DIY projects are still the rage these days. More so now than ever with costs of labor so high. If you’re one of those types who love to do the work yourself and like the look of dark cabinetry, this do-it-yourself project “Painting with a Gel Stain” is for you! Using General Finishes Gel Stain as a paint rather than a stain, is super easy and you can refinish your cabinets for under $50!


Skip the details and jump to “how to paint your cabinets using Gel Stain“.

Using General Finishes Gel Stain to Paint Cabinets
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How to Update Your Kitchen, Bath or Cabinetry for $200 or less using Gel Stain

I was first introduced to General Finishes brand of wood stains from my sister. She was the first to paint her bedroom set using the Java Gel Stain. I thought it looked so good and the cost and ease of applying had me interested. I just had to find something to refinish!

Thus, my first project using the Java Gel Stain was our entertainment nook in our family room. This time, however, we used the Gel Stain “as a stain”. The look you will get using it as a stain vs paint is very different. Both are excellent and a matter of preference and dependent on what you’re doing. We saved $2400.00 dollars building & staining the entertainment nook ourselves! This is why I’m #DIYinspired. SAVINGS! Plus the rewards of admiring your own work.

For the above mentioned project, we used “new wood”, so staining it was our top choice. Seeing the wood grain will always be my first choice at least 99.9% of the time.  Using the stain as a “paint” is preferred when working with finished wood as it is easier to get the look consistent as well as less steps. You don’t have to be as perfect with your sanding either.

So, if you’re “refinishing cabinets”, it’s much easier “to paint” with the Gel Stain. Finished wood doesn’t seem to take the stain as easily, even if you sand very very good. If you’re refinishing “solid wood”, than using it as a stain may work fine. The issue, I’ve noticed, is that veneers, plywood, “not solid wood”; after sanding, the stain doesn’t take evenly. So when I am “refinishing” cabinets, I prefer to use General Finishes Gel Stain as a paint.

General Finishes Gel Stain

I’ve used the General Finishes products, stains and polyurethane many times. I absolutely love their product line, as they are easy to work with and produce a quality finish. You won’t find these in your local box shop, but rather your local small business, amazon, wood-working or professional paint supply store. I’ve now used G.F. Gel Stains to paint my kitchen island, rental house kitchen and now my bathroom cabinets. I’ve used G.F. Gel Stains to stain my linen closet top and it is a great stain which would be perfect for furniture. It’s a great all-purpose stain! I just love the Java color.

Their polyurethane is superior to many brands and they have both an Oil Based Gel Urethane and Water-Based Poly. Both work well. I like to use the Oil Based Wipe-On Gel Urethane on dark wood as it’s easy to apply and I don’t have to worry so much about yellowing on dark wood. Except when I am in a rush or just want to complete my project, then water-based will be quicker!

What it will cost you to paint cabinets using Gel Stain

Your cost is going to vary. If you have supplies, or part of them, your cost is obviously going to be less.  I’ve done this so many times, that I usually just have to refresh on certain things. I was out of gel stain, so I needed to purchase this to refinish my bathroom cabinets.  I already had a sander so I didn’t need that either. My cost for both vanities, in two bathrooms, was $30 dollars. On top of that, I still had close to half of the quart left! You can do an entire kitchen or probably about 4 bathroom vanities for $30!

You may be updating the look of your home for way less, but it will look like a professional refinished your cabinets!

Here’s what you will need, so keep this in mind if this is your first project and you don’t have the supplies on hand. It’s still not going to cost you more than $200, including hardware, should you add door knobs or pulls. (Although you can easily buy some expensive door pulls and knobs!).

Here’s How to Paint Cabinets Using Gel Stain

I am telling you, this is one of the easiest projects you will do!  Sanding tends to be the hardest part of most projects, as it’s tedious, dusty and muscle strenuous. But once you get through the sanding, applying the gel stain and finish coats are easy. You can check out my step by step video on painting cabinet with gel stain; as I walk you through this process. I’m more of a visual learner, so I like to spend extra time putting together videos to help others with their DIY projects.

Step 1 – Preparation

Preparing is very important. First decide what you are going to paint using the Gel Stain and then gather your supplies. Take inventory of what you already have and then go get what you still need. General Finishes can be found in specialty paint and hardware stores,  or buy the Gel Stain on Amazon if you don’t have a location near you.  Find a General Finishes Retail Store here. Be sure to call and make sure they have it in stock before you make a trip!

