Varnish Vs. Stain Comparison Guide (2023)

Varnish and stain are both suitable options to finish a woodworking project, though there are significant differences between these products that should be considered before opting for one or the other. One of the most important steps in completing a woodworking project is to apply a finish to the wood to protect it against water, UV radiation, heat, and abrasive damage.

Varnish is typically used as a final coat that dries on top of the wood, creating a physical barrier around the wood fiber. This prevents water and UV radiation from penetrating to the wood, and also helps absorb any abrasion or impact damage. Stain is somewhat similar, in that it also creates a protective layer that helps resist moisture, UV radiation, and physical damage.

However, stain is absorbed into the wood fibers, instead of drying on top of the wood. While this can give the wood a much richer appearance, especially when used with an attractive color, it isn't as effective at protecting the wood as varnish. Use this varnish vs. stain comparison guide to learn more about the differences between varnish and stain.

Varnish vs. Stain: Major Differences

Deciding on varnish or stain for your next woodworking project can get confusing if you don't understand the main differences between these products. You should consider the appearance, resistances, cleaning requirements, durability levels, cost, lifespan, and any care or maintenance requirements before selecting the right topcoat finish for your project.

Stain is typically considered the better choice for appearance because it comes in a range of colors and opacities, while varnish is generally transparent. Both stain and varnish are effective at improving the water-, heat-, and UV-resistance of the wood, but varnish has a higher level of durability, allowing it to help prevent physical damage to the material.

The barrier created by varnish also makes it easier to keep clean because the varnish fills and covers any open pores in the wood. If cost is a main consideration, then stain is the more affordable choice. However, regardless of whether you use varnish or stain, you will need to reapply your topcoat of choice about once every three to five years.

AppearanceTransparent finish that may have a slight yellow tint in oil-based productsTransparent, semi-transparent, and opaque options in a range of colors
Water and Heat ResistanceHigh level of water resistance and moderate heat resistanceEffective at resisting moisture, UV radiation, and heat
Care and CleaningWood sealed with varnish is easy to keep clean with a mild detergent and warm waterWood sealed with stain remains porous, making it more susceptible to dirt, grime, and staining
Durability and MaintenanceCreates a physical barrier around the wood, preventing abrasive and impact damageStain seeps into the wood, leaving the surface of the material vulnerable to physical damage
Cost$50 to $60 per gallon$40 to $50per gallon
LifespanThree to five yearsThree to five years


Varnish is essentially a clear topcoat that is typically used to finish a woodworking project. Water-based varnish dries completely transparent, allowing the natural grain of the wood to show through. Oil-based varnish may have a slight yellow tinge to the color after it dries, so if this isn't appealing, you may want to consider a stain or a water-based varnish.

Stains seep into the wood, bringing out the natural grain pattern. You can find completely transparent stains if you want the wood grain to show through. Semi-transparent and opaque stains are also available in a wide range of colors, giving you the option to customize the color and appearance of the project.

Best for Appearance: Stain

Varnish is generally transparent or may have a slight yellowish tinge. With the wide variety of colors and opacity options, stain is the better choice for appearance.

Water and Heat Resistance

Wood is vulnerable to water, heat, and UV radiation due to the fibrous, porous nature of the material. When you apply stain to a woodworking project, it seeps into the fibers of the wood, creating a barrier against mold, mildew, rot, and moisture damage. This barrier also helps prevent the wood from drying out under direct sunlight, and offers mild protection against heat.

Varnish doesn't seep into the fibers of the wood. Instead, it sits on top of the wood, essentially encapsulating the entirety of the woodworking project. This method is just as effective at preventing moisture, heat, and UV radiation from damaging the wood as stain. Though, varnish does offer better protection against physical damage.

Best for Water and Heat Resistance: Tie

Both varnish and stain are equally effective options for increasing the water-, UV-, and heat-resistance of a woodworking project.

Care and Cleaning

One of the main benefits to using a protective stain or top-coat on your woodworking projects is to prevent damage to the wood. A stain will seep into the wood fibers where it can protect the wood against moisture, UV radiation, and staining. However, the wood remains porous and vulnerable to dirt, grime, and light staining.

When you apply varnish, it sits on top of the wood, instead of seeping into the wood fibers, creating a physical barrier that moisture cannot penetrate. This method of finishing a woodworking project is more effective at preventing staining and physical damage.It also makes it much easier to keep the wood clean with a mild detergent and warm water.

Best for Care and Cleaning: Varnish

Stain can create a barrier to help prevent moisture damage and staining, but the protective layer made by applying varnish completely coats the wood, preventing moisture and stains from even reaching the wood fibers.

