Varnish Vs Stain: A Detailed Comparison

Last Updated on September 28, 2022 by Ernest Godia

The varnish vs stain battle frequently comes up whenever wood finishes are involved. Since choosing the right finishing for your home is essential, you need to know all the crucial details about these products to decide which is better suited for your project. 

This blog discusses the difference between stain and varnish in formulation, uses, and types. The article also provides a detailed comparison of the features of stain vs varnish that may benefit your project and influence your choices.

Read on to learn all there is to these two popular wood finishes. 

What’s the difference between wood stain and varnish?

Wood stain penetrates the wood and colors it. However, it does not offer reliable protection against regular wear and tear. On the other hand, wood varnish dries on the wood’s surface, creating a protective layer against moisture and physical damage. 

About Varnish

Varnish is a clear wood finishing primarily designed to seal the surface. In turn, it protects the wood underneath—whether stained, painted, or bare wood.

Characteristics of varnish

Varnish is a blend of resins, solvent, and varnish (drying) oils. The solvent (water, mineral spirits, or turpentine) thins the oils and resin to encourage easy application. When you apply the varnish, the solvent evaporates, leaving the resin and oils to oxidize and cure into a hard, protective film.

Varnish is primarily transparent and is not designed to color the wood. When using varnish, you can choose between satin, gloss, and matte sheens.

Types of varnishes

There are several types of varnishes; some are popular, while others aren’t technically used as varnishes. Here’s a brief discussion of each type of varnish.

Polyurethane varnish

Polyurethane is a household name in wood finishes. The product exists in oil and water-based formulations. It is popular for creating a durable, waterproof, scratch-resistant, and weatherproof seal on the wood surface. 

Acrylic varnish

This is a water-based, non-toxic finish for wood and non-wooden surfaces. This varnish has excellent UV resistance, making it perfect for indoor and outdoor surfaces. Acrylic varnish is transparent and won’t yellow surfaces over time. 

Exterior Varnish

As the name suggests, this varnish is formulated to withstand the elements, making it suitable for outdoor surfaces. This product guarantees superior resistance to weather and UV damage and protects both vertical and horizontal wood surfaces outdoors. 

Yacht varnish

This varnish is also known as marine or spar varnish. It is specifically designed for use on boats and other wooden surfaces exposed to constant contact with water. This varnish keeps wood from deteriorating from rot in moist or harsh weather conditions. 

Other types of varnish 

Lacquer varnish. This is actually shellac dissolved in alcohol. It has a light texture and applies easily using a  sprayer. 

Alkyd varnish. This refers to a modified vegetable or natural oil.

Shellac varnish. It refers to de-waxed shellac and is often used as a pre-stain wood sealer.

Drying oils, in this case referring to Tung and linseed oils, aren’t technically a varnish but can be applied to wood to add a warm tint to the surface.

Benefits of Varnish

  • Varnishes are easy to apply
  • They protect wood surfaces from physical damage.
  • Preserve wood’s natural appearance.
  • Varnish is self-leveling and doesn’t leave brush marks.

Cons of varnish 

  • Varnish dries slowly between coats.
  • It can be time-consuming to finish a project.

How to varnish wood

The application process is straightforward. But before you begin, ensure you have varnish, sandpaper, a natural bristle brush, and a lint-free cloth.

Step 1: Prep the wood Surface

Ensure the wood is clean and dry before you begin sanding. 

Begin sanding with medium grit sandpaper; sand with the grain to even out any flaws. Collect the dust and sand again with fine-grit sandpaper.

Wipe the wood dust with a lint-free cloth to create a clean surface for finishing.

Step 2: Apply the Varnish and let it dry.

Apply a light coat of the varnish using a lint-free cloth or brush. You can thin this first coat since it acts as a primer. Spread the varnish and ensure it covers the entire wood surface. 

Let the varnish dry completely; it can take up to 10 hours.

Step 3: Apply the second coat.

Once the first coat dries, apply the second layer similarly to the first. You can have this second coat as your final, or add another coat for good measure.

Let the varnished surface dry and cure completely before subjecting it to heavy handling.

What is a wood stain?

