Woodworking is an intricate craft that involves many different steps and skills. You’ll be using math and geometry to figure out how a project will come together, then employing critical thinking and experience to make it happen.
Once you’ve spent the long hours and extensive energy putting together your woodworking project, you’ll want to make sure you finish it in a way that makes it beautiful and durable.
There are many different options for finishes on wood, but two of the most common choices are stain and varnish.
So, what’s the difference between stain and varnish? When comparing stain versus varnish, stain is used to color your wood and highlight the natural grain, while varnish is a usually clear coat used to seal the wood for long-term durability and protection.
If you want your woodworking project to look great and last for decades, you may need to use both a stain and varnish for the finish. In this article, we’ll go into greater detail on each finish and why they’re both important for maintaining healthy, beautiful wood.
What Is Stain?
Stain is a liquid substance that alters the color of wood. It seeps into the wood grain, penetrating deeply beneath the surface and staining the wood into a new color.
Wood stain is great because it highlights and accentuates the natural grain of your wood. It will work to amplify any existing tones in the wood while staining smoothly to the new tone you’ve chosen.
Stain comes in a large variety of many colors, so no matter what your original wood color is, you can make it whatever color you want.
This is especially helpful for large projects like flooring or a full dining room table set, where you have to use a lot of wood. You can purchase a cheaper wood in a color you don’t necessarily love, then stain it to look like a more expensive wood.
The downside to staining is that it doesn’t provide any layer of durability. Stain is simply intended to change the color of the wood, and not to give it a hard layer of protection.
If you choose to use a stain to alter your wood color, you’ll need to follow it up with a layer of a more durable finish, such as varnish.
What Is Varnish?
Although there are some varnishes that have a color tint to them, for the most part, varnish is a clear substance that creates a hard-shell layer of protection and durability for your wood. While stain soaks into the wood, varnish sits as a layer on top of the wood.
Varnishes are available in various types of finishes, including matte, satin, and gloss. There are also varnishes that are more suited for indoor use and some suited for outdoor use. Always be sure to choose the varnish that has the right finish and location use for your project.
Varnish works to create a strong layer of protection on your wood. This will protect your wood from scratches, scuffs, dents, and even insects and moisture.
If you already like the natural color of your wood, you can simply apply a varnish layer on top to seal your project and keep it safe for years to come.
Alternatively, if you want to color your wood, you can stain it before applying your varnish. This gives you the best of both worlds, allowing you to customize the look of your wood while keeping it sealed and protected.
Types Of Stain & Varnish
There are many kinds of both stain and varnish. The different varieties offered come from a different chemical makeup of the product, as well as the different color or finish options we mentioned above.
Some of the more popular and common types of stains include:
- Linseed-oil based stain is more natural compared to synthetic or chemical based stains. Using the natural substance of linseed oil as the base, these stains will look glossy on application but dry matte. They also work well for mixing with other pigments.
- Exterior stain is oil-based and intended for outdoor use. If you want to stain a deck or patio furniture, this is the right stain for you.
- Turpentine-based stain will penetrate more deeply into the wood grain because of the turpentine base. Since it goes deeper, you’ll need to work quickly with nice, even brush strokes for best results.
- Water-based stain is another more natural alternative to chemical-based stains, a water-based stain is easy to use and works well to create a smooth application.
Each of the stain types listed above will come in a variety of colors, so it’s up to you to choose the best stain for your project.
There are also several options when it comes to your varnish. For the purposes of this article, we’ll list just a few of the most popular types of varnish below:
- Polyurethane is a synthetic varnish made of a clear resin to create a layer of protection that’s resistant to moisture, abrasion, and changes in temperature.
- Spar urethane is another type of synthetic varnish best suited for outdoor or heavy-duty projects. This varnish has an additional chemical that enhances its resistance to UV rays.
- Polycrylic is our final recommended type of synthetic varnish. It’s less toxic than polyurethane and can be used in spray-form for easy application. It dries quickly and creates a perfect layer of protection.
- Natural varnishes are also available, made of a natural resin in a natural oil base like linseed oil. These are great for those looking for a more natural varnish option compared to the synthetic options listed above.
Check out a couple of our other articles on the subject of wood finishes if you want to know more about specific types of stain or varnish.
How Do Stain And Varnish Work?
Stain works by seeping into the wood and staining the wood grain. Much like spilled coffee would turn a white carpet brown, a stain will change the color of your wood.
To allow the stain to penetrate deeply through the wood, you’ll need to properly sand before applying your stain. This helps your stain get through to the deeper layers of wood better and allows for a longer-lasting color stain.
Varnish works much like a resin. It lays on top of the wood in a thin layer, then dries or cures to the desired hardened state you need for optimal protection.
Varnish will also need to be applied to properly sanded wood. Be sure to apply the varnish in a smooth, even layer to achieve best results.
What Do Stain And Varnish Look Like Dry?
When dry, stain generally appears matte. After applying it to your sanded wood, allow it time to truly seep into the wood grain and dry completely. This process can take anywhere from 24-72 hours.
Because stain is a substance with pigment intended to change the color of your wood, you can expect the wood to look different after the stain has dried. It will take on the new color of whatever stain you chose. Be sure to consider how the stain will look with the existing wood color when choosing your wood stain.
If your original piece of wood is white oak, it will take color well. It’s a blank canvas ready to turn whatever shade of brown, red, or yellow you’ve chosen.
However, if you start with a piece of chestnut, it’s going to have that natural warm brown that will affect the hue of whatever new color stain you’ve chosen. Grey is a good stain color choice to use with chestnut.
The final look of your varnish will depend on the type of varnish you’ve chosen. Stains will vary based on color, while varnishes will vary based on finish.
After applying your varnish, allow at least 24 hours for it to fully dry. You can even leave it for 36 hours to ensure it’s completely dry.
Once dry, it will have a clear, smooth look in whatever finish you chose. For example, if you chose a matte finish, it will have a soft matte look. If you chose a gloss finish, it will appear shiny and slick.
When To Use Stain Or Varnish?
When to use a stain or varnish will depend on what you want to do with your woodworking project. If you want to change the color of your wood, use stain. If you want to apply a layer of sealing protection, use varnish.
For woodworking projects, you’ll need that finishing layer. One type of wood that doesn’t require a finish is teak, but teak is expensive and difficult to get a lot of.
As a beginner woodworker, you can bet that one of your main necessities will be a varnish of some kind. Whether you choose synthetic or natural, matte or gloss, you’ll need to pick up a varnish for your projects.
Stain is up to personal preference. Some people choose their wood because they like the natural color, but some choose wood for the grain and plan to change the color later with a stain. You decide whether you want stain for your woodworking projects.
Up Next: Enamel Vs Acrylic Paint