Varnish vs Stain: Which Is Better?

They're so similar yet used differently. So which is the best for you?
Varnish vs Stain Image

One of the tried and tested ways to ensure the longevity of any wooden item in your home is to treat it with a protective coating. Often, this involves applying paint, varnishing, or staining and then applying a finish. 

Knowing how to compare varnish vs stain can help determine what is best for your home or woodworking project. 

In any case, varnishing may be better since it creates a protective finishing barrier on the wood surface. Staining only enhances the color without offering protection against wear and tear or weather elements. 

What’s the Difference Between a Stain and a Varnish?

What is a Varnish

Varnish is typically a clear, transparent wood finish that forms a hard coat on the wood surface. It is pretty durable and comes in various levels of gloss. 

Varnishes are essentially like paint, except they do not have the pigment. Most varnishes are comprised of polyurethane resins and corresponding solvents. There are also water-based varnishes that have caught on mainly due to their eco-friendliness.

Characteristic Features of Varnish

  • Cures into a hard finish
  • Protects the wood surface from physical damage by forming a scratch-resistant film on the wood surface. 
  • Enhances the aesthetics of wood, keeping it looking great for ages. 
  • The hard coating also protects the wood from the effect of elements like moisture. Occasional spills and household stains from dust, dirt, and grime simply will not reach inside a varnished wood and risk damaging it. 

What is a Wood Stain

Wood stains, on the other hand, are a group of pigmented liquid substances used to change the color of the wood. A wood stain is primarily designed to give wood a darker tint and bring out the natural beauty of its grain.  

Characteristic Features of Stains

  • Penetrate the wood grain and seal the pores, giving the wood an enhanced, natural feel. 
  • Can give a certain level of protection based on its ingredients. For instance, exterior wood stains offer protection from the harmful ultraviolet sun rays. 
  • Block the pores existing naturally on wood, partially sealing it from moisture that could damage it. Prevent molds and mildew from forming on wood
  • Maintain the natural aesthetics of wooden furniture for a long time. 

Wood Varnish Pros and Cons 

Best Wood Varnish

TotalBoat - 409314 Gleam Marine Spar Varnish, Gloss and Satin Polyurethane Finish for Wood, Boats and Outdoor Furniture (Clear Gloss Quart)
370 Reviews
TotalBoat - 409314 Gleam Marine Spar Varnish, Gloss and Satin Polyurethane Finish for Wood, Boats and Outdoor Furniture (Clear Gloss Quart)
  • CLASSIC MARINE VARNISH contains premium tung oil, phenolic resins for a beautiful, warm, transparent amber finish on all types of interior and exterior wood
  • DURABLE SPAR VARNISH is the ideal outdoor wood sealer and waterproof finish on brightwork on boats, strip canoes, kayaks and outdoor wooden bar tops, garage doors, furniture and more
  • EASY TO USE, SELF-LEVELING, DRIES FAST: Recoat in 1 hr. @ 72°F; apply up to 3 coats in 1 day; cured varnish remains flexible, expands and contracts with the wood during seasonal humidity and temperature changes
  • CHOOSE GLOSS OR SATIN FINISH: For a high gloss varnish finish apply 4-6 coats of Gleam Gloss; for a sleek satin finish, build with coats of Gleam gloss varnish and use Gleam Satin for the final coats
  • AVAILABLE IN GLOSS OR SATIN (low-sheen), in Pint, Quart and Gallon sizes. Thinner: TotalBoat Special Brushing Thinner 100 (brushing/rolling); xylene (spraying). Coverage: 250 sq. ft./gallon

PROS

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

CON

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

Wood Stain Pros and Cons 

Best Wood Stain

Varathane 262029 Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain, Half Pint, Kona
5,938 Reviews
Varathane 262029 Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain, Half Pint, Kona
  • Ideal for use on all interior wood projects: furniture, cabinets, doors, trim and paneling
  • One-coat coverage, fast-drying oil based formula
  • Dries to the touch in just 1 hour and covers up to 70 square feet
  • High performance stain system enhanced with nano pigment particles
  • Highlights natural wood grain to reveal wood's beauty

PROS

  • 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 

CON

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

Wood Stain Vs Varnish Side by Side

If you wonder whether to go with a varnish or opt instead for a water-based or oil-based stain, this part here is for you. This section looks at how varnishes and stains compare in terms of performance and features.

