What Is Varnish

What Is Varnish? – Learn What Varnish Is Used For

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Anybody with an interest or proclivity toward woodworking ought to master the craft of varnishing. This is the process of applying a coating of viscous material over the surface of the wood, in order to change or improve its color or texture, and to provide its resistance against the elements. Varnish is typically made using some sort of resinous material that will harden when exposed to air until it has formed a sturdy layer of protection around the wood. Varnish protects the wood, while also sufficing it with a good degree of aesthetic improvements. If you want to learn more about wood varnish and some of its most popular varieties, this is the place to be.



What Is Varnish?

Varnish is a resinous material diluted in liquid that can be applied, like paint, to surfaces such as wood to change their appearance, improve their gloss, and protect them from environmental factors that would otherwise damage the wood. Unlike painting, varnishing is known as a method of wood treatment. The paint contains pigments and forms an exterior layer on top of the surfaces to which it is applied, providing a limited degree of protection. Varnish, on the other hand, does not contain pigments and penetrates into the fibers of the wood in order to beautify it while simultaneously increasing the wood’s durability to a much greater extent. Even though varnishes do not contain pigments, their penetrative qualities allow them to dye to surfaces of wood.

Since varnishes do not contain pigments, this means that they can often be used to alter the color of wood without obscuring the grain or texture. This ultimately depends on the type of varnish being used. Most varnishes are clear-coated but they come in a wide spectrum of optional colors.

What does varnish do once applied? Varnish will seep into the surface of the wood so that, once it dries, it will clog up the pores and prevent any moisture from entering. Varnish protects wooden surfaces from liquids and particle damage, ensuring they stay in perfect condition for years to come. Many varnishes also provide several additional protective measures against potential damage to the wood caused by abrasion, impact, stains, and sunlight.

What Does Varnish Do

But what is varnish made of? Many varnishes include ingredients designed to prevent UV light from penetrating the coatings they produce, which is a welcome addition to the wealth of benefits afforded through the use of these products given that it only serves to increase the longevity of wooden products it is applied to.

This is why varnish is popularly used to coat wooden parts of tools and other heavy-duty wooden equipment intended for frequent use.


What Is Varnish Made Of?

Varnish is made of resinous materials, most typically a blend thereof. Alongside this, you will often find a drying oil present alongside a drying agent. Depending on what type of varnish you are using, it may also contain dangerous solvents referred to as volatile organic solvents (VOCs). The health risks presented by VOCs give a reason why you are advised to wear personal protective equipment such as a respirator, synthetic gloves, and eye goggles when working with most varnishes. After being applied to a surface in liquid form, whichever components make up the solvent will evaporate upon contact with air.

The components of the varnish that remain on the surface of your wood after the evaporation of the solvent will undergo either polymerization or oxidization, during which time they will dry out and form a protective layer of film. This layer varies in transparency and opacity depending on the type of varnish you choose to use and the wood you decide to work on.

The varnish will then supply the surface, which in this case would be wood, with a durable coating that prevents damage that could otherwise be incurred through exposure to environmental influences such as UV rays, abrasion, alkali, insects, mold, moisture, scratches, cold, heat, and so forth. The range of protective measures supplied to the wood will depend on the type of varnish you use. Varnish is very popularly used as a means to coat wooden workpieces with a protective layer. The less thick and more transparent varieties of varnish can also be used on art pieces like paintings and their canvases to preserve the artwork for a much longer time.



A Quick History of Varnished Wood

We can date the namesake of this material as far back as the Romans, and the Greeks even. During this period of antiquity, varnish (or at least the core concept thereof) materialized in the form of sap. Also known as amber when hardened, this chromatic yellow-brown liquid was then and still is extracted from trees for use as a coating for all sorts of materials, though most specifically for wood. Its popularity can be attributed to the two primary benefits it bestows unto wood when spread and left to harden on the surface; firstly, it provides a water-resistant or waterproof coating that protects the wood from moisture and, secondly, it stains the surface so as to add additional qualities to the aesthetic appearance of the material. The word amber dates back to Late Middle England, a name born from the marriage between the Old French word “Ambre” and the Arabic namesake “ambergris”. The material itself, however, has been a part of the human toolkit since as far back as during the reigns of Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt.

Speaking of tools, the Ancient Egyptians made avid use of amber (which nowadays really is an antiquated definition for varnish) to coat their wooden tools in order to ensure the better durability of these items. Additionally, these amebous substances were popularly used as a means to preserve bodily remains in their hallmark mummification burial rituals.

