Wood Varnish vs Stain Understanding their Differences

Applying a protective coating to wood is a tried and tested approach that has been used for centuries. This is usually a stain, paint, or varnish followed by a finish to preserve the surface. But, many people don’t understand the difference between a wood stain and varnish which prevents them from making informed decisions. In this article, we will take a closer look at the varnish vs stain comparisons and how they may be applied to your next woodworking project.

What are The Difference Between Wood Stain And Varnish?

 Varnish vs stain

When you make a varnish vs stain comparison, the main difference is the intended purpose. To summarize, varnish protects wood and stain colors it. Wood stain doesn’t offer much protection, it’s a liquid that soaks into the wood pores. Excess stain is wiped away before drying and this is why it would make no sense to apply a stain over varnish.

Varnish is a clear barrier, it protects the wood surface underneath from damage. But, some oil-based varnishes do change the color of the wood. This can be characterized as adding “warm tones” that add a slight sheen. Some typical examples of varnish finishes that have these colors are satin, glossy and flat finishes. Because stains soak into the wood fibers they cannot sit on top and protect the surfaces.

Beyond these basic characteristics, it would be difficult to make direct varnish vs stain comparisons within the confines of this article. Why? Well, when you start to examine the market it will quickly become apparent that there is a wide variety of stains and varnishes to consider.

There are oil-based, water-based, gel-based, and other stains that work in very different ways for certain types of wood Finishes. The choices for varnishes are narrower, but they include water-based, oils, polyurethane, waxes, lacquer, shellac, and more. There is some crossover, the specific product instructions must be read and fully understood, but choosing the right finish can be complex.

Wood Varnish vs Stain: Characteristics

Wood StainVarnish
Penetrates the wood to seal the poresCures to a hard finish
Offers some protection such as against UVProtects the surface of the wood
Partially seals the wood pores to prevent mold growthEnhances the wood aesthetics
Maintains the natural aesthetics of the pieceProvides some protection against the elements

Is It Better To Varnish Or Stain Wood?

Varnish should be applied on a well-prepared wood surface because it will highlight blemishes that ruin the aesthetic appeal. A water-based stain will need more surface preparation because the water will raise the wood grain and the texture will be altered.

Wetting the surface a few hours ahead of time may be required and leaving the wood wet overnight will improve the results. Before any wood stain is applied it’s important to use sandpaper to smoothen the area.

As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when you’re choosing a varnish vs stain for your woodworking project. To make the process simpler follow these rules for varnish and stain application:

Use a Wood Stain When:

●      You want to enhance the wood grain on a flat surface to improve the aesthetic appeal.

●      You want to color wood in a specific way and maintain the natural grain similarly to paint.

Use Wood Varnish When:

●      You need to use a single varnish finish as an alternative to using more products to treat the wood.

●      You want to protect the tone, color, and integrity of the furniture.

What Are The Color Differences Of Varnish vs Stain?

A wood stain tends to require one or two coats with some drying and sanding to achieve a rich color tone. But, this can be achieved with varnish with certain finishes with multiple coats to deepen the color and add a rich sheen.

Varnish vs Stain: Which One Penetrates Wood?

A wood stain will penetrate the wood grain, seal the pores and change the color. This can enhance the natural tones or it may be a different color entirely. Varnish doesn’t penetrate wood; it sits on the surface and protects the wood beneath.

Which is More Durable Varnish vs Stain? 

When you’re looking at the difference between wood stain and varnish, maintenance and durability are likely to be important factors to consider:

Varnished Wood

Wood Varnish vs Stain Understanding their Differences

Varnish has a hard sheen coating which is less prone to attracting dust which makes cleaning easier. This layer also offers protection against heat, chemical spills, and moisture. The tiny pores that are found on the surface of the wood cannot accumulate the dirt and dust that form stains when they are covered with varnish.

This is also an effective way to prevent mold and mildew growth that can discolor the surface of the wood.

Stained Wood

A wood stain finish requires significantly more effort to keep clean and maintain. There is no protection from a varnished glossy finish. But, a good stain will prevent moisture penetration into the wood and this is the full extent of the protection offered.

Exposure to heat, water vapor, chemical spills, and other elements will damage the wood. This is why stained wood is usually covered by a clear layer of varnish to protect the surfaces.

FAQs-Wood Varnish vs Stain Understanding their Differences

Why would you varnish over a wood stain?

Applying a varnish or other sealer as a protective top coating on the wood makes sense. The wood is vulnerable to the elements discussed previously and general wear and tear. Varnish adds a durable finish to reduce the maintenance requirements and protect the surface.

Do I need to varnish after staining?

After staining, it’s advisable to add a coat of clear varnish, polyurethane, or other coatings to protect the surface against wear and tear.

Do I need to stain wood before varnishing?

There are varnishes that have a wood stain mixed in to change the color and protect the surface with a single product. But, if you’re staining the wood and adding a separate clear varnish, you need to consider the solvent evaporation time. The solvent must be fully evaporated before a final coat of varnish or another finish is applied.

Can you mix varnish and wood stain? 

Yes, there are colored or tinted varnishes that have some staining properties. The colors don’t soak into the wood fibers in the same way as a wood stain. The colored varnish sits on the top of the wood and it may lack the depth of color when compared to a stain.

If you want a very glossy finish, a tinted stain may be a great option. But, if you’re looking for a deeper or more natural finish, a stain followed by a coat of clear varnish may be more desirable.

Wood Varnish vs Stain Understanding their Differences- In Conclusion 

As you can see, a direct comparison that highlights the difference between wood stain vs varnish is a little tricky. There is some crossover, but if you remember that a stain penetrates and colors the wood and that varnish sits on top it’s easier to understand.