Gel Stains

I Tested 6 Gel Stains: Here are the Best (2024)

There are many ways you can stain wood, but using a gel stain is one of my favorite methods. Gel stain works on bare wood and an existing finish, offering even more protection for your project. That’s why I tested some of the most popular gel stains you can find. Here are my favorites.

In a hurry? Minwax Gel Stain is the best gel stain overall because it’s versatile, easy to use, great at highlighting wood grain, and strong enough to be used both indoors and outdoors.

Best Gel Stains

1. Minwax Gel Stain – #1 Best Overall

Minwax Gel Stain

Minwax Gel Stain is the most versatile, easy-to-use gel stain I’ve ever used, and its abilities to strengthen and beautify wood cannot be surpassed.

An oil-based product, it can be used indoors and outdoors to enhance a variety of surfaces, including wood, plywood, veneer, molded fiberboard, metal, and fiberglass.

It’s usually wiped, brushed, or rolled on, but it can be sprayed too—even though it’s oil-based!

In fact, it rarely leaves drips after being sprayed, even on vertical surfaces. Now that’s something!

It’s a semi-transparent stain with a rich and dark walnut color, and you only need to apply one coat. That said, I’ve found two coats can really bring out wood’s features in a breathtaking way.

A can will cover about 200 sq ft, and it takes this stain 24-48 hours to dry. After such time has passed, it can be used like normal.

Finally, you’ll need mineral spirits to clean it off your applicator, and it comes with a pretty standard satisfaction guarantee.

What I Liked:

  • Doesn’t take long at all to apply this stain, as only one coat is needed.
  • There isn’t a high concentration of VOC, so it’s less toxic than other oily stains.
  • Even non-wood surfaces can be beautified and strengthened by this stain.
  • Wood’s grain and other features are accentuated brilliantly, even though it’s not shiny.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Its viscosity makes it prone to brush and roller marks.
  • Its dark, rich color can fade if it’s constantly exposed to UV rays.

My Thoughts:

Minwax Gel Stain can turn any wood surface into a masterpiece, yet you don’t have to be a master stainer to get the most out of it. It’s a versatile, easy-to-use stain that can accentuate wood grain and other features better than other stains, and it’s pretty durable too. And whereas other oil-based stains are rife with VOC, this one has very little, so it’s much less toxic. If it wasn’t prone to brush marks and had better UV protection, it’d be perfect in every sense!

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2. General Finishes Gel Stain – Best Quality

General Finishes Gel Stain

General Finishes Gel Stain is the best wood stain for fine antiques because it subtly highlights centuries-old grain patterns without posing any risk to the wood.

An interior-only, oil-based stain, it can cover 75-100 sq ft, depending on the surface’s porosity.

And since it doesn’t penetrate deep into the wood’s pores like other oil-based stains, getting a rich finish that’s smooth and consistent all the way through is not difficult.

It may be more viscous than other oil-based gel stains, but I’ve found it’s easy to spread.

I believe a clean cotton cloth is the best applicator—and by a wide margin—but the manufacturer recommends a foam roller.

Most interior surfaces only need one coat. But if the surface is exposed to moisture often, it’s best to add three coats onto the topcoat.

Also, an additional coat of polyurethane or something similar may be necessary.

It takes a coat 12-14 hours to dry if it’s about 70°F and there’s minimal humidity.

After the last coat is on, you’ll just need to wait 72 hours before sealing.

Finally, it comes with a limited warranty, but it’s a lot stricter than others I’ve seen.

What I Liked:

  • It’s color and sheen are perfectly balanced, so it’s ideal for older-looking wood
  • It resists scratches and impact damage better than other gel stains because it’s thicker.
  • It’s easy to spread with a thin cloth, so brush and roller marks are avoided.
  • It can cover a sizable area and last a long time, so it’s cost-effective.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Its thickness prevents it from being sprayable.
  • It’s more toxic than other gel stains, so you have to be extra careful when applying it.

