Here is how to stain wood darker with this old antique desk as a great example! And you don’t even have to sand down to bare wood!
Learn more about refinishing furniture here!
Staining wood furniture darker doesn’t have to be a huge project. It can actually be pretty simple!
Stain typically needs to be able to soak into the wood to be able to stain it. If you put wood stain on something that isn’t porous, it will just rub off, leaving only a small trace of some stain.
Since wood furniture has been sealed with lacquer or polyurethane, the wood isn’t very porous, making it hard for any wood stain to soak into the wood.
Enter gel stain. Gel stain is a stain that can stain without having to soak into the wood. It basically sits on the top of the sealed wood, making the wood darker.
But you can also still see the wood grain, just like traditionally stained wood!
Supplies Used to Stain Wood Darker
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- Krud Kutter
- 220 Grit Sandpaper (this is the best and my favorite sandpaper)
- Vacuum with Hose Attachment & Tack Cloth
- Lint Free Rag
- Gel Stain (this Java Gel Stain by General Finishes is my favorite and what I used)
- Minwax Oil Based Poly (This is my favorite spray version! The spray is the best I’ve found! I don’t recommend Varathane oil-based in the spray can. With two different cans, it kept spitting large drops of polyurethane all over. It was a disaster.)
Check out the top furniture refinishing tools that will make your project perfect here.
First, clean your furniture with a grease / oil cutting cleaner. I like to use Krud Kutter.
The surface needs to be free from any grease, oil, or gunk. Krud Kutter is a safe cleaner that really cuts through all of those things! Here’s more about how to clean furniture.
Scuff Sand Furniture for Stain
You’re gonna want to skip this step. But don’t.
Scuff sanding gives the gel stain something to grab onto (think about how hard it is to hold onto something slick. You can hold on for a bit, but if anything started to pull you away, you wouldn’t be able to hold on anymore.)
Trust me. My very first piece I gel stained, I skipped the scuff sanding step.
A couple of months later I ruined my freshly stained dresser by sliding something on the top of it. Now it has a big ole scratch in it (only in the gel stain, the wood didn’t get scratched!)
Rub it all over the dresser, making sure that it removes all of the shine. Then remove the dust with a vacuum hose attachment and / or a damp lint free rag.
Simply scuff sand with 220 grit sandpaper(this sandpaper is the BEST kind!). Rub it all over the dresser, making sure that it removes all of the shine.
Then remove the dust with a vacuum hose attachment and / or a damp lint free rag. For the best dust removal, I like to use these tack cloths! They pick up all the dust and don’t leave any lint behind!
Wipe Gel Stain On and Off Wood
Most will advise you to brush or wipe it on and then leave it to dry. And then you build up layers until you have a super dark colored stain.
I personally don’t like the stain to be too dark, and I don’t want there to be streaks in the gel stain.
So, by wiping it on, letting it start to set up a bit, and then wiping the excess away, you end up with a slightly darker stain and no streaks or brush marks.
If you’re wanting a drastic change in the color of your stain, you may want to put it on thicker and not wipe it back off. (See how to gel stain cabinets without wiping it back off here).
Or, you’ll need to add multiple thin coats. (This desk got 2 thin coats of gel stain.) Learn more about how to stain wood with a rag here.
Wipe Stain on with the Grain
That way if you get any streaks, it will look like it’s wood grain.
Work in a Small Area
Gel stain gets tacky quickly, which means that if it sits long, you won’t be able to wipe it back off. So, work in small areas – wipe on, wipe off – and then move to the next area.
I consider each drawer an area, each side of the desk an area, and the back I split into 3 areas.
Don’t Put More Gel Stain on Freshly Wiped Off Gel Stain
You might end up with a spot that is lighter than you want it to be, so you think that you will just go back over it with another quick round of gel stain – before the first gel stain completely dries.
You’re probably going to regret it. If wipe a glob of gel stain over an area that has fresh gel stain, you’ll reactivate the gel stain and end up wiping it away.
