Varnish vs Stain

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Many people like to use finishes to give their wood a unique, attractive look and offer some protection against common enemies like water, buffs, and knicks.

Varnish and stain are two common finishes used to protect and improve the appearance of wood surfaces. But these two products are not the same thing. Stains cause your wood to change a new color, while the varnish is clear and provides a protective layer to your wood. 

This article will look at varnish vs. stain and which one you would need to use for your wood projects.

Varnish and Stain Wood Finishes 

Wood stain permanently changes the color of your wood. They’re great for showing the wood grain, highlight existing natural tones, and penetrate deep to hold the color. You may need to add a top coat to your stain to give it extra protection.

Person opening a can of gel stain

You can find water-based, solvent-based, or oil-based stains. Many wood stains include color pigments, which cause your wood to stain a new color without using paint.

Varnishes provide a protective seal over the outside of your wood but don’t penetrate the wood. They are usually clear, although there are varnishes that can change the wood’s colour. This product gives your wood better durability. 

Many people apply a varnish over the top of their wood after they’ve finished a stain treatment. Varnish is a resin and oil mixture that provides a water-resistant coating to your wood. It will also brighten your wood.

Varnish vs Stain 

Varnish and stain are two wood treatment options you can use to protect your wood surfaces and give them a better appearance. 

These two products do have some commonalities and some differences that can influence which one you choose for your wood projects. 

Most people treat their wood with a wood stain to change its color and then apply a clear varnish over the top once the wood stain is dry to protect and enhance the natural grain.

Similarities 

Wood stain and varnish both change your wood’s appearance by brightening the natural wood grain and enhancing its color. 

Both finishes also offer protection from weathering and water damage. But varnish does provide better weather protection than a stain. 

And both products require that you prep your wood before applying. This includes filling in any cracks and sanding the surface. 

Man applying gel stain to wood

Differences 

One difference that causes many people to consider wood stain over varnish is the dry time. Stain dries in 15 to 30 minutes, whereas varnish can take four to six hours. 

But if you are using oil based stains, it takes three days to dry and seal. Oil based stains provide more substantial protection than water or solvent based stains. You may not even need a varnish top coat when using oil based, although it won’t hurt.

Major Distinguishing Factor 

The most significant difference between varnish and stain is the color-changing attributes. Wood stain absorbs into the wood to alter the color and look. This color change is permanent and needs to be touched up periodically to retain the look.

Varnishes adhere to the top of the wood instead of penetrating down into the grain. While varnish will brighten the colour of the wood, it won’t change it like a stain. The varnish is a transparent barrier that protects your wood and stain.

You can apply stain to your timber surfaces using a clean cloth that’s lint-free or by brushing it on using a synthetic brush for water based stain or a natural bristle brush for solvent based stains. 

Varnish cannot be applied using a rag. You would need a thick bristle brush that can handle a varnish’s thickness. 

When to Use Varnish

Varnish is best used as a top coat to give your wood a water-resistant barrier. If you want to weather-treat your outdoor fences, be sure you choose a varnish that’s intended for outdoor use, usually labeled exterior. 

You should wait to apply a varnish coat to your wood surface until you’ve done all of your work. If you want to change your timber color, you’ll need to treat it with a wood stain or paint first. And then apply the varnish once the stain has set into the timber. 

Your surface needs to be prepared properly before applying your varnish. You may need to sand down any blemishes, which the varnish will make stand out. You need to use multiple layers of varnish to get a good seal.

Two pieces of wood applied with varnish and stain

Start with your layer, which acts as a primer. Use fine-grit sandpaper to “key” the first layer of varnish to remove any debris or dust. Then continue to apply one to two more layers of varnish to finish your seal.

When to Use Stain

If you want to give your wood a different colour, you should use a wood stain. You can find stains in multiple colours to give your timber surface a different look. And wood stain can be used indoors and outdoors on a variety of wood surfaces.

Stain should be applied before you add your varnish. Your surface should be prepared beforehand by sanding any rough areas or blemishes and filling any cracks. 

You should not apply stain to wood covered in dirt or debris. Use a soft brush or cloth to wipe the surface before staining.

Water-based wood stains can cause raised areas in the wood that stand out once dry. Using wood stains requires you to work with the grain instead of across from it to get a better look. 

Avoid drips that can cause blemishes. And sandpaper your surface after each layer of wood stain before applying a new coat. You can get a darker look by adding more layers of stains. 

You may do best by testing your stain method on a piece of scrap one before attempting your final project to ensure you know the proper way to get the look you desire. 

Which is Better?

When it comes to varnish vs stain, which one is better would depend on your desired effects. If you want a product that will give your wood a new look, you would need a wood stain. But if you want to protect the wood, you would need a varnish. The best results come from using a stain first and then adding a protective topcoat of varnish.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.