Funnily enough, one of the more popular examples of the earliest recorded instances of varnish being used pertains to the mummification of the vaunted King Tutankhamun. Upon the autoptic examination of the Pharaoh’s remains, historians deduced the now well-agreed theory that his burial was a rushed proceeding. How do we know this? Well, the damage to King Tutt’s remains indicates burn marks that were caused during the post-mortem embalming process, indicating to us that the resin was still far too hot before it was applied.

What Is Varnish Used For

Even though we have moved past the days of mummification, much to the chagrin of those fond of the Egyptian pantheon, the varnishes we make use of in the modern era are not so different from what was used back then. Initially, tree sap (also called amber when hardened) was combined with a solvent to create the resinous material we call varnish. These sorts of varnishes still exist to this day, but contemporary examples of this material are produced through the mixing of resins both natural and synthetic, along with numerous chemicals that together make for a material that protects wood even better and makes it look so much more beautiful.

The Ancient Egyptians, however, were not the progenitors of varnishing. In fact, the practice has been developed independently by a whole manner of different civilizations and societies throughout the course of history. In Asia, a more complex amalgam of materials was used as a means to varnish all sorts of items for purposes including, but not exclusive to, offering protection from the elements and providing aesthetic improvements. More so, the varnishes produced within Asiatic regions were suitable for use on more surfaces than just that of wood.

Varnish was popularly used on silks and other fabrics to issue them a fair degree of water resistance. For many types of precious metallic materials, varnish was also used as a means to upkeep a good polish. For bladed weapons, varnish was also a frequent material used to maintain their combat effectiveness.

These are not the only examples of the craft of varnishing developing independently during ancient history. More so, wood was not the only thing people knew how to varnish back then. There were also several regions within Asia where formulas containing a complex variety of ingredients were used as a means to apply varnishes to all sorts of surfaces for a large number of practical and aesthetic purposes. Even way back then, we knew how to varnish silk to render the material resistant to water, to maintain a healthy polish of certain precious metals, and even to maintain the combat effectiveness of weapons.

What Does Varnish Do

This all being said, we can easily infer that varnish has proven itself profusely useful throughout humankind’s long history. Nevertheless, varnish has always been a somewhat hazardous material to work with. This is especially true in modern times where varnishes are produced using a demanding supply of noxious and perniciously harmful solvents and binders. Most modern varnishes produce fumes that, if inhaled, can cause damage to the respiratory system. Furthermore, the cocktail of liquids combined to produce varnish is also typically extremely flammable. Thus, we recommend that, before you use varnish, you acquire yourself some eye protection and a respirator. Once it has dried, varnish is fortunately no longer flammable, even going so far as to provide a moderate degree of protection from high temperatures. In its liquid state, however, varnish can be dangerous enough to pose several risks to the user’s physiological well-being if proper preventative measures are not adhered to.

We would keenly suggest, then, that beyond donning personal protective equipment you apply varnish in a well-ventilated space and safely dispose of excess materials, any waste produced, and the instruments used during the application after you have completed the task of producing varnished wood.



How to Varnish Wood

If you want to know how to varnish wood, this section is for you. Although the means through which wood is varnished differs depending on what product or wood you choose to use, allow us to detail the most common means to go about it. But, before we get into the nitty-gritty, let us first discuss your tools. You will, of course, be needing a varnish suitable for the task at hand.

You should also make sure that the varnish is brand new for the best results, but more on that later. You are also encouraged to not skimp out on the paintbrush you decide to use.

You should try to use a paintbrush with bristles made from natural materials. The area where the bristles rest should always be thicker than your brush tip. A good word of advice is that you should try squeezing the bristled end and seeing if any bristles come loose. If so, then you should get a different brush that does not present this issue. Now, without any further ado, let us begin discussing the basic step and rules when it comes to varnishing wood:

  • You will first need to apply sandpaper to the surface of your wood so as to ensure that the varnish will adhere effectively. Once this is done, you should then clean your workspace of any sawdust, mess, or debris of any kind before moving on to the next step. Varnish can be incredibly sticky when after being applied and during the curing process, a time during which it can easily accumulate any loose particles floating around your workspace.
  • This next step is well worth accounting for if you did not know this already. You should always make sure that you are using a fresh varnish. If your varnish has sat on either the shelves of a store or your cupboard for too long, it can begin to harden over time, which would lead to the development of lumpy sections that may weaken the structural rigidity of your final product. An easy way to determine whether or not your varnish is fit for use is to apply it to a sample piece of wood and see assess the quality once it dries.
  • You should ensure that your varnish is adequately stirred before application. You can make sure that all the ingredients are properly mixed by stirring them with a wooden stick with no splinters. This is a task that you should perform without any haste so as to prevent the development of air pockets within your resinous mix. You should also try your best to keep your varnish as unshaken as possible to prevent air bubbles from forming this way either.