Wood stains are tinted products designed to alter and enhance the wood color. Stains add vibrant color to the wood and accentuate the grain. However, stains do not primarily protect the wood.

Characteristics of a wood stain 

Wood stains contain three components; a binder, solvent, and pigment. The solvent dissolves the pigment while the binder holds the pigment to the solvent, creating a suspension that’s the wood stain.

Wood stains can be water-or-oil-based and are suitable for interior and exterior wood surfaces.

Types of wood stains

Wood stains have significantly evolved over the years. Although there are homemade stains you can use to color wooden surfaces, our focus in this post is on commercial wood stains. 

There are seven types of wood stains on the market today. They are water, oil, varnish, gel, lacquer, water-soluble dye, and metal-complex dye stains. These stains serve the same purpose; to add vibrant color to the natural wood and highlight the beautiful grain pattern.

Even though they serve the same function, they are entirely unique products. Their main differences are their individual formulations, durability, and suitability for specific wood surfaces.

Read our previous article on the types of wood stains for a detailed discussion.

Pros of wood stain

  • Wood stain accentuates the wood grain.
  • It adds a rich color to the natural wood.
  • It is easy to apply
  • Some stains dry fast.

Cons of wood stain

  • It doesn’t protect wood against physical damage.
  • It requires a sealer to avoid fading.

How to apply wood stain 

For this process, you will need wood stain, sandpaper, and a lint-free cloth or bristle brush.

Step 1: Prep the wood

Begin sanding with medium grit sandpaper and finish with fine-grit sandpaper. Sand the wood by going with the grain. Collect the sawdust with a vacuum and then wipe further with a lint-free cloth.

Step 2: Apply the stain

Use a lint-free cloth or bristle brush to apply a generous stain coat to every inch of the bare wood. Spread the stain along the wood grain.

Step 3: Wipe excess stain and let it dry.

Let the stain soak into the wood for approximately 5-10 minutes, and then wipe off the excess product. Let the stain coat dry for as long as the label recommends, subject to the stain type.

Step 4: Recoat if necessary

Recoat the surface once the previous coat dries. Wipe up the excess and let it dry fully. Repeat the process for all the stain coats of stain you apply.

Varnish vs. stain side-by-side comparison

This section compares specific characteristics of varnish and stain that may directly affect your wood project.

Ease of application

Applying wood stain requires wiping the stain onto the wood, letting it set in the wood for a few minutes before wiping off the excess. This makes it a two-step process. On the other hand, varnishing wood is a one-step process involving spreading the finish and letting it dry. 

In both cases, however, you must prepare the wood surface by sanding and wiping the wood dust. Additionally, both varnish and wood stain can be applied with a rag, brush, roller, or pad, but some methods are more suitable for one product than the other.

For instance, a paintbrush or foam brush is better for varnishing, while a rag applies wood stain better than other tools.

Verdict: It’s a close tie.

Wood stain vs. varnish: Durability

Wood varnishes are formulated to last up to 15 to 20  years as a hard-wearing coat on the wood surface. 

Since a varnish dries into a thick, impenetrable seal on the wood’s surface, it keeps the wood protected from damage occasioned by moisture, scratches, and stains over those years.

Wood stain, on the other hand, has a shorter lifespan. Interior stained surfaces can last up to 5 years with minimal traffic, while stained exterior wood will need recoating after its first year.

Also, unsealed stained wood is susceptible to scratches, fading, and water damage because stains don’t waterproof wood.

Verdict: varnish wins. 

Wood protection

Wood stains saturate the pores and keep the wood from absorbing water or moisture from its surroundings. Despite being stained, the wood can easily trap dirt, get scarred by sharp objects, or fade over time.

Wood varnish, on the other hand, dries to form a film on the wood surface. The film is waterproof and protects the wood from scratches and other forms of physical damage. 

Applying varnish on stained wood is also often recommended as a way to help lock in the color and protect the wood from fading and discoloration. 

Verdict: varnish wins.

Finish texture

Varnishes offer a range of sheen levels, including matte, satin, gloss, and high gloss finishes. Regardless of the sheen level, the texture of this finish will be smooth and transparent.

In contrast, wood stains absorb into the wood and therefore have no sheen. As such, the stain will take the texture of the wood itself, often a flat texture, regardless of the type of stain used. 