Read along to see where these two wood surface treatments differ and what may suit you better. 

1. Varnish vs Stain – Application 

Varnish needs to go on well-prepared surfaces. For example, if you apply it on wood surfaces with blemishes, it will highlight them.  

Water-based stains will require more surface preparation to apply. Since the water in the water-based stain tends to raise the wood grain and affect the texture, you need to wet the wood surface with water several hours ahead of time. 

It is recommended that you clean the wood several hours beforehand or a day earlier and leave it wet overnight. Then, right before applying the stain, use sandpaper to smoothen it and get rid of any surface roughness.

Verdict: Both varnish and stain are easy to apply, albeit with a few complexities shared between the two. It is a tie. 

2. Varnish vs Stain – Preserving the Natural Appearance of Wood

Most varnishes are transparent resins that preserve the natural wood appearance as it is, although with a beautiful hard gloss. They come in three different levels of sheen gloss, semi-gloss and Satin

  • These characteristics result from the type of resin or oil in the varnish and the resin ratio to oil in it. 
  • Whether the varnish consists of Tung oil, linseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil, the main ingredient is usually a synthetic or polyurethane resin.
  • Consequently, the layer dries into a transparent hard finish that preserves the natural appearance of wood.  
  • Some varnishes also contain color to give the wood an added effect—an aspect that wood stain is known for. 

Stains come in all kinds of shades and are also water-based, oil-based, and more.

  • While the tints in stains usually alter the color of wood, they do not form a coat on the wood surface, so they only enhance the natural beauty of wood. 
  • Stains will penetrate the wood and bring out its grain pattern. As a result, the appearance will be more dramatic than that of bare wood. 
  • Notice that you can choose to go with little to no tint on your wood stain, in which case it will be near as clear as a standard varnish.

Verdict: Both varnish and stain can come in tinted and clear forms, each that enhances the beauty and preserves the natural appearance of wood. It is a tie.

3. Varnish vs Stain – Outdoor Use and UV protection 

Stains have a special UV protection agent added to make them suitable for the hostile outdoor environment.

Unlike paint that offers UV protection in most of its varieties, the wood stain has to be designed for outdoor use to withstand the elements. For instance, a heavily tinted stain will provide more UV protection than a clear one. 

Still, continued exposure will affect the stain if it is not primarily meant for the outside environment. 

Unlike wiping stains, interior wood stains penetrate the wood grain and do not sit on the surface. Therefore, they require a clear-colored topcoat such as polyurethane covering them to offer the required protection to the wood. 

You can read the battle of stains where we compare Penetrating Stain vs Wiping Stain.

Three types of varnishes are specifically designed to offer protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. These are:

  • Acrylic varnish
  • Yacht varnish
  • Exterior varnish

Varnishes are equally available for interior and exterior use. However, just like stains, using interior varnish outdoors will lead to quicker degradation. 

There are marine and exterior varnishes designed for use outdoors and can withstand the harsh elements outdoors. 

The exterior varnish will offer excellent protection from UV light and moisture. However, ensure you recoat the furniture, deck, or fence every few years to maintain the protection. 

Even exterior-grade coating wears out eventually when left outside since the elements are bound to cause accelerated deterioration. 

Verdict: It is a tie; both outdoor varnish and wood stain require reapplying every few years to maintain the protection. 

3. Varnish vs Stain – Maintenance 

The glossy surface characteristic of varnished wood contributes to its easy maintenance in the following ways :

  • Attracts dirt less
  • Provides excellent protection against water vapor, heat, and chemicals that might spill on the wood.
  • Creates a hard sheen that makes them much easier to clean

Usually, wood has tiny pores on its surface where dust, dirt, and filth can hide and form stubborn stains over time. 

Such can provide a foothold for molds and mildew that cause unsightly discolorations that are extremely difficult to clean. 

