As a total newbie to this miniature dollhouse thing, I don’t know what I’m doing. See: everything. And, honestly, I don’t have much crafting experience either. I mean, for a long time, most of the stuff I did was kits, and that didn’t require a lot of experimenting and figuring and mistaking.
That’s how I ended up with wood stain for some of the smaller projects (like the stairs, the door, and so on). After experimenting with wood stain, though, I decided that was not the way to go and ended up painting most of those things.
Honestly, the results aren’t bad. They just aren’t great.
So, for the balsa wood floors, I decided to get wood dye and go that route. Actually, I got RIT dye because, apparently, that will work. However, I haven’t attempted to dye the floor yet because A) time; and B), I still need to cut the strips for the upper level. Side note, my hands and I are not looking forward to that.
But, in my wood stain or wood dye research, I stumbled across gel wood stain. I didn’t know wood stain came in a gel form. So, true to my nature, I started researching gel wood stain pros and cons. And, also true to my nature, I bought some gel wood stain and tested it out!
What Is Gel Wood Stain and How Is It Different?
“Traditional” wood stain (I don’t know what else to call it) is really just paint. And paint is pigment, carrier, and binder. Pigment is the color, the carrier is what carries the pigment to the wood (it’s oil or water-based), and binder (that’s what helps the pigment stick to the wood).
While you may think gel wood stain is a separate category (like wood stain or wood dye), it’s not. Yeah. I was just as surprised as you are. I couldn’t find a lot of information on gel wood stain pros and cons, but the main thing that makes a wood gel “different” is that it contains more binder than non-gel versions. And, that binder tends to be thicker than the binder in other stains, hence the gel name.
Thanks to the additional binder, gel wood stains behave differently than their liquidity cousins. Gel binder is thick (like a gel), so it doesn’t drip or run as easily. And, because it’s thick, gel stains tend to sit on the wood surface (all though not all do). And the extra binder means you don’t have to worry about overloading the brush like you do with the liquids.
Gel Wood Stain Pros and Cons
Like everything in life, there are gel wood stain pros and cons. While I usually research these things, then write about them without testing them first, I had the opportunity to test gel wood stain pros and cons while writing this post. And, I have to say, I think that’s how I’m going to do these things from now on.
Gel Wood Stain Pros
So, like I said, I bought some gel wood stain because I was curious. And, I tested it out on some scrap wood. I’ve got my own list of gel wood stain pros, on top of what the “pros” say are gel wood stain pros. (Say that five times fast!)
Gel wood stain sits on the wood
Depending on your goals, this could be a pro for you. Gel wood stain is thick, which means that unlike its liquid-like counterparts, the stain doesn’t “sink in” to the wood. The wood doesn’t absorb the gel stain like it does the liquid stains, giving it some color without covering up all the details that make your wood interesting.
It’s easy to use
Liquid stain drips. Trust me. I know (link). And, that’s a problem when you drip where you don’t want to. Gel stain isn’t drippy. Or at least, it’s not as drippy, making it less likely you’ll make a mistake.
And, as a pro plus (I’m trademarking that), because it doesn’t drip, it’s easier to use on vertical surfaces and in tight corners. So, if you’re refinishing a dollhouse and you’re not disassembling it, gel wood might be the way to go.
In case you’re wondering what gel wood stain looks like, here’s a picture of mine on a paper plate. Specifically, I fluffed it up with a q-tip. As you can see, the stain “stands.” It kind of reminds me of the poop emoji.
So, yeah, it’s thicker, all right.
But not like glue. Because gel wood stain has more binder, it’s stickier than liquid stains. Remember, binder is what makes the pigment stick to the wood. The more binder in the product, the stickier it is. The sticker the stain, the easier it sticks to the wood, and the less you may have to use (it depends on how dark you want the finish). That doesn’t mean you can skip prep work, though. You still need to have a raw or a sanded surface before you start your staining.
Gel Wood Stain Cons
But, let’s face it, like anything, gel wood stain has its cons, too.
It sits on the wood
Yes, this is also a con. Because the gel stain sits on the wood, it’s not absorbed like liquid stains. Which means that it doesn’t work as well on certain woods. Some woods don’t absorb stain well. That’s just how they are. When you use a gel stain, it’s less likely that the wood will absorb the stain evenly, resulting in an uneven finish. Observe:
This picture is after I applied a few coats of the gel stain. As you can see, I’m not getting an even finish. It looks cool (to me). But, if this isn’t the look you’re going for, well, then this is not cool.
All stains take forever (seriously!) to dry. But, gel stains may take a little longer to dry because they are thick. The binder has to cure to make the sticking happen, and the more there is, the longer it takes to dry.
You knew this, but this can be a con. While it is easier to even out the finish with these, the problem is that gels can gather in the corner and end up dark and uneven. I found this out firsthand when I used the gel wood stain on the test piece. This is what it looked like after I applied one coat.
In that picture, you’ll see that the top part of the stain is darker than the bottom part. That distinct change in tone is where the wood wasn’t even. Since this was a test, I didn’t bother sanding the wood first. So, the light part is higher than the dark part. As you can see, the two wood “heights” have different finishes.
I’ll spoil the ending for you and say that after a few more coats, the results were a little more even, but they weren’t great. There’s definitely still an obvious line between those two areas. Here are some other pictures.
You can totally make out the wood grain in these pictures, no matter how many coats I applied. But, you can also see where it did not go on evenly, and I have no idea how to fix that. All though, it seems like it may not be fixable.
Other Gel Wood Stain Pros and Cons
Gel wood stain is an oil-based stain. Like all things oil-based, there are pros and cons to think about. But, I will say, thanks to my research on cleaning oil-based paints, cleaning up the brush this time was a snap.
I followed my advice, and it worked! First, I rinsed it off in a little bit of oil (yes, the Crisco). Here’s what it looked like after the first rinse:
As you can see, it’s not particularly clean, so I went for a second round and worked the oil into the bristles. Here’s how the brush looked the second time:
Much better. I worked some more oil in, then used a tiny bit of soap and water to clean out the oil and any other residue. Here’s how the brush ended up:
Not so bad if I say so myself.
Why am I sharing this with you? It’s not to brag, I swear, but it’s to add “clean up” to the list of pros. I know oil-based paints are a pain to clean. But this was different. Because I didn’t have to load up so much stain on the brush, there was less residue on the brush when I was done. That made clean up easier and faster. I didn’t have to go as deeply into the bristles to get the brush clean.
Gel Wood Stain Might Be Right
Clearly, gel wood stain has some advantages. And, depending on the project, it might be the right stain for you. I strongly recommend testing it out on a small piece of scrap wood before you try it out, though. Or, test it on a hidden area of your project first. Gel wood stain, I’ve learned, is tricky (another con). It’s easy to work with, but kind of particular.
What about you? Any thoughts about gel wood stain I missed? Any advice on using it? Let me know in the comments!