Did you know picking the right finish could make your wooden stuff last twice as long? I’ve been around woodwork for years, and I’ve noticed a lot of folks get stuck choosing between varnish and stain.

You’re probably looking for the best way to keep your wood looking good and lasting long, right?

We’ll break down the differences and make choosing easy. Let’s find the perfect finish for you.

In hurry, don’t worry;

What is the difference between varnish and stain?

Varnish and stain are both wood finishes, but serve different purposes. Stain penetrates the wood to alter its color and enhance grain patterns without forming a protective surface, while varnish is applied on top to create a hard, protective layer that adds durability and can also impart a glossy or matte finish

What is a Varnish

Varnish is like a clear shield for wood. It’s tough, keeps the wood safe from scratches, and locks out moisture and dirt. It’s made mostly from a stuff called polyurethane. You can also find varnishes that are water-based, which are better for the planet. This stuff makes wood look good and last longer.

Whether you’re considering varnish for your custom overhead doors in the garage or workshop, understanding how it works helps.


  • Creates a protective, scratch-resistant film on the wood surfaces
  • Preserves the natural look of wood
  • Easy to apply 
  • Brushstrokes are not easily visible


  • Can be time-consuming to apply
  • Require several hours between coats 

What is Wood Stain

Wood stains are like a makeover for wood, making its color richer and showing off its natural patterns. They soak into the wood, keeping it safe from sun damage and moisture, which helps stop mold and keeps the wood looking natural and beautiful for a long time. Not all woods take stain well, but the ones that do really stand out.


  • Stain can enhance the color of wooden furniture and make it more appealing 
  • Wood stain preserves the beauty of the wood grain 
  • It is easy to apply 
  • Some wood stains dry quickly 


  • Stained wood will only last a few years before requiring a fresh coat 
  • Some woods do not work well with stains 

Side by Side Comparison

1. Application

For varnish, make sure your wood is smooth and clean to avoid showing any flaws.

With water-based stains, you’ve got to prep a bit more. Wet the wood first to keep the grain from popping up. Clean it, let it sit wet overnight, then sand it down before you start.

Both varnish and stain have their tricks, but neither is too hard to use once you know what to do.

2. Preserving the Natural Appearance of Wood

Varnishes keep wood looking natural with a shiny finish, in gloss, semi-gloss, or satin.

They’re made mostly from stuff like polyurethane. Stains, on the other hand, soak into the wood to show off its patterns, and they come in lots of colors. Both can be clear or tinted, making wood look great in their own way.

Verdict: It is a tie

3. Outdoor Use and UV protection 

For outside stuff, both stains and varnishes can keep the sun’s rays at bay. Stains need a special mix to fight UV, and they soak right into the wood.

But remember, they need a clear coat on top for full protection. Varnishes come in types like acrylic and yacht, perfect for outdoor use, protecting against UV and water. You’ll need to touch them up every few years to keep that shield strong. Both do a great job outside, but keeping them fresh is key.

Verdict: It is a tie

3. Maintenance

Varnished wood is easy to keep up. It doesn’t grab onto dirt much and fights off water, heat, and spills with its shiny coat. This makes it simple to clean. Stains, though, need more work.

They soak into the wood but don’t stop damage from spills or heat on their own. You’ll need to add a clear layer on top of stain to make keeping it clean a bit easier.

Verdict: Varnish wins

4. Rot prevention 

Paint, stain, and varnish all keep wood from rotting, especially outside. Varnish and stain do a good job without changing how the wood looks much.

They both seal up the wood’s surface to stop rot just the same. So, when it comes to fighting rot, they’re pretty much even-steven.

Verdict: It is a tie

5. Drying time 

Natural varnish usually needs about a day to dry, but those made with polyurethane or water-based ingredients can dry quicker if the weather’s good.

Stain takes a bit longer, around one to two days, before it’s fully set. And if you’re planning to add a protective finish on top of that stain, some folks wait up to three days to make sure it’s really ready.

How to Apply the Finishes

Applying Varnish: Start by sanding the surface smooth, then optionally fill any cracks. Apply polyurethane varnish with a brush or roller; the first coat acts as a primer. Let it dry for about 10 hours before adding a second coat for the finish. Sand lightly before the final layer.

Applying Stain: Prepare the surface similarly by sanding and filling. Apply the stain with a cloth, brush, roller, paint pad, or spray gun. Wipe off excess stain promptly to avoid unevenness. Unlike varnish, stain application allows for more flexibility in tools and doesn’t require a second coat.


Do I have to sand between coats of stain?

Yes, you need to sand the wood surface between stain coats. But ensure the first layer has completely dried, and you use a 0000 steel wool or fine-grit sandpaper to rub it down to a smooth surface.

Is varnish the same as stain?

No, although they are often used interchangeably, there is a big difference between stain and varnish. Stain is typically used to color wood, while varnish is transparent. This means that stains can be used to create a range of different looks, from a natural wood finish to a more colorful and vibrant design.

Related: Wood stain vs paint

Best Applications

Wood stain colors and enhances wood, ideal for furniture, cabinetry, and outdoor structures. Varnish protects and adds durability, perfect for furniture topcoats, cabinetry, hardwood floors, doors, trims, and outdoor wood.

Depending on your project, use stain for appearance and varnish for protection to get the best results.

Final Verdict

In a nutshell, varnish and wood stain work differently, and this forms the basis of determining what will suit your project better. 

Use varnish when:

  • You want to preserve the furniture or wood’s appearance and color.
  • You want to stick to one varnish finish instead of using multiple products to treat your wood.

Use wood stain when:

  • You wish to color your wood in a particular way without losing the natural grain the way paint does.
  • You want the wood grain on your furniture to pop. 

We hope that you enjoyed this guide. Now read our article on poly vs shellac for more information on polyurethane. We will be delighted to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

1 thought on “Varnish Vs Stain: Which Is Better?”

  1. Thank you. The stain vs varnish information was useful for a new garage door I am having made for a southern California beach home. It is to be clear western cedar, with 1/4″ spaced, horizontal grooves to give a slat appearance. Unless I missed the point, it looks like I should use a marine grade varnish, not a stain for look and protection.

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