Java Gel Stain 

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Gel stain is like magic in a can.  Java Gel is the most popular color because of the richness and depth it gives that goes with so many decor styles and colors.  Gel stain is an almost opaque stain, pretty thick in consistency and although an oil based stain, does not penetrate the wood very deeply.  If you've ever had a piece of wood that you'd like to re-stain, but was less than perfect, this stain is for you!!  

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The best feature about gel stain is that you can use it over raw wood or an existing finish.  Say what?  Yep, no stripping required to keep the wood finish you like.  It’s perfect for that antique piece that maybe has a few dings or scratches but you just can’t bring yourself to PAINT it.  Also perfect if you want the wood look, but want to change the COLOR of the wood.  You know, let’s update that 80’s oak – this is a great solution.  Yes, it works on kitchen cabinets too!

I'm talking specifically about General Finishes Gel Stain (there are other gel stain products out there, but 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!  

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using gel stain

The vanity shown here had seen better days.  The top layer of veneer was coming off, so I removed it all and was left with a solid top that was not quite as pretty as I would have liked.  Java Gel Stain is the perfect solution because it covers imperfections in the wood, without completely hiding the grain. 

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 will hide some of the grain in the process, so keep this in mind.  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 and having adequate ventilation.  (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 penetrate the wood as deeply as a regular oil based stain, 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. 

For a comparison of Gel Stain against Oil Based Stain, and Water based stain, check out this article.  


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video tutorial

Want to see a full application tutorial?  This nightstand was saved from the dump, so it had really seen better days, but with a little patience and General Finishes Java Gel, it gets a second chance on life.  

Here's what you need re-stain a piece with Java Gel:

-220 Grit Sandpaper

-Wet Paper Towels

-Denatured Alcohol (50/50 mix with water) if piece is extra dirty, oily or you are refinishing kitchen cabinets

-General Finishes Java Gel

-Stir stick


-Cotton Rags (I use old t-shirts)

-Chip Brush

-Clear Finish (I use General Finishes High Performance Poly in Satin Finish)

-Purdy XL Cub

-400 Grit Sandpaper

tips for using gel stain on raw wood

Because the gel stain doesn't penetrate very deeply into the raw wood, there are a few tips that are helpful to know about application on raw wood.  First of all don't sand your wood with any finer a grit sandpaper than 150, if you make your wood too smooth, there is nothing for the stain to "stick" to. 

You can apply a "slip" coat of mineral spirits over the raw wood just before application of the stain to help it be applied evenly over the entire project. 

Work quickly and use a foam brush or stain pad to apply the stain.  Work in sections (top, side, front, etc.) and if you have a large surface being stained (maybe a table top) leave lap marks (wet areas between sections). 

Wipe excess stain back with an absorbent cloth or clean sponge.  The faster you wipe off the excess, the more you will see the grain through the stain.  I usually wipe off immediately.  Additional coats can be used to deepen the color if desired.  

Let it dry completely (at least 24 hours) before you apply a topcoat.  I recommend using 2-3 coats of topcoat sanding between each coat with 400 grit sandpaper.  You can topcoat with a water based product IF YOUR STAIN IS COMPLETELY DRY BEFORE APPLICATION.  


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tips for using gel stain over an existing finish 

The beauty of a product like gel stain is that it can be used ON TOP of the existing finish.  For projects like chairs or other more detailed pieces where stripping and sanding is near impossible, gel stains are a great option.  

Lightly sand the surface with 220 grit sandpaper to scuff up the surface and give it some grit.  

Clean the project with a mixture of 50/50 denatured alcohol and water.  Clean well.  Apply gel stain section by section with a chip brush.  I like to apply it in the direction of the grain.  Don't use too much stain but instead use the "dry brushing" technique adding the stain layer by layer until you get the desired look you want.  You may need to add a few coats.  

Once you are happy with the look, let it dry completely before adding 2-3 layers of topcoat.  This is a great way to tone wood without completely refinishing it.  

    My latest Java Gel Stain Project 

    I found this mini church pew at a local consignment store and knew I needed to have it!!  The wood although beautiful had seen better days, so Java Gel Stain was the perfect way to refinish this church pew and give it many more years of life.  You can see the before and after and how I did it here.