Water Based Varnish vs Oil Based Varnish – Which One Should I Use?

Water based varnish vs oil based varnish, they are both used to finish wood products. Finished wood with an appropriate varnish is the best way to make the workpiece more attractive and durable. But which type of varnish should you choose? An oil-based one or water-based varnish?

Water Based Varnish vs Oil Based

Applying an oil-based or water-based varnish protects the wood from scratches, fungi, shrinkage, and expansion. In addition, varnishing bare wood makes it waterproof, protecting it from humidity, excess moisture, and eventually rotting. The varnish also improves the wood’s appearance, bringing out the grain and enhancing its natural color.

However, choosing between a water-based varnish or oil-based varnish can be tricky. Oil-based varnishes can provide a superior level of protection against moisture damage and scratches. On the other hand, modern water-based varnishes are becoming more popular due to their environmental friendliness. And many water-based varnishes can protect wood just as well as oil-based products.

Both types of varnishes offer similar performance, but each has pros and cons. So, if you’re stuck on which varnish to choose, this article has the answers. We’ll look at the advantages of each type of varnish to help you make an informed decision on the best one for your woodwork project.

What Is Water-Based Varnish

A water-based varnish consists of acrylic resins and urethane compounds using water as the “solvent.” The combination of these compounds creates a clear, shiny, scratch-resistant surface. In addition, the water-based varnish is thinner than oil-based products. Therefore, it dries quickly, and you can apply several coats to form a hard, protective coat.

Because a water-based varnish doesn’t contain petroleum products, it has little — if any — odor. This fact makes water-based varnishes appealing to many woodworkers working in enclosed spaces.

Moreover, because the varnish doesn’t contain petroleum-based solvents, it is better for the environment. It’s also easy to clean up after use because you can wash brushes with soap and water. However, you must apply several coats of water-based varnishes to get protection as good as oil-based products.

Pros and Cons of a Water-Based Varnish

A water-based varnish has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, it is easier to work with and doesn’t have messy, odorous chemicals. However, because it’s water-based, it requires applying more coats than oil-based varnishes. Here are the pros and cons of using a water-based varnish.


  • Water-based varnishes have a fast-drying time, usually less than one hour.
  • They are odorless.
  • It’s easy to clean equipment with warm soapy water.
  • Water-based polyurethane and varnish products are better for your health and the environment.
  • They are less toxic than oil-based varnishes.
  • Water-based varnishes don’t yellow like their oil-based counterparts.


  • Water-based varnishes require more coats to form a hard shell.
  • They sometimes leave wood with a dull appearance.
  • It can be tricky to apply a water-based varnish in humid weather.
  • Unless the wood is appropriately prepared, the varnish can raise the grain.
  • “Ghosting” or “witness lines” may appear when polishing the wood.

When Would You Use a Water-Based Varnish

There are several reasons why water-based varnishes can be helpful. For one thing, they offer better coverage than oil- or solvent-based products. They also dry faster, so there’s less time between coats and drying. But what are the best applications for using a water-based varnish to finish wood?

water based varnish

Water-based varnishes have multiple uses for both indoor and outdoor projects. For example, you can use varnish to protect exterior wood finishes from rain, wind, and sun. Because it gives wood excellent UV protection, it is also long-lasting.

Using a water-based varnish is also helpful for providing a protective finish on any indoor project. In addition, the varnish is thinner and more flexible. These properties make it easy to apply and results in faster drying times.

One of the advantages of water-based varnish is that it doesn’t change the wood color. Therefore, you can use it to finish furniture pieces and craft items and keep wood looking in its natural state.

How Do You Apply Water-Based Varnish

Using a water-based varnish to get a smooth, scratch-resistant, waterproof surface starts with preparation. It’s necessary to raise the wood grain to enhance the wood. Additionally, it’s vital to apply several thin coats of varnish, sanding between each coat to achieve the perfect finish.