Applying varnish to bare wood covers the openings and seals off the wood from dirt and household stains. This further increases the ease of maintaining such woods. 

Stains require more effort to maintain.

  • Standard wood stains do not create such protective glossy layers. A high-quality stain will penetrate the wood grain and prevent moisture from soaking into the wood to risk rotting it, but that is as far as the protection goes.
  • For regular maintenance, you must watch out for chemical spills, heat, and water vapor that can still damage a stained wood. Wood stains are just not resistant to these elements. This explains why you must still add a clear coat over a layer of stain to minimize maintenance of such furniture or wooden items. 

Verdict: Varnish provides better protection and ensures minimal maintenance is necessary. Varnish is the winner.

4. Varnish vs Stain – Rot Prevention 

The three common treatments available for rotting wood are :

  • Paint
  • Stain
  • Varnish

Both varnish and wood stain will protect your outdoor furniture and prevent rotting without altering the wood’s natural appearance. This is one area where these two forms of wood treatment are a close match.

Except for heavily tinted options, exterior wood stains are pretty much like varnish. They form a protective film on the wood surface that seals the pores on the wood’s surface and prevents rot in the same way as a varnish.

Verdict: It is a tie. 

5. Varnish vs Stain – Drying Time 

The average drying time for natural varnish is approximately 24 hours. However, polyurethane resin and water-based varnishes tend to dry faster, so long as the conditions are optimal. 

Wood stain can dry completely in about 24 to 48 hours. This is especially important if you intend to apply a polyurethane resin finish on top of the stain layer. 

Some woodworkers allow up to 72 hours of drying time for wood stain before applying the final protective finish for their projects. 

If you’re going to apply polyurethane over stained wood – knowing how long to let stain dry before poly is crucial.

Verdict: Drying times between varnishes and stains are close. It is a tie.  

How to Apply Varnish

You will need the following tool and/or materials to use for varnish application.

  • Sandpaper
  • Filler
  • Brush or Roller
  • Varnish

Step 1: Sand the Surface

Start by sanding the surface you wish to coat with a medium- to coarse-grit sander to even it out, to apply a polyurethane varnish.

Step 2: Fill the Cracks

You may want to fill any crevices and cracks on the wood before varnishing. This stage of application is however not entirely essential.

Step 3: Apply the Varnish

Proceed and apply the product with a lint-free cloth, painter’s brush, or roller. Here, the first coat of this polyurethane resin will serve as a primer.

Step 4: Let Dry

Allow the first coat of varnish to dry completely for about 10 hours before applying the second film on the surface.

Step 5: Apply the Final Coat

Add a second coat of the varnish once the first coat is completely dry. Being the second coat, it becomes the finish. However, it is essential to do a quick once-over on the single-coat varnished wood before applying the final layer.

How to Apply Stain

Similar to varnish application, the tools and materials you will need are the same.

Step 1: Surface Preparation

Prepare the surface by sanding with a medium grit sandpaper just like for Varnish finish. You will also fill any imperfections with a suitable filler.

Step 2: Apply Stain

Use a lint-free cloth to apply stains on wood. Stain offers more options for application, which may make it easier to apply because you choose the tool you are most comfortable with.

You can use a rag, brush, roller, paint pad, or spray gun to apply a water-based, oil-based, and any other wood stain. 

Step 3: Wipe off Any Excess Stain

Wipe off every ounce of the excess stain before it dries. As you may notice, this is not a requirement with water-based or oil-based varnishes.

FAQS

Can I Use Interior Stain Outdoors?

No, attempting to use a paint or stain designed for indoor use outdoors will damage and fade the wood because there will be little to no protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. For the outdoors, there are transparent stains designed to act as a coating covering the wood’s surface – just like varnish.

Do I Have to Sand between Coats of Stain?

Yes, you need to sand the wood surface between 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.

Wood Stain vs Varnish 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 natural appearance and color.
  • You want to stick to one 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 grain the way paint does.
  • You want the wood grain on your furniture to pop. 

We hope that you enjoyed this guide. We will be delighted to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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