Can You Stain Over Varnish? — Staining Finished Wood

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You’ve been hearing about staining as the better option to keep the natural state of the wood without changing its appearance. But your dilemma starts when you want to stain your varnished wood. 

While you can stain over varnish, there are things to consider, and it’s crucial to do the right techniques. So today, our resident woodworkers will share tips for a successful staining project.

Is it Okay to Stain Over Varnished Wood?

Although it is not recommended, you can undoubtedly stain over varnish wood, and there are techniques to change the finish from varnish to stain. 

Varnish offers durability through a protective layer on the surface, while wood stain penetrates the wood to provide a higher level of moisture protection and enhance the appearance of the wood. 

You can tell a varnished wood with its glossy and clear coating finish, making it resistant to damage and stain. So how would you achieve a pigmented surface using a wood stain over varnished wood?

Varnishing wood

Can You Do This Without Sanding?

You can stain without sanding or stripping the varnish finish using gel-formulated stain. Gel stain has a thick consistency, and you can give your wooden surface full coverage with multiple thin coats. Unlike ordinary stains, it covers the existing stain. 

But there’s a catch here on your desired new stain. Staining without sanding could damage your wood, particularly untreated wood, over time, such as creating a blotchy surface. 

Leaving the varnished surface without maintenance for a long time will result in some spots that varnish worn off, making uneven absorption of stain. 

Therefore, our wood experts recommend sanding the varnish before staining the surface. 

sanding off excess wooden surface

Staining Over Varnished Wood in 7 Steps

Step 1: Clean the Wood

Cleaning the surface of the wood is crucial to achieving your desired new stain. So, using a cleaning solution or trisodium phosphate (TSP), remove the existing finish and accumulate dirt and oil on the surface.

Step 2: Wet-Sand the Wood

Next is sanding, but this technique will use wet sanding on the surface. Use a sanding block with 320-grit sandpaper to remove bumps and a top layer of the varnished wood. 

Wet sanding is when you must dampen your sandpaper or the wood using a spray bottle or de-glosser. After you remove the old finish, use a lint-free cloth to dry the wood making the surface visible for any left varnish.

sanding wood

Step 3: Sand the Wood Consistently

Finding some impurities on the surface cannot be avoided, so get fine grit sandpaper, preferably 400 grit, and start sanding the surface. 

This time you will not need to wet your sandpaper but a light sanding of the surface and ensure the surface is smoothened.

Ensure to stain evenly, and get a damp cloth or tack cloth to remove sand dust particles from the surface. Then let it dry completely for at least 30 minutes.

sanding wood surface

Step 4: Apply the Stain

Depending on your desired finish, you can choose between gel staining that is oil- and water-based and specialized manufactured stains that are fast dry, water-proof, and eco-friendly stains.

Oil-Based Gel Stains

Most woodworkers prefer oil-based because it allows plenty of time for woodworkers to remove the excess stain. Aside from being convenient to use, most oil-based stains are a mixture of linseed oil and varnish.

Other products contain harmful solvents, which we skip using and opt for brands with low VOC or volatile organic compounds, which are toxic chemicals. 

This stain offers great pigmentation to your wooden surface, and the drying time is at least 12 hours. The oil-based stain has the brightest and most lustrous finish for stained wood surfaces.

applying oil based stain
Fast Dry Wood Stains

If you can’t wait for at least 12 hours, purchase the fast dry wood stain, which allows your wood surface to have a new stain after a very short time. Some stains in the market have nanoparticles that make them dry quickly.

Should you choose to use this stain, your wooden surface can result in more color clarity and enhance the texture of your wood species. Although it has no pigmentation, we recommend this if you eye a natural look for your finish.

Solid Water-Proof Stains

How about staining your wood with added water-resistant? As mentioned earlier, stain keeps off the moisture by penetrating the wood, so your wood will get a water-proof [1] stain for this one. 

The solid water-proof stains offer a solid and dense look and change the color of your wooden piece from dark stain to light shades and vice versa. Once you apply this stain, you will not need seals or a top coat to protect your stain.

More so, you will get a lasting vibrant, and more appealing look for your wooden surface.

Water poof stain
Water-Based Gel Stains

Water-based stains are also convenient to apply, but it has less VOC, so applying stain to your interior surfaces won’t be a problem. 

Once you apply, there’s no overlapping, so there are no imperfections on the entire surface. 

This product can blend with other interior elements, but the only downside of this stain is less durable than other stains. You must apply a sealer or top coat to prevent damage and wear.

Water based gel stains
Eco-Friendly Stains

Most eco-friendly stains are those products with almost no VOC. Therefore, most DIYers prefer this, particularly if they have kids and pets. 

Since most manufacturers developed this idea, you can quickly identify these products with labels on their containers, such as unscented, biodegradable, and non-flammable. 