Durability and Maintenance

Varnish and stain are designed to create a protective coat to keep the wood safe from moisture, heat, UV radiation, and physical damage. With this in mind, durability and maintenance are key factors to consider when you are trying to decide between varnish vs stain. Varnish tends to offer a higher degree of durability because it fully encapsulates the wood, preventing abrasive and impact damage from scratching or chipping the material.

Stain seeps into the fibers of the wood where it can prevent moisture and UV radiation from damaging the material. However, stain is not effective for stopping physical damage to the wood. Additionally, wood products treated with varnish are generally easier to maintain because the varnish fills and covers any open pores in the wood.

Best for Durability and Maintenance: Varnish

Stain is an effective option for moisture- and UV-resistance, but varnish has superior durability, allowing it to handle moisture, UV-radiation, heat, and physical damage.


When you are putting together a budget for your next woodworking or renovation project, consider the cost difference between varnish and stain before deciding on which option would be best for the job. Typically, a gallon of top coat finish will cost about $20 to $55 per gallon, though the price varies depending on the type of top coat finish.

A gallon of varnish will generally cost about $10 to $20 more than a gallon of stain, though it's necessary to note that stain can be purchased in a wider variety of volumes. This means that while you may pay $50 to $60 for a gallon of varnish, you could invest $200 for a five gallon bucket of stain. Consider the size of the project before pricing out varnish or stain quantities.

Best for Cost: Stain

There is a slight difference in cost between varnish and stain, so if the affordability is the deciding factor, then stain is the better option to complete your project.


After applying varnish or stain to a woodworking project the wood will have a certain degree of protection against rot, mold, mildew, moisture, heat, UV radiation, abrasive damage, and impact damage. However, the varnish or stain coat is not an impenetrable barrier. Semi-frequent exposure to moisture, UV radiation, heat, or physical damage will gradually wear down the effectiveness of the finish, which is why both varnish and wood stain should be reapplied about once every three to five years.

Best for Lifespan: Tie

Varnish and stain have a similar lifespan that typically lasts for about three to five years. After this point, it's recommended to reapply the finish to ensure the wood remains protected.

The Verdict

When it comes time to choose between a varnish and a stain to complete your woodworking project, you need to consider the benefits each product can offer. If you are looking for superior stain resistance, durability, and ease of use, then varnish is the right choice. However, if your project requires a higher level of moisture protection, or you simply want to color the wood without losing the natural grain, then stain is a better option.

Additionally, it's important to mention that you can use both varnish and stain on the same project. Apply the stain and allow it to dry and fully cure before applying the first coat of varnish. Most manufacturers recommend waiting about 12 to 24 hours before applying a topcoat to stain. Also, make sure that the fist coat is applied lightly, without repeated brushing or rolling.

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  1. How much does it cost to refinish hardwood floors? [2023 data]. (n.d.). Angi.

  2. Varnish—Wood finishes. (n.d.). The Home Depot.

  3. Exterior wood stains—Exterior wood coatings. (n.d.). The Home Depot.


Which is better stain or varnish? ›

While a varnish is a protective layer on the outside of wood, a stain will deeply penetrate the wood, changing or enhancing its natural colour grain. Although stains don't provide as much protection as a varnish, applying to an old piece of furniture is an excellent way of giving it a new lease of life.

How can you tell the difference between varnish and stain? ›

While a stain deeply penetrates wood, a varnish remains on the outside of your surfaces, forming a protective barrier. A varnish is usually clear and transparent, and it will harden along the outer layer of your wood. Some varnishes do include colour to enhance or alter the wood shade.

Should I varnish over wood stain? ›

In simple terms yes. Care must be taken however when applying the first coat of varnish over the stain. If using a brush or roller the first coat of varnish should be lightly applied and not overworked by repeated brushing or rolling.

What are the 3 types of finishes? ›

What Are The Categories of Wood Finishes? There are three main types of timber finishes – evaporative, reactive and coalescing.

What are 2 disadvantages to using varnish as a wood finish? ›

Advantages and disadvantages of latex varnishes
Can be applied without a maskCan stain the wood if they're not applied appropriately
Preserve the natural colour of the woodHarder to apply in the summer
Have an anti-yellowing UV filterWater-based urethanes can be catalyzed
10 more rows
Jan 23, 2018

How many coats of varnish on stained wood? ›

Give the varnish a really good stir before you start. Brush it on in the direction of the wood grain, to get the best finish you'll need 2-3 coats. Make sure you leave 1 hour between each coat. Before the final coat give the wood a quick sand down.

Does varnish always yellow? ›

However, the layer of varnish gradually changes from colourless to a yellowing, shrinking crust with the characteristic craquelé of old paintings, creating colours which may differ greatly from the original paints used by the artist -blue may look like a kind of green, for example.

