July has owned me, and the month of August is going to be busier and more exciting in a totally different kind of way. I’ll elude to our totally hip-hip-hurray exciting travels throughout the next few weeks, but for now, lets just say that it’s not going to be the least bit condusive for my DIY projects, but it is going to be great for my tan. I’m behind on most of the things I’ve gotten started on, as in, we’re still missing half of our kitchen cabinet doors, there are paint swatches all over the living room and Julia’s new bedroom, and there’s a partially finished flagstone patio begging to be completed (and enjoyed).
One of the biggest projects I set out to finish this summer was staining the kitchen cabinets (taking them from golden oak to a warm mocha brown). And because this is a gigundo, potentially-expensive-to-fix project with high-impact, I’m not settling in quality. Instead, I’m taking my sweet time with it and completed a third test to see if I could improve upon what I’ve already learned about staining oak cabinetry in my first and second DIY attempts.
I took on Test 3 after Mary pointed out in the comments of test 2 that the streakiness that I was still observing after 3 coats of the water-based stain by General Finishes was probably due to the consistency of the stain itself. It just wasn’t thick enough to do the job well. To test this theory, I sucked it up and ordered a half-pint of the Java Gel Stain on amazon.com for about $15 (which included shipping because it wasn’t Amazon Prime-eligible). I still had plenty of oak cabinet doors in the attic since I had removed a whole bunch a few years ago, so I retrieved one, cleaned it with TSP-PF, and lightly sanded the door (this time by hand with 100 grit sandpaper, not my multitool with a sanding attachment). I was still totally skeptical about how this could go well without taking off the entire glossy manufacturer’s finish over the oak, but I was determined to see how well gel stain performed following Monica’s tutorial.
Cut to the good news: Monica’s right on. General Finishes Gel stain was the way to go.
Here’s the thing with the gel stain: It’s rich. It makes me feel like I’m staining with chocolate pudding. And it made me want to whip up some chocolate pudding. Which I did, and then consumed straight out of the mixing bowl before it was fully chilled.
And the gel stain pudding worked. Just check out test 2 with water-based General Finishes wood stain (left) vs. test 3, the Gel Stain (right):
Embarassing side note: The oak cabinet used in test 3 bubbled like waterlogged MDF after I left it outdoors to dry. In a rain and lightning storm. A storm that gave us more rain than we’ve had in 2 months. Visibly swollen in these after shots, I’m happy to report that the stain itself didn’t show any signs of wear or weathering, which I consider some kind of feat of oak stain absorption strength. Sort of amazing. No poly had been put on either of these cabinets at this time, but I’ll put a few coats on the finished real kitchen cabinets once I finish them.
Just like with test 2, I applied three coats of stain with an old sock over the course of 5 days. The gel stain (unlike the wood stain tested in the first and second rounds of experimentation) is oil-based and I’m not sure that I’ve said this before, but I’d rather light my hair on fire than deal with mass amounts of oil-based paint, but here I am, working with the stuff, soaking my hands in mineral spirits, and keeping my nail polish dark purple to disguise my discolored cuticles. Consequently, those cabinet doors had better look awesome when I’m done.
Shown again, the gel stain is on the left here, whereas the streaky wood stain is on the right of this photo. Big difference:
One of the biggest concerns I had in tackling this project Monica’s way (light sanding, heavy stain application) was that the stain finish was going to look too opaque, too thick, gloppy, or instead of like stain, heavy like paint. In a way, my suspicions of heaviness and opacity were spot on; even one coat of gel stain went on heavily and felt considerably thicker than the wood stains I’m more accustomed to using. You really can’t see the variances in wood color in using this gel stain on oak in the same way as when you use a dark brown stain on pine boards, wherein the stain absorbs differently into the knots and grains. It’s solid brown, not flowing shades of dark browns.
On the other hand, one of the reasons I still like the product is that you can still clearly see the texture of the original oak cabinet. The thick application of multiple coats of the gel stain does not impair or inhibit the way that texture shows through, and that really helps to keep this technique desirable. The finished product is really smooth, the bevels in the wood appear to have taken the stain evenly (a problem I cited during my report of test 1), and up close, the cabinets look good.
Are we on the same page now, stain? I’m ready to get started working on the rest of the kitchen, and having done this extensive due diligence, I’m really amped to spend some time on it. Even if it does eat away the next 3 weeks.
What’s on your DIY list for the rest of the summer?
Editor’s Update: See the finished cabinets right here.
Looking for the Gel Stain that I used to stain the kitchen cabinets? I could not find it in stores, and my best resource was General Finishes via Amazon. Learn more about the product and purchase it for yourself right here.