Varnish vs Stain: Differences, Pros & Cons, and More

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Applying varnish and stain are two methods you can’t skip when working on wooden surfaces. Some newbies unfamiliar with the finishing process may think they’re interchangeable, but one wrong application can lead to a weak protective coating or fading colors. 

To spare you from the guesswork, I’m here to break down the differences between varnish vs. stain, ensuring you have a clear understanding of which is most suitable for your specific project.

About Stain

You may not know, but most woodworkers use stains to highlight a material’s natural wood grain. The liquid pigments in these products add color to wood surfaces upon application. Typically, you’ll notice that the stain dries with darker tints to enhance the wood’s appearance. 

It’s crucial to understand that, unlike paint or varnish, wood stain isn’t meant to act as a protective layer. It’s primarily for aesthetic enhancement. That’s why I always advise following up with a protective finish after staining to ensure the wood’s longevity.

And because stain penetrates wooden surfaces, it’s crucial to note that not all materials are suitable for this procedure. To ensure good wood stain results, go for oak or cedar. 

staining walnut wood table

When you buy these woodworking products, you’ll encounter different variations. Most of them come in the form of oil-based and water-based stains. Unlike the latter, oil-based stain suits softwood and hardwood materials. 

Meanwhile, a water-based stain offers faster drying time and a more straightforward cleaning process. Other product variations you’ll find in the market are the likes of gel stain, stain varnish, and many more. 

Features of Wood Stains

Components of Stains

Vehicle or Solvent

This wood stain substance is mainly responsible for transporting color pigments into the material’s surface. Since the solvent is a volatile formula, having this ingredient makes the wood stain easier to apply.

solvents

Pigment

The pigment carries the product’s color component. Regardless of how the color changes, it doesn’t affect the result your wood finish will yield. Generally, exterior stains come in cedar [1] and brown tones. 

On the other hand, interior ones range from cherry to walnut

Binder

The binder is the most pivotal component in a wood stain. It’s what makes the color pigment stick to the wood and ensures it dries to a resilient finish.

How to Apply Stains

Applying wood stain isn’t a complex woodworking task, but you must have the right tools to accomplish it properly. Here’s a brief guide on how to do it: 

apply stain

Tools

Step #1: Prep the Surface

Before you apply the stain, it’s important you clean the surface first. If it has an existing wood finish or there are stubborn stains present on the surface a simple cloth wiping can’t solve, I’d suggest using paint thinner.

Once it dries, start sanding every inch of the intended area. Don’t forget to fill all the cracks with fillers before moving to the next step. 

Step #2: Start Applying the Wood Stain

After the light sanding, you can apply the wood stain using a lint-free cloth. If you don’t have one available, this product works well with painting pads, rags, rollers, or spray bottles. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a water-based or oil-based wood stain. 

Step #3: Wipe the Excess Stains Off the Wood

applying gel stain

Unlike most varnishes, wood staining requires some wiping down before the application dries and forms a solid coat. This step allows you to remove uneven and excess stains on the surface. 

Wood Stains Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

About Varnish

At first glance, a wood varnish can be confused with a typical protective finish because it often yields clear coats. It dries with a glossy appearance, but this product forms a durable varnish coat once dry. 

Although clear varnish is the most common variation of this product, you’ll encounter ones with mixtures of different colors for aesthetic purposes. So when comparing varnish vs stain, wood varnishes offer high-gloss and satin finishes. 

table top applied with polyurethane

Oil-based varnishes include poly resin and solvent formula, so, naturally, some people worry about their toxicity. However, you can also opt for their eco-friendly variations under water-based varnishes.  

Features of Varnishes

Types of Varnishes

Drying Oils

This alternative varnish includes raw oils that take a long time to dry and cure. Common examples under this category are tung oil and boiled linseed oil. You can mix these ingredients with exterior or interior varnish for better polymerization. 

Lacquers

Like french polish, applying lacquer is a popular method of wood finishing. And while it’s not technically for varnishing, it’s a process often related to stain and varnish products. 

spray painting chair with purple lacquer paint

You can apply it like an oil-based varnish because they work well with solvent bases like acetone or lacquer thinner.

Shellacs

This option is also not a varnish but a resin. You may not know, but it’s a popular wood finish from a female lac bug’s discharge. Most of the time, this product yield clear finishes. However, you can also buy it in yellow and brown color variations.  

Yacht Varnishes

This product is more known as a marine or spar varnish. Many boat riders and orders use yacht varnish because it forms a watertight coating that’s flexible enough to withstand harsh conditions. 

While it may not have that high-gloss finish that some desire, I’d personally recommend combining the varnish with tung oil and phenolic resins to achieve the best results.

Alkyd Varnishes

Since this varnish comes from alkyd resin, users can expect it to produce a clear coating. After drying, this application forms a durable shell that suits exterior and interior wood settings. 

Oil Based Polyurethane

Polyurethane Varnish

If you’re working on a surface prone to wearing and tearing, the best option to choose is polyurethane varnish. Once applied to the material, this product can also resist heat exposure well. 