Conclusion: Varnish offers a smooth texture with various sheen levels.

Indoor vs. outdoor use

Wood stains can work on indoor and outdoor projects depending on the formulation. Use interior stains on indoor surfaces and exterior stains on exterior surfaces. Using interior stains on exterior projects and vice versa will result in poor stain performance.

Similarly, there are varnishes designed for outdoor and indoor surfaces. The ones intended for exterior use are formulated to withstand the elements such as rain, snow, wind, and extreme temperatures. 

Therefore, ensure you use the correct varnish on the specified environment.

Verdict: it’s a tie.

Varnish vs. stain: Ease of maintenance

It’s easier to clean and maintain a varnished surface because it dries into an impenetrable film –regardless of the sheen level. This film makes it easier to wipe dust, dirt, and water spills using a soft cloth. 

On the other hand, stained wood easily traps dust and dirt from human and animal contact and from the surrounding environment–hence requires more effort to maintain. 

Regular cleaning of the stained wood also often leads to fading of the color, so you have to recoat sooner.

Verdict: Varnish is easier to clean and maintain

Preserving natural wood color

Most varnishes are transparent. Therefore when you apply these finishes to bare wood, they will protect the integrity of the wood while preserving its natural color.

On the other hand, stains are designed to add color to the wood. So, stained wood will take the shade of the stain and lose its natural color. However, the stain still allows the wood’s surface character and texture to remain.

Conclusion: varnish wins this round. 

Varnish vs. stain: drying times

Generally, water-based finishes dry faster than oil-based ones. Water-based products can dry enough for recoating within a few hours, while oil-based products typically need at least 24 hours to dry.

However, factors like the product’s thickness, temperature, and humidity influence the drying times.

That said, wood stains have a lighter texture than varnishes. This feature translates to wood stains drying faster than wood varnishes.

Verdict: Stain dries faster than varnishes.

Varnish vs. stain safety precautions

  • It is recommended to carry out any woodworking project in a well-ventilated space—with adequate light and free air circulation.
  • Product spills are bound to happen when staining or varnishing wood. Therefore, ensure you wear a coverall or old clothes that you don’t mind soiling.
  • Also, if you use rags at any point in your finishing project, keep them in a covered metal container to avoid the chances of spontaneous combustion.
  • Always test the stain or varnish on scrap wood or in an inconspicuous spot to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Varnish vs stain FAQs

Cans of varnish vs stain

Can I apply varnish directly on the wood?

You can apply varnish directly on wood, provided the surface is well-prepped. The wood must be cleaned, repaired, sanded, and cleaned again. However, don’t skip the prep if you plan to varnish an already coated surface. Scuff the surface with 180-grit, clean it up and then apply the finish.

How do you prepare wood for varnishing?

Clean the dirt, oils, and waxes using special cleaners or paint thinner. Repair any cracks or holes with wood filler. Begin sanding the surface with the grain: first with medium grit and then with fine-grit sanding paper. Collect the dust with a vacuum and wipe further with a tack cloth.

How many coats of varnish do you put on wood?

Since varnishes mostly sit on the surface, you can apply 2- 3 coats for better protection. We recommend thinning the first coat to speed up the drying process. Once the first coat dries, apply the subsequent coats with the grain. Let it dry and cure thoroughly.

Do I need to stain before varnishing?

You do not need to stain before varnishing because you can apply varnish on bare wood. Only stain first if you want a deep-colored wood protected with a waterproof, scratch-resistant film on the surface.

Do I need to varnish after staining?

Staining only colors the wood, while varnish protects the wood from damage. Varnishing stained wood will prolong its lifespan and enhance its aesthetic appeal depending on the sheen level you choose. So, while varnishing stained wood is optional, it is recommended.

Varnish vs. stain conclusion

Wood stain and varnish have unique properties that benefit wood differently. However, the popular approach is to use them together on wood projects to make the most of their complementing characteristics. 

That said, use a varnish when you want to protect and preserve the wood. Otherwise, use a stain when you want to add color to the wood and accentuate its beautiful grain.

We hope that this varnish vs. stain comparison has been informational and helpful. 

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it with your network. Happy woodworking!

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