Varnished Wood

  • You can now begin to dispense your varnish into an adequately sized, plastic measuring beaker that will function as your measurement cup. Once this is done, you can make your varnish go a longer way by adding a thinner such as gum turpentine. Vanish thinners work by causing the dry time of your varnish to increase, thus preventing the development of air bubbles and streakiness across your workpieces. When working on the first coat of varnish, try to apply around 20% thinner to the mixture, stirring it in with a mixing stick as priorly discussed. Any succeeding coats of varnish should then be mixed using roughly 5% to 10% thinner into the varnish instead.
  • During the application process of your varnish, a gentler hand will do you good. A good start is ensuring that it is exclusively the brush tip that curves as you apply the varnish. Right-handed painters should begin from top-left downwards and left-handed painters should apply varnish in the opposite direction. Start by applying your varnish in a square and adding adjacent squares afterward until the surface of your wood is completely covered in varnish. Remember to always varnish in the direction of your wood’s grains. If you are not applying varnish in the same direction each time, it may dull both the utility and aesthetic benefits it should provide.



Types of Wood Varnish 

If you have a wood varnish project that needs tackling, you will be happy to know that there is no short supply of product types to choose from, all of which are specially designed for a variety of intended purposes. Whether it is primarily for protection or for aesthetics, and depending on the sort of wood you are working with, there will be a type of varnish designed specifically for your intended use.

Even though these options are all categorized as varnishes, it is important to understand that they are unique products that demand their own specific means of application so as to perform their intended purpose most effectively.

Here we have tabulated a short rundown of the most common varnishes you ought to find and make use of. For your ease of understanding, we have added their intended purposes and most commonly addressed the pros and cons to provide as much context as possible with as little reading time required as possible.

Spirit Varnish●      Commonly known as French varnish

●      Able to dissolve faster than most other varnishes

●      Formula is solvent-based

●      Leaves you with a translucent finish

●      Should be applied in thin layers

●      Does not provide a high degree of environmental resistance


Acrylic Varnish

●      VOCs are not included in the ingredients

●      Formula is water-based

●      Offers a reliable yet limited degree of resistance against UV light

●      Boasts a lot of versatility in terms of what it can be used for

●      Leaves a transparent finish

●      Boasts deep wood penetration levels

●      Can be runny and thus difficult to work with because it is water-based

●      Options for the finish include satin, sheen, and matte

Exterior Varnish●      Designed for use on wood situated in outdoor settings

●      Improves the durability of wood to a great degree

●      Insects, splitting, absorption of water, abrasion, and rot are all protected against by this varnish 

●      Provides decent protection from UV rays

●      Allows for wood breathability

●      Mold cannot develop on the surface on account of several additive chemicals

●      Curing times can be very long

●      Incredibly versatile and suitable for use on most wood types

Polyurethane Varnish●      Helps produce a solid and durable surface layer

●      Popularly applied to flooring for added protection and grip

●      Is able to penetrate the surface of wood better than any other varnish on this list

●      Produced using a formula that guarantees extreme durability

●      Can protect the surface of wood from damage that could be caused by acids, solvents, or any other corrosive substances

●      Can be quite reactive to the harm caused by UV light

Yacht Varnish●      Can also be referred to as marine varnish

●      Offers a superior degree of moisture and liquid protection

●      Exclusively designed for use on wooden components of seafaring vessels to offer protection from moisture and saltwater

●      The surface layer can become brittle when exposed to cold temperatures

●      Function over fashion: it is typically not designed to improve the aesthetic qualities of wood

●      The UV protection offered is moderate

●      Appears as a muted sheen once dried

●      Used on exterior flooring of boats and ships among other wooden components

Oil Varnish●      Made from a combination of dissolved resins such as oil and copal

●      The texture and grain of wood are maintained

●      One of the traditional forms of varnish

●      Dries quite slowly

●      Boasts one of the widest arrays of colors to choose from

●      Is not particularly durable and requires touch-ups

●      Has some of the strongest penetration levels

●      Versatility of use is offered

●      Not a good choice for use on external objects and structures

●      A bad choice for items that see frequent use or areas with high traffic volumes

