Polyshades vs Gel Stain (What’s the Difference?)

If you want to change the color of stained wood, you can use Gel stain or Polyshades. But, what’s the difference between both top coats?

The main difference is that Polyshades is a combination of wood stain and polyurethane, while Gel stain is a type of wood stain. 

Since Polyshades contains polyurethane, the finish protects and lightens the wood stain color. On the other hand, the Gel stain is used to deepen (darken) stained wood shade. Also, Gel stain needs a topcoat (sealant), while Polyshades doesn’t.


What is Polyshades?

Polyshades is a two-in-one finish with the wood stain color and the durability of the polyurethane. When it dies, it produces a layer that enhances the color of the wood but also protects it at the same time.

Polyshades requires only 2 coats for proper coverage and durability. On average, one coat dries in 6 hours under normal conditions and 12 hours in humid conditions.

The biggest advantage of this finish is that it saves time. With 2 coats in less than 12 hours, you will get a wood color finish and a polyurethane topcoat. It would have taken you several days to apply them separately.


  1. You can apply it over an existing polyurethane finish.
  2. It can be used as a final topcoat. 
  3. It’s easy to apply.
  4. Changes the wood stain color.
  5. You can use it indoors or outdoors.
  6. Protects the wood.
  7. It’s moisture-resistant.


  1. The finish isn’t as colorful as wood stain and less durable than polyurethane.

Gel Stain

What is Gel Stain?

Gel stain is a jelly-like thick finish used to darken already stained wood. You can apply it with a foam brush or wipe it on with a rag. The jelly-like texture makes it have a longer dry time. On average, it takes gel stain 12 hours to dry.

Since gel stain has a thick flow, it can properly cover surfaces with fewer coats; usually, 1-2 coats are enough. You can use it outdoors and indoors; however, you must seal it with a waterproof sealant for outdoor surfaces.

Gel stain is a tropical finish, meaning it doesn’t need to penetrate the wood to stick. Instead, it can stay over the top layer and dry.


  1. It can darken stained wood.
  2. You can use it on vertical surfaces since it doesn’t drip. 
  3. Since it’s thick, it offers good coverage. 
  4. Requires only one coat.
  5. You can use it indoors and outdoors. 


  1. Gel stain isn’t waterproof or durable. You need to seal it. 
  2. It has a slow dry time. 
  3. You must wipe excess stain after application.
  4. Sometimes, you must thin it before applying. 

Gel Stain vs Polyshades

To know which finish is better, we will compare similar features and see which one stands out. 

Here’s a chart that shows the major differences:

PolyshadesGel stain
DurabilityGoodNeeds a top coat for durability
UseTo lighten or modify paint colorTo deepen already stained wood
Dry Time6 hours between coats and about 12 hours overall dry time10 hours between coats and more than 24 hours overall dry time
ColorPolyshades come in many color choicesGel stain is only transparent
Interior or Exterior useCan be used on interior surfacesCan be used on interior and exterior surfaces
The FinishSatin or GlossyGlossy but the gloss fades over time

Next, let’s check out these differences in more detail.


Polyshades is more durable than ordinary Gel stain. But, if you seal Gel stain, it becomes more durable than Polyshades.

Polyshades is a topcoat designed with a built-in polyurethane coating that repels moisture and stains and withstands dents and scratches. On the other hand, an ordinary (unsealed) Gel stain isn’t as durable unless you seal it. 

The Use

Polyshades is used to lighten the shade of an already stained wood. The polyurethane coating allows light to bounce off the finish, creating a lighter shade. You can also use it to enhance the color of an existing finish. 

On the other hand, Gel stain is used to deepen the color of an existing finish. Since it has a thick flow, it doesn’t allow light to shine through the finish. Instead, it blocks light, making the finish appear darker or deeper. 

Dry Time

Polyshades dries fast because the finish is not thick. On average, a coat of Polyshades will dry in about 6 hours while the overall finish takes about 12 hours to dry.

On the other hand, Gel stain has a slow dry time since it has a thick flow (or coating). On average, a coat of Gel stain takes 12-24 hours to dry.

Interior or Exterior Use

You can use Gel stain indoors and outdoors. However, to use it outdoors, you must seal the finish with a sealant, such as exterior polyurethane.

On the other hand, you can use Polyshades indoors and outdoors. However, Polyshades isn’t very durable for outdoor surfaces, so you must seal it. 

The Finish

Polyshades comes in satin and glossy finishes. While Gel stain only has a glossy finish. When dry, Gel stain coating becomes shiny, allowing the wood grain to shine through.

Use Polyshades:

  1. To lighten or modify already stained wood.
  2. If you need a quick finish as it gives a colorful and durable finish within a few hours.
  3. For indoor surfaces.
  4. To get a colorful finish — you can pick the color you want.
  5. If you want a satin or glossy finish. 

Use Gel Stain:

  1. To deepen the already stained wood color.
  2. If staining vertical surfaces, since it doesn’t drip.
  3. For indoor or outdoor surfaces.
  4. To get a glossy finish. 
  5. If working with wood types that don’t accept stains well, such as Pine or Cedarwood. 

Final Words

In summary, Gel stain and Polyshades offer different finishes and shades. Polyshades offers a combination of wood stain color and polyurethane durability that will lighten an already stained wood. On the other hand, Gel stain has a thick jelly-like finish that offers proper coverage and deepens a stained wood color shade.

Tony Adams
Tony Adams

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about,

Leave a Comment