Varnish vs Stain (What’s The Difference?)

Should I use varnish or stain? This is a very common question among DIYers like yourself who want a good finish on their furniture. So which finish is better?

Varnish is often a better choice. This is because varnish when dry produces a protective film. While the stain is often used to improve the color and look of the finish, and not protect the surface.

But that’s not all. This post reveals more about the differences between stain and varnish as well as helpful tips that can help you decide on which is best for your wood. So let’s dive in. First, let’s check out what varnish is used for.

What is Varnish?

What is Varnish?

Varnish is a clear top coat commonly used for sealing and protecting wood. Varnish is also used to protect stains and paints used on wood. The term “varnish” refers to resins that have been dissolved in a liquid for application on wood, metal, and other materials.

Varnish is made of strong chemicals and resins which have been dissolved into a liquid so it can be easily applied. The resins and chemicals in the liquid when dry form a thick, glossy, and moisture-resistant finish that protects the wood.

There are different types of varnishes. Each with its distinct features and method of application. But, one factor that unites all types of varnishes is that they are commonly used to seal and protect the material or finish underneath.

Exterior varnish for instance is common on building exterior and outdoor furniture. The varnish is flexible and designed with additives that make it UV-resistant.

Acrylic varnish is a water-based varnish that is easier to clean and maintain than other types of varnish. Acrylic varnish is used to cover wood that requires a glossy finish but it also comes in satin and matte finishes.

It is also UV-resistant and good for exterior usage. Other types of varnish include polyurethane, yacht, and alkyd varnish.

What is Stain?

What is Stain?

Stain or wood stain refers to a paint type used to alter the color of the wood. The term “stain” refers to the paint’s ability to literally stain or change the natural color of wood.

Stain is commonly used on wooden material to add detail or decor to the wood. It is also used on wood to darken or remove the natural look of the wood grain. This is why some painters refer to wood stain as wood dye.

Stain is made of colorants or paint pigments suspended in a solvent or vehicle. The solvent used in wood stains varies from water to petroleum distillates, alcohol, or a finishing agent like shellac or polyurethane.

Though stains also include a binder in the paint make-up, the main ingredients are the paint pigments and solvent. The finish gotten from the wooden stain is colorful and vibrant.

Related Read: Can You Apply Varnish Over Stain?

Varnish Vs Stain: Head To Head

So which of these two finishes is better, stain or varnish? Let’s compare both to find out. Let’s start with the paint make-up.

The Paint Make-Up

The Paint Make-Up

The paint make-up refers to the ingredients used in making the paint. For varnish, the finish is made from resins and chemicals. These substances are dissolved in a liquid or solvent so they can be applied evenly on wood.

Varnishes also have additives in the paint make-up. The additives in the paint depend on the type of varnish. Acrylic varnish for instance has pigmented paint particles suspended in the paint coating to give the varnish a colored tint when it dries.

Stain on the other hand is largely made of just paint pigments and a vehicle or solvent. The solvent for most stains is water or alcohol. Though stains also contain binders, the binder makes up less than 30% of the paint volume. The remaining 70% is made of colorants and water or alcohol.

Paint Application

This refers to the process of applying the paint or finish. Varnishes are more difficult to apply than stains. This is because varnish is a clear top coat. This means that whatever imperfection is on the wood will still be obvious after the varnish dries.

So before the varnish is applied, enough surface preparation has to be done. This includes cleaning, degreasing, sanding, and sometimes, priming. You’ll also need to thin the varnish before applying it.

The prep work required also differs based on the type of varnish. For instance, to apply polyurethane varnish, it’s advised to spray. While acrylic varnish is applied using a natural bristled paintbrush. So you’ll require a different prep work each to apply polyurethane varnish and acrylic varnish.

Stain on the other hand is easier to apply. In most cases, all you need is light sanding before the stain is applied. You can also apply stain using a roller, paintbrush, or spray gun. So you have many choices.


Durability refers to the paint strength and how long the finish can last on the wood. In terms of durability, varnish is better. Varnish when dry produces a very thick film that prevents water from penetrating the finish into the wood underneath.

Varnish also includes additives that make the finish chip and UV-resistant. So varnish will last longer on wood. On average, varnish lasts about 15 years if properly applied to wood.

Another reason for this increased durability is because varnish allows the wood underneath to breathe through its layers.

Stains on the other hand are not very durable. On average, unsealed stain will last about 5 years on interior wood. On exterior wood, unsealed stain will not last up to a year. The main reason for this is because stains don’t have chemicals. The binder in the paint coating is also not enough to make the paint tough or water-resistant.

Indoor or Outdoor Use

Varnish can be used indoors and outdoors. The extra protection guaranteed by varnish makes it ideal for use on indoor and outdoor furniture too. Virtually all types of varnishes have additives that make the finish water and UV-resistant.