●      No VOCs contained in the pure versions

●      Best suited for use indoors

●      Requires frequent maintenance

●      Rot, insects, abrasion, splitting, and moisture absorption are limitedly protected against

Alkyd Varnish●      Suitable for use indoors as well as outside

●      The protection from UV light-induced degradation is superior to that of other varnishes 

●      Moisture and water protected against to a high degree

●      Coloring options accommodate for both darker and lighter shades to suit your preferences

●      Very versatile

●      Protects wood from different climatic conditions, and the shifting between them

Lacquer Varnish●      Not necessarily a true varnish

●      Contains VOCs

●      Typical brush application works but there is an aerosol version available for easier application

●      Dries very fast

●      Uses a solvent-based formula

●      The solution is much thinner than most varnishes

●      Uses acetone (nail polish remover) as the base

●      Easy to apply and just as easy to remove

So, there you have it; these are the most commonly found and used varnishes you ought to come by in your lifetime. While we have just run through the key attributes of all of them, we are going to take a step further by further detailing each one specifically.


Spirit-Based Varnish

If you have ever heard of French polish, you might also know that it can also be called spirit-based varnish. This varnish is most popularly used to treat and protect wooden furniture. Apart from decor, we have been using French polish for all sorts of wooden tools and objects for many centuries now. For the same reasons as way back then, we use French polish to not only elevate the beauty of wooden workpieces but also to protect them from damage caused by the surrounding environment. For the most part, the varnishes we make use of today will most likely contain a mixture of ingredients in which synthetic components will be present. French polish, on the other hand, is derived from the excretions of a certain phylum of beetle.

In spite of its namesake, however, the beetles relied upon for the production of French polish are actually found in South-East Asia. To create French polish, the flaky secretions of these beetles are collected and then diluted in an alcohol vehicle (hence its other name). The resultant mixture will then be a reliable tool and means to varnish wood in a way that provides good protection and the improvement of aesthetic qualities.

Spirit-based varnish is very commonly conflated with another varnish called shellac. While they may appear quite similar, the differences in their textures and consistencies are easy to see. While shellac can be rather thick in its viscous form, the spirit-based varnish is runnier. While spirit-based varnish is a thin liquid, shellac is noticeably waxy in texture. It is not uncommon, however, for spirit-based varnish to be applied as a primer for other varnishes like shellac. This method of priming wooden surfaces with French polish is especially popular in the production of musical instruments such as violins and acoustic guitars.


The popularity of French polish among instrument crafters comes on account of its finish, the qualities of which allow for the retention of a surface’s texture and grain visibility. This is all thanks to how thin the varnish is, but it is not without its drawbacks. For starters, being so thin makes it ineffective when it comes to protecting wood from environmental factors. UV rays and moisture, for example, are natural forces far too formidable for the likes of French polish to contend with – hence why it is often used as a primer.


  • Provides a defensive layer
  • Offers a great deal of versatility
  • An effective choice for improving the aesthetic qualities of wood
  • Can be used as a primer for other varnishes
  • The base is composed of natural ingredients
  • The wood retains its texture and grain


  • Should not be used outdoors
  • Very susceptible to abrasion and impact 
  • Quick to crack
  • Provides little to no UV protection


Acrylic-Based Varnish

If you do not know this yet, we are telling you now; varnishes are toxic and dangerous to work with. This is on account of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present within them. Respiratory issues are very commonly experienced among people who work with varnishes without personal protective equipment. This is why you are encouraged to wear a respirator and work with varnishes in ventilated spaces. Acrylic varnish, on the other hand, does not present the same variety of risks. Unlike other varnishes, acrylic varnishes typically do not contain any VOCs. Even when they do, it is to a negligible degree. This makes acrylic varnish a rather popular substitute for harmful varnishing products. Better yet, the safety aspect of acrylic varnish makes it more suitable for interior applications when such is unavoidable.

The primary reason why acrylic varnish is far safer than other options is its vehicle, which, much like acrylic paint, is water. The benefits do not stop with the safety aspect, however, since water can evaporate at a much faster rate than most other vehicles. This means that acrylic varnish also dries faster than most other varnishes.

If you want a fast job with an expedient turnaround time, look no further than here. Since it contains acrylic polymer as the base, it also offers a wealth of protection against damage from the effects of UV lights. This stops the fading of the finish from occurring for a long time. Acrylic varnish leaves a transparent finish when completely dried, meaning that the grain and texture of whatever wood it is applied to will not be obscured. Even then, you can get specific versions of this product that can produce a wide variety of finishes. Besides just the natural grade, you also have the option of acrylic varnishes that produce lighter or darker finishes.

