Gel Stain Vs Oil Stain: What’s The Difference?

If you are a beginner or a DIYer and are trying to choose a stain for your home project, you might wonder about the difference between gel and oil stains. We researched these and gathered the details so you can decide which best suits you and your wood project.

Gel stain is easy to use and advisable for beginners. It is a coating that doesn't absorb into the wood, which results in even staining, unlike oil stain.

Oil stain uses a brush, while gel stain mainly uses a lint-free cloth. An oil stain is easy to use and is widely available in the market.

When finishing a wood project, you want a glossy and even coating. Read on to learn more about the two stains, their pros and cons, and how to apply them properly. Contrast and compare both materials to utilize them properly in your wood projects.

The Difference Between Gel Stain And Oil Stain


Staining your wood project gives it a finished look. Without staining, your wood project looks half-done. Staining improves the aesthetics of your wood project and protects it from scratches or mild damage, making your item last longer. 

Wood staining is quick to apply and very affordable. Its application is simple, using just a few tools. 

Gel Stain

Staining hardwood patio decking

Gel stain is a varnish with coloring made from oil. It has a thicker texture than a traditional wood stain. It doesn't seep into grains of wood but is made to act as a top coating layer. So it lessens smudges, a common problem with traditional stains.

Gel stain is advisable for beginners since it's easy to use. They stick well to curves and different surfaces. It is preferable for nonabsorbent types of wood, such as pine and cherry, creating an even finish.

Click here to view this gel stain on Amazon.


Gel stain has its share of advantages that can convince you to use it on your upcoming wood project. Here's the list below:

  • Thick: It is more similar to paint than a traditional stain. It has this peanut-buttery texture and will lay on top of the wood surface resulting in a uniform look. The texture makes it easier for the user to apply it on vertical or curved spaces.
  • Original look: Gel stain maintains the authentic look of the wood. It is transparent, so it shows the wood grain, and its unique character makes it more attractive and artistic.
  • Flexible coating: The stain is friendly to blemish-prone woods, such as birch, maple, pine, and cherry. These wood types suck up thin layers, leaving an uneven finish. But, the gel stain coats these types of surfaces without the stain getting sucked up. Thus, it achieves a perfect look.
  • Easy to use: It only needs a little sanding, unlike with traditional stain, where you do a complete sanding for it to adhere to the wood surface. It doesn't need a lot of preparation and tools. You can use a paintbrush for a much thicker coating.

Click here to view this sanding sponge on Amazon.


Take a look at the other side of the gel stain. Pros will always be paired with cons. Here's a list of disadvantages of gel stain:

  • Long drying time: Wait for the first layer of coating to dry before putting the second one for protection. It usually takes a day or overnight for the first layer to dry. You can have up to three coats. Make sure to have a proper interval between each coat you make.
  • No spraying: Unlike paint, you cannot use gel stain with a spraying tool. It has a thick texture and cannot be thinned out.
  • Uneven appearance: Gel stain may leave a non-uniform finish at extreme angles since the thick stain cannot reach those small areas of furniture. The stain can pile up in one spot, creating a darker shade, if you are not careful to use a cloth rag to even up the spot.

Click here to view this staining pad on Amazon.

Oil Stain

Woman applying stain to wood

An oil stain is the most common type of stain in the market. It has linseed oil that mixes with a binder sometimes. It can also contain petroleum distillates with dye or colorant. Use mineral spirits for thinning it. 

An oil stain is a top choice for wood stain since it is easy to use, and the oil sits in slowly, making it easier to manage.

Click here to view this Rubio Monocoat oil on Amazon.


Oil stain provides advantages both for the user and the wood. Look at the benefits of using oil stain on your wood project below:

  • Durable: The oil stain does not wear easily. It is recommendable to apply on wood surfaces where people usually go or walk, such as the kitchen or the living room, and outdoor places like the deck. 
  • Easy to apply: It makes it so easy to use. The wood surface smoothly absorbs it since it is oil-based, making it effortless.
  • No need for a protective finish. Some oil-stained wood does not need a final protective finish because the oil stain can stand with its own coating ability. You may add a final finish, such as polycrylic if you feel like it.

Click here to view this protective wood finish on Amazon.


Here are things that make you reconsider using oil stains for your wood project. Read the drawbacks of oil stain below:

  • It takes too long to dry: The oil stain takes at least two days to dry completely before putting down another layer. It will take longer to dry if the weather is not in your favor. 
  • Strong smell: It gives off a strong odor. It has a toxic-like smell that stays for a few days. It's unfortunate if you use it indoors.
  • Causes decay: The stain blocks moisture once it's dry, but it can catch water during application, which causes the wood to decay and turn black. It is essential to keep your project dry until finished and sealed.
  • Harmful to health: It contains highly volatile organic compounds or VOCs that peril the environment and human health. It can cause nausea, dizziness, and other respiratory issues. Take extra care in storing and handling the stain since it is highly flammable.

Tips For Staining Wood

There are different requirements for staining wood. It depends on the kind of stain you use. Here you will learn the techniques and tricks of using oil or gel stain for your wood.

Oil Stain

Woman sanding furniture

Sand thoroughly the wood surface for the stain to penetrate evenly. Oil stain needs to work with a smooth surface. Clean the wood surface after sanding it with a rag cloth.

Apply the stain generously with a circular or number eight motion to spread or adhere. Read the manufacturer's instructions to assist you.

Lastly, remove excess oil on the surface of your furniture. Wipe and even it out with a clean cloth.

Gel Stain

Rub the wood surface with denatured alcohol and remove any oil or impurities that can hinder the gel stain from sticking to the surface.

Use 400-grit sandpaper for your wood surface. Then, wipe it clean.

Apply the stain in thin layers so you can control the color and thickness of your coating. Don't forget to wipe off any excess.

It is advisable to use a rag in applying the stain, though brushing with gel stain is an option if you want a darker appearance for your furniture. Apply a protective coat, such as lacquer or varnish, afterward. 

Click here to view this sandpaper 400 grit on Amazon.

How To Maintain Stain On Wood

Rubbing oiling with linseed oil natural wooden kitchen countertop before using

A traditional oil-based stain and gel stain usually last up to three years. Maintaining your wood can make it last longer. Regular checks and care can make your furniture still efficient and working.

  1. Regularly sweep your outdoor wood surface, such as the deck, and keep it free of debris, snow, and leaves.
  2. Keep your wood furniture clean and away from moisture, water, or contaminants.
  3. Check for any damage, signs of rot, or discoloration, especially in high-traffic areas. Patch or fix the damage right away.
  4. Check for any need for retouching or recoating. Usually, in two to three years, you will need to retouch or recoat your wood surface, especially outdoor surfaces, which are more exposed to extreme weather conditions.
  5. Keep your furniture away from the sun. It will fade if you let your furniture stay in extreme sunlight for a long time. It will also dry your wood which results in cracks.
  6. Wipe out stains with soft cleaning solutions, such as non-gel toothpaste with baking soda or cooking oil with ashes. Rub it lightly on the surface area with your finger or use a cloth.
  7. Have professional cleaning. Professionals are there to help you to restore and refinish your furniture. Asking for their service won't hurt your furniture in any way. It will leave you with a shiny and as-good-as-new look.

Summing Up

Gel stain has a thicker texture than oil stain. It has linseed oil. It stays on top of the wood surface, leaving a nice even layer while the oil stain penetrates the grains, and it is easy to use and effortless to apply. Wiping the excess of both stains makes a quality and clean look on the wood surface.

Discover more about stains in these posts:

Pros And Cons Of Staining A Deck

Six Best Stains For A Cedar Fence

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