But the catch is that eco-friendly stains are a bit more expensive than other stain products.

After you have decided on the type of stain you will be using, wear your protective gloves and get the necessary stain applicator before you can stain over varnish. Also, ensure to read and follow the instructions labeled on the container.

Wearing gloves to avoid stain

Step 5: Cure and Dry the Wood

Wait for your stained wood to dry for at least 48 hours. Although there’s a recommended curing time for your stain, our experts recommend that ensuring the stain has been completely dry will prevent the ruining of your finish.

Step 6: Add a Protective Layer or Seal the Workpiece

Once the stain is dry, add your preferred sealer or protective coating. We recommend using the same product brand of your stain and top coat for better results. Then leave it to dry completely.

Step 7: Analyze the Final Results

After you achieve your desired result, check your wood project to see if there are no streaks or blotch. If you see some bumps, lightly sand enough only to remove the bumps.

final varnished wood surface

Tips & Tricks While Staining Over Varnished Wood

To prevent mistakes and redo your wood staining, our experts share tips and tricks to achieve perfect results when you stain over varnish.  

man staining deck with Deck Stain Brush Applicator
deck staining

When Should You Remove Varnish Before Staining?

Our experts recommend removing any old finish, including varnish on your wood surface, before staining. 

You can use a chemical stripper or de-glosser to make your surface bare or already an unvarnished wood as much as possible completely. 

Aside from stripping, you can sand or use a heat gun to ensure a smooth finish surface. If varnish was not removed from the surface, the stain could not adhere properly to your wood, and the results are uneven. 

Removing old varnish

Can You Use a Water-Based Stain Over Varnished Wood?

A water-based stain over already varnished wood is not advisable to apply because varnish is an oil-based finish. 

The chemical reaction will result in patches, and once you apply it, the water-based stain will not adhere to varnished wood. 

Therefore, remove the varnished finish first if you want to use a water-based stain.

Water based stain

Can You Stain Over Polyurethane Finished Wood?

If you want to skip removing the old finish, you can stain it as long as you use it to apply gel stain. 

This stain bonds with a polyurethane finish because it has poly properties that make it possible to skip removing the old finish.

Can You Stain Sealed Wood?

You can apply stain on sealed wood, and the effect can be seen if the surface changes its color. And this is particularly noticeable if you’re using untreated wood. 

To see the result, test your stain in a small hidden area. Make sure you’re applying stain carefully so it won’t smudge on the main surface. After testing, you can now apply the stain over the whole surface.

sealed wood

Can You Use Gel Stain Over Varnish?

Yes, you can use gel stain over varnish, as we mentioned earlier. It has a thicker consistency, so the surface will have a deeper and richer color if you use stain over varnish. It also makes the wood grain evident.

Can You Stain Over Lacquer Finish?

Like how you stain over varnish, staining over a lacquer finish is possible. But, achieving a balanced stain consistency will take a lot of work. 

Lacquer offers different hues and shades so that you can customize the final appearance of your stained surface. For this one, you must use a gel stain to ensure a smooth surface.

lacquer stain

Can You Varnish Over Varnish?

If you think of varnishing over a varnished wood surface, you can do it, but there are many conditions to consider, such as the type of varnish used as the previous finish. Some homeowners apply varnish over varnish, but each layer is thin. 

The technique also includes sanding the existing varnish before applying the stain to give it more adhesion.

Can You Turn Varnished Wood Darker? + How to Do It

You can darken varnished wood but make wood grain visible using various techniques. 

You must apply multiple or at least two layers of varnish, but in between those layers is the stain layer. Before adding a new layer over the prior one, let it dry so your stain and varnish won’t create blotch. 

Even using fine-grit sandpaper, do not sand any layers for this procedure to achieve the best results.

staining walnut wood table

What Other Finishes Can You Apply Over Varnish?

Moreover, you can paint over varnish, which is a good technique if you want your wood to have good adhesion. We recommend using water-based wood stain if you’re going to do this technique.

But before painting over varnish, you must ensure the old finish has no holes and spots that need to fill.


Can you apply stain over epoxy resin?

Apply stain over epoxy resin following similar methods to staining wood. But we recommend that you apply water-based stains over epoxy resin but ensure the resin is completely dry before adding a wood stain.

Is it okay to stain over laminate furniture?

You cannot stain over laminate furniture because the lamination finish has a gloss texture, making it impossible to stain with traditional paint products. So, we recommend using a faux stain over laminate furniture. This stain is reliable for gloss finish surfaces.

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So, can you stain over varnish? Yes, and you can do it even without professional assistance. With the right steps, you can handle different circumstances of staining wood surfaces. 

Whether you’re working on an unvarnished wood or a previously finished one, just follow the steps above and achieve a beautiful-looking finish in no time.   

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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