How to Stain a Steel Door to Look Like Wood

Learn how to stain a steel door, even over existing paint. Easily get a wood look for your door on a budget with gel stain!

Wood front doors are so timeless and beautiful. I was on the hunt to purchase one for our home. Unfortunately, I had a bit of sticker shock when I realized it wouldn’t be hundreds of dollars to replace our steel door with wood…it would be well over a thousand dollars at least.

Considering there was nothing functionally wrong with our steel front door, it seemed like too great an expense.

BUT, did you know you could stain a steel door and create a wood look with gel stain?! Gel stain works like a charm to quickly refinish furniture…but I had never used it on a non-wood surface! Since seeing the idea years ago, I have been curious to try out gel staining a painted door.

So, when my husband went on an Army trip for a couple weeks, (so he wouldn’t give me any nervous glances) I “stained” our painted front door. Post contains affiliate links.

Stain a Steel Door with Gel Stain


First, thoroughly clean the surface. I used a simple degreasing dish soap and water. Then, I scraped off any globs or loose bits if paint on my door. After lightly sanding the whole surface, I wiped the door clean with a damp rag and let dry. 

Stain a painted steel door to look like wood with gel stain

Next, apply a base coat of paint to the door that is slightly lighter than your gel stain. Before painting, I taped off the windows on our door.

I’m emphasizing a slightly lighter shade, as my base shade was basically an off white I had left over from our powder room. In retrospect, that was WAY too light for the base coat.

Ideally, apply a base coat that’s just slightly lighter than the gel stain shade you select. If my base coat was darker, I could have gotten away with a lot less gel stain, and I think my finished door would have come out the lighter shade I was hoping for.

After the paint base coat is dry, wipe on generous coat of gel stain with a rag or brush.

I found it helpful to look at another wood door in our house as a guide on what direction the wood grain should go on each part of the door. Looking at a picture of a wood door would serve just as well to take out the guesswork on what direction the “wood grain” should go.

Using a Wood Graining Tool

Our door is smooth steel with no wood grain texture. So, partway through the staining process, I thought it would be fun to use a wood grain tool to give the door extra variety and texture!

It is totally possible to stain a steel door without using the wood graining tool. The gel stain alone, wiped or brushed in a grain pattern does provide a stained wood look. Simply wipe the stain on in the direction of the wood grain to get a subtle wood look finish. 

The wood grain tool is just a few dollars, available on Amazon or at Ace hardware. Simply wipe the tool across the stain with a light pulling motion, very gently rocking the tool as you slide it downwards. Different rocking motions and levels of pressure add variation to the wood grain as you go.

I didn’t originally plan to use the wood grain tool, so I used it on the second coat of stain instead of the first.

How to stain a steel front door to look like wood with general finishes gel stain and a wood graining tool.

This wood grainer was so fun to use, I would definitely do a project like this again, partly to play with this little tool!

If you don’t love the way a section of your grain pattern comes out, you can simply wipe that section smooth with your gel stain rag, and try again! Once, you are happy with the look of the grain, allow the gel stain to completely dry. I let my door rest overnight after applying the faux wood grain pattern.

A quick note on gel stain:

Gel stain feels like a miracle product, with a main limitation. It can only be added one coat at a time, as it has to dry between coats. If you try to add more stain on top while the coat underneath is still drying…ALL the stain will wipe off the door.

I know for me, it’s difficult to be patient when I just want to see the finished product! But, your results will be even more amazing if you take your time!

Once your wood pattern is dry, add more stain over top. Again, just wiping on with a rag in the direction of the grain you just created.. This is when the process really starts to come together!

Let dry 12-24 hours, and if needed, apply another coat of stain, touching up lighter spots until you achieve the depth of color you desire. 

Finally, protect your new door with a clear coat. If your gel stained door is an interior door, you can seal with any quality top coat such as polyurethane or urethane. 

For exterior doors, I use this Helmans spar urethane. In addition to sealing, it provides UV protection to prevent fading or yellowing.

Apply two light coats with a brush. I applied my first coat too heavy, and I kept having to catch drips as it was drying. The directions on the can say you should lightly sand in between coats, but I skipped this step. 

Adding the varnish coat to gel stained steel front door. How to stain a steel door to get a wood look on a budget.

Overall, I am so pleased with how this faux wood door came out. 

Because I ended up applying more coats of gel stain than I planned, it made the finished wood tone much darker than I expected. That was the main downside, as I was going for a more rustic oak to walnut shade, and ended up with almost a dark cherry! 

The shade of General Finishes gel stain I used was Nutmeg. If you look at the color swatch, you can see it’s much lighter than my door’s final color. This gel stain definitely builds and deepens with every coat you apply.

Stain a steel door to look like wood with gel stain and this simple tool.

Even with the darker shade, I still think it turned out lovely. Miles better than our scuffed up red door. I put together this new spring wreath, and now our door feels complete!

I will share soon how easy this wreath was to put together with a premade floral swag. Honest to goodness, it was so simple… it feels a bit like cheating to say I made it! It was the perfect amount of craft time for me at the moment… little boys keep me busy these days!

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2 thoughts on “How to Stain a Steel Door to Look Like Wood

  • Allison Marsh

    I love this look! I have a front door that is solid glass with 2 side lights and a top window above the door. My grain tool is too wide to get in the side lights. I also have the rubber looking piece that goes around the glass and I’m curious how you did your tool on that area?

    • Joyeliz57 Post author

      Hi Allison! Around my glass, it’s like a wood look plastic. The stain went over it great, and I just wiped the gel stain around the rubber sealant near the glass. If I couldn’t fit the wood grain tool in an area, I just wiped the stain in the direction of the wood grain, and it blended in nicely! 🙂