Mod Podge vs Varnish (Are They The Same?)

With mod podge becoming the new rave in the arts and craft field, this comparison was sure to come up at some point. So what’s the difference between mod podge and varnish?

Mod podge by design is a glue formula made to join and fill wood. As such, the product is designed with adhesion as the main concern. Though mod podge can also be used as a sealant, the sealing properties are because of additives in the glue.

Varnish on the other hand is designed as a sealant and not glue. The main concern of varnish is to protect the wood or stain underneath. This is why varnish is usually water, scratch, and UV-resistant.

This post reveals more about the differences between mod podge and varnish including tips to help you decide if you need mod podge or varnish for your task.

What is Varnish?

What is Varnish?

Varnish is a dissolved liquid finish that is usually applied as the final coat over wood. Varnish is used as the final coat over wood because the finish is designed as a sealant or topcoat. This means that varnish is designed to protect the wood or stain that it was applied over.

When varnish gets dry, the finish is usually clear, hard, and moisture-resistant. These features make the varnish a strong sealant as it helps to protect the wood underneath from moisture, scratches, and UV rays.

The hard and moisture-resistant finish of varnish gives it improved durability as varnish can last up to 10 years if properly applied and maintained. You should also know that there are several types of varnish including polyurethane varnish, spirit varnish, exterior varnish, and acrylic varnish. So what is varnish used for? Let’s find out.

What Is Varnish Used For?

  • Varnish is used for enhancing wood stain color. The clear film helps to make paint and stain more vibrant.
  • Varnish is used for protecting wood from moisture
  • Varnish is used to give a natural finish on wood as varnish coating reveals wood grain
  • Varnish is used to protect wood stains from scratches and dents
  • Varnish offers UV protection so the finish is used to cover outdoor furniture and objects.

Now that we know what varnish is used for, let’s find out what mod podge is and what it is used for.

What is Mod Podge?

What is Mod Podge?

Mod podge is a PVA formulated paste that can be used for virtually every art and crafts task from binding to sealing.

The universality of the product doesn’t end in its functions because mod podge can also be used on fabric, wood, plaster, plastic, and drywall. Mod podge when applied forms a whitish paste on the surface but this paste dries to reveal a clear coat on the wood.

Mod podge contains a high level of sealants and additives that are included in the formula to give it special features. For instance, mod podge sometimes has varnish (or spirit varnish) in its formula. This additive makes it possible for the mod podge to also be used as a sealant apart from being a glue. So what is mod podge used for? Let’s find out.

What Is Mod Podge Used For?

  • Mod podge is used for joining and gluing parts together
  • Mod podge is used in repair and patchworks
  • Mod podge is commonly used to seal acrylic and other water-based paints
  • Mod podge is used to protect indoor furniture

I know what you are thinking. Since mod podge can be used as a sealant, doesn’t that mean it’s the same as varnish? Let’s take a closer look at that.

Is Mod Podge A Varnish?

Mod podge is not varnish or a type of varnish. Mod podge by design is a glue, binder, or adhesive. Though mod podge can also be used to cover and seal wood or wood stains, this feature is only made possible by the presence of varnish in the mod podge formula. The paste is not a varnish by itself.

Most people tend to think that mod podge is the same as varnish or a type of varnish. The reason behind this perception is that mod podge like varnish is used to cover and seal the wood. Mod podge is also used over paints and stains just the same way varnish is used.

However, you should know that both products are not the same. Though mod podge can seal too, the finish you get from using mod podge as a sealant is nowhere near that of varnish. Not in terms of quality or durability.

Varnish is strong and moisture-resistant which makes it a good sealant. But, mod podge is a strong glue which makes it a good product for prep-work before applying varnish.

Another way to know that mod podge is not a varnish is that mod podge doesn’t have the features of regular varnish. With regular varnish, you can thin it by mixing the varnish with paint thinner to make it lighter or thinner. With mod podge, you can’t thin the paste or medium. If you do, you’ll reduce the adhesive qualities of the paste. In other words, thinning mod podge only ruins the mod podge.

Let’s examine in detail the differences between mod podge and varnish.

Mod Podge vs Varnish

Here is a table that shows the major differences between mod podge and varnish:

 Mod PodgeVarnish
Wood protectionGoodGreat
AdhesionGreatGood (needs sanding to adhere properly)
The finishA dry and clear finishA glossy and clear finish
ThicknessSince it’s a paste, it’s very thickBeing a sealant, varnish is not very thick

Now, let’s check out these differences in detail starting with the formula of both products.

The Formula

This refers to the ingredients used in creating the product.

Varnish is gotten from a combination of natural oils like linseed oil with resins, solvents, and driers. The result of the mixture is a thick liquid that can be applied over wood stains and wood directly. The formula of varnish is more natural than artificial as the main ingredients are usually gotten from tree oils, plants, and other organic matter.

