Stain vs Varnish vs Oil

Stain vs Varnish vs Oil

Treating any wooden item in your home with a protective coating is one of the tried and true techniques to assure its longevity. This usually include painting, varnishing, or staining, followed by a finish.

Knowing how to compare varnish and stain will help you figure out which is ideal for your home or job.

Varnishing, in any event, may be preferable since it produces a protective barrier on the wood surface. Staining enhances the color but does not provide protection from wear and tear or the elements.

Stain vs Varnish vs Oil

The Door, Wood, Boards
Wood varnish

What Is the Difference Between Varnish and Stain?

Varnish is a term that refers to a coating that is applied to a surface

Varnish is a translucent, clear wood finish that hardens to form a durable top coat on the wood surface. It’s long-lasting and comes in a variety of sheens.

Varnishes are similar to paint, however they don’t contain pigment. Polyurethane resins and their solvents make up the majority of varnishes. Water-based varnishes have also become popular, owing to their environmental friendliness.

Varnish’s Unique Characteristics

  • It dries to a firm finish.

By producing a scratch-resistant layer on the wood surface, it protects it from physical damage.

  • Enhances the beauty of wood, ensuring that it remains beautiful for a long time.

The strong coating also protects the wood from environmental factors such as dampness. Accidental spills and household stains from dust, filth, and grime will simply not penetrate a varnished wood and cause damage.

What is the Definition of a Wood Stain?

Wood stains, on the other hand, are a collection of coloured liquid substances that are applied to wood to modify its color. A wood stain’s main purpose is to darken the wood and bring out the natural wood grain. However, not all woods are suitable for staining; below is a list of Woods that Stain Well.

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French Oak, Burnt Wood, Floor, Flooring
Wood stain

The Characteristics of Stains

Penetrate the wood grain and close the pores, enhancing the natural feel of the wood.

Based on its components, it may provide some protection. Exterior wood stains, for example, provide protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Block the pores that naturally exist on wood, partially protecting it from moisture damage. Prevent the growth of mold and mildew on wood.

Wooden furniture’s natural aesthetics can be preserved for a long period.

Pros and Cons of Wood Varnish

The Best Varnish for Wood

Gleam Marine Spar Varnish, Gloss and Satin Polyurethane Finish for Wood, Boats, and Outdoor Furniture – TotalBoat – 409314 (Clear Gloss Quart)

Premium tung oil and phenolic resins combine in CLASSIC MARINE VARNISH to create a gorgeous, warm, translucent amber finish on all types of interior and exterior wood.

DURABLE SPAR VARNISH is an outdoor wood sealant and waterproof finish that can be used on brightwork on boats, strip canoes, kayaks, outdoor wooden bar tables, garage doors, and furniture, among other things.

EASY TO USE, SELF-LEVELING, AND FAST DRYING: Apply up to three coats in one day at 72°F; recoat in one hour at 72°F. During seasonal humidity and temperature variations, cured varnish remains flexible, expanding and contracting with the wood.

GLOSS OR SATIN FINISH: Apply 4-6 coats of Gleam Gloss for a high gloss varnish finish; for a sleek satin finish, build with coats of Gleam gloss varnish and finish with Gleam Satin.

GLOSS OR SATIN (low-sheen) finishes are available in Pint, Quart, and Gallon sizes. TotalBoat Special Brushing is a thinner. xylene; thinner 100 (brushing/rolling) (spraying). Coverage per gallon: 250 sq. ft.


  • Creates a scratch-resistant, protective layer on wood surfaces.
  • Preserves the appearance of wood in its natural state.
  • Simple to use
  • Brushstrokes are difficult to see.


  • It can take a long time to apply.
  • It is necessary to wait several hours between coatings.

Pros and Cons of Wood Stain

The Most Effective Wood Stain

Varathane 262029 Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain, Half Pint, Kona Varathane 262029 Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain, Half Pint, Kona Varathane 262029

Furniture, cabinets, doors, trim, and paneling are all examples of interior wood projects that can benefit from this product.

Oil-based solution with one coat coverage and quick drying time.

In just one hour, it dries to the touch and covers up to 70 square feet.

Nano pigment particles have been added to a high-performance stain system.

Natural wood grain is highlighted to bring out the beauty of the wood.


  • Wooden furniture can be enhanced with stain to make it more appealing.
  • The beauty of the wood grain is preserved with wood stain.
  • It’s simple to use.
  • Some stains for wood are quick to dry.


  • Wood that has been stained will only last a few years before needing to be repainted.
  • Some woods don’t take stains well.