How to Apply Varnish

A major drawback of acrylic varnish, however, is its high viscosity. It is incredibly runny when still in its liquid form, which can make it rather difficult to work with and apply. This would be on account of water being its vehicle. On the other side of the coin, however, its high viscosity and water make it much easier to clean up than other varnishes. Spillage is thus less of an issue to be concerned with when working with acrylic varnish. If you want to know how to varnish wood with the lowest risk of exposure to toxic chemicals and with the easiest post-work cleanup, you now know what to spend your money on. The most prominent problem with acrylic varnish also comes on account of water being its vehicle.

The viscosity of the mixture, when paired with its lack of effectiveness at penetrating wooden surfaces, increases the chance of patchy spots developing during or after application. This patchiness can adversely affect the quality of your finish.


  • Typically does not contain VOCs
  • Water-based formula
  • Spills can be easily cleaned
  • Widely available for purchase at affordable prices
  • Can be used in/on both indoor and outdoor settings/objects
  • Dries very quickly
  • Offers resistance against UV rays
  • Available for purchase in a wide variety of finishes


  • Cannot penetrate layers of wood to a degree that prevents the development of a patchy finish
  • It is not so effective when used on denser types of wood 
  • Cannot compare to the color vibrancy provided by oil-based varnishes


Exterior Varnish

If the name is not enough of a dead giveaway, exterior varnish was designed for use on wooden objects and structures that are located outside. It is clear-coat varnish that can provide wooden surfaces with the degree of robust protection necessary to prevent wood from being damaged by all sorts of exterior environmental factors. UV rays and rain, for example, are thwarted in their tracks by exterior wood varnish. Beyond its functionality, exterior varnish also has the capacity to improve the aesthetics of wood. Should you want varnished wood strong enough to contend with exterior elements, it is hard to go wrong with exterior varnish. It works well as a means to beautify and safeguard exterior furniture in regions with temperamental climates, especially if using paint is an option you would prefer to avoid.

Exterior varnish protects wood against impact, UV light, abrasion, moisture, rain, and insects, and offers a degree of protection against chemical damage. In sum, applying exterior varnish to your wood protects it from damage from external forces, rot, and splitting.

Varnish Protects Exterior Wood

The hydrophobic nature of exterior varnish seals the pores and surface of wood entirely, thus preventing any sort of moisture from penetrating. Regardless of this powerful coating, the seal produced by exterior varnish still allows for the wood to breathe. Otherwise, the deficiency of an oxygen supply would cause the wood to become brittle over the course of time. As we just discussed, exterior varnish protects wood against insects. Additionally to this, exterior varnish also defends your wood against fungal infestations. It achieves this thanks to a mixture of chemicals called fungicides present in the varnish that deters both flora and fauna from making a home on or beneath the wood’s surface. Moss, fungi, termites, and grubs are just a few examples of what exterior varnish can protect against. One major drawback of such a fantastic tool is its slow drying times.


  • Perfectly graded for external use
  • The formula is both durable and flexible
  • Available in various grades to darken or lighten wood
  • Applied in thick layers that produce a great degree of protection against environmental factors
  • Provides strong resistance against UV light
  • Resistant to UV light
  • Hydrophobic – protects wood against rain and moisture
  • Disallows fungi and insects from finding perch on wood
  • Allows the wood to breathe despite its thick layers


  • Does contain VOCs
  • Long drying times
  • The thickness of the varnishing layers impairs the visibility of the grain and texture


Polyurethane-Based Varnish

We would say that polyurethane (PU) varnish is definitely one of the best wood varnish options out there. Being a thermoplastic, it can be extremely robust and durable. If you want to protect your wood from the most aggressive climates, hot or cold, look no further than this product – especially if you are looking to coat areas that experience a high amount of traffic. Much like paint, PU varnish does not enter the pores and seep into the fibers of wood. Instead, it develops a hard external coating layer around the wood. One issue with how PU varnish attaches externally to the surface of wood has to do with its inability to secure a bond with the fibers as well as other varnishes on this list. The best way to prevent this from leading to issues whereby the lack of adhesion leads to the peeling of the varnish is to apply a primer to your wood beforehand. Make sure to do this first if you want to ensure that such issues do not occur.

In terms of the finish achieved by PU varnish, this can be entirely up to your discretion. For the most part, you have three typical options of varnish to choose between. These are matte, satin, and gloss. There are, however, many more options to pick from.