My Thoughts:

General Finishes Gel Stain can make any wood surface visually appealing, but it’s especially good for antique wood because it’s accentuating yet far from overpowering. Plus, it poses no threat to aged wood, as it barely penetrates into the pores; this also makes it easier to spread. And because it’s an above-surface stain, it’s more durable. If only it was sprayable and less toxic—then I could see it being the top spot on my list.

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3. Varathane Gel Stain – Best Value

Varathane Gel Stain

Varathane Gel Stain is certainly the best oil-based gel stain for anyone on a budget, as it’s reliable, easy to use, versatile, and great at bringing out wood grain in a way that’s 100% safe.

And since it can be used both indoors and outdoors—and on different materials—it’s not only affordable but versatile and cost-effective too, which is a big plus in my book.

One container can cover up to 250 sq ft, and most surfaces only need a coat or two.

Plus, it’s designed to be anti-drip and anti-sag, and I can confirm it holds up in both categories. Therefore, it’s great for vertical surfaces.

A coat will dry in about two hours, and the finished product should get about 48 hours of drying time before regular use is resumed.

Unlike other gel stains, this one won’t raise or damage the wood grain, and its matte sheen makes it suitable for decks, floors, etc.

Lastly, it contains about as much VOC as similar oil-based products, and it comes with a decent warranty.

What I Liked:

  • It can bring out natural wood grain without literally bringing it out.
  • Its thick consistency ensures it’s more durable than other oil-based wood stains.
  • It’s more versatile than traditional stains because it can be applied on metal, fiberglass, etc.
  • It’s ideal for vertical surfaces since it doesn’t drip or sag, whether it’s brushed, wiped, or rolled.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • It’s too thick for most sprayers and doesn’t look great thinned.
  • It can take longer to dry (1-2 days) if atmospheric conditions aren’t ideal.

My Thoughts:

What’s better than getting a high-quality product for a cheap price, right? Well, that’s exactly what you get with Varathane Gel Stain! This wood stain works well on all kinds of wood surfaces, and other materials as well. And unlike other wood stains, it works both indoors and outdoors. Additionally, when you need to stain vertical surfaces, this one won’t let you down, as it neither drips nor sags. Its thick consistency can be both a benefit and a drawback, but overall it’s a phenomenal budget gel stain.

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4. Amy Howard at Home – Easiest to Apply

Amy Howard at Home Gel Stain

Amy Howard at Home distinguishes itself from the competition by being extremely easy to apply, and it’s one of the most reliable water-based gel stains I’ve ever used.

Ideal for indoor and outdoor wood surfaces, it’s often applied to tables, cabinets, chairs, dressers, doors, butcher blocks, charcuterie boards, and posts.

It has a rich, dark-brown appearance, and it can work on woods old and new because it’s neither too bold nor too glossy.

And since it’s water-based, it’s less toxic. Plus, it emits a pleasant aroma during application, which I think is a nice bonus.

It’s a quick-drying gel stain, and most surfaces should get 4-5 coats. After all the coats have been applied, let the stain dry for at least 48 hours; then it’ll be ready for normal use.

Best of all, not only does it prevent scratches, impacts, and stains from damaging the wood, but it can also hide stains and other defects that existed in the surface before it was applied.

Regarding warranty information, I couldn’t find any online, so this product may or may not be backed by a warranty or satisfaction guarantee.

What I Liked:

  • It works on all kinds of wood surfaces, so it’s not only versatile but cost-effective too.
  • It forms a thick barrier on the wood’s surface to ensure long-lasting protection.
  • It’s much less toxic than other gel stains, so you can apply it with more peace of mind.
  • It’s great for worn wood because it has a flat sheen and a color that blends well.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • The application process is a little longer since more coats are required.
  • May not come with a warranty or satisfaction guarantee.

