difference between stain and varnish
Kristina Davis

Eager to know the difference between stain and varnish for your next project? Don’t worry, I was as confused as you – if not, I was more confused.

After dedicating time, I understood it more and better. So, in this guide, I will give you the complete details on what the difference is between varnish and a wood stain.

Wood varnish is far from what wood stain is. Varnishing is the process of coating the top layer of the wood, acting like a protective layer or barrier from water, dirt, and other external resources.

Wood staining, on the other hand, is a type of process designed only to modify the wood’s color.

Unless you have woodworking experience, it would be confusing and difficult to understand.

So, in finding the difference between varnish and stain, let me discuss what both are first.

What is a Wood Stain?

wood stain

A wood stain is a classification of paint that is used purposely to color the wood. Its aim is to modify and alter the natural color of the wood while preserving the grains.

Wood stains are typically absorbed by the wood and their contents are dissolved into the wood progressively and offer little-to-no protection.

You’ll find a lot of colors for wood stain, the most common and favorite of people include walnut, chestnut, ebony, and honey maple.

What is a Wood Varnish?

Wood varnish, on the other hand, is a type of finishing that adds durability, strength, and longevity to the wood through a protective outer layer.

a wood varnish

Its main purpose is to keep the wood from being damaged by water. It seals and protects the wood from scratches, water damage, and even hard abrasion.

It offers a pleasant and presentable appearance, but the reason why woodworkers varnish wood is to seal and protect them from external influences.

Note: They have different intentions and uses. They’re not used for the same purpose – one is for the modification of wood, while the other just acts as a protective external barrier.

That being said, what’s the difference between varnish and stain? Let me go over their major differences.

What is the Difference Between Stain and Varnish?

Both are great finishes for wood because they can make the wood more elegant-looking, sophisticated, and even well-treated.

difference between stained and varnished

However, the difference between varnish and stain is quite evident, especially in terms of how they are engineered physically.

Let me discuss the most important points for you to understand their distinctions better.

Material Appearance

You can grow confused with their consistencies, but I’m sure that you wouldn’t find it troublesome to identify the results they give.

Wood stains create a thinner film when applied to the surface of the wood. Varnish is thicker and is more noticeable.

And yes, this is regardless of how thick the stain or the varnish is.


the characteristics

Another thing you want to take note of to understand their differences is their characteristics. I listed down each of their primary characteristics to help you identify them better and easier.

Wood Stain Characteristics
  • They seal the pores by penetrating the wood grain.
  • Its protection from ultraviolet rays, not from dust, water, and scratches
  • It blocks the natural pores of the wood
  • It seals the moisture that can damage it
Wood Varnish Characteristics 
  • It cures the wood into a harder finish
  • Improves the wood’s aesthetics through strength
  • Helps protect the wood from moisture, dust, grime, and dirt
  • Transforms the surface to an anti-scratch surface

Use and Purpose

Of course, the uses and applications of wood stains from varnishes differ. This is practically the most obvious distinction these products have.

the use and purpose

The purpose of wood stain is to alter the color of the wood’s natural surface. In addition to that, it also preserves the wood grain and at the same time, it gives it a different color.

Varnish, on the contrary, is used as a protective layer or coating on the surface of the wood or other type of material it’s compatible with.

It protects the material from water, chipping, dust, as well as easy scratches that could be made on the surface.

NOTE: Don’t be confused, though, because you’ll find wood varnishes in varying colors and shades, too.


Many people think that applying them is the same, but no, that’s not the case.

Also basing it on my experience, I found it more challenging to apply wood varnish because varnish is a top clear coat.

This is because you’ll still notice the imperfections on the varnish even after you apply it.

Oftentimes, you’ll have to sand, degrease, and clean the wood first before varnishing it.

Stain, on the flip side, is a lot easier because you will only need to perform light sanding to prepare it.

Indoor and Outdoor Usage

outdoor and indoor usage

Wood stains, no matter how careful you are with them, will only be ideal for indoor or interior use.

Since they’re not that durable and are only used for aesthetic purposes, you can’t rely on them for strength.

Wood varnish, on the contrary, can be used for both indoor and outdoor applications. They’re strong, sturdy, and durable.

Furthermore, they’re designed to protect the wood from any external impact like rain, snow, and force.


Varnish is a product that boasts durability because of the thick film that it has used to prevent water, scratches, and dust from penetrating.

Wood stains are durable, but not as durable as varnishes because they’re not designed for that purpose.

Generally, stained wood that remains unsealed will usually just last a maximum of 5 years, whereas varnished wood can last up to a decade.

These are the primary differences between wood stains and wood varnishes. I was able to learn and understand it in this way easier, better, and more conveniently.

Can You Varnish Stained Wood?

can varnish stained wood

Yes, it is possible to apply wood varnish on stained wood. This gives the wooden furniture better protection against all unwanted occurrences like oxidation, scratching, and even tough abrasion.

I always finish off my wooden furnishings with a varnish regardless of whether they’re stained or not. I always like the idea of protecting the surface of all wooden items I have with a varnish.

One thing to take note of is to do this with care. Avoid overworking the varnish by brushing it too vigorously because it can tamper with the stain.

Is Varnishing Better Than Staining?

The better material to use will depend on what purpose you have for your furniture.

If you’re looking to beautify the wooden piece you have by transforming it into a different color, go for a wood stain.

varnishing better than staining

However, if you want to protect your wood under any type of circumstance that could damage it, go for a varnish.

It’s difficult to choose, especially if you want to go for both, and that is why I always finish my wooden piece by varnishing them.

You can make your wooden furniture look better and more beautiful, and at the same time, you’re protecting it from water, dust, scratches, UV rays, and all other types of damage.

Are There Colored Wood Varnishes?

Yes, there are. Although people always think of wood varnish as a clear coat, you can purchase pigmented varnishes for your wood.

However, don’t expect them to be as effective and as contrasting as wood stains because they’re only situated at the surface or the outermost part of the wood.



In case you think you need more information, here are a few of the most asked questions about wood stains and wood varnishes.

Is Wood Stain Applied First Before Varnishing?

Yes, you should always apply the wood stain before the varnish. However, there are varnish products where the wood stain is already mixed with it.

Do I Need to Varnish After Staining?

It’s not required to perform varnishing after applying wood stain on your wood.

However, it would be good to do so because it will be kept protected and more secured from liquid, food, dust, and scratches.

Can You Stain and Varnish the Same Day?

Generally, woodworking experts advise waiting up to 48 hours for the wood stain to dry before applying varnish.

The wood could still be in the process of soaking up the stain, so it will be best to wait it out to avoid problems.

Final Thoughts

Fully understanding the difference between stain and varnish is something you should know to avoid incorrect finishes and applications on your wooden furniture.

Make sure that you find out what wood stains are from wood varnishes and maximize the lifespan, aesthetics, and overall impact of your wooden piece inside and outside your home!