Once you’ve gathered all your supplies, create a work station. I tend to use my garage, as an indoor environment works best. You don’t want debris falling on your door faces while they are drying! I’ve even setup shop inside a room in my home when it was cold outside due to temperature requirements. Just make sure to ventilate and of course read the label.

Create an area to sand. I sand all the door faces outside and away from my “application work station”, to avoid a mess to clean-up. I obviously sand the boxes where they reside, which leaves a nice mess. Have a vacuum near by with a brush to clean up the dust on the cabinets, walls, fixtures etc.. Sorry, but unless you cordon things off, you will have dust everywhere.

Remove the doors and bring your drawers to your work station.

Step 2 – Sanding

First thing you will do is sand. If you have really dirt cabinets (often very old cabinets are), you may want to clean them first with some TSP following the label directions. You don’t have to do this, but very dirty cabinets tend to gunk up the sandpaper, making it take longer to sand. General Finishes recommends using “denatured alcohol” prior to lightly sanding.  I did not have to clean my cabinets first.

I tend to use 120-150 grit sandpaper on cabinets with really glossy finish and then smooth out with 220-grit. Sand all surfaces lightly. Start and end with 220-grit if you don’t have much gloss to remove or if you don’t mind going through a bit more sandpaper. For any hard-to-reach areas, sand by hand lightly using 220 grit. Don’t skip sanding. If you use a Random Orbital Sander, it will go much farther than an Orbital Sander (the square bottom). I have learned recently that it’s stronger and better for removing gloss.  If you use a Random Orbital Sander, I would start and end with 220 grit.

Note about sanding: When applying gel stain as a paint, your cabinets will be more forgiving in terms of sanding or lack of it. Meaning, if you don’t sand well, the finish will adhere and when you put your finish coat on (poly), it will seal it in. However, I tend to just sand as usual, ensuring a durable finish. Plus I like the look of wood grain coming through. If there are areas in nooks, etc. that are hard to reach, don’t stress it, however still lightly sand them by hand, even just a little. The material you are refinishing will also affect the need to sand well. If you’re refinishing something with an existing thick polyurethane coat, you will want to dull that by cleaning with denatured alcohol and sanding. Some people choose not to sand at all and the Gel Stain will still adhere and be sealed in when you apply the poly. I recommend sanding at least a little to scuff up the surface!

When you’re done sanding the boxes and ALL surfaces of the door (both sides), make sure to wipe away all the dust using a dry cloth. I usually vacuum the doors first with a brush-end attachment and then follow up with a dry cloth if need be. Micro-fiber cloths work well.

Step 3 – Protect Your Walls

Use painter’s tape to protect your walls from stain. Tape off any areas that you don’t want discolored. I tape between the wall and the cabinet, the cabinet and the counter, the toe kick and the floor, and any shelves inside that I don’t want colored.

Step 4 – Applying Your Gel Stain

Now that you’ve sanded, you’re ready to apply your stain as a paint. Use a thick sock (but any sock should do), and wearing gloves, wipe the end of the sock using the opposite gloved-hand to remove any possible lint.

Open your General Finishes Java Gel Stain (or color of your choice), and stir the gel stain with a stir-stick. When applying the gel stain to the door faces, I start with the backside first. I tend to apply the gel stain around the edges first, applying in one direction as much as possible. Next move to the center of the door face, smoothing the gel stain into the crevices first and working your way in. Completely coat the center. Finish with the top sides (usually 4 rails), applying in one direction, all the way around. Don’t over-apply it. Thin coats are better, as you can always apply more if need be. 3 coats are usually enough.

If you over-apply, you will notice that as you continue to wipe over the same areas with stain, the stain will pull away. That is because it is starting to dry, even if it doesn’t feel like it! Try to wipe in one direction as much as possible and do a once or twice over to smooth out. Usually I end up applying stain in the corners and crevices a little heavier to ensure it gets inside, smoothing it out after. Don’t leave gobs of stain (heavy areas) on the surface, as they will dry this way and you will have to sand these areas down.

The best thing to do is find what works for you. After you have done a few doors faces, you will find your flow!

