Stain Versus Varnish

Here is a quick compare between stain and varnish.


Stain is applied to bare wood to enhance the natural wood grain, to color the wood to match or compliment existing wood, or perhaps to restore the natural wood color that has faded from sunlight exposure. It consists of a coloring agent, either pigment or dye, dissolved in a solvent such as alcohol, water, oil, or varnish. Stains intended for outdoor use also have additives to enhance the stain's UV and water resistance. For interior applications such as furniture finishing, a protective clear top coat such as lacquer or varnish is applied once the stain has dried, except for products that contain both stain and varnish.


Varnish is a film finish that is made from oils and resins. It is one of the more durable finishes and provides excellent protection against water, water vapor, chemicals, and heat. Varnish is applied as a top coat to stained wood to protect the wood, to make it easier to clean, and to impart a nice shine to the surface. It comes in three different sheen levels: satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. The characteristics of a varnish are determined by the type of resin, type of oil, and the proportion of resin to oil. The oils used in varnish include linseed oil, tung oil, soybean oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. Most varnishes use a synthetic resin, usually alkyd, phenolic, or polyurethane.