Wood Varnish

As aforementioned, the best thing about PU varnish is the fact that it offers an incredibly durable layer of protection. Abrasion, impact moisture, acids, and heat are all firmly protected against by PU varnish. But, nothing is perfect and you can expect PU varnish to supply a very limited degree of protection against UV rays. If you like the sound of PU varnish but would prefer to account for protection against UVs, you can always apply the varnish in thicker coatings. This way, your wood would see enough protection against any direct sunlight exposure.


  • Offers direct durability
  • Suitably robust enough for external applications
  • Using it is easy
  • Can protect the surfaces of high-traffic areas pretty well
  • Protects wood against heat, moisture, impact, abrasion, and acids
  • Available in a wide array of finishes


  • In order to achieve a firm adhesive bond, wood must be primed first before application
  • Does not form firm bonds with the fibers of wood
  • Not much protection from UV rays on offer here
  • Both the grain and the texture of wood are obscured by this varnish


Yacht Varnish

Now here is a varnish that is not only extremely durable but also clear enough to not block out the grain of the wood beneath. That being said, there are few to no other applications that yacht varnish would be suitable for besides its primary purpose. Yacht varnish can also be defined as spar varnish and is designed specifically for use of seafaring vessels. Originally, yacht varnish was popularized as a means to fortify the hulls and the big spars of wooden boats – the tall poles on which the sails rest.  The reason being for its popularity in this field has to do with how its durability is partnered with a fair degree of flexibility. If you can imagine for a second how much a ship’s mast bends when the sails catch the wind, you can see the value in this aspect of the product.

Yacht varnish, for all its merits, did not have a very aesthetically flattering start. Besides being flexible enough to not crack on the surface of bending masts, it was designed to safeguard wood from sand, sea salt, moisture, winds, and water. Functionality, at this point in time, was prioritized more so than beauty.

Today, though, yacht varnish has evolved beyond the purely functional, instead being available in a wide variety of finishing sheens and colorways. To this day, seafarers from all over the globe use yacht varnish to not only protect their vessels but also to ensure that they look the part. Much like how sunscreen protects human skin from UV damage caused by the sun, yacht varnish also protects wood from the damage that UV rays can potentially cause to the wooden components of sea vessels. With sea vessels being exposed to so much sunlight, it should come as no surprise that yacht varnish supplies a superior degree of UV protection.

How to Varnish Wood

Drawing back to our opening statement regarding yacht varnish, however, it is imperative that you consider the disadvantages and benefits before using it. First and foremost, yacht varnish is perhaps the most niche option on this list and you will be hard-pressed to find a suitable use for it outside of boats and ships. If you are looking for a durable varnish to use on wooden objects situated on dry land, we keenly suggest that you use something else like exterior varnish instead. 


  • Superiorly durable
  • Excellent choice for seafaring vessels exposed to large sums of water
  • Clear varnish that does not obscure wood grain
  • Durable enough to resist against heat, cold, impact, and abrasion
  • Despite its high durability, it remains flexible
  • Superiorly resistant to UV light
  • Protects against all forms of moisture
  • Provides a glossy and smooth protective coating
  • The best varnish for boats, ships, and everything in between


  • Very costly
  • Not recommended for uses beyond its intended purpose
  • Contains a lot of VOCs


Oil-Based Varnish

This is one of the oldest forms of wood varnish out there. It makes perfect sense why oils would be used for this purpose. Firstly, oil does not mix with water – its hydrophobia protects the surface and interior fibers of wood from moisture and water. Secondly, oil has immense beautifying potential. If you are wondering what varnish is made of in terms of the oil-based variety, the answers may vary but linseed is a popularly used example thereof. For the most part, we source the oils in these varnishes from nature. The operative term for oil-based varnishes is “drying oils”. The concept and methodology of this varnish were first discovered and popularized in Asia. Initially, fishermen made use of drying oils to offer some sort of protection against water in their wooden boats. It did not take too long for the technique to travel across the ocean to the rest of the world who still makes use of drying oils in modern times.

Some woodworking puritans, however, would keenly disagree that drying oils actually qualify as a variety of varnish. This would be because other varnishes contain a solvent, something that drying oils do not contain. Nevertheless, we can still describe them as such. If you are one such puritan, however, you may rather choose to define drying oils as a type of wood treatment product. And if you are such a person, your point of view would be supported by the fact that drying oils do not compare with most other varnishes when it comes to the provision of a durable protective layer.