Watch me apply java gel stain as a paint in my video!

Your Gel Stain will take a while to dry. If I apply the stain (as a paint), early in the morning, and have at least 12 hours for it to dry, I will apply a second coat that evening. Most of the time, I apply the second coat the next morning and so on. It’s very important to allow enough time for your painted stain to dry. Otherwise, you will pull the stain away from the wood!

The first and second coat may look spotty in areas. You may even see the wood in some areas. Don’t worry, this will be solid as you apply more coats.

As mentioned apply the gel stain to all surfaces at least 3 times. Complete all three applications to one side of the door before flipping over to do the opposite site. Use a new sock for each application. My son and husband are all out of socks!!

Step 5 – Applying Your Finish Coat

Once you’ve applied all coats of the gel stain and allowed your cabinets (or wood in general)  to dry thoroughly, you are ready to apply your finish coat. I tend to either use General Finishes Gel Urethane (oil based) or General Finishes High Performance Water Based Polyurethane.

I have used other poly’s such as Varathane or Rustoleum. I recommend sticking with General Finishes Poly, but any other will work fine. The Gel Urethane creates a very durable and nice finish. I would only use this over dark wood, since I hear it can yellow over time. The only other issue with the oil based poly; is that it takes just as long to dry as the gel stain! Meaning it will take several more days to complete your project.

Water Based poly is a very good option and I haven’t seen that much of a difference between durability. So choose water-based and save yourself some time. You can read more about what General Finishes recommends for finish coats here. For this project we ended up using water-based due to time constraints.

Apply 2-3 coats of polyurethane to your cabinets, waiting the dry time stated on the label. Water based will have a re-coat time of about 3 hours. Always test to make sure it’s dry before applying the next coat.

Add felt pads to the inside of your drawers and cabinets once your polyurethane is dry. This will keep your cabinets from being scratched when opened and shut repeatedly.

You’re done! This really is a super easy DIY cabinet refinishing project!  Using Gel Stain as a paint really is one of the easiest ways to update your cabinets and for less! It’s easy, but takes a while due to dry times. Always read the labels, wear (PPE) protective equipment such as gloves and most of all find your flow! You will be a pro at this in no time!

ADD SOME BLING! Want to make your cabinets look even more ritzy? Give your cabinets some shine, glimmer or a classic look by adding hardware such as door pulls, knobs or handles! It’s a great way to further update the look of your bathroom, kitchen or cabinetry in general. Here’s a best seller; rubbed oil-bronze door knob 25-pack and oil-bronze drawer pull 10-pack on amazon.  Here’s another top choice, Franklin Brass Satin Nickel 3-inch handle with other colors available and Cosmas Satin Nickle Drawer Pull.

What to do if you make a mistake or need to retouch your cabinets later

If you make a mistake during the application process, such as a very heavy or thick spot of stain; wait for it to dry, sand that area with 220-grit sandpaper and reapply.  If you’ve finished your cabinets, and down the road someone chips the finish; sand that area with 220-grit, apply 1-3 coats of gel stain as a paint, waiting for each coat to try. Then apply polyurethane again. Basically, you are following the same steps as above.

Have anything to add? Share your experience with General Finishes or other brands of gel stain that you have successfully used (or not) as a paint? Please share in the comments section below!

Bathroom Refinished Gallery

Closeup Showing The Wood Grain

Sanding before applying your gel stain and applying with a sock will allow the wood grain to show. This gives your finish a more rubbed in look with a more natural finish as opposed to layering it heavily over the top as a true paint. If you prefer the more painted look, you can use a paint brush. I recommend still lightly sanding though. While GF Gel Stain is very durable, a light sanding ensures adhesion.

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Bathroom cabinets painted with gel stain

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I'm a daughter, sister, twin, mom, wife, aunt, friend, designer, kitchen gadget craze, tech nut, home improvement enthusiast... I love the many hats I wear. My two kiddos are my world. I love reading and writing. I started writing as a graphic and web designer providing content, then started my own blog JennyLeeBlogs which progressed to Perfectly Inspired.  I'm an Account Manager by day and Blogger/Web Designer by night. I'm your everyday, 9-5, non-frilly, OCD, driven lady who tells it how it is and my posts will reflect this. I am me, as you are you ~ Love and Respect One Another 🙂

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