Updated 2/8/22 We have a new gel stain staircase makeover in our new house.  You can read all about it HERE.

I love dark wood, it’s so dramatic.  It took a lot of courage for me to gel stain my stair handrail.  It sounded like a scary project.  I had a very bad experience in our old house.  I tried to refinish the wood stairs and handrail myself.  This was before gel stain was common.  Let’s just say that project ended up with crying and calls to a professional.  Well, after months and months of debating if I should attempt this or hire it out I finally got up the courage.  I thought I might as well try again, as I had more knowledge this time.  I told myself I might get lucky and have everything work out this time.

Beware of some really BAAAD before pictures in this story.

Our stairs needed a little makeover for sure, and I was not feeling the shade of oak at all.   Previous renters had let their dog use the stairs as a chew toy.  They had bites and chew marks all along them in various places.  I wanted to make sure and finish this project before the new carpet came in for our stairs…because I’m messy.

Nervously, I made sure to read all the information I could find on gel stain.

I sanded the oak down by hand just enough to get the gloss off.  Just in case I didn’t get it good enough I wiped it down with Liquid Sander.  I filled in all the dog bites with wood filler and sanded them smooth.  When I say bites in the wood, think of bites out of an apple-it was that bad in spots!  Most of the dog damage was on the inside so you really can’t see it below, but it was really chewed up well!

After lots and lots of reading, I knew that General Finishes gel stain was the way to go.  It wasn’t sold in any stores around me, but I found everything I needed on Amazon.  However, I wasn’t positive what color I wanted.  General Finishes Java was so dark that it almost looks black sometimes, and I could find very little info on General Finishes Antique Walnut.  So I ordered both.  By the way, there’s a lot of helpful information in the product reviews at Amazon.  Be sure and read them!

After a lot of thought, I decided to paint the newel and nosing white, as well as the newel in the middle of the stairs.  I repainted all the white balusters first. Not the best plan…  It would have been best to save all the white paint for the very last section, but what can I say? Sometimes I like to do things the hard way.  I had some white touch up to do at the end for sure.

If you’re wondering, I used White Dove by Benjamin Moore.

I saved my cabinet door when we installed our trash compactor in the kitchen.  The old cabinet finish was similar to our handrail color, so this gave me an idea how it would look and how many coats I would need.  This old cabinet gave me confidence.

I recommend testing your gel stain out first!  I decided to test Java, Antique Walnut, and then a 50/50 blend.  I mixed them in old plastic containers with lids.

Here is the dried 1st coat:

The gel stain colors look different at certain times of the day.  Here below is after 3 coats dried.

My thoughts were:

Java is super dark; it can look black sometimes in photos, but in bright light here is looks like a nice deep brown.

Antique Walnut is certainly lighter, but it had a slightly more artificial look to me.  It reminded me of a melted Hershey bar.

50/50 blend was pretty good. It was a nice blend, but wasn’t quite what I wanted.

I felt myself wanting more of a Java look, but I was scared of Java.  So…

75/25 blend At the bottom of the cabinet I experimented again.  I mixed 3 parts Java with 1 part Antique Walnut.  See at the bottom, it’s dark like Java but not so intense.  Bingo!

Gel stain can get messy, but it’s not very drippy.  It’s more of a pudding consistency, but still take precautions and put drop cloths down.  I was getting new carpet so I didn’t really care if I dripped.

Then I taped everything off with painters tape.  I recommend taping farther down your balusters!  I still made a mess on my newly painted white balusters.  I don’t have any action shots-I know, I know. Frowny face.  That was the old me, new me will always take action shots!  I tried a paint brush for application at first, but it was too messy.  Then I went with the gloved hand and sock method, and it was much easier for me.   Wear a vinyl or latex disposable glove under your sock or you’ll have a nice gel stained hand.

Using the sock I rubbed the gel stain until each coat looked even, making sure to get under the rail and in the little crevices.  Let each coat of gel stain dry at least 24 hours.  If it feels sticky it’s not dry.  If your gel stain isn’t dry your next coat will rub off the previous coat.  You’ll see this happening and quickly want to stop.  Don’t worry this can be fixed with your next coat.  I repeated this step 2 more times for a total of 3 coats.  Then after my 3rd coat of gel stain was completely dry I used General Finishes Gel Topcoat in Satin.  I ended up doing 2 coats sanding lightly in between.

Interesting observation, I think my 75/25 gel stain blend looks like the full java.  I have to wonder if I would of just used straight Java if it would look nearly the same or even darker?  Just curiosity.  It doesn’t matter because I love the result!

What a difference new carpet and a wood floor make.  I like how the stair rail is different from the wood floor.  It’s not the same color but the tones compliment each other nicely.


Not everybody loves gel stain.  Some compare gel stain to paint.  To me the wood doesn’t look like paint, just a really dark stain.  However, you must understand that when working with gel stain you get a deeper, solid looking stain.  Gel stains do not penetrate the wood, a benefit is it’s easy for rookies like me.  If you want to see multicolor dimensions of the wood grain then gel stain is probably not for you.  It certainly gives a more modern dramatic look, but that may not be everyone’s goal.

Lets see that before picture one more time!

And after!

I was so pleased with the stairs I did my mantel too!

Its dramatic.  I like it!

If you are interested in using gel stain to update your home, the products can be purchased using the links below.  Do you have any gel stain success stories?


General Finishes Gel Stain in Java

General Finishes Gel Stain in Antique Walnut

General Finishes Gel Top Coat in Satin




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    1. I can’t remember the brand or name, but I do remember it was pet/stain resistant. We purchased the carpet from Masters Flooring in Keller, Tx. Their website has a FB link and they have photos of our stairs from November 2016. I’d leave a comment and ask them, or even call. I’m sure they would be glad to help. We did move a year ago and the carpet looked great when we left. It stayed pretty clean and we only had it professionally cleaned once.

    1. We moved a year ago, but it was looking great still at the time. My kids did have a certain spot they would rub along the stair rail while coming down and the gel stain wore off a bit in that spot but it didn’t bother me enough to redo it.

  1. You did a very nice job I’m very proud of you I’m getting ready to tackle mine I’ve been wanting to do it for eight years!! Do do you think it’s too late will it go out of style?