So if used on an exterior surface, the varnish will thrive. However, it’s best to use exterior varnish for exterior use.

Stains on the other hand are more ideal for interior or indoor use. This is because stains are not very durable and as such can’t withstand the harsh exterior environment. However, there are stains designed for exterior use. These stains are designed to cope better in the harsh exterior environment.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Varnish is easier to clean than stain. This is because the glossy layer of varnish when dry attracts less dirt and debris making the paint coating easier to maintain and clean.

Varnish is also moisture-resistant and is less likely to allow mold or mildew to grow. Exterior varnish especially is designed with fungicides to kill bacteria on the finish.

Stain however isn’t very moisture-resistant and the finish has no protection against mold. So, it’s more likely to develop mold growth.

Though stains are also easy to clean and maintain, you’ll have to clean the stain repeatedly because stains are dust magnets. Repeated cleaning especially with water will wear the stain eventually and cause the color to fade.

Paint Drying Time

Stains tend to dry faster than varnish. This is because most stains use water or alcohol as the paint solvent and these substances evaporate quickly from the paint coating.

On average, stains will dry enough for re-coat in less than 4 hours. However, to seal the stain, it’s advised to let it cure for about 48 hours.

Varnishes on the other hand have a longer drying time. Oil-based varnish especially can remain tacky for up to 4 hours.

On average, varnishes take 24 hours to dry and 48 hours to cure enough for use. Polyurethane and water-based varnishes however dry faster and can fully cure in 24 hours or less.

The Paint Cost

Varnishes tend to cost more than wood stains but this isn’t a surprise considering the many benefits the wood and user get from the finish.

The price of varnish is based on the type of varnish you purchase. For instance, acrylic varnish costs less than polyurethane varnish. On average, varnish costs about $25.

Stains on the other hand don’t usually cost up to that and you can even purchase in smaller quantities. For stains, you can get half-pint, a pint, gallon, and the likes. So you have flexible purchasing power. On average, a pint of stain costs less than $20.

However, stains tend to have a higher overall cost since the finish will still be sealed and you have to purchase a sealant.

The Finish

Varnish has a finish that is thick, clear, glossy, and moisture-resistant. But, the finish usually lacks color. Varnish when dry produces a transparent film that has no color tint.

However, there are varnishes designed with paint pigments (or colorants) like acrylic varnish. Painters also mix acrylic paint with varnish while thinning to give a more attractive finish.

Stains have a very different finish. The finish isn’t thick nor glossy. Stains usually have a dry smooth finish. However, stains when used are usually sealed with a glossy topcoat like varnish which explains why most stained woods have glossy top coats.

Wood Protection

Though stains tend to penetrate the wood to prevent moisture from soaking into and damaging it, that’s as far as the protection of the finish goes. Stains aren’t UV-resistant or strong enough to protect the wood from heavy usage. The finish itself needs protection.

Varnish however is designed to protect the wood underneath. Varnish when applied will prevent the wood from being damaged. So, varnish is best for protecting wooden material.

Varnish vs Stain: Comparison Chart

Here is a chart that summarizes the difference between varnish and stain:

Paint ApplicationDifficultEasy
DurabilityVery Good (up to 15 years)Moderate if left unsealed
Wood ProtectionVery goodPoor
Indoor UseVery GoodGood
Exterior UseVery GoodExterior wood stain is more suited
Cleaning and MaintenanceEasyModerate
Paint DryingUp to 48 hoursLess than 12 hours
The FinishGlossy and thickSmooth and dry
Paint CostModerateModerate

So which of the two finishes do you need? The answer to that question depends on a few factors. Let’s take a closer look.

Should I Buy Varnish or Stain?

Before you decide on which to go for, consider the following factors:

What’s Your Budget?

Ordinarily, varnishes cost a bit more than stains. But since you’ll have to seal the stain, you might consider going for the varnish instead. The cost of purchasing the stain and the sealant will be more than the cost of purchasing the varnish.

Do You Need Protection or Color?

If you are more interested in preserving the wood or protecting it from the harsh environment, then varnish is your pick as it’s stronger and more durable. If you want to change the color of the wood or make your furniture more attractive, you should pick a stain.

What Are You Painting?

If you are painting outdoor furniture, varnish is your pick as it is more durable to protect the wood from UV rays and a harsh exterior environment. Interior surfaces and furniture should be stained instead of varnished.

Also, use varnish when you want to stick to one finish on your wood. As explained earlier, if you stain, you’ll probably have to seal too and each coat of paint and sealant puts more pressure on the wood underneath.

Tip: To get the best out of varnish and stain on your wood, apply a few coats of stain, then seal with varnish. The stain will produce color while the varnish protects the finish and the wood underneath.

Final Words

Overall, both stain and varnish are great products. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The one you decide to go for will ultimately depend on your taste and choice of finish.

I know how difficult this decision can be but I hope the comparison above has made that decision easier.

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