General Finishes Gel Stain
General Finishes Gel Stain: 11 Easy Steps for Perfect Cabinets
I’m super excited to share this gel stain post with you guys!
It’s a re-created post from the blog I accidentally deleted when I flipped my first house.
I loved the outcome of this project so much, the post is now a tutorial on how to use general finishes gel stain to refinish your kitchen and/or bathroom cabinets! (So I apologize for the quality of the photos, I didn’t know I’d be doing a tutorial on it!)
And after you finish checking out this gel stain tutorial, hop on over to my post about what top coat to choose for your cabinets! And also check out my comprehensive list of supplies you’ll need to gel stain your cabinets here.
*This post contains affiliate links.
It all started when I decided I wanted to change the color of the cabinets on my first flip’s kitchen (and bathrooms for that matter). The cabinetry and vanities were good quality but they had been stained an amber color that was way too orange for my taste. So I decided I’d either paint the kitchen cabinets or stain them.
The consistency is not as thick as paint but not as thin as a stain, which made it really easy to use. And by doing multiple thin coats, you can watch the color develop and stop applying coats once you’re satisfied with the color. I liked the look after two coats, but I wound up doing three coats because I thought it would appeal to more buyers when I put the house up for sale.
After a lot of research and reading a lot of reviews, I went with General Finishes gel stain in antique walnut. I was gonna go with the very popular color, java, but the antique walnut went better with the overall look of the house. And since I was flipping the house I didn’t care that much.
I’ve done four projects with gel stain now and every time my project came out a little darker than the color swatch. So I’d highly suggest getting the lighter of the two colors if you can’t choose and just do an extra coat if it’s not dark enough.
|The Supplies & Tools
Rag/Old Sock (I threw mine out when I was done)
Two Long Pieces of Wood or a Sheet of Plywood
(1) Remove the hardware
First, take off all the handles and pulls and don’t forget to put all the knobs and screws into a bag or box and label it! They might be off for a few days and we all know how much screws like to roll around. And then if you’re like me, you’ll see the screw on the floor later and, not thinking, throw it in the trash (yes that happened).
I know you’re not supposed to use a drill to put the cabinets hinges back on due to a higher chance of over tightening and stripping the screws, but to take them out I sometimes use a drill, it’s just so much faster.
(2) Remove the doors
Next, you’re going to remove all the doors and hinges to make it easier for staining. Again, make sure you put the hinges and screws in a bag or box and label them! Another mistake I made was thinking that I’d remember which screws went to the hardware and which to the hinges. I didn’t. So after much trial and error, I finally figured out where everything went.
Also, make sure you find a good system for remembering which doors go where. Since it’s not practical to label the door itself, I wound up using painters tape with numbers to label the spot each cabinet would dry at. I had a lot of cabinets so I had rotate the cabinets to the staining area and have them fully dry elsewhere.
Lastly, if you don’t have a good place to stain the cabinets, try setting up saw horses with two pieces of wood or a sheet of plywood across them, it will give you a lot more surface area to lay the cabinets down on.
(3) Rough up the surface
Now you want to rough up the surface of the doors and the cabinet face frames a little bit
so that gel stain has a good surface to adhere to.
You might notice in the picture that I had to use an orbital sander and take my cabinets down to bare wood. But in my case, whoever stained it previously, left globs of stain in areas and I wasn’t about to make it look like the stain globs were my stain globs.
The whole point of gel stain is that you don’t have to take your cabinets down to bare wood. Just take a fine sanding block (or 220-400grit sandpaper) and lightly scuff the entire cabinet frame and door.
(4) Clean Up
Take a damp rag and clean off all the dust you might have made from scuffing the cabinets. Make sure you let the surface dry completely before starting with the gel stain. The stain is an oil based stain and oil and water don’t mix well, so it’s incredibly important to allow it to fully dry.
