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I'm sure most readers are familiar with that burst of holiday motivation, when otherwise sensible people become consumed with ensuring that everything is "perfect" for the holiday and their guests. With Christmas only a couple of days away and our home serving as the location of a large holiday gathering, the unsightly condition of the door was really bothering me. There was no time to remove the door from its hinges, then strip, sand, and re-stain the wood. That was much too large a project to tackle on December 22.
Honestly, it was more than I would be willing to tackle even if I had several weeks to finish it. I mean, really—taking the front door down for several days? How can I be without a front door on my home and sleep at night? The logistics of removing, stripping, refinishing, and re-hanging the front door—and all this somehow magically taking place over just a few days—were just too much for me. Fortunately, I remembered the many blogs that sung the praises of General Finishes "java" Gel Stain and did a bit of research.
The Merits of General Finishes Gel Stain
General Finishes Gel Stain is so very beloved and popular, because this particular formula possesses some nearly magical properties which other stains do not, most notably:
- It requires zero sanding in most cases.
- It can be applied over existing stain, meaning there's no need to strip the wood!
- It is thick and stays where you put it, with minimal drips.
- It covers uneven wood tones very evenly.
- The color deepens and increases in intensity with each coat.
- It requires minimal wiping of excess stain.
- It dries quickly.
Additionally, in my research, I found that General Finishes, unfortunately, does not recommend their Gel Stain for exterior surfaces. However, because the before/after photos featured in the various blogposts were just too alluring—and also because our entry door rarely gets wet thanks to our covered porch—I decided to take a chance and use the gel stain on the front door. I also found out through my research that "java" is simply the name of one shade of this particular brand of gel stain, and it's very dark brown, almost black. Black/brown was not the color I was after, so I instead chose "brown mahogany" and paired it with General Finishes Exterior 450 top coat, which is formulated especially for exterior vertical surfaces, like my door.
Our Front Door Was in Need of Refurbishing
The exterior portion of our front door looked terrible. It had originally been stained a deep brownish-red and sealed with a glossy polyurethane clear coat. But we were dismayed at how quickly it had become noticeably faded, and the finish was even cracking and flaking off in some spots. I'm not sure if the problem can be attributed to a poor finishing job or the intense Texas heat and sun constantly wearing away at the finish.
To make matters worse, our dog left some significant scratches on the door one day when he somehow managed to get loose but then became desperate to get back into the house. Our poor door, which should serve as a focal point for our home's façade as well as be something of a welcoming beacon to visitors, was definitely an eyesore.
Thanks to this project, however, I was able to re-stain the door without taking it down and without sanding or stripping the ugly, flaking, scratched original finish. The door remained hanging in place, fully installed, while I refurbished it. The project was quick and easy, and the results were great. And after four years of harsh Texas sun, the finish is still holding up beautifully.
In this article, I'll break down the process so that you can stain your own front door at home!
Gather up your supplies before starting:
- General Finishes Gel Stain
- General Finishes Exterior 450 Topcoat (This is a clear topcoat.)
- All-purpose spray cleaner such as Fantastik
- Damp towel
- Masking tape (I love the easy-release blue masking tape.)
- Newspaper, craft paper, or other paper for masking hardware and any windows your door may have
- Wedge-style door stopper or other door stopper
- Several clean cotton rags (An old T-shirt cut into sections works well. Because the stain is oil based, there is no point trying to save or wash these rags, so use rags you do not mind tossing in the trash.)
- Foam paint brushes (One about 2 inches wide and one about 4 inches wide.)
- Conventional paint brush (About 2 inches wide)
- Drop cloth
- Disposable gloves
Note: If you are short and/or your door is quite tall, you may need a step stool to reach very the top.
Prep Your Door for Staining
- Although using General Finishes Gel Stain means you do not have to remove your door from its hinges, you will need to keep your door open while staining it, in order to reach every nook and cranny for an even staining job. Therefore, the first step is to choose a day that's not too hot or cold to leave your front door open for most of the day. Additionally, a relatively warm day with low humidity will help your stain and top coat dry as quickly as possible.
- Open your door so that every bit of surface is exposed, and clean your door thoroughly. Use a clean, damp towel to scrub it down, giving special attention to moldings and nooks that tend to hold grime, dust, dead bugs, and spider webs.
- After the initial scrubbing has knocked off most of the dirt and grime, use spray cleaner and a clean, dry rag to give your door one more cleaning. Spray the cleaner directly onto the door and wipe it dry with the rag. Go ahead and use the spray cleaner or glass cleaner to clean any windows in your door as well. Allow all surfaces to air dry completely.