Can you varnish without staining? ›

Whatever product you want to use, as a general rule, you will have to completely remove any existing varnish, waxes, oils, wood stains, dust, dirt, grease, uneven areas and sticky stuff before applying a wood varnish.

Do I have to varnish after staining? ›

Do I have to apply a clear coat after staining? While staining creates a rich, deep color that highlights natural wood grain, it does not provide long-term protection. Without a protective top coat, wood can be damaged easily due to contact with water, food, or sharp objects.

What is the best seal after staining wood? ›

Polycrylic is a very popular sealant for wood projects. It is inexpensive and easy to apply. It provides strong coverage and is, in general, a great choice.

Why would you varnish over a wood stain? ›

For protection, just using Stain alone isn't enough. You will need to apply a top coat of clear polyurethane or varnish like Cabot's Cabothane Clear Water-Based or oil-based to seal and protect the furniture.

Does clear varnish make wood darker? ›

Varnish, on the other hand, is a clear barrier that offers protection to the wood. It usually doesn't significantly change the color of the wood, although oil-based varnishes usually “warm” the wood up a little bit (aka, add a warmer tint.)

What is the best finish to keep natural wood look? ›

If you're looking for a wood finish that will really show off the natural beauty of your wood furniture, cedar oil is a great option. It penetrates deep into the wood, bringing out the grain and giving the wood a warm, rich glow. In addition, cedar oil provides excellent protection against water and UV damage.

What is the most durable finish for wood? ›

Polyurethane is the most durable option for indoor woodworking projects. It's highly effective at protecting cabinets, doors, furniture, and floors from scratches and abrasive damage. Polyurethane is also water-resistance and is intended to enhance the natural appearance of the wood with a statin or mid-gloss finish.

What is the easiest wood finish to use? ›

Linseed oil is easy to apply with a brush or cloth, though its drying time is significantly longer in comparison to other wood finishes. Overtime, linseed oil will darken and alter the color of whatever project it is applied to. A popular Linseed Oil is Odie's Oil.

Why is varnish still tacky? ›

A: Usually when varnish remains persistently sticky it's the result of application in a humid or cold environment. Sticky varnish can also be caused by too-thick application, or by re-coating an insufficiently dry layer. Traditional varnishes made in-studio (e.g. damar and mastic) are most prone to stickiness.

Why should you never apply a thick coat of varnish? ›

Too thick is bad, for the varnish will not cure properly. It will skin over on the surface, stay gummy beneath, and the surface skin will eventually wrinkle and become ugly.

How long does varnish last on wood? ›

Gloss oil-based varnish, polyurethane and Danish oil can last 10 or 20 years, though satin finishes and stains may fail sooner as pigments and flattening agents disable the driers. Water-based coatings and paints can also be viable longer than three years.

Is sanding required between coats of varnish? ›

Sanding Tips: No sanding is needed if you overcoat within 48 hours. Don't sand unless the most recent coat has dried for 24 hours. Use 320 grit to prevent scratches; sandpaper finer than 320 grit will not allow proper adhesion. Remove residue before reapplying.

Do you need to sand between every coat of varnish? ›

Sanding between coats of varnish is important because it achieves two things: First, it knocks down the “high spots” and second, but more importantly, it provides a tooth for the next coat to adhere to. Otherwise, the subsequent coats can delaminate and lift off in large sheets.

Does varnish get darker with more coats? ›

Yes, each layer will darken your project even more.

What varnish doesn't turn yellow? ›

To avoid a yellowing wood finish, use a water-based polyurethane instead of an oil based polyurethane. The best water-based polyurethane is Minwax's Polycrylic, which is formulated for easy consumer use.

How do you apply varnish without brush marks? ›

Thinning each coat of varnish with mineral spirits allows the finish to flow out more smoothly, making brush marks less likely to remain as it dries.

Does varnish darken as it dries? ›

A traditional high gloss resin based varnish for use on oil and alkyd paintings which dries quickly and tends to darken with age. It is great for glazing as it can be mixed with the oil paint, increasing transparency and speeding up the drying time.

What are the three types of varnish? ›

Varnishes may be divided into the following four categories, depending upon the type of solvent used:
  • Oil varnishes. These varnishes use linseed oil as solvent in which hard resins such as amber and copal are dissolved by heating. ...
  • Spirit varnishes or lacquers. ...
  • Turpentine varnishes. ...
  • Water varnishes.
Jul 2, 2012

How long do you have to wait between coats of varnish? ›

Ensure the artwork is fully dry before varnishing and allow at least 12 hours drying between coats of varnish.

