Adding a finish like wood varnish is essential for improving the durability of any wood piece.

It seems simple, right? Just paint it on.

Not so fast, there are a few things you should know about how to varnish wood (and how to remove varnish from wood) before popping open that can.

How do you know you’ve selected the right finish for the job?

Polyurethane, shellac, varnish, and lacquer are all very different substances that you shouldn’t use interchangeably.

Here’s everything you should know about finishing or staining wood items.

Best Selling Wood Varnish

Bestseller No. 1
Howