Wiping Stain vs Gel Stain

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When it comes to staining wood, there are many different options for changing its colors and appearance. Two common options are wiping stain and gel stain. While they share many things in common, they are used differently and achieve different results.

Keep reading to learn all about these two products, when to use them, and the major differentiating factor between them. 

What Is Wiping Stain? 

Wiping stains are used to change the color of a given material. They can be applied with a brush or a roller. A lint-free rag is then used to rub the stain into the wood and remove any excess stain. You can also skip the applicator completely and use a rag to wipe on the stain

Wiping stains achieve excellent coverage through the use of nanotechnology. Pigmented nanoparticles allow wiping stains to transfer color without penetrating the materials surface. Not only do wiping stains work on wood, they can also be used on metal, fiberglass, and composite.  

What Is Gel Stain?

Gel stain is a thick, viscous semi-liquid with the consistency of pudding or peanut butter. When applied to wood, it sits on top of the surface and transfers color as it dries. 

Gel stain can be considered a midway point between liquid stain and paint. Like paint, it is easy to apply and gives very consistent, even color. Like stain, it allows the beauty of the wood to shine through. It is usually applied with a foam brush.

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Man opening a can of gel stain

Gel stain usually requires two or three coats to achieve adequate color saturation. The first coat often looks streaky, but this unevenness disappears with subsequent coats.

Gel stains are popular with both beginner and experienced woodworkers. They are easier to apply than other stain options for three reasons: 

  1. When using gel stains, you do not need to sand all the way down to bare wood. They are able to adhere to wood that has only been lightly scuffed with sanding paper. 
  2. After applying gel stain, you do not need to rub the stain in, significantly decreasing the time and effort involved in application.  
  3. Gel stains eliminate problems with uneven stain absorption, such as blotches or patchiness. They get great results even on knotty or dense wood because they do not need to be absorbed into the wood. 

Not only can gel stain be used on wood, it is also capable of coloring metal, fiberglass, and composite. 

Wiping Stain vs Gel Stain

Wiping stains and gel stains are similar in a few important ways – after all, they are both types of stain. However, the differences between them are profound. Exploring the ways these two products are alike, as well as how they are different, will help you make the best choice about which is right for your wood stain project. 

Similarities

The similarities between wiping stain and gel stain are the purpose of this type of product, the lack of protection they offer, and the fact that they don’t penetrate the wood.

Product Type

Regardless of the formulation, both gel and wiping stains are intended to be used for the same purpose: changing the color of wood without hiding its features. 

Lack of Penetration/Protection

Neither gel stain nor wiping stain penetrates the surface they are applied to. They do not offer any protection from water, scuffs and scratches, or mildews and molds.  

Surface Adhesion

Both gel and wiping stains can adhere to various surfaces, such as metal, fiberglass, composite, and wood. They can be applied even over finished wood, provided the surface is adequately prepared. 

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Differences

The differences between gel stain and wiping stain include how they are applied, how long they take to dry, their ingredients, and how easy it is to achieve a uniform color.

Ingredients

Gel stains and wiping stains consist of nearly the same ingredients. The only difference is that gel stains contain a thickening agent. 

Application

Gel stain is applied with a foam brush, to minimize brush strokes. It does not need to be rubbed in or wiped off. Instead, it sits on the wood until dry. 

Man applying gel stain on wood

Wiping stain can be applied with a bristle brush or rag. It is rubbed into the wood, and the excess stain is then wiped off. 

Dry time

Gel stain is applied thickly on top of wood and takes about 24 hours to completely dry.

Wiping stain is much thinner, and can dry in as little as two hours. This allows you to apply a finisher like polyurethane quicker.

Uniformity

Wiping stain can respond differently to different densities and grains of wood, resulting in uneven color coverage. 

Gel stain does not need to be absorbed into the wood, so as long as it is applied properly, it will give very even color results on almost any wood. 

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Neither of these stains can be sprayed on.

Major Differentiating Factor

The major difference between wiping stain and gel stain is the consistency of these two products. 

Wiping stain is water-like and can easily be poured, making it susceptible to drips, splashes, and runs. 

Gel stain is much more viscous, does not pour, and resists dripping, splashing, and running. 

When to Use Wiping Stain

Use wiping stain for pieces that include carving or lots of corners. 

The consistency of wiping stain is less viscous than gel stain, making it easier to apply in crevices and corners. This avoids excess accumulation in tight areas, giving you a more even color. 

You may also choose to use wiping stain when you have limited time. Wiping stain can dry in as little as two hours, although it’s wise to allow at least eight hours, even in ideal conditions. In less than ideal conditions, such as when the weather is very hot, very cold, or very humid, it may take a full 24 hours to dry. 

Gel stain, on the other hand, must be allowed to dry for a full 24 hours before another coat can be applied. 

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Man wiping stain on wood

Another circumstance where it makes sense to use wiping stain is when staining small three dimensional objects such as table or chair legs, railings, spindles, and balusters. It’s easier to wrap a rag around these objects than it is to use a brush. 

When to Use Gel Stain

Choose gel stain for beautiful, even coverage, even on difficult-to-stain woods. 

Maple, birch, and cherry, and yellow poplar are notoriously difficult to stain due to their tight-grain structure. Liquid stains will be unevenly absorbed, leading to blotches in the finished wood. Because gel stain sits on top of the wood, rather than being absorbed into the top layer, it avoids these issues. 

Knotty pine is also difficult to stain, as the dense knots absorb stain differently than the unknotted softwood. Gel stains overcome this difficulty because they do not need to penetrate the wood in order to change its color. 

Gel stain is also ideal for use on vertical wood stain projects. Cabinet doors, for example, are ideal candidates for gel stain, as are full-size doors. Gel stains are much less likely to drip, splash, or run than traditional stains. 

Rough wood, such as wood used for fences, responds well to gel application. The thick substance settles on the uneven surface and achieves better coverage than traditional stains applied with a roller or brush. 

Which Is Better, Wiping Stain or Gel Stain? 

Gel stain is best for achieving even color on difficult-to-stain woods, including maple, birch, cherry, and pine. It is also best for vertical surfaces like doors, where liquid stain may become runny and leave unattractive streaks. 

Wiping stain is better when your workpiece includes intricate carvings and lots of corners or crevices. It is less likely to accumulate in these areas than gel stain, and excess can be easily wiped away to ensure a uniform color. 

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Either product can be used to change the color of metal, fiberglass, and composite. 

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.