Is there a stain and varnish in one? ›

Minwax® PolyShades®

Minwax PolyShades combines stain and polyurethane in one simple step. Each coat provides rich color and lasting protection while enhancing the wood grain. This product will reduce finishing time compared with staining with one product and protecting with another.

What is the best finish to put over stain? ›

Clear finish can be applied over stain or directly to raw wood. It's an extra step, but it's always worth the time. A clear finish provides a protective coat for your wood that guards it against stains, water damage, and natural wear and tear.

Should you sand stain before varnish? ›

Check the can to be sure for your exact product. You should sand after the first coat of water-based stain to flatten any wood grain the water raised, but it's unnecessary after that. You don't need to sand between coats of gel stain or oil-based stain.

Do you seal after varnish? ›

Sealing is not necessary before finishing with a penetrating resin sealer. Under natural varnish or lacquer finishes, some professionals prefer to seal the wood with a thinned mixture of the same finish. To make a natural varnish sealer, thin the varnish with turpentine or mineral spirits to make a 50-50 mixture.

What are the disadvantages of staining wood? ›

The Cons of Staining Wood

While some stains can last up to five years, postponing re-staining a wood surface for too long can cause the job to become more complex and labour intensive. Even decks that are stripped and re-stained will still require maintenance every couple of years.

Is it better to stain or seal wood? ›

Although a wood stain is more expensive than a sealer, it can last up to 5 times longer and looks more professional. So you certainly get your money's worth. Here at DeckMaster™, we recommend using wood stains for your deck and fence maintenance.

What is better stain or sealer? ›

The primary pro with stain is that it provides protection to the deck surface. This includes for all things, including UV rays, mold, and mildew. However, a sealer is still needed on top of a stain since a sealer alone will not provide a sealed surface. A stain is also available in an array of colors.

Is polyurethane the same as varnish? ›

While polyurethane is water- or oil-based plastic resin, varnish is older and made from resins, oils, and solvents. Because of the higher ratio of solids, varnish is less susceptible to ultraviolet light damage. This protection makes varnish an excellent choice for projects such as outside decks and exterior furniture.

What varnish doesn't change the color of wood? ›

To finish wood without significantly altering its colour, use Finney s Trade Acrylic Varnish. The matt version will protect the wood without the obvious appearance of a finish being applied.

How do you get smooth finish on varnish? ›

You can simply wipe on thinned varnish with a rag or you can even spray it. But when I want all the benefits that varnish has to offer, I apply it the tried-andtrue way — with a brush. Several coats of brushed varnish will produce a smooth, classic look along with all the protection a truly firstrate project deserves.

Do you need to varnish after staining? ›

Do I have to apply a clear coat after staining? While staining creates a rich, deep color that highlights natural wood grain, it does not provide long-term protection. Without a protective top coat, wood can be damaged easily due to contact with water, food, or sharp objects.

What is the best finish for stained wood? ›

Lacquer, specifically pre-catalyzed lacquer, is considered by many professional woodworkers to be the best finish for hardwood furniture, in terms of balance between beauty, protective qualities and ease of application and care.

What are the disadvantages of stain? ›

The Cons of Staining Wood

While some stains can last up to five years, postponing re-staining a wood surface for too long can cause the job to become more complex and labour intensive. Even decks that are stripped and re-stained will still require maintenance every couple of years.

Will wood last longer if you stain it? ›

Compared to paint, stain can be more economical, easier to use and longer-lasting while also letting the natural look of wood shine through. With these advantages in mind, consumers should take time to consider if staining is the better choice after finishing any outdoor wood project.

Does stain make wood waterproof? ›


Outdoor wood stains are water repellant, so they make the wood waterproof, that is protecting it against water and, as a result, against mold.

Is it better to varnish or oil wood? ›

Varnishes offer increased durability and require less maintenance than oils, however it is more than likely need to re-sand the entire floor when it does eventually gets damaged and worn. The life of a varnish is typically between 5-10 years.

What is the most durable finish for a wood table? ›

Urethane- and polyurethane-based products are the toughest finishes for a kitchen table. Once dry, they can protect against all kinds of spills as well as take a reasonable amount of heat. Polyurethane finishes can last many years without attention. Varnishes form a skin on the surface of the wood.

How long do you wait to seal after staining? ›

Wait 24 hours before applying sealant. Oil-based wood stains have some advantages over water-based stains. If chemical fumes are not a concern, an oil base may be the right wood stain choice. They dry much more slowly, and slower dry rates allow a more even application.

How long should wood stain sit before sealing? ›

Wood stain dries faster in warmer, mild conditions with lower humidity levels. How long do you need to wait before sealing wood after staining? For best results, wait at least 24 hours before sealing the wood. If you are concerned the stain isn't quite dry enough, wait another day before applying poly.


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