How to Apply Gel Stain For A Beautiful Tabletop Finish

I love the look of a gel stained tabletop, especially when paired with a neutral painted base. Such a gorgeous combination! I’m sure you’ve seen this look all over Pinterest and other social media sites. I’ll show you how to apply gel stain for a beautiful tabletop finish.

How To Apply Gel Stain

Gel stains are a great option for even beginner furniture painters. Helpful tips and more chalk mineral paint basics can be found in this link.

Other Helpful Blog Posts

There are a few other blog posts you may find helpful related to gel stains:

Why Gel Stains? What Makes Them Special?

Whereas water-based stains are thin and need to penetrate into the wood to be effective, gel stains are thick and truly gel-like stain colors, so they lay over top of an existing finish nicely! The thickness of the gel stain means that it can work over an existing finish.

And this also means that it isn’t necessary to completely sand down to a raw wood finish in order to use gel stain successfully. How much or how little you want to sand your furniture first is up to you!

Have you tried gel stain yet? It’s one of my favorite ways to refinish furniture and upgrade the look of tired used pieces.

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My Favorite Gel Stains

There are many brands of gel stain to choose from, but I want to share with you the two that are my absolute favorites! These include Dixie Belle’s No Pain Gel Stain and General Finishes Java Gel Stain.

Dixie Belle No Pain Gel Stain comes in several colors including Walnut, Cherry, and Espresso. General Finishes Gel Stain comes in many colors but their Java Gel is probably the most popular and the one that DIY painters might be familiar with.

Java Gel is a nice deep brown almost espresso Finish, so “Java” truly is the perfect name for this stain.

You can find Dixie Belle No Pain Gel Stain here and the General Finishes Java Gel Stain here, both available on Amazon. You can also purchase them through local retailers. I find Java Gel Stain and other General Finishes products at my local Klingspor Woodworking Shop and Dixie Belle products at my local Dixie Belle retailer.

Next, I’ll walk you through the easy steps on how to apply gel stain for a beautiful finish. For this tutorial I am talking about applying gel stain to a tabletop. Gel staining is not hard, but I do have some tips for success that I’ll review later in the post. Hopefully you’ll find those helpful!

Let’s get started!

Project Supplies List

Easy Steps to a Beautiful Gel Stain Finish for Tabletops

Prep For Gel Stain Application

  • If you are going to paint the base of the table or any other part of your furniture, you may choose to paint that area first. Then, once painted and finished you can tape it off to protect it while you work on the gel stained portion. I use blue painter’s tape and drop cloths for this.
  • Option 1 is to sand to raw wood finish if you prefer. To Sand to raw wood use the coarser grit first like 80-100, then use about 180 to 220 to finish sand. Option 2 is to scuff sand the existing finish if you are not sanding to raw wood.
  • To scuff sand for preparation for gel stain, use anywhere from a 150 to 220 grit. Here is a blog post on sanding tips and techniques: https://simplyrefinished.com/how-to-get-a-smoother-finish-with-chalk-paint/
  • Remove your sanding dust with a cloth or vacuum.
  • Next, clean your furniture piece well and let it dry. I typically use a mix of 50/50 denatured alcohol and water to clean the tabletop. I keep this premixed in a spray bottle ready to go and give it a little shake before each use.
  • Before you apply the gel stain you want to look over your tabletop for any stray lint, fuzz or at my house pet hairs! Amazing how these show in your final finish!

Gel Stain Application Tips and Techniques

  • To apply the gel stain use a lint-free cloth or a stain pad. You can find a big bag of low-lint cloths on Amazon. But I also love these lint-free rags at Home Depot. You can also buy a pack of gel stain pads that work nicely.
  • You can also apply this stain with a foam paint brush! I prefer to apply with a lint-free a staining pad. You can find these nice stain pads at Home Depot here and on Amazon. And now Dixie Belle makes its’ own staining pad!
  • One trick is to work in small sections because this stain dries fast! So, work in sections, keeping a “wet edge” as you go. If you try to go back over an already stained area that is starting to dry it increases the risk of dragging marks and streaks in your finish.
  • As you work in sections, apply the stain and then wipe away excess before it dries. You really want a nice smooth even finish. Work quickly in small sections to prevent drying.

Finishing Up With Gel Stain Application

  • Once your piece is stained, allow it to dry. You will want to give it time to fully dry, allowing 12 – 24 hours, between each coat. I usually wait a full 24 hours to be safe. You can apply more than one coat to get the coverage you want.
  • Once you have achieved your desired coverage, then you apply your topcoat. A topcoat is not absolutely necessary, but personally I prefer to use a topcoat on a tabletop or any surface that will get heavy use.
  • If you are using a water-based topcoat you will want to wait 72 hours after the last gel stain coat. I like Dixie Belle Gator Hide, Dixie Belle Clear Coat in Satin, and General Finishes High Performance Water-Based Topcoat in Satin. These are all water-based topcoats and easy to apply.