- Mask off the windows as well as any hardware, such as door knobs, handles locks and knockers, with masking tape and/or craft paper or newspaper.
- Place a drop cloth, plastic sheeting, or several layers of newspaper or craft paper under the door to catch any dripping stain or clear topcoat. Tape down to keep in place, especially if the area has lots of foot traffic or if it is a windy day, which could move the covering from its place.
- Keep in mind a door on hinges is likely to swing freely. A couple of gallon jugs filled with water can serve as door stoppers to keep swinging to a minimum when placed on either side of the door, however, take care that your door is not repeatedly bumping into your door stoppers, as this can mar your door's new finish if the stain is not yet dry. A wedge-style door stopper will probably work best.
How to Apply the Gel Stain and Top Coat
Once your door is clean and dry, it's time to start staining. Wear disposable gloves, especially when working with the stain as opposed to the clear topcoat. Start at the top of the door and gradually work your way down.
- Working in sections about two or three square feet in size, use a disposable foam brush to apply the stain generously in the direction of the grain of the wood (see video below).
- Before the stain you've applied to the current section you're working on has a chance to dry, wipe the stained area with a clean, lint-free cloth (see video below). This part of the process not only removes excess stain, but it also gently pushes the stain into any nooks and crannies in your door's design and allows you to more evenly spread the stain for a more consistent final color. If the first coat appears blotchy or streaky, don't fret, as a second coat will likely eliminate unevenly colored areas. A third coat may be necessary, but two coats worked very well for me.
- Continue staining with the foam brush and wiping with the cloth until you've stained and wiped the entire door. If your wiping cloth becomes too messy and saturated with stain, toss it in the trash and start with a fresh one.
- Allow the stain to dry. On a warm, dry day, you may be able to recoat within six hours. However, do not count on or assume you are working under these ideal weather conditions. I applied the first coat in the morning, then left my door open, allowing the stain to dry in the warm air for the entire day before shutting and locking the door for the evening.
- If a second coat is needed, apply the stain in the same manner as above: working from the top down, brushing/wiping in the direction of the grain, brushing the stain on with a foam brush, then wiping the stained area before it dries. I applied my second coat the day after I applied the first, to ensure the first coat had ample time to dry. Repeat this process for a third coat, if necessary. The color achieved by General Finishes Gel Stain becomes darker, deeper, richer, and more even with each coat. Keep in mind, however, that an extremely deep, dark coat may end up hiding your wood's naturally varying tones.
- Apply the top coat once the stain is completely dry. Because Exterior 450 top coat is water based and General Finishes Gel Stain is oil based, the company recommends extra drying time for the best result. I allowed the stain to dry and cure an entire week before topping it with Exterior 450. Happily, the stain on its own achieved the basic look I was after, and my company on Christmas Day was none the wiser. No one knew I had not yet applied top coat (I of course removed all masking tape and craft paper before company arrived). While the Exterior 450 I applied after Christmas did give my door a nice satin glow and completed look, its main benefit is weatherproofing and lengthening the life of the new finish. I applied two coats of Exterior 450; one each morning for two consecutive mornings, and was able to completely shut and lock my door in the evenings. Because Exterior 450 is water based, it typically dries more quickly than the gel stain, depending upon temperature and humidity levels, of course.
- Your last step is to remove the masking tape and craft paper. If needed, use a razor blade to remove any stain that has gotten on your windows. Rehang any door decorations, then step back a few paces and admire your home's spiffy new look.
Four Years and Counting
Despite the fact that General Finishes does not recommend their popular gel stain for exterior applications, the quick makeover I completed on my front door has lasted beautifully. I really do think their Exterior 450 clear top coat has much to do with the finish's durability—our door's original finish was quick to fade and flake, despite being applied by a professional.
According to the manufacturer, this top coat is made to absorb UV light and survive outdoor weather conditions, but keep in mind that it is recommended for vertical surfaces (think surfaces that rain drains off of rather than pooling upon) and is not recommended for horizontal surfaces such as decks. As my door is under a covered porch, it rarely gets wet, so this is probably another reason for the finish's lasting beauty. If applied to an outdoor wooden tabletop, you'll have a better chance at lasting results if the table is kept under a covered area and does not get rained upon.
General Finishes also warns that while the formula looks white in the can and dries to a clear finish, if used over pale colors, it may give them a yellow cast. Of course, with a brown or dark stain, this is not an issue.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.