Varnish vs Stain – Wood Finish Comparison

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Wood is an immensely-used and widely popular material for various applications. We find wooden items all over our homes. In cold regions, you will find wood that makes up the flooring, and you can also see complete buildings made of wood. Then, wood plays a prominent role in furniture and outdoor accessories like decks, railings, and patios.

While stain and varnish are terms people often interchange, the main difference is that a stain has pigment that changes the natural color of the wood. Stain also penetrates the wood, and varnish creates a protective barrier on the surface of the wood. 

While you can apply varnish directly without stain, using only stain would be an incomplete job since it’s not technically a wood finish and needs a wood finish over it, such as varnish or clear polyurethane. Although there are newer products on the market that combine stain and a sealer

Wood is very rarely left unfinished after a project is complete. Once wooden surfaces have been sanded and smooth, some type of finish is applied to preserve and protect them. The most common wood finishes are paint, varnish, oil.

Varnish and stains are both widely-used substances for applying a finish to the surface of the wood.

There is often confusion between varnish and stain, so we attempt to put all doubts to rest in this post. Here, we discuss each wood finish in detail, pointing out the differences and similarities. We also detail how you can best use each of these two wood finishes. Once you have read this post, you should be able to distinguish between a stain and varnish and will be able to decide the correct type of finish for your woodworking projects.

Varnish vs. Stain

To know how and where to use varnish and stain, we need to gain a complete understanding of the difference between these two surface treatments. The primary difference between the two is that a stain penetrates the wood and serves to change the natural color of the wood. On the other hand, varnish remains on the surface of the wood and forms a protective barrier. Many people don’t consider stain to technically be a “finish” since it’s still needs a protective finish coat on top of it  – such as poly.

What is Varnish?

We use varnish to protect the surface of wood and enhance its good looks. Varnish usually is transparent and hardens to form a protective film once dry. Some varnishes contain color for added effect. You can get varnishes in different finishes like satin and gloss. Before using varnish, you should check if it is suitable outdoors or indoors.

How to Apply Varnish

To apply varnish well, you first need to prepare the surface of the wood. The varnish will highlight any blemishes on the surface, so you don’t want that to happen. Use sandpaper of medium or coarse grit to smoothen the surface. Once done and you have filled cracks and crevices, if any, you can start applying the varnish.

The first varnish coat will act as a primer, and you should use a thin coat containing 10% of white spirit. It mainly applies to polyurethane varnish. The best way of applying varnish to the wood is by using a lint-free cloth. However, it is not uncommon to see woodworkers applying it with a brush or a roller.

Once you apply the first coat, you need to rub it down with fine-grit sandpaper or 0000 steel wool. We call this process “keying.” While applying successive coats of varnish, you need to ensure that the surface is free of blemishes, debris, and dust.

Types of Varnish

Spar Varnish

Given below are the main varieties of varnish that we use to finish wood in woodworking:

Exterior Varnish

We use this varnish for finishing wooden items that we leave outdoors. It protects the wood from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Another property of this varnish is microporous, meaning that the wood can “breathe” through its layers. It contains a fungicide that prevents the accumulation of mold and mildew. This variety of varnish shares similarities with yacht varnish, which we mention further down in this list. It has a fair degree of flexibility but takes time to cure

Acrylic Varnish

This water-based varnish is non-toxic and quick drying. It has resistance to UV rays, which makes it suitable for use outdoors. You can also use acrylic varnish on non-wood surfaces with satisfactory results. It is transparent and is not likely to become yellow, like many other types of varnish. One drawback of acrylic varnish is that it doesn’t penetrate wood very well and is easy to maintain. Since it is a water-based varnish, you can clean surfaces finished with acrylic varnish by using water. It comes in gloss, matte and satin finishes.

Polyurethane Varnish

Polyurethane varnish creates a tough surface once cured. We use it on wood that will receive much wear and tear, like flooring, and it has a high degree of heat resistance. With polyurethane varnish, you get a clear and hard finish that comes in gloss, satin, or matte. Because this varnish has less tendency to penetrate wood, we often use an oil-based varnish primer for the first coat. However, an oil-based varnish will not bond on TOP of polyurethane varnish.