My Thoughts:

I love convenience, and that’s what I get whenever I use Amy Howard at Home to beautify and strengthen wood. It’s an easy-to-spread, water-based product that’s less toxic and less shiny, yet it’s just as good as most oil-based products in all the ways that matter. And since it can be applied to hardwoods, softwoods, and most wood-based materials with a cloth, brush, roller, or sprayer, it’s incredibly versatile. However, it may not come with a warranty, which would be unfortunate for an otherwise magnificent product.

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5. Retique It Gel Stain – Most Eco-Friendly

Liquid Wood Gel Stain

Without a doubt, Retique It Gel Stain is one of the most unique wood stain products available today, and if used properly it can stand toe to toe with any traditional stain.

This product comes with a “built-in topcoat”, which means you have to apply a viscous material that’s 60% recycled wood fibers to the surface before staining.

Once the topcoat is dry, it’s stained, except there’s no sanding or surface stripping required.

So basically, this wood stain can be applied to any surface, including non-wood ones like metal, stone, or fiberglass.

The stain is water-based and contains no VOC, which I like because there’s no overwhelming smell.

This gel stain can be applied to cabinets, furniture, countertops, and even floors, and it can be used indoors as well as outdoors.

What I Liked:

  • Kit comes with everything you need and the instructions are clear, so it’s pretty simple.
  • There’s decent moisture and UV resistance, so it’ll hold up well for 2+ years outdoors.
  • No VOC means no worrying about toxicity during or after application.
  • The wood fibers are easy to spread and don’t take long to set, so the process is relatively short.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • It’s essentially a one-time solution, so you’ll need to buy another kit to “re-stain”.
  • There’s little room for error, since you can’t purchase the components individually.

My Thoughts:

I love products that dare to be innovative, and Retique It Gel Stain definitely falls into this category. Its versatility is unmatched, since it can be applied to virtually any hard surface, finished or unfinished. And once you get the built-in topcoat down, what follows is a pretty standard wood-staining process. It’s also unmatched in terms of eco-friendliness, since it has no VOC and the topcoat is mostly recycled wood fibers. If it wasn’t a one-time solution, I could see this excellent product holding the “superior” title.

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6. Old Masters Gel Stain – Best Color

Old Masters Gel Stain

If you want the wood to be a rich, dark brown that’ll last for many years, then consider Old Masters Gel Stain, as it’s not only visually appealing but strong and reliable too.

It’s made for staining metal, but it works on wood and other common surface materials.

An oil-based product, it can be used indoors and outdoors because it resists weathering quite well.

But since it’s pretty viscous, I can’t spray it. This isn’t the end of the world, however, because I enjoy wiping it on.

Usually only one coat is needed to create an eye-catching and strong finish, but 2-3 can create an especially dazzling finish.

And like most oil-based gel stains, it’s backed by a warranty. In fact, this warranty is rather generous, which means I can use this product with peace of mind.

What I Liked:

  • It can greatly enhance the appearance of darker woods, and without being too glossy.
  • It can be wiped on, so achieving a smooth, uniform finish is much easier.
  • It has additives that protect it from UV rays, so you don’t have to worry about fading.
  • It’s designed to be used on metal, so its scratch and dent resistance is superior. 

What I Didn’t Like:

  • It must be applied slowly, otherwise you’ll inadvertently apply too much.
  • It doesn’t cover as much surface area as other gel stains, despite being non-penetrating.

My Thoughts:

I’ve yet to come across a gel stain that can even come close to Old Masters Gel Stain’s visual appeal, and that’s why it’s earned the sought-after “Best Color” title. It may not be the easiest oil-based gel stain to spread, but if you work slow and have a bit of patience, I promise you’ll be rewarded. The way it brings out even the minor features is truly marvelous, and it’ll stay looking good for years.

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What to Consider When Buying Gel Stains


Getting a product with a first-rate appearance is the top priority for most people when they go shopping for gel stain.

