Mod Podge vs Varnish (Are They The Same?)

Mod podge and varnish are both used as top coats. But, what’s the difference between them?

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 solvent. Though it can also be used as a sealant, the sealing properties are because of additives in the glue.

Varnish is designed as a sealant and not glue. Its main purpose is to protect the wood or stain underneath. This is why it is water, scratch, and UV-resistant.


What is Varnish?

Varnish is a dissolved liquid finish that is applied as the final coat over wood. It is used as the final coat because the finish protects the wood or stain that it was applied over.

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

The hard and moisture-resistant finish makes it durable as it can last up to 10 years. There are different types of varnish including polyurethane, spirit, exterior, and acrylic varnish. 

You can use varnish:

  • Enhancing wood stain color. The clear film helps to make paint and stain more vibrant.
  • For protecting wood from moisture.
  • To give a natural finish to wood as it reveals wood grain.
  • To protect wood stains from scratches and dents.

Mod Podge

What is Mod Podge?

Mod podge is a PVA-formulated paste that is used on every art and crafts task for binding and sealing. However, it can be also used for fabric, wood, plaster, plastic, and drywall.

Mod podge when applied forms a whitish paste on the surface, but once this paste dries it reveals a clear coat on the wood. The glue is formulated with high levels of sealants and additives that give the product special features. 

For instance, mod podge sometimes has varnish (or spirit varnish) in its formula. This additive makes it possible for it to also be used as a sealant apart from being a glue. 

You can use mod podge:

  • For joining and gluing parts together.
  • In repair and patchworks.
  • To seal acrylic and other water-based paints.
  • To protect indoor furniture.

Is Mod Podge a Varnish?

Mod podge is not a varnish or a type of it. It is a glue, binder, or adhesive. However, the glue can be used to cover and seal wood or wood stains. This is possible because mod podge has varnish on its formula. But, the mod podge isn’t a varnish by itself. 

The reason behind this perception is that mod podge is used to cover and seal the wood, and is also used over paints and stains, the same way varnish is used.

However, these finishes are not the same. Though mod podge can seal too, the finish won’t be as good or durable as a varnish finish is. Varnish is strong and moisture-resistant which makes it a good sealant. While the mod podge is a strong glue which makes it a good for prep-work before applying a sealant.

Mod podge doesn’t have the features of regular varnish. You can thin regular varnish with paint thinner, but you can’t thin the mod podge paste. If you try to thin it, you will reduce the adhesive qualities and ruin the paste. 

Mod Podge vs Varnish

Here is a table that shows the major differences between them:

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

The Formula

Varnish is gotten from a combination of natural oils like linseed oil with resins, solvents, and driers. It is more natural than artificial as the main ingredients are gotten from tree oils, plants, and other organic matter.

Mod podge has a synthetic formula as its ingredients range from chemicals to solvents and even varnish. This also means that it has a more compound formula which is the reason the paste is thick.

The Moisture-Resistance

Varnish is more water-resistant than mod podge. Its particles dry through oxidization which means it becomes more compact and tightly packed while it is drying. The oxidization process goes on until the particles are so tight that moisture can’t get in. It also forms a moisture-resistant glossy layer.

The exterior mod podge is water-resistant too, but the water resistance is poor when compared to sealants. However, other types aren’t water-resistant. 

The Type Of Finish

Varnish has a rich glossy and hard finish. When dry, it reflects light due to the glossy finish and makes the stain color appear more colorful. If you use it directly on wood, it will give a natural finish and reveal the wood grain. 

Mod podge has a dry and textured finish. When dry, it doesn’t reflect light and reveals a clear coat on the wood. After a while, its finish tends to have a white or grey tine, while varnish develops a yellow tint.

The Thickness

Mod podge is thicker than varnish. Its medium is in paste form and that makes the finish thick. Also, it has several ingredients and solvents in its formula making the paste more compound and thicker.

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

The Level Of Protection

In terms of protection, varnish protects stains and wood better than mod podge. Varnish is designed to protect wood, while mod podge is designed to hold wood parts together. 


Mod podge is technically a glue, so it has better adhesion and will stick without sanding.

Varnish doesn’t have good adhesion qualities. To make it stick to wood, you must sand the surface first.


Varnish is more difficult to apply than mod podge. To apply it, you have to clean, wipe, sand, and prime the surface first. Depending on the type, you might need to thin it too. All of these steps make vanish more time-consuming and thus, difficult to apply.

Mod podge is easier to apply. Since the paste has great adhesion, you don’t need to sand for it to stick. As long as the surface is clean and without grease or oils, it will stick.

You can apply mod podge with any flat instrument, while varnish will require a bristled paintbrush for its application. So mod podge is both easier and more convenient to apply.

Which One Do You Need?

If you still find it difficult to pick, so here is a guide that can make the decision easier:

  1. Project Type – 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. 
  2. Protection – Since varnish offers the best protection over an item, it’s your ideal pick to protect the wood, stains, and other items. It also offers moisture and UV protection so your item or finish will be protected from the elements.
  3. Outdoor –  Since varnish offers moisture protection and UV protection, it’s more ideal for exterior use.
  4. Experience –  If you are a beginner just starting your journey into the painting world, you want to go with mod podge. It is easier to apply and more forgiving so even when you make mistakes with it, the mistakes wouldn’t show much. Varnish needs a certain level of experience to be applied and mistakes will be more evident when the sealant dries

Final Words

Overall, varnish and mod podge are great finishes 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.

Tony Adams

Tony Adams

Woodworker, Interior and Exterior Painter, Flooring Specialist

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about.

Eral Kadrija

Eral Kadrija

Lead Editor, Home Renovator

Eral has a passion for home renovation and repair. Over the years, he has bought, renovated, and sold 7 old homes. Using his experience from different DIY projects he created DIY Geeks.

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