The advantages of polyurethane varnish are that it is tough and durable on curing. It shows resistance to mild acids, solvents, and various chemicals and has less tendency to become yellow over time. Regular polyurethane varnish does not offer UV protection. If you need to use it for outdoor applications, you need to procure varnish with added UV protection.

Alkyd Varnishes

We often add this type of varnish to other varieties of varnish. Alkyd varnish is a modified vegetable oil, and it is a clear wood varnish extracted from alkyd resin. It offers adequate UV protection so that you can use it indoors and outdoors. You can use alkyd varnish on MDF and many varieties of wood. It is possible to use it to cover existing paint, but you need to ensure that the surface is clean and free from flaking.

Yacht Varnish

The other names for this varnish are “spar” and “marine” varnish. Originally it coated the wood on boats due to the flexible but watertight film that it forms. Way back then, gloss and UV protection was low on priority. Today, you can get yacht varnish with added tung oil and phenolic substances to impart a high gloss to the surface.


We can consider shellac more as resin than a varnish. It comes from the “stick lac” secretion of the female lac bug, an insect that lives in the forests of southeast Asia. After being refined, we process shellac into flake form. It is the most standard form in which we get shellac, and we dissolve these flakes in alcohol to use it. It comes as clear varnish, but you can get it in different shades, from light yellow to brown. Shellac is the main ingredient for applying French polish, which is not a polish but a technique of applying polish highlighted in detail in another post.


Like shellac, we also do not consider lacquer to be a varnish. In the same way that French polish is a technique of finishing a wood surface, lacquer is also a process. We have added it to our list because it is a name that pops up frequently in any discussion concerning varnish and stains, and it refers to applying a finish by spraying. The solvent base we usually use is acetone, also known as “lacquer thinner.” Here, there is no polymerization process involved in how genuine varnish polymerizes.

Drying Oils

Here is another category on our list that does not include varnishes in the real sense. The term “drying oils” is a bit of a misnomer because some raw drying oils can take several weeks to dry. Then, raw oils like raw linseed oil sometimes never dry completely. You will find various of these oils in the market, and we often mix them into varnish and use additives to help these oils polymerize. Two of the most commonly used drying oils are tung oil and boiled linseed oil, which you can read in another interesting post.

What is a Stain?

Wood Stain

A stain is a substance we use to change the wood’s color to bring out its natural shade. Although wood receives a certain level of protection from a stain, the primary purpose of a stain is to improve the wood’s appearance. A common practice is to use a top coating over a stain.

Parts of a Stain

Wood stains are similar to paint, although they will form a protective film on the wood’s surface. A stain gets absorbed into the wood to see the grain of the wood through the stain. The extent of the wood grain that you can see will depend on the opacity of the stain.


The pigment is the color component of a stain. Some differentiate between the different types of pigment, but it doesn’t change anything for the user. You can get various tints for stains, but the commonest ones are different shades of brown.

Solvent or Vehicle

It is the substance that transports the pigment into the substrate (wood surface), making the stain easy to apply. The solvent is a volatile liquid like some form of spirit or alcohol. After application, the solvent dries, leaving behind the pigment.


The binder is the ingredient that holds the pigment onto the wood. We can consider this a type of liquid adhesive, and it dries to form a hard film of pigment on the surface of the wood.

How to Apply a Stain

You should prepare the surface for applying a stain in the same way as preparation before varnishing. Cover all the cracks with medium-grit sandpaper, and add a filler that will not show up after staining the surface. A lint-free cloth works best for applying stains to the wood. Ensure to blend the wet and dry edges to disguise lines and overlaps.

Be cautious while using water-based stains because the fibers are likely to get raised, causing blemishes in your finish. Move the stain along the grain rather than across it and avoid overloading the cloth to prevent it from dripping. You can rub sandpaper over the surface between coats once the stain is dry. The more coats you apply, the darker your wood surface will become.

Applying a stain is an acquired skill. It’s a good idea to test the stain on a scrap piece of wood, especially if you are a novice. It is common for even experienced woodworkers to do this. If you don’t apply it correctly or your shade is not quite right, it will be tough to correct it, especially after the stain dries. Hence, a trial application on a piece of scrap wood is a good idea.


After reading this post, you should be clear about the differences between varnish and stain and, more importantly, how and where to apply them. You will also have seen how the two can complement each other. Once you know all this and know the different types of varnish you can use, you will come up with some excellent finishes in your woodworking projects.