Here are instructions on how to apply a water-based varnish:

  • Sand the workpiece: First, sand the wood surface and use a damp sponge to wipe it down. Leave overnight to dry. Then sand it the next day before applying the first coat.
  • Apply shellac: Sealing the bare wood to achieve the best results is crucial. Use a suitable de-waxed shellac. This will prevent the grain from rising and enhance the wood’s color.
  • Apply a layer of varnish: Use a few quick strokes to apply thin layers of water-based varnish and leave to dry.
  • Sand between coats: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions about drying times between coats. Use 320-grit sandpaper and gently wet-sand the workpiece. Then use water and a damp tack cloth to remove residue from the surface.
  • Apply more layers of varnish: Follow the above two steps a few times to achieve the desired results.

Using a water-based varnish can be tricky if you want an “oil-based finish” look with a deep sheen and beautiful grain. Additionally, water-based varnishes dry clear and can look cold and washed out. So what can you do to improve the finished appearance?

Here are some handy tips on using a water-based varnish to get an excellent, durable finish:

  • Ensure the air temperature is between 70°F and 80°F and humidity is below 70 percent.
  • Use a good quality, fine bristle brush.
  • Don’t go over already varnished wood to try and remove brush strokes. The brush marks will disappear as they dry.
  • Strain the varnish first unless you’re using a brand-new can of water-based varnish.
  • If necessary, use a weak solution of dye and water to stain the wood before varnishing.
  • Spray the wood with distilled water before staining it to get the best results.
  • Use a scrap piece of wood to test beforehand.

What Is Oil-Based Varnish

An oil-based varnish is a type of wood finish consisting of natural or synthetic resins and petroleum-based solvents. Typically, solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits are used. The mix of chemicals creates a varnish that dries, leaving a hard, abrasion-resistant surface. Oil-based varnishes enhance the wood grain and are highly resilient.

Pros and Cons of an Oil-Based Varnish

Oil-based varnishes are more durable than water-based ones but also have some drawbacks. For example, they can be difficult to remove if you want to refinish furniture or repaint walls. Also, they don’t dry quickly, so you’ll need to wait for a longer time before the finish is completely cured.


  • Excellent abrasion resistance and water resistance.
  • Oil-based varnishes are easy to apply.
  • Fewer coats are necessary to achieve excellent results.
  • Cures as a hard, non-porous shell to protect wood surfaces.
  • Enhances wood grain.
  • Cheaper than water-based varnishes.


Oil-Based Varnish
  • Oil-based varnishes have a long drying time between coats, sometimes up to 10 hours.
  • They have a strong chemical odor.
  • High concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
  • Paint thinners or mineral spirits are required to clean up.
  • Oil-based varnishes develop an amber tint as they age; however, this is an advantage for some items.
  • The varnished surface is sticky until it dries thoroughly, meaning that dust specks can be an issue.

When Would You Use an Oil-Based Varnish

An oil-based varnish is the best choice to finish wood where an exceedingly hard, abrasion-resistant surface is required.

Using an oil-based varnish is the choice wood finish for many industries due to its durability and resistance to moisture. For example, hardwood floors, gymnasium floors, wooden countertops, exterior doors, and cabinets are typically finished with an oil-based polyurethane or varnish. Sometimes, a water-based finish isn’t robust enough to withstand heavy foot traffic or use.

How Do You Apply Oil-Based Varnish

Applying an oil-based varnish to achieve a “hard-as-nails” protected wooden surface begins with preparing the wood. However, because oil-based varnishes take ages to dry, the workplace must be dust-free. You will also need a tack cloth, steel wool, a lint-free rag, and your varnish oil of choice.

Here are the steps to apply an oil-based varnish:
  • Prepare the wood: First, use sanding paper to make the wood surface as smooth as possible. Work from a 120-grit paper up to 220.
  • Remove dust: The next step is to remove all dust. Start by vacuuming the workpiece. Then use a slightly damp microfiber tack cloth to eliminate the remaining dust particles.
  • Seal the workpiece: Mix equal parts of varnish and turpentine or mineral spirits to make a surface sealant. Apply a thin layer to the surface and let it dry for 24 hours. Then lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper and tack with a damp tack cloth.
  • Varnish the wood: Use a fine-bristled brush and apply the varnish with brush strokes parallel to the wood grain. Finish with a long, straight stroke to remove any remaining bubbles.
  • Sand the wood between coats: Once the varnish is thoroughly dried, lightly sand the surface parallel to the grain with 320-grit sandpaper. Remove dust with a tack cloth.
  • Repeat the process: Repeat the process two or three times to achieve the level of protection you require. You can finish the process by using #0000 steel wool to rub the surface gently and make it shine.

