Gel Stain Too Thick — How to Fix and Avoid

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Gel stain can be a fantastic option for most wood projects, but over-application can result in an unsightly, sticky surface. Thus, I will explain how to fix and prevent the problem of applying gel stains too thick.

Regardless of your experience level, you’ll find valuable tips to achieve a perfect finish with gel stain. So, let’s get started!

Solutions For Thick Gel Stains

Gel stains are thick coatings for wooden surfaces that are applied on top rather than penetrating the wood like regular stains. They can be layered like paint while still preserving the natural texture of the wood.

Moreover, when applying gel stain, if the coats or layers are too thick, the stain also becomes thick. To fix this, I suggest you utilize lacquer thinner or mineral spirit to dissolve the excess stain. 

Furthermore, their thickness can pose difficulties when handling projects with cramped spaces and many corners because the gel stain may excessively accumulate in those areas, resulting in an uneven outcome.

gel based stain

To resolve gel stains that are too thick, below are various steps that you can take to resolve the problem.

Ways To Apply Gel Stains So It Won’t Get Too Thick

Gel stain is a type of varnish that is oil-based, much like polyurethane, and has a colorant incorporated into it. In addition, this feature helps to alleviate the issue of blotching that is often associated with regular stains.

The thickness of the gel stain, along with the incorporation of pigments, causes it to remain on the surface of the wood during application mostly. 

While it may permeate a bit when used on unfinished wood, its reduced absorption compared to regular stain can be attributed to its denser consistency.

opening gel stain can

Furthermore, applying gel stain evenly can be challenging when working with projects that have lots of corners and deep crevices, such as custom shelves with many angles or live-edge wood. 

The uneven application of gel stain can result in a darker appearance in certain areas, leading to uneven coloring after sanding and finishing. 

What I usually do to tackle this is I start by applying the gel stain with a brush for the initial coat. While it’s still wet, I’ll go back with a cloth to wipe off any excess and make sure it’s evenly spread, especially in those hard-to-reach spots. 

Now, if your project is really complex with lots of angles and crevices, you might want to consider using regular stain instead.

Nonetheless, before starting your gel stain project, have the following available within your reach: 

Old Master’s Gel Stain

Step #1: Get the surface ready

I suggest sanding the wood before the application of the stain. Even though you might believe that this step is redundant, it is significant as the saw marks produced during the manufacturing process are often invisible until the wood is stained. 

Thus, sanding is beneficial in removing these marks. However, for even staining, sand the whole surface with consistent pressure following the wood grain’s direction to avoid scratching the surface. 

After sanding, wipe the wood surface using your rag to eliminate sawdust [1] to create a smooth surface for the stain to adhere to.

applying gel stain

However, before applying the gel stain to the entire piece, you must test it on a small, inconspicuous area or scrap wood. This step will allow you to identify any potential issues and avoid any drastic mistakes.

Step #2: Apply the gel stain

The process of applying gel stain to unprocessed wood is quite comparable to the application of regular wood stain.

I like using a foam brush or a sponge. First, I go against the grain to make sure the stain really gets into those pores. After that initial pass, I brush over it again, this time going with the grain.

Moreover, make sure to evenly spread the gel stain across the wood surface and remove any excess by wiping it away using your prepared rag. This step will help you achieve thinner coats. (You can check the best rags for staining here!)

Step #3: Eliminate the excess

Executing this step is crucial in order to attain a uniform and thin layer of the stain. Thus, once the gel stain has been left to rest for roughly five minutes, take a rag and remove any excess by wiping it off along the wood grain’s direction to prevent noticeable marks. 

removing excess gel stain

Step #4: Allow it to dry completely

Allow the first layer of gel stain to dry naturally for a period of twenty-four hours. Allowing adequate drying time enables the true colors to emerge, facilitating an easier assessment of whether an additional coat is necessary.

Step #5: Apply an additional layer of stain

In contrast to the regular type of stain, gel stain does not penetrate the wood as deeply; rather, it seeps mostly into the wood pores’ structure. Thus, typically two-three coatings of gel stain are adequate.

However, you should apply each coat of gel stain thinly without exerting too much pressure on the foam or sponge brush.

Possible Results When You Apply Gel Stains Too Thick

The types of wood stains designed to penetrate the wood are not intended to function as the final wood surface finish. 

drying stain

In addition, over-application may result in inadequate drying and sticky residue. Similarly, when the wood is not completely sanded and stripped, the stain will not be absorbed into the wood but will rest on the surface, resulting in the same problem.

Strategies To Apply Gel Stain Evenly

Does Gel Stain That Appear Sticky Eventually Dry?

The natural drying process of a thick, sticky gel is reliant on the humidity of the surrounding environment. Thus, allow up to forty-eight hours to determine whether a sticky gel stain has improved. 

General Finishes Oil Base Gel Stain

In case the gel stain remains sticky after that period, it is unlikely to dry properly. Nonetheless, it is advisable for you to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for removing the excessively thick gel stain.

Is it Possible To Dilute Gel Stain to Thin it?

To achieve a lighter color and produce a glaze effect, mineral spirits can be used to thin gel stains. Furthermore, this technique can be utilized for staining or to create a distinctive antique type of wood finish when applied over paint.

Can You Sand Gel Stain?

It is possible to sand the wood with gel stain using a sanding block or sandpaper (300-grit). However, if the stain is excessively thick and you plan to remove it entirely and start over, avoid using sandpaper on the sticky surface.

sanding block

Still, the thickness of gel stain means it won’t come off as easily as you’d like, even with sandpaper. Trust me, I’ve tried. All you’ll end up doing is damaging the wood grain. I’d rather you didn’t have to learn this the hard way like I did.


A gel type of stain applies well on wooden surfaces. However, applying gel stain too thick can result in an uneven and sticky appearance that is hard to fix. 

But by following the proper steps and techniques above, you can achieve a flawless finish with gel stain while avoiding potential issues. 

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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