Putting gel stain on top of fresh gel stain removes some of the fresh gel stain.
If you accidentally left too much gel stain on an area and it’s too hard to wipe away, putting some more gel stain on top of it will make it easier to wipe the first round of gel stain away.
Hopefully that makes sense! Read through how to restain wood furniture to get more information.
If you need to remove your old finish and start fresh here’s our blog post about restaining furniture to get more information about that technique.
Check out my list of the best wood stains for refinishing furniture.
Dispose Rags Properly
Dispose of your rags properly! Do not throw wet stained rags into the trash, as they could combust.
I personally like to hang mine up outside on the clothesline to dry completely before disposing of them.
Let Gel Stain Dry for 24 Hours
Before you add another coat of gel stain, you want the gel stain to dry for 24 hours. If you don’t let it dry completely you will wipe away the 1st coat of gel stain. So just be patient while it dries.
Repeat Until Desired Dark Stain
If you want it darker, you’ll need to do another coat (or 2 or 3 or 4 coats haha) until you reach how dark you want the stain to be.
Then be sure to wait 24 hours before you move onto the next step.
Protect Stain with Polyurethane
Finally! If you want all of your hard work to last a long time, you will need to put a few coats of polyurethane over the gel stain.
The polyurethane will protect your stained surface from getting easily scratched! This step goes a lot faster though, promise!
I personally like to use this Minwax oil based poly in the spray can. It sprays beautifully and is really easy to use!
It also is a quick process since it’s the fast drying formula. Be sure to shake the can very well for 2 minutes before spraying.
Spray your first coat (be sure to spray it thin), and then let it start to dry. You want to spray another coat on within 2 hours.
Learn more about the features, pros and cons, and how-to’s of Minwax polyurethane spray here.
**In a pinch, I tried the Varathane brand of oil-based poly in the spray can and it spit and sputtered all over. (I tried two separate spray cans and both spit large drops of poly all over). Despite shaking them very well before spraying and shaking the can a lot while I was spraying.
So I switched back to the Minwax brand and I was reminded by how well the Minwax oil based poly sprays from the spray can!
If you don’t want to spray, this Minwax wipe on poly is my next favorite way to seal gel stain.
I wipe it on with a lint free rag, laying it on thick and only wiping it on (and not touching it anymore than when I wipe it on).
Step back and admire your creation! Let your poly dry for at least 24 hours before setting anything on it.
Then make sure to be very careful with your fresh new stained finish for about a month. It takes about a month for the products to cure (dry into the most durable surface).
How Much Gel Stain Do I Need?
I have a pint sized can of gel stain that I’ve used for many many many projects. This desk used only 1/8 of the can probably. A little bit goes a long long way!
I used one can of spray polyurethane on this desk.
More Before And After Makeovers
Click any of these “before” photos below to view the “after” of that makeover.
- First, clean your furniture with a grease / oil cutting cleaner for the surface to be free from any grease, oil, or gunk.
- Scuff sand the furniture to give the gel stain something to grab onto. Rub sandpaper all over the dresser, making sure that it removes all of the shine. Then remove the dust with a vacuum hose attachment and / or a damp lint free rag.
- Working in a small area and with a lint free rag (and gloves on your hands) wipe the gel stain onto your wood. Within about 20 or so seconds, wipe the gel stain back off with a clean lint free rag. Wipe stain on with the grain. Before you add another coat of gel stain, you want the gel stain to dry for 24 hours.
- Repeat until you reach your desired stain darkness.
- Protect your new stained finish with a few coats of polyurethane. Spray your first coat (be sure to spray it thin), and then let it start to dry. Spray another coat on within 2 hours. Let your poly dry for at least 24 hours before setting anything on it.
More Refinishing Furniture Resources
- How To Repair (And Stain) Chipped Veneer Furniture
- Refinishing an Old Dresser
- How to Remove Stain from Wood
- How to Remove Paint from Wood Furniture
- Painting Furniture Gold
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