This post may contain affiliate links to products we personally use and love.
The Nitty Gritty
When we moved into our new house, a lot of our cabinets were old oak originals from the 1970s. Our bathroom looked completely dated with an oak vanity. In our kitchen, the previous owners updated the countertops with granite but left the old oak cabinets. The speckled tan and brown granite clashed with the oak. I wanted a cost-effective solution, and at this point, I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.
Here's a picture of our dated kitchen:
Spending time scouring pinterest and googling my options, I stumbled across a blog post where gel stain was used to completely change the look of a bathroom cabinet. The blogger recommended General Finishes Gel Stain and emphasized not to use a different brand. I had some time on my hands and decided to try the gel stain finish on the bathroom vanity. I started small - on the inside of the cabinet door. If I liked the way it turned out, I could go ahead and finish the cabinet. In the back of my mind I was thinking that if it went really well, I could attempt the kitchen.
Below is a before and after of the bathroom vanity. I was thrilled with how it turned out. Between the gel stain on the vanity and the new mirror, this bathroom had left its aging past behind.
Prior to using this gel stain, I had a lot of experience working with regular wood stain, but I had never worked with gel stain. However, it was easy-to-use and yielded exactly the results that I was going for. I was so thrilled with how the bathroom vanity turned out that a few months later, I gel stained all of my kitchen cabinets. It was a huge project, but the results were phenomenal, especially for the money.
To give a little background on gel stain versus regular stain, when using regular wood stain, or thin-liquid stain, it actually penetrates into the wood. Whereas with gel stain, the stain sits on top of the wood. When using regular stain, sometimes the wood unevenly absorbs the color and you end up with some dark splotches. With gel stain, you don’t have this problem because the wood doesn’t absorb the stain. Because it sits on top, it masks the grain of the wood, especially if you pick a dark color.
When using gel stain, even though no uneven spots will show through, you will also lose some of the grain of the wood, depending upon how dark your stain is. This is a matter of preference though. General Finishes in Espresso is very popular color stain on the blogs. It’s so dark that is almost opaque, hiding the grain or any other imperfections.
I thought Espresso would be a little too dark for my kitchen countertops. I went one shade lighter and used Antique Walnut. With this hue, you can still faintly see the grain of the wood, which makes the cabinets look authentic. With gel stain, you don’t wipe off the excess stain the way you wipe off regular stain. It also is a thicker consistency and doesn’t really drip. This makes it easy to stain vertical surfaces.
After loving the bathroom cabinet and doing a little more research, I decided to tackle the kitchen. Here's the after picture. (We also installed backsplash and new appliances, but the difference just in the cabinets was amazing)
I haven’t even told you the best part - when using this gel stain, you don’t need to strip the wood or spend too much time sanding. You do need to do a thorough sanding, just enough to give the gel stain something to stick to.
Here's the back of the cabinet door after a light sanding.
After sanding and thoroughly wiping down the pieces, I used foam brushes to start applying the stain. I preferred using the foam brushes (I used a regular size foam brush and a smaller size for crevices) rather than rags because I was wearing thick chemical gloves, so I was able to get into the nooks and crannies with the foam brush more easily than with rags.
The stain went on easy - just like painting. And again, there’s no need to wipe it off. I did three to four coats, and while it did look streaky during the first and second coat (it is supposed to!), the third coat is magic. One thing you have to be careful of is leaving a build-up in the corners and grooves. These will harden and dry, and then stand out like a sore thumb. After each coat, thoroughly check the grooves and other areas for any build-up.
After three to four coats, the cabinets looked great. You can get by with three coats, but four seals the deal. There were absolutely no streaks or uneven surfaces. As far as color, Antique Walnut is a solid dark brown - like Hershey’s chocolate brown.
As far as smell, the stain isn’t too pleasant on the nose. Make sure to keep your area well-ventilated. I did a lot of the cabinet doors in the garage with the garage doors wide open, but I still prefered having a fan, blowing out the stinky air. (The good news is that the polyurethane sealer is water-based and has little to no smell.)
I should mention too that during this project, we added a cabinet to our kitchen, so we ordered two new, unfinished cabinet doors. The gel stain went on the unfinished doors easily and matched all of the old doors almost perfectly. The only difference is the two new doors looked a tad shinier than the other doors. In hindsight, we would have only used one coat of polyurethane.
Because I put on thick coats, I went through three quarts of the stain between the bathroom and the kitchen. Between the foam brushes, stain, and polyurethenane, the whole project was under $150. You simply cannot beat that! Kitchen renovations are thousands of dollars. If you are willing to put the work in, this is a fantastic solution.
General Finishes Gel Stain is the only gel stain that I’ve worked with, but I heard it’s the only brand to work with. Ash used a different brand of gel stain with a piece of furniture years ago and ended up sanding the stain off. He was extremely skeptical of my desire to use the gel stain but was sold when he saw the bathroom vanity completely madeover. I’ve also read posts from other bloggers who have tried different brands and been disappointed with their results. If you are thinking about using gel stain, definitely go with this brand!
Pictured below is Ash reattaching the cabinet doors.
General Finishes Gel Stain is a little hard to find - you have to buy it a specialty shop or on Amazon. We bought the first quart on Amazon and found the next at a speciality shop a couple hours away, due to poor planning on my part! I did have a funny conversation with the store owner, who asked me what I was using this stain for because it was selling like hotcakes. He also thought I was crazy for driving to another state, so I could finish my cabinets ;)
Looking at the before and after pictures of our kitchen cabinets, the difference is incredible. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work, but it completely modernized our kitchen.
Hammering It Home…
Here are the projects where we’ve used this gel stain. To see detailed steps and pictures, click the project below.
Hi! We're Ash and Eileen, and we are sharing our home project stories with you. From crafty projects to home maintenance to more ambitious DIY endeavors, we hope our stories inspire you to check a few things off your project list! :)