I know it might be tempting to skip the entire cleaning, but don’t. The dust may not seem like it will be a problem but trust me (because I used to be impatient with all my projects, so I’ve tried skipping the cleaning), it globs up in the stain once it’s applied, even if it doesn’t look like there’s any dust there at all! Then you have to pick these little pieces of dust covered stain off of the cabinets before it dries and touch up all the finger prints
(5) Apply The Stain
Next you’re going to apply the stain to the cabinets and cabinet frames. I used foam brushes to apply the stain but you can also use either a natural bristle brush or cotton cloth.
Dip the tip of the applicator into the stain (a little goes a long way) and work with the grain of the wood in long strokes.
If the stain pools, wipe up the excess with an extra foam applicator or a rag. Work in small sections as the stain gets tacky fairly quickly causing it to pull as you work. I worked it into the corners first since that was the most difficult area to get to. I’d recommend doing anything that might take a few extra seconds of special attention and leave the easier areas for last.
(As a side note guys: The instructions on the can say to wipe off the gel stain after you apply it, I DID NOT DO THIS for my kitchen cabinets. I did a lot of research prior to attempting this project and I found a lot of other people who tried it without wiping. Basically, I used it more as a paint than as a stain. If you are going for more of a stain look, definitely wipe the stain off after applying.
However, I still tried their directions first but I hated the outcome! When I applied the stain and wiped it off, even after waiting quite a while, it seemed like I was literally wiping off everything I was putting on – like everything! So I then did multiple thin coats and love the makeover!)
(6) Let Dry
I let the stain dry for 24 hours in between each coat and found the longer it dried, the easier the next coat went on. The instructions say it should only take 6-12 hours to dry but I was gel staining my kitchen cabinets in the cold, damp basement so the drying time was a bit longer. So, if you have the time, it may be beneficial to let it dry longer, especially if the drying conditions aren’t ideal.
(7) Repeat on the other side
Flip the cabinets over after they’ve dried and repeat the staining process on the other side. And don’t forget the sides of the cabinets and to check for drips every so often!
(8) Repeat again.
If you want a deeper richer color, repeat steps 5 and 6 on both sides of the door. Most people will probably need 3-4 coats to achieve the look they’re going for.
(9) Apply Sealer/Top Coat
After allowing the additional coats of stain to dry, apply a sealer or top coat. The one I chose, General Finishes high performance top coat, is a water based top coat. As long as you let the stain completely dry (a minimum of 72 hours is recommended) before applying the top coat it’s perfectly fine to use a water based top coat on top of the oil based stain.
I chose the high performance top coat because it’s supposed to be one of the hardest, most durable satin polyurethane topcoats available and the kitchen is a busy place! It looks a little cloudy when you put it on, but it dries to a clear hard finish.
(10) Additional Coats & Sanding
It’s recommended to use at least three coats of top coat, the more coats you put on the more durable and long lasting the top coat will be. I did four coats on the kitchen cabinets with the thought that grubby hands would be touching behind the handles multiple times a day. So I was hoping that they hold up to more wear and tear with more coats.
Unlike the gel stain you have to sand between topcoats with a 320-400 grit sandpaper. You just need to lightly scuff the surface so that the next coat has something to grab a hold of. Allow each coat coat to dry for about 2-4 hours before applying the next.
(11) Put it all back together
Lastly, locate your bags or boxes of parts and hang the doors back in their original spots, re-attach the hardware (or your new hardware if you’re going all out with this makeover!), and stand back and admire your work.
I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a lot of work. Like a lot. Especially if you’re doing a kitchen with lots of cabinets! I’d recommend starting out small with a bathroom vanity or table top (or this, or this, or this), especially if this is your first staining experience. It also takes a lot of time because of having to wait for each side of the cabinet doors to dry before flipping them over and repeating the process on the other side. But it’s definitely a project worth trying!
Have you tried or are going to try gel stain? Come back and comment and let me know how it went! As for mine, here are the finished results…
*WARNING! Removal of old paint by sanding, scraping or other means may generate dust or fumes that contain lead. Exposure to lead dust or fumes may cause brain damage or other adverse health effects, especially in children or pregnant women. Controlling exposure to lead or other hazardous substances requires the use of proper protective equipment such as a properly fitted respirator (NIOSH approved) and proper containment and cleanup. For more information, call the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD (in US) or contact your local health authority.