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Side by Side Comparison of Wood Stain and Varnish

This section is for you if you’re undecided about whether to use a varnish or a water-based or oil-based stain. This section compares and contrasts the performance and qualities of varnishes and stains.

Read on to learn how these two wood surface treatments differ and which one might be preferable for you.

1. Varnish vs. Stain: Which Should You Use?

Varnish should only be applied to well-prepared wood surfaces. If you use it on wood surfaces with flaws, for example, it will draw attention to them.

The use of water-based stains will necessitate extra surface preparation. You must soak the wood surface with water several hours ahead of time since the water in the water-based stain tends to elevate the wood grain and change the texture.

It’s best to clean the wood many hours or even a day ahead of time and let it wet overnight. Then, just before applying the stain, use sandpaper to smooth the surface and remove any rough spots.

Conclusion: Both varnish and stain are simple to put on wet and dry edges, however they do share a few complexity. It’s a stalemate.

2. Varnish vs. Stain: Maintaining Wood’s Natural Appearance

The majority of varnishes are clear resins that preserve the natural wood’s appearance while adding a lovely hard sheen.

They are available in three different levels of oil-based varnish: gloss, semi-gloss, and satin.

These qualities are determined by the type of resin or oil used in the varnish, as well as the resin to oil ratio.

The main element in any varnish, whether it’s Tung oil, boiled linseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil, is usually a synthetic or polyurethane resin.

As a result, the layer dries to a translucent hard finish that keeps the wood’s natural appearance.

Some varnishes include color to give the wood a more vibrant appearance—a feature that wood stain is known for.

Stains come in a variety of colors and can be water-based, oil-based, or a combination of the two.

While stains change the color of wood, they do not form a coat on the surface, thus they merely enhance the innate beauty of the wood.

Stains will seep into the wood, revealing the grain pattern. As a result, it will have a more striking effect than bare wood.

You can opt for a wood stain that has little to no colour, in which case it will be nearly as transparent as a conventional varnish.

Conclusion: Varnish and stain both come in coloured and clear varieties, each of which enhances the beauty of wood surfaces while preserving their original appearance. It’s a stalemate.

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3. Varnish vs. Stain – UV Protection and Outdoor Use

UV protection agent has been added to the stains to make them acceptable for the harsh outdoor environment.

Unlike paint, which comes in a variety of UV protection options, wood stain must be developed for outdoor use in order to endure the environment. A darkly stained stain, for example, will provide more UV protection than a clear one.

Even if the stain is not intended for the outer environment, repeated exposure will harm it.

Interior wood stains, unlike wiping stains, enter the wood grain rather than sitting on the surface. As a result, they require a clear-colored top coat, such as polyurethane, to provide the wood with the necessary protection.

You can read about the stain conflict, which pits Penetrating Stain against Wiping Stain.

Three different types of varnishes are developed to guard against the sun’s UV rays.

These are the following:

Varnish in acrylic

Varnish for yachts

Exterior coats of varnish

Varnishes are offered for both indoor and outdoor applications. Applying interior varnish outdoors, like using stains, will result in faster degradation than using acrylic varnish.

Outdoor varnishes, such as marine and exterior varnishes, are meant to endure the weather.

Yacht varnish is another name for it.

The exterior varnish will provide good UV and moisture protection. To retain the protection, make sure to recoat the furniture, deck, or fence every few years.

When kept outside, even exterior-grade coatings eventually wear out due to accelerated deterioration caused by the elements.

Conclusion: It’s a tie because both outdoor varnish and wood stain need to be reapplied every few years to keep their protection.

Varnish vs. Stain – Upkeep

In the following ways, the glossy appearance of varnished wood helps to its ease of maintenance:

  • Dirt is less attracted to it.

Water vapor, heat, and chemicals that can spill on the wood are all well protected by this product.

  • It gives them a hard gloss, making them much easier to clean.

Wood typically has microscopic pores on its surface where dust, debris, and filth can lurk and eventually produce permanent stains.

Mold and mildew can thrive in such conditions, resulting in ugly discolorations that are difficult to remove.

When varnish is applied to bare wood, it closes the openings and protects the wood from dirt and household stains. This makes it even easier to keep such timbers in good shape.

  • Maintaining stains takes more effort.

The protective glossy coatings created by standard wood stains are not as thick. A good stain will penetrate the wood grain and keep moisture from soaking into the wood and destroying it, but that’s all the protection you’ll get.

Chemical spills, heat, and water vapor, all of which can harm dyed wood, must be avoided during routine maintenance. These elements just do not stand up to wood stains. This explains why, to keep the upkeep of such furniture or wood surfaces to a minimum, a clear coat must be applied over a stain layer.