Do you want to use an oil-based varnish to get strong, robust, hard-wearing protection for a wooden surface? If so, here are some handy tips:

  • The ideal temperature range for working with oil-based varnishes is 70°F to 75°F.
  • Always avoid cheap brushes because they will leave brushstrokes.
  • It can take up to four weeks for an oil-based varnish to cure. Therefore, avoid using the item or walking on the wood floor during this time.
  • Always work along the grain, whether sanding or varnishing.
  • Keep the work area as dust-free as possible.
  • Don’t shake the varnish can because you can get bubbles in the mixture.
  • Avoid using too much varnish at a time because you risk getting runs.
  • You can apply as many additional coats as necessary to achieve the desired results.
  • A synthetic bristle brush works just as well as a natural-bristle brush if it’s good quality.

Water Based Varnish vs Oil Based

So, the big question you’re asking yourself is, “Should I use a water- or oil-based varnish?”

The answer comes down to two factors — how the wooden item will be used and personal preference. An oil-based varnish is the best solution if you plan on finishing a wooden floor or tabletop. But for most other wood items, it’s a matter of personal choice.

Remember that it will take more coats with a water-based varnish to achieve the same results as an oil-based one.

Is Water-Based Varnish as Good as Oil Based?

Good-quality water-based varnishes are just as good as oil-based stains. It is possible to achieve a hard-wearing finish with either of the varnish types. Also, water-based varnishes now rival oil-based ones regarding UV resistance, scuff protection, and waterproofing properties. What’s more, water-based ones don’t contain hazardous compounds.

Why You Would Use One type of varnish Over the Other

To determine which type of varnish to use for your projects, you first need to define what you’re looking for in terms of performance and appearance. Therefore, it’s vital to understand the different types of varnishes, how easy they are to use, and what results you can expect.

Here is a handy guide if you’re not sure which type of varnish to choose:

What Type of Varnish Is Waterproof
  • Final finish and durability: Both kinds of varnish have an excellent finish. Oil-based varnishes are hard-wearing but tend to turn yellow over time. Water-based varnishes take more coats to get a robust finish.
  • Safety: Water-based varnishes don’t contain flammable materials, toxic chemicals, or pungent odors from VOCs. They are better for your health and the environment.
  • Drying time: It’s faster to work with water-based varnishes because they dry faster.
  • The number of coats: It only takes two or three coats of oil-based varnish to get a smooth, extremely resilient finish. Water-based varnishes take at least three or four.
  • Cost: Oil-based varnishes are significantly cheaper.
  • Clean-up: It’s easy to clean brushes after using water-based varnish. You only have to run the brush under the faucet and wash it with soapy water. Oil-based varnish clean-up requires mineral spirits or turpentine.

Water Based Varnish vs Oil Based Varnish — FAQs

Which Is Better Oil-Based or Water-Based Varnish?

Water-based varnish is more Eco-friendly, doesn’t contain high levels of potentially harmful VOCs, and dries in a super-quick time. But, on the other hand, it takes more work to get a highly resilient, protective finish. And even though it doesn’t turn yellow, it can leave bare wood looking cold and bluish.

An oil-based varnish is the best choice for heavy traffic areas. Therefore, maple sports floors and wooden parquet floors in the home are finished with high-quality oil-based varnishes. In addition, its lower price makes it suitable for large and small home DIY projects.

What Type of Varnish Is Waterproof?

All types of varnishes are waterproof. These include oil and water-based polyurethane, lacquer, and varnishes. The wood sealants contain resins and other compounds that creates a protective film finish on the wood that doesn’t allow moisture to penetrate.

Conclusion-Water Based Varnish vs Oil Based

Varnish is an excellent way to protect bare wood, enhance its appearance, and stop it from rotting. Both oil-based and water-based varnishes provide excellent results. However, before choosing which one to use, it’s vital to consider the clean-up method, effect on your health and environment, and overall use of the final product.