanding to bare wood. This is not only a great time saver, but can also be used as a wood toner - to change the color of an existing wood finish in a much easier process. See how I do it to cabinets in this post!
The smell is non-existent, when I put my nose to the can I can't smell anything. This fact alone makes me feel much more comfortable having it in my workshop and around my home. The Espresso Color (pictured below) is comparable to Java Gel! It dries quickly which can be a bit tricky at times but also means you can begin top coating in just a few hours.
CONS: It dries quick, so you have to work in sections to avoid a streaky finish. It isn't as thick as the Gel Stain, but is more of a solid color like the Gel Stain so sometimes you loose some of the grain.
RECOMMENDED USAGE: Any time! I've been using this more and more lately in the workshop - it goes well over raw wood and treated wood alike. I've also been playing with the colors a bit - you can mix them, so I think I found the perfect color mix (very similar to the Dark Walnut): 1/2 Walnut + 1/2 Antique Oak = the perfect color! Here are the colors offered in this stain.
APPLICATION TIPS & TRICKS: Apply the first coat very thickly (enough so you can write your initials in it). I like to use a chip brush for the first coat.
Work in sections, and wipe off the excess as you go with a cotton rag (note: you DON'T HAVE TO wipe off the excess if you like the color, I do it to see the grain through the stain).
Let dry and apply additional coats if desired. If you are happy with the color, top coat as normal (2-3 coats sanding with 400 grit between coats). Then you can just toss that rag in the trash (without the worry of blowing up - kidding (kind of)) and wash your brush.
I forgot to mention, but it goes for all of the stains, WEAR GLOVES! Unless of course you'd like a little stain sinking into your manicure.
So there you have it - that's all I know about stain crammed in one blog post! Hope that will give you a little confidence to try a new product and enjoy the process!