Mod podge on the other hand has a more synthetic formula as the ingredients in mod podge ranges across chemicals to solvents and even varnish. This also means that mod podge has a more compound formula which is a reason the paste is usually very thick.

Verdict: Mod podge has a synthetic formula while varnish has a natural formula.

The Moisture-Resistance

Varnish is more water-resistant than mod podge. This is because the particles in varnish dry through oxidization. This means that the particles in the varnish become more compact and tightly packed as the varnish dries. This process goes in till the particles are so tight that moisture can’t get in.

Asides from the compactness of the particles, varnish also dries to form a rich glossy layer. The gloss layer of the varnish repels moisture further making it difficult for moisture to get into the varnish coating.

Mod podge is also water-resistant but the water resistance is poor when compared to that of varnish. Also, it’s only an outdoor or exterior mod podge that is water-resistant. Other types of mod podge don’t do well in moist areas because they aren’t moisture-resistant. On the other hand, all types of varnish offer impressive water resistance.

Verdict: Varnish is more water-resistant than mod podge.

The Type Of Finish

Varnish gives a rich glossy and hard finish while the finish of mod podge is dry and textured. When dry, varnish will reflect light due to the glossy nature of the finish making the stain color appear more vibrant and beautiful. If used on wood directly, the varnish will give a natural finish because the coating will reveal the wood grain.

The mod podge finish tends to have a white or grey tint after a while. The finish of varnish also develops a color tint but varnishes tend to develop yellow tint rather than white tint.

Verdict: Varnish has a better finish than mod podge.

The Thickness

Mod podge is thicker than varnish. The reason for the thicker flow of mod podge is that the medium is in paste form and as a result will be very thick. Also, mod podge has several ingredients and solvents in its formula making the paste more compound and thicker.

Varnish on the other hand is not as thick as mod podge. You can even thin varnish if it’s too thick with mineral spirits or turpentine. Mod podge can’t be easily thinned as thinning the paste will most likely ruin it.

The Level Of Protection

How well does the mod podge or varnish protect the finish and wood underneath?

In terms of protection, varnish protects stains and wood better than mod podge. Mod Podge does more of holding parts together rather than protecting them. Varnish however is designed to protect wood stain and wood properly.

Most varnishes have UV protection to prevent the surface from burns and fading caused by the UV rays. Varnish also protects wood from scratches, dents, and friction. Mod podge doesn’t have all these features.


How well does the mod podge or varnish stick to the surface?

This is one area where mod podge wins flawlessly. Because mod podge is technically a glue, the coat has more paint adhesion than varnish.

If you want varnish to stick properly to wood or wood stain, you have to sand the stain or wood first. Mod podge however doesn’t require sanding and will stick to virtually any type of surface.


Varnish is more difficult to apply than mod podge. To apply varnish, you have to clean, wipe, and sand the surface first. Depending on the type of varnish, you might even need to prime before laying the varnish. That’s not all. You might also need to thin the varnish before applying it. All of these steps make vanish more time-consuming and thus, difficult to apply.

Mod podge however is very easy to apply. Since the paste has great adhesion, you don’t even need to sand for it to stick, unlike varnish. As long as the surface is clean and without grease or oils, mod podge can be applied. You can also apply mod podge with virtually any flat instrument. Varnish will require a bristled paintbrush for its application. So mod podge is both easier and more convenient to apply.

So which of these two do you need for your task? Let’s check out a guide to make this easier.

Do You Need Varnish or Mod Podge?

If you still find it difficult to pick either the mod podge or varnish, here is a guide that can make the decision easier:

Pick Mod Podge if You Need a Multipurpose Item

If you are taking on a large arts and crafts project or you are renovating your home, mod podge will be a better pick as the paste can seal, glue, and even cover items. You’ll be able to do more with mod podge than with varnish.

Pick Varnish for Protection

Since varnish offers the best protection over an item, it’s your ideal pick to protect the wood, stains, and other items. Varnish also offers moisture and UV protection so your item or finish will be protected from the elements.

Pick Varnish for Outdoor Use

Since varnish offers moisture protection and UV protection, it’s more ideal for exterior use. If you apply regular mod podge outdoors, it will not last long. Though exterior mod podge will last longer outdoors, it won’t last as long as exterior varnish. So for outdoor use, the varnish is your pick.

Are You a Beginner?

If you are a beginner just starting your journey into the painting world, you want to go with mod podge. Mod podge is easier to apply and more forgiving so even when you make mistakes with mod podge, the mistakes wouldn’t show much. Varnish needs a certain level of experience to be applied and mistakes will be more evident when the varnish dries

Final Words

Overall, varnish and mod podge are great items and they can both do just about the same thing. But for a proper finish, it’s best to use mod podge as a part of prep work for sticking wood together while varnish should be used as the final coat.

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