Varnish vs. Stain Comparison Guide

Learn the key differences between varnish and stain

Person staining wood furniture

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Varnish and stain are both suitable options to finish a woodworking project, though there are significant differences between these products that should be considered before opting for one or the other. One of the most important steps in completing a woodworking project is to apply a finish to the wood to protect it against water, UV radiation, heat, and abrasive damage.

Varnish is typically used as a final coat that dries on top of the wood, creating a physical barrier around the wood fiber. This prevents water and UV radiation from penetrating to the wood, and also helps absorb any abrasion or impact damage. Stain is somewhat similar, in that it also creates a protective layer that helps resist moisture, UV radiation, and physical damage.

However, stain is absorbed into the wood fibers, instead of drying on top of the wood. While this can give the wood a much richer appearance, especially when used with an attractive color, it isn't as effective at protecting the wood as varnish. Use this varnish vs. stain comparison guide to learn more about the differences between varnish and stain.

Varnish vs. Stain: Major Differences

Deciding on varnish or stain for your next woodworking project can get confusing if you don't understand the main differences between these products. You should consider the appearance, resistances, cleaning requirements, durability levels, cost, lifespan, and any care or maintenance requirements before selecting the right topcoat finish for your project.

Stain is typically considered the better choice for appearance because it comes in a range of colors and opacities, while varnish is generally transparent. Both stain and varnish are effective at improving the water-, heat-, and UV-resistance of the wood, but varnish has a higher level of durability, allowing it to help prevent physical damage to the material.

The barrier created by varnish also makes it easier to keep clean because the varnish fills and covers any open pores in the wood. If cost is a main consideration, then stain is the more affordable choice. However, regardless of whether you use varnish or stain, you will need to reapply your topcoat of choice about once every three to five years.

   Varnish Stain 
Appearance Transparent finish that may have a slight yellow tint in oil-based products Transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque options in a range of colors 
Water and Heat Resistance  High level of water resistance and moderate heat resistance  Effective at resisting moisture, UV radiation, and heat 
Care and Cleaning  Wood sealed with varnish is easy to keep clean with a mild detergent and warm water Wood sealed with stain remains porous, making it more susceptible to dirt, grime, and staining 
Durability and Maintenance  Creates a physical barrier around the wood, preventing abrasive and impact damage Stain seeps into the wood, leaving the surface of the material vulnerable to physical damage 
Cost   $50 to $60 per gallon $40 to $50 per gallon
Lifespan   Three to five years Three to five years 


Varnish is essentially a clear topcoat that is typically used to finish a woodworking project. Water-based varnish dries completely transparent, allowing the natural grain of the wood to show through. Oil-based varnish may have a slight yellow tinge to the color after it dries, so if this isn't appealing, you may want to consider a stain or a water-based varnish.

Stains seep into the wood, bringing out the natural grain pattern. You can find completely transparent stains if you want the wood grain to show through. Semi-transparent and opaque stains are also available in a wide range of colors, giving you the option to customize the color and appearance of the project.

Best for Appearance: Stain

Varnish is generally transparent or may have a slight yellowish tinge. With the wide variety of colors and opacity options, stain is the better choice for appearance.

Water and Heat Resistance

Wood is vulnerable to water, heat, and UV radiation due to the fibrous, porous nature of the material. When you apply stain to a woodworking project, it seeps into the fibers of the wood, creating a barrier against mold, mildew, rot, and moisture damage. This barrier also helps prevent the wood from drying out under direct sunlight, and offers mild protection against heat.

Varnish doesn't seep into the fibers of the wood. Instead, it sits on top of the wood, essentially encapsulating the entirety of the woodworking project. This method is just as effective at preventing moisture, heat, and UV radiation from damaging the wood as stain. Though, varnish does offer better protection against physical damage.

Best for Water and Heat Resistance: Tie

Both varnish and stain are equally effective options for increasing the water-, UV-, and heat-resistance of a woodworking project.

Care and Cleaning

One of the main benefits to using a protective stain or top-coat on your woodworking projects is to prevent damage to the wood. A stain will seep into the wood fibers where it can protect the wood against moisture, UV radiation, and staining. However, the wood remains porous and vulnerable to dirt, grime, and light staining.

When you apply varnish, it sits on top of the wood, instead of seeping into the wood fibers, creating a physical barrier that moisture cannot penetrate. This method of finishing a woodworking project is more effective at preventing staining and physical damage. It also makes it much easier to keep the wood clean with a mild detergent and warm water.

Best for Care and Cleaning: Varnish

Stain can create a barrier to help prevent moisture damage and staining, but the protective layer made by applying varnish completely coats the wood, preventing moisture and stains from even reaching the wood fibers.

Durability and Maintenance

Varnish and stain are designed to create a protective coat to keep the wood safe from moisture, heat, UV radiation, and physical damage. With this in mind, durability and maintenance are key factors to consider when you are trying to decide between varnish vs stain. Varnish tends to offer a higher degree of durability because it fully encapsulates the wood, preventing abrasive and impact damage from scratching or chipping the material.

Stain seeps into the fibers of the wood where it can prevent moisture and UV radiation from damaging the material. However, stain is not effective for stopping physical damage to the wood. Additionally, wood products treated with varnish are generally easier to maintain because the varnish fills and covers any open pores in the wood.

Best for Durability and Maintenance: Varnish

Stain is an effective option for moisture- and UV-resistance, but varnish has superior durability, allowing it to handle moisture, UV-radiation, heat, and physical damage.


When you are putting together a budget for your next woodworking or renovation project, consider the cost difference between varnish and stain before deciding on which option would be best for the job. Typically, a gallon of top coat finish will cost about $20 to $55 per gallon, though the price varies depending on the type of top coat finish.

A gallon of varnish will generally cost about $10 to $20 more than a gallon of stain, though it's necessary to note that stain can be purchased in a wider variety of volumes. This means that while you may pay $50 to $60 for a gallon of varnish, you could invest $200 for a five gallon bucket of stain. Consider the size of the project before pricing out varnish or stain quantities.

Best for Cost: Stain

There is a slight difference in cost between varnish and stain, so if the affordability is the deciding factor, then stain is the better option to complete your project.


After applying varnish or stain to a woodworking project the wood will have a certain degree of protection against rot, mold, mildew, moisture, heat, UV radiation, abrasive damage, and impact damage. However, the varnish or stain coat is not an impenetrable barrier. Semi-frequent exposure to moisture, UV radiation, heat, or physical damage will gradually wear down the effectiveness of the finish, which is why both varnish and wood stain should be reapplied about once every three to five years.

Best for Lifespan: Tie

Varnish and stain have a similar lifespan that typically lasts for about three to five years. After this point, it's recommended to reapply the finish to ensure the wood remains protected.

The Verdict

When it comes time to choose between a varnish and a stain to complete your woodworking project, you need to consider the benefits each product can offer. If you are looking for superior stain resistance, durability, and ease of use, then varnish is the right choice. However, if your project requires a higher level of moisture protection, or you simply want to color the wood without losing the natural grain, then stain is a better option.

Additionally, it's important to mention that you can use both varnish and stain on the same project. Apply the stain and allow it to dry and fully cure before applying the first coat of varnish. Most manufacturers recommend waiting about 12 to 24 hours before applying a topcoat to stain. Also, make sure that the fist coat is applied lightly, without repeated brushing or rolling.

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