For quick reference get My Six Essentials For Gel Stain Projects & Gel Staining Tips Here

How To Apply Gel Stain Project Antique Table
See this beautiful gel stained tabletop

Here is a Facebook Live I did on Using Dixie Belle No Pain Gel Stain on a vintage tabletop. This tabletop was very scratched and dinged so I completely sanded it down before applying the stain. This video is not the best quality as the lighting is bad and you can see my horribly messy garage but check it out if you can overlook those things.

Tips For Using Gel Stain

  • Gel Stains are made to be easy! There are so many beautiful color options and various brands to choose from. Gel stains are thicker than water-based stains and they go on beautifully!
  • It is recommended to use the gel stains in a ventilated area.
  • Use gloves when applying because not only does the gel stain color your furniture, it also colors skin! So protect your hands and your clothing and any work surfaces! I have learned the hard way!
  • Also use eye protection like basic goggles. Anytime you are working with paint or chemicals eye protection is necessary.
  • Lastly, any towels or cloths used to apply or clean up gel stain need to be handled cautiously. These oil-stained cloths, towels and brushes are flammable. Lay them outside or away from the house to dry out completely before placing in your trash.

Final Thoughts About Gel Stain

The most important thing to remember is that gel stains, like my favorites Dixie Belle No Pain Gel Stain and General Finishes Java Gel Stain, are supposed to be EASY and SIMPLE! So, have fun with it! It’s super easy to get a beautiful finish without much work! Gel stain truly is. . . well, NO PAIN!

So I encourage you to give gel stain a try! You will be amazed at how it can change up your furniture and give you more options in refinishing your pieces!

If you are looking for another post on gel stain, here is a link to a post where I updated my farmhouse style kitchen table and benches using gel stain. I also painted the base and legs with chalk paint.

For the basics on chalk painting check out this post here: https://simplyrefinished.com/how-to-chalk-paint-furniture-makeovers-made-simple/

I’d love to know what gel stains you’ve tried! Leave me a comment below.

10 Comments

  1. Gel stain is a great way to update salvaged or thrifted finds too. Someone even sent me pictures of how they refinished their wooden front door, if you’re looking for that type of inspiration. The investment is minimal, and the impact is great. Gel stain is applied to the surface of the wood but not rubbed-in like traditional stains; the application is more comparable to painting on multiple thin layers.

    1. Hi, Thanks so much for checking out my post! I hope you found it helpful! I usually use Dixie Belle Gator Hide or Dixie Belle Clear Coat in Satin. I have seen many people who say they have trouble with the Gator Hide streaking. And it sure can. If you check out AJ”s Vintage Design blog and videos she talks about how she deals with streaking by buffing the topcoat. I’ve tried this and it works good. If you need any other help let me know!

  2. I am actually planning use a lighter stain like a gray when I refinish from the current mahogany color. I have been told that I can just the the fray over the dark and will be fine, but I am a little hesitant. Have you tried this & what was the result?

    1. Hi. Thank you so much for checking out my blog. I have not personally tried to apply a gray stain over a mahogany color. I think it will likely work fine. It may require a few coats to get the color you want though to cover the underlying mahogany. If it is possible to sand it down to remove the old stain, that would be optimal but if you prefer not to do that then I think that you can apply the gray stain fine without sanding down but it will show some of that underlying stain color at least on the first coat. I’d love to hear what you decide and how it turns out! Good Luck!

  3. Can you mix the colors of Dixie Belle’s No Pain Gel Stain. My cherry wood bed is not as red as the stain color so I was thinking of using the walnut with just a bit of the cherry. What do you think?

    1. Hi Carolyn,
      Thank you for your comment on my blog post. I hope you found it helpful. I have to say that I have never tried mixing colors of gel stains. I worry that they may not mix well and it might result in a streaky finish. I think I would look at another brand of gel stain, like maybe General Finishes or at the hardware stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot they sale MinWax and they make so many colors in their gel stains. Possibly you may want to see if there is a color you like.
      I hope that was helpful. Take Care! Abbey

    1. Hi Rebecca thank you for reading my blog post. I usually use General Finishes High-Performance Water Based topcoat in Satin but it also comes in flat. Another great choice is Wise Owl Varnish (also water-based) in Satin but it also comes in Matte as well if you prefer a less shiny topcoat.
      HOpe that helps!
      Abbey

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