Varnish vs Stain (Which One Do You Need?)

Varnish and stains are two great finishes. However, they have different features. So, what’s the difference between varnish and stain?

When dry, varnish produces a protective film that protects wood from moisture, water, and scratches. On the other hand, stain only improves the color and look of the surface, but it doesn’t protect it. 

But that’s not all. There are more differences between these two finishes. Let’s check them. 


What is Varnish?

Varnish is a clear top coat that protects and seals the surface and paints underneath. Varnish is made by blending resins, solvent, and drying oil. Once the varnish dries, its solvent evaporates, and the remaining resins oxidize, forming a protective layer over a surface.

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 used to seal and protect the material or finish underneath.

For instance, the exterior varnish is used for outdoor surfaces. This varnish is flexible and is designed with additives that make it UV-resistant. On the other hand, the acrylic varnish is a water-based varnish that is easy to clean and maintain and dries fast. It is also UV-resistant and good for exterior usage.

Other types of varnish include polyurethane, yacht, and alkyd varnish.

Related Read: Can You Apply Varnish Over Stain?


What is Stain?

Stain (or wood stain) refers to a wood finish that alters the color of the wood. For example, you can use stain to darker or alter the natural look of the wood grain. Stain is also known as a wood dye. There are different types of wood stains, such as gel stain, oil-based stain, water-based stain, etc. 

Stain is made of colorant (paint pigments) suspended in a solvent. The solvent in the wood stain depends on the type of stain. For example, a water-based stain uses water as its solvent, while an oil-based stain uses oil as its solvent. 

In comparison to other wood finishes, wood stain doesn’t protect the wood. Instead, wood stain offers a colorful and vibrant finish. 

Stain vs Varnish

So which of these two finishes is better? 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 finishes. Varnish is made from resins, chemicals, and drying oil. These substances are dissolved in a solvent. Once the varnish solvent evaporates, the remaining resins produce a protective layer. 

Some varnish types have more paint pigments than others. For example, acrylic varnish has paint pigments suspended in the paint coating to give the varnish a more colorful finish. 

On the other hand, the stain is made of paint pigments and a solvent. The solvent for most stains is either water or oil. Though stains also contain binders, the binder makes up less than 30% of the paint volume.

Paint Application

Varnishes are more difficult to apply than stains. That’s because varnishes is a clear coat, meaning that imperfections on the surface will show after the varnish dries. 

So, before you apply varnish, you must do a lot of prep work. This includes cleaning, degreasing, and sanding. You also need to thin varnish before painting. All of this makes the varnish application difficult. 

The prep work for varnish depends on the type of varnish. For instance, to apply polyurethane varnish, you must use a spray gun. However, for acrylic varnish, you must use a natural bristled paintbrush. 

On the other hand, wood stain is easier to apply. All you need to do is to sand the surface and apply the wood stain. You can use a paint roller, paintbrush, or spray gun to apply stain.


Varnish is more durable than stain. That’s because varnish, when dry, forms a thick and protective layer over the surface. This layer protects the surface from water, moisture, scratches, and damage.

Some varnish types have additives that make the finish UV resistant. All of these additives make the varnish last longer on a surface. On average, varnish lasts up to 15 years if applied properly. 

On the other hand, wood stain isn’t durable. On average, un-sealed wood stain lasts less than 5 years on interior wood and less than 1 year on exterior wood. That’s because the wood stain doesn’t have additives that make the finish resistant to water or weather elements. Wood stain is only used to change the color of the wood. 

Indoor or Outdoor Use

You can use varnish indoors and outdoors. Since varnish is resistant to water and weather elements, you can use it outdoors. All types of varnishes have additives that make the finish water and UV-resistant. However, for the best results, use exterior varnish outdoors. 

On the other hand, wood stain is more suited for indoor use. That’s because the stain isn’t durable or resistant to water. As such, the stain can’t withstand the harsh exterior environment and will peel off. However, some wood stains, such as deck stains, are designed for exterior use.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Varnish is easier to clean than stain. That’s because varnish forms a glossy finish that attracts less dirt and debris. Also, the varnish is moisture resistant and won’t allow mold or mildew to grow. Also, even if dirt accumulates over the varnish coating, you can wipe it off with a clean rag and warm water. 

On the other hand, the stain is harder to clean and maintain. Since the wood stain isn’t moisture resistant, the finish has no protection against mold. Also, wood stain attracts a lot of dust, so you must clean the stained surface more often. Repeated cleaning with water will wear off the stained surface and cause the color to fade. 

Dry Time

Wood stain dries faster than varnish. That’s because the wood stain has fewer additives and uses water or oil as its solvent. So, the wood stain solvent evaporates faster. On average, stain takes 1 hour to dry enough for a re-coat. However, the stain must dry for 48 hours before sealing it. 

On the other hand, varnish takes longer to dry. On average, water-based varnish takes 6 hours to dry enough for a re-coat, while oil-based varnish takes 24 hours.

The Paint Cost

Varnish costs more than wood stain. The increased price is because varnish offers more protection and is more durable than wood stain. The price of varnish depends on the type of varnish you get. For instance, acrylic varnish costs less than polyurethane varnish. 

On the other hand, wood stain doesn’t cost as much, and you can buy it in small quantities. For instance, you can get a half-pint, a pint, or a gallon.

The Finish

Varnish has a thick, clear, and glossy finish that is moisture-resistant. Most varnishes produce a transparent film with no color tint.

However, there are varnishes designed with paint pigments, such as acrylic varnish. To get a colorful finish, you can also mix varnish with paint (such as acrylic paint).

On the other hand, stain offers a dry and smooth finish. The finish of the wood stain isn’t glossy or thick. However, most wood stains are usually sealed with glossy topcoats (such as varnish) to get a glossy finish. 

Wood Protection

Wood stains penetrate the wood and prevent moisture from soaking into the wood pores and damaging it. However, the wood stain level of protection is low. Wood stains aren’t UV-resistant and won’t protect the wood from constant water or moisture.

On the other hand, varnishes will protect the wood from moisture, water, UV rays, rain, scratches, damage, and more. When dry, the varnish forms a thick protective layer that repels moisture and protects the surface.

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

Paint ApplicationDifficultEasy
DurabilityGood (up to 15 years)Moderate if left unsealed
Wood ProtectionGoodPoor
Indoor UseGoodGood
Exterior UseGoodPoor, except exterior wood stain.
Cleaning and MaintenanceEasyModerate
Paint DryingUp to 48 hoursLess than 12 hours
The FinishGlossy and thickSmooth and dry
Paint CostModerateModerate

Do You Need Varnish or Stain?

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

  1. Budget – Varnish costs more than wood stain.
  2. Protection or Color – If you want to protect the surface, go for a varnish finish. Varnish will protect the surface from harsh environmental elements. If you want to alter to wood color, go for a wood stain. The wood stain will make the wood appear lighter or darker. 
  3. Outdoor or Indoor – For outdoor surfaces, go for varnish. For indoor wood surfaces, go for wood stain. 

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

Wood stain and varnish are both great finishes. However, they are used for different things. Wood stain is used to alter the wood grain color, while the varnish is used to protect the surface underneath. 

To get the best of two worlds, apply wood stain over a surface and seal it with varnish.

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