The good news is gel stains come in a range of colors, and they tend to blend well with the woods they’re used on.

And unlike regular wood stain, which seeps into wood’s pores, gel stain doesn’t alter wood’s natural colors, nor does it raise the wood grain.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about yellowing or discoloration when using gel stain, as it tends to resist this well.

Finally, even a thin gel stain can create a rich, accentuating finish.


Gel stain is a durable finish that not only enhances wood’s appearance but protects it as well.

If gel stain is applied properly and maintained routinely, it should last 3-5 years; if it’s sealed it’ll last even longer.

Since it’s so durable, it’s not only good for interior wood but exterior wood too.

That said, while gel stain may be moisture- and UV-resistant on its own, sealing it is still a good move; this way you ensure it looks attractive for many years.

And even though gel stain is pretty durable once fully cured, it’s still easy to remove with mineral spirits.

Additionally, you don’t even have to put down thick coats to achieve a durable finish; usually 1-2 thin coats will do.

Ease of Application

Sometimes, applying gel stain can be difficult, which is why you should be on the lookout for products that are widely regarded as being easy to use.

In other words, a good gel stain is one that’s easy to spread, and you shouldn’t have to exert a lot of energy to achieve a smooth, uniform finish.

And if your goal is to ensure you have an easy time gel staining, make sure you get a product that can be applied to an existing finish without any light sanding.

Are you wondering how to use Gel Stain? Check out the video below!

Drying Time

Gel stain takes longer to dry than regular stain, mainly because it has a thicker consistency.

Still, it shouldn’t take longer than 48 hours to complete the entire staining process.


Most gel stains have a high concentration of VOC because they’re oil-based products that are designed to be durable and visually impactful.

But you can still get a gel stain with less VOC; these are usually water-based.


Coverage is another important factor, yet it’s often overlooked. Basically, the more space a product can cover, the more cost-effective it’ll be—so long as it’s a good product.

Price & Warranty

Most quality gel stains go for $30-$50. But don’t assume a product delivers superior quality just because it’s expensive.

Also, most gel stains are backed by a warranty or satisfaction guarantee, but usually these are only valid if the finish was applied 100% in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Are you searching for a new sprayer for polyurethane? Check out these best sprayers for polyurethane!

Benefits of Gel Stain

More Durable

Gel stains tend to be more durable than regular stains, mainly because they have a thicker consistency. Also, they dry on top of wooden surfaces (as opposed to in them) yet they’re still able to bring out wood’s natural beauty.

But even if you apply multiple coats of gel stain to a wooden surface, you should still seal it with a water-based polyurethane or something similar. This way the stain is protected from moisture, direct sunlight, etc.

Unique Appearance

Gel stains and regular wood stains both bring out wood’s natural beauty, but gel stains do particularly well with woods that boast a range of dark colors.

Of course, there are lighter gel stains, but it’s the darker ones that really enhance the natural wood look.

Gel stain’s richer appearance is largely a result of it being an above-surface finish.

More Versatile

Because it dries on top of surfaces, gel stain can be used on a range of materials, including wood, metal, fiberglass, and masonry.

Moreover, it can be applied with either a foam brush or clean cloth, and some are even thin enough to be sprayed.


You don’t have to use wood conditioner or do any light sanding before applying gel stain. Gel stain can dry on smooth and rough wood, and not much can prevent it from drying completely.

And after you apply gel stain, removing it from your foam brushes is easy; just use mineral spirits or denatured alcohol.

Final Thoughts

To recap, the best gel stain is Minwax Gel Stain because it’s a long-lasting, appearance-enhancing product that’s not only easy to use but unbelievably versatile as well.

Then there’s General Finishes Gel Stain, a high-quality gel stain that’s preferred by professionals and hobbyists alike for its superior antique-walnut finish.

Finally, there’s Varathane Gel Stain, the best gel stain for anyone who’s looking to save a buck without compromising on quality.