It’s also a wood varnish that produces clear coats. Depending on your desired results, you can buy this product in matte, gloss, or satin finish. 

Acrylic Varnish

Although acrylic wood varnish belongs under the water-based category, it can resist UV exposure. Thanks to this feature, you can consider it an alternative to exterior varnishes. 

It’s a clear wood varnish, but unlike oil-based products, it’s less likely to turn yellow over time. 

Exterior Varnish

Did you know that exterior varnish has microporous properties? This feature allows the wood material to breathe. On top of that, it includes fungicide that protects the surface from mildew and mold formation. 

boat deck painted with Minwax Helmsman Indoor-Outdoor Spar Urethane

Since it also shields the workpiece from harmful UV exposure, it’s the perfect wood varnish for outdoor projects.   

How to Apply Varnishes

Like stain application, varnishing is a basic woodworking task that requires specific materials and tools. Here’s what you’ll need during the process:

Tools

Step #1: Sand the Wood Surface

Start the process by sanding the area lightly with medium-grit sanding paper. You must even the surface out if you want to apply polyurethane varnishes.

sanding surface of MDF board

Step #2: Fill the Wood Cracks

If you see any cracks in the wood, I recommend adding fillers. It’s not a mandatory step, but it helps yield better results.

Step #3: Start Applying the Varnish

The first coat of varnish on the wood is the primer. You can apply it using a clean cloth, brush, or roller. When using a lint-free rag, don’t forget to blend it well with the wet and dry edges to cover overlaps. 

Step #4: Allow it to Dry

Before you add the second coat on the wood, make sure to let the varnish dry. The application should settle in for about ten hours. 

Step #5: Do the Final Coating

staining MDF door

After the second application dries, you can apply the final coat. Check the product’s instructions to determine how long you should wait before it’s ready for usage. 

But how many coats of varnish to apply on wood? Read next!

Varnish Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

Wood Stains or Varnishes: Key Differences

Application

When you compare a wood stain vs. varnish in terms of application, both require a well-sanded and prepped surface for better application results. 

However, water-based staining takes more time than any varnish because it needs to be wet for the grain to rise. Because of this, it has to be prepared ahead of time. 

Winner: Varnish

Wood Preservation

Staining is the method specifically dedicated to preserving the material’s appearance. But the truth is both varnish and stain come in clear and natural color variations that highlight the wood’s grain.  

stained Mahogany boards

UV Protection/Outdoor Usage

Stain and varnish for wood include protective agents against UV exposure and other external elements. 

However, it’s better to check the labels first to ensure they’re suitable for outdoor use. Otherwise, adding a topcoat finish might be necessary to ensure longevity.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Unlike stain products, varnishes offer more protection against moisture, heat, and chemical exposure. 

Thanks to this, you don’t have to worry about potential damage while cleaning the surface of your woodworking projects. Varnishes also have a more durable sheen than stains, so it’s easier to clean. 

Winner: Varnish

Prevention to Rot/Decay

Both stain and varnish products are applied to the surface to protect it from rot formation. They seal the material’s pores, preventing elements like moisture and dirt from developing into decays. 

staining wooden shelf

Dry Time

The drying times for stain and varnish depend on your chosen product type. Typically,  regular ones from both categories take 24 hours before curing on the surface. However, poly resins and water-based variations can dry faster than this.  

My Top Wood Varnish and Stain Product Recommendations

1. TotalBoat Gleam Marine Spar Varnish

Although TotalBoat Gleam Marine Spar Varnish dries with a durable finish, its coating sustains flexibility to suit changes in humidity levels and seasonal temperatures. It also includes self-leveling features and dries for around one hour per coat. 

What I Like

What I Don't Like

2. Varathane Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain

One of the great things about Varathane Premium Fast Dry Stain is its 26 different color variations. This oil-based solution only takes an hour to dry and requires no wood conditioner upon application. You can count on it for varnishing furniture, doors, cabinets, and many more. 

Also Read: Varathane vs Minwax 

What I Like

What I Don't Like

FAQ

Do I need to varnish after staining?

Yes, you need to apply varnish after staining, especially when dealing with outdoor surfaces. Doing this will add an extra layer of protection to the material against weather conditions like rain and heat. 

If you want your stained wood to be more durable, resistant to damage, and have a polished appearance, applying a compatible varnish after staining is recommended.

Can you varnish over stain?

Yes, you can put varnish over stains. However, you must observe caution during the process because the surface may suffer due to repetitive rolling and brushing.

Is sanding between coats of stain necessary?

Sanding between stain coats is only necessary if you’re using water-based products. On the bright side, it’s a good practice to consider as it enhances the surface’s adhesion for the next coat. 

Is it okay to use interior stain outside?

It’s not wise to use interior stain outside because this product doesn’t include substances that can withstand exposure to harmful elements like water and heat. 

Conclusion

This stain vs. varnish comparison shows that these products serve different purposes. Although they offer similar results, trust me when we say it isn’t a good idea to interchange their usage. 

If you ever need a refresher on how to handle these materials, feel free to revisit this guide for clarity.

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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