Conclusion: Varnish provides superior protection and requires less upkeep. Varnish comes out on top.

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Rot Prevention: Varnish vs. Stain

There are three popular treatments for rotting wood:




Both varnish and wood stain will protect your outdoor furniture and keep it from decomposing while maintaining the natural look of the wood. These two types of wood treatment are very similar in this regard.

Exterior wood stains, with the exception of strongly coloured alternatives, are similar to varnish. They generate a protective film on the wood surface that, like varnish, closes the pores on the wood’s surface and inhibits rot.

The result is a draw.

Varnish vs. Stain – Time to Dry

Natural varnish takes about 24 hours to dry on average. Polyurethane resin and water-based varnishes, on the other hand, tend to dry faster under ideal conditions.

Wood stain takes roughly 24 to 48 hours to dry completely. This is especially critical if you plan to finish the stain layer with a polyurethane resin finish.

Before putting the final protective finish to their creations, some woodworkers allow up to 72 hours for wood stain to dry.

If you’re going to apply polyurethane to stained wood, you’ll need to know how long to allow the stain dry before applying the polyurethane.

Conclusion: Varnishes and stains have similar drying durations. It’s a stalemate.

Varnish: How to Use It

For varnish application, you’ll need the following tool and/or materials.



Brush with natural bristles or a roller


The first step is to sand the surface.

To apply a polyurethane varnish, start by lightly sanding the surface you want to coat with a medium- to coarse-grit sander to smooth it out.

Fill the Cracks in Step 2

Before varnishing, you should fill any fissures and cracks in the wood.

This stage of the application is, however, optional.

Step 3: Varnish your work

Using a lint-free cloth, painter’s brush, or roller, apply the polyurethane varnish. The initial coat of polyurethane varnish will act as a primer in this case.

Step 4: Allow Time to Dry

Allow around 10 hours for the first layer of varnish to cure completely before applying the second film to the surface.

Step 5: Add the Finishing Coat

Once the first coat of varnish is totally dried, apply a second coat. It is the finish since it is the second coat. However, before applying the final layer, a quick once-over on the single-coat varnished wood is required.

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Staining Techniques

The tools and materials required are the same as for varnish application.

Step 1: Prepare the Surface

Sand the surface with a medium grain sandpaper, just like you would for a Varnish finish. You’ll also use an appropriate filler to fill in any blemishes.

Staining (Step 2)

Apply stains to wood with a lint-free cloth. Stain has additional application options, which may make it easier to apply because you can choose the tool that you’re most familiar with.

Water-based, oil-based, and other wood stains can be applied with a rag, synthetic brush, roller, paint pad, or spray gun.

Step 3: Remove any remaining stain with a damp cloth.

Before the stain dries, wipe off every ounce of it. This is not a necessary with water-based or oil-based varnishes, as you may have noticed.

FAQS on Stain vs Varnish vs Oil

Is it OK to use interior stain outside?

No, attempting to use an inside paint or stain outside will harm and fade the wooden surfaces due to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation providing little to no protection. There are translucent stains for the outdoors that work as a coating over the wood’s surface, similar to clear varnish.

Is it necessary to sand between stain coats?

Yes, sanding the wood surface between layers is required. However, make sure the initial layer is entirely dry before rubbing it down to a flat surface with 0000 steel wool or fine-grit sandpaper.

What’s the verdict on wood stain vs. varnish?

In a nutshell, varnish and wood stain work in distinct ways, which helps you decide which is best for your job.

When to use varnish?

You want to keep the appearance and color of the furniture or wood. Instead of utilizing various treatments to treat your wood, you should adhere to one varnish finish.

When should you use wood stain?

You want to stain your wood a specific color without losing the original grain like paint would. You want your furniture’s wood grain to stand out.

We hope you found this guide useful. We’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments area.

Shirley B. Leavitt

Shirley graduated with a Carpentry Technology Certificate Program at Northwestern Michigan College. Her study focuses on art criticism in its various forms, the history of Canadian and American art after 1940, and the psychology of creative thought. Sixty of her pieces have been published in periodicals such as Art International, Arts, Vie des arts, Studio International, The Canadian Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Art. The Caro Connection: Sculpture by Sir Anthony Caro from Toronto Collections, The Heritage of Jack Bush, A Tribute (Robert McLaughlin Gallery), and Caricature and Conscience: The Sculpture of Dora Wechsler (with Carolyn Robinson) are among the exhibitions she has produced. Shirley has served as a guest critic and speaker at various universities in Canada and the United States, including the Emma Lake Artists' Workshop and the University of Toronto. The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations honored her with their award for teaching excellence.

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