But this is not why we use drying oils as wood varnish. If you are willing to forgo the utility afforded by other varnishes, you may come to find that oil varnishes present you with an immense amount of beautification potential. A quick example of this would be the sheer amount of color options at your disposal. Ideally, you would want to use drying oils on interior wooden items such as furniture and decor, provided that whatever the object may be rests in a fixed position for the most part. But why are they called drying oils? Well, the oils of these varnishes dry after seeping into the surface of the wood where it dries and bonds with the fibers of said wood. Through a process that we refer to as oxidation, the oil sets on the wood as it dries out. You can even use drying oils to seal a number of household items, tools, objects, and surfaces, a common example of which would be linoleum flooring.

How to Apply Wood Varnish

The art of how to varnish wood using oils is an ancient craft dating back centuries. Timeless as it is, however, it simply cannot compete with the efficacy of the varnishes of modernity. If you plan on varnishing something with oil, you should expect to be reapplying and also maintaining the finish on a steady basis. While the results of this varnish are truly marvelous, it does often require a fair degree of upkeep. For many, however, the effort of maintaining an unblemished and smooth surface is more than worth it. Keep in mind that the purer the oil varnish you choose to use, the sooner you would need to go about maintaining the surfaces of your wood. The pure oil-based varnish offers a negligible degree of protection from any sort of damage.


Alkyd-Based Varnish

While we may struggle to define alkyd-based varnishes, this is only because it is a key ingredient present in at least a few if not most versions of any of the aforementioned varnishes. Using vegetables and the oils they produce, alkyd finds its way into so many types of varnish that it has truly earned its classification as its very own type of varnish. So, what is the reason behind its popularity? First of all, alkyd has properties that lend to an increased degree of durability. Better yet, the addition of alkyd to any varnish will also speed up the rate at which it dries on the surface of your wood, which is a great way of expediting a varnishing project. Much like oil-based varnishes, alkyd also leaves both the textures and grains of all sorts of wood unobstructed with a clear finish that only accentuates the aesthetic properties of your workpieces.

Alkyd’s primary advantage, though, is its supplementation of additional protection against seasonal and day/night temperature changes and UV rays. Practically any varnish designed for exterior use that would be worth your money should contain alkyd, so be sure to look out for it on the ingredients list when shopping for such products.

When it comes to protecting your wooden workpieces against substantial exposure to sunlight, alkyd should be a key component of the mixture. Alkyd-based varnishes are extremely popularly used on wooden objects located near swimming pools (such as decks and deck chairs) on account of their excellent degree of durability against moisture and condensation. These are not the only advantages afforded to users of alkyd varnish, however, because another terrific benefit of it is that it comes in a wide variety of color options as well, and more than enough for you to find exactly what you are looking for. The same goes for the number of finishes on offer with this varnish. The great thing about alkyd is that since the vast majority of its ingredients are derived from vegetable oils, changing the ratios thereof is an easy way to produce a wide net of different aesthetic options to choose from. Alkyd is thus versatile enough to offer you products that can either darken, lighten, or sharpen the tones of your wood as well.

Varnishing Wood Pieces

When it comes to alkyd varnish, versatility and utility are the names of the game. Should then come as no surprise that it is so popular as an additive substrate in many of the best varnishes, whether they be for interior or exterior use.


  • Simple application process
  • One of the most versatile varnishes on the market
  • Offers resistance against moisture and condensation
  • Offers resistance against UV exposure
  • Impact and abrasion are protected against
  • Boasts expedient curing and drying times
  • A popular addition to other varnishing types to better their resilience and beauty
  • Offers a wide array of colors, tones, and finishes


  • Some versions do contain VOCs
  • Not as durable as other exterior varnishes



Defining lacquer as a varnish can be a divisive decision, especially for any varnish puritans who have managed to reach this far down in the list. However, their functions are incredibly similar. You could instead call lacquer simply another form of wood treatment. One of the arguments as to why lacquer does not fit the brief concerns its ease of use. We cannot stress enough how simple the application process of lacquer can be, and this is doubly true of the aerosol versions that can be applied directly to the surface of the wood in a similar fashion to spray paint.

A key advantage that typical varnishes are able to laud off the head of lacquer is their superior provision of protection against UV exposure. Nevertheless, lacquer can still protect wood from impact, acids, alkalis, cracks, moisture, and abrasion. One of the biggest drawbacks of lacquer, though, concerns the fact that it can develop an unflattering, yellowish tinge after a while as it begins to degrade and discolor. Another shortcoming of lacquer is its proclivity towards developing scratches rather easily.

It is not all bad news, however, as lacquer actually sports quite a few advantages of its own. For example, it is not only easy to apply but is also just as easy to maintain or, if necessary, to remove. If you find that a particular lacquer that you have used on a wooden workpiece just is not gelling with what you had in mind, at the very least it would not take too much effort or energy to remove and revert to its prior unvarnished state. But, how easy is it to remove lacquer, and how would one go about it? Well, we have good news for those of you who love to manicure your nails because all it takes is a little bit of acetone on a cloth and it should come right off – sometimes maybe with a little bit of elbow grease. If you want to go a step further, you can even purchase lacquer thinners to make things a little easier for yourself.

Another great benefit of lacquer pertains to its price point, which cannot be trumped in the slightest by most modern medium and heavy-duty varnishes. Just be sure to apply lacquer outdoors if you choose to use it since it contains a high volume of VOCs.

What Is Varnish Made Of


  • Its ease of use is superior to all other varnishes on this list
  • Solid wood and engineered wood can have lacquer applied to them
  • The surface coating it provides is resilient
  • Does not obscure the grain and texture of your wood
  • Can be found in a spray-on aerosol form that offers even more ease of use
  • Totally resistant to moisture
  • Protects wood against mold, impact, and abrasion
  • Super easy to remove
  • Boasts quick curing and drying times


  • Contains a fair degree of VOCs 
  • Surface layer is easy to damage and prone to becoming brittle
  • Durability does not compare to other varnishes


If you have made it this far into the article, we truly commend your effort and attention span. More so, we hope beyond all else that you have found some useful information herein. By now, you should know what varnish is, its history, the basics of how to varnish wood, and some of its most popular varieties. If you are reading this article to prepare yourself for an upcoming varnishing product, we hope that this has steered you in the right direction. Now, venture forth and knock it out of the park!




Frequently Asked Questions


Do Varnishes Come in Different Colors?

They most definitely do. You can very easily find access to a wealth of varnish mixtures designed to change the color of your wood when applied to the surface. You can stain or dye your wood into hundreds of different colors, tones, and finishes based on your preferences. Oil-based and alkyd-based varnishes tend to offer the widest variety of color options.


What Is Varnish?

Varnish can be described most simply as a resin or resinous substance that can be applied to a surface in liquid form. It will then cure, dry, harden, and adhere to said surface to provide it with a degree of protection against damage that could be caused by the surrounding environment, or simply to improve its aesthetic qualities.


What Does Varnish Do?

Varnish is applied as a finish to wooden workpieces, either for protection against damage that could potentially be caused by external factors (such as UV rays), or for the improvement of the wood’s aesthetic properties. For the most part, varnishes will typically serve to achieve both of these.


What Is Varnish Made Of?

Varnishes are composed of a resinous material or a combination of several such materials. These resins will also be mixed with drying oils and drying agents. One thing to look out for with varnishes is whether or not they contain any volatile organic solvents (VOCs). Most varnishes contain VOCs, which can cause several health risks. This is why you are encouraged to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when working with varnishes.


What Personal Protective Equipment Should One Wear When Working With Varnish?

While there are some varnishes, such as several varieties of drying oils, that do not contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs); most varnishes do. This is why we keenly encourage you to use personal protective equipment such as synthetic gloves, a respirator,  and eye goggles when working with most varnishes. 


What Is Varnish Used For?

Varnish is used on the surfaces of materials such as wood to protect said surface from damage that could be caused by elements within its environment. This includes, but is not exclusive to, sun damage from UV rays, impact, abrasion, cold, heat, alkali, mold, insects, and moisture. The type of varnish used will also determine which assortment of durability benefits are afforded to the surface. Secondly, varnish can also improve the aesthetic qualities of wood. Varnishes can alter the color, texture, and shade of wood, depending on the varnish and the type of wood in question.


How Does Varnish Dry?

After being applied, the solvent will evaporate as it makes contact with the open air. The components of the varnish that remain on the surface of your wood after the evaporation of the solvent will undergo either polymerization or oxidization, during which time they will dry out and form a protective layer of film. This layer varies in transparency and opacity, depending on the type of varnish you choose to use and the wood you decide to work on.


What Are the Most Popular Uses of Varnish?

Among the most popular uses of varnish is to coat wooden workpieces with a protective layer of hard resin that defends the surface against an array of environmental factors. The less thick and more transparent forms of varnish are also applied to art pieces like paintings and their canvases to preserve artwork for a much longer time. Additionally, varnishes are frequently used to preserve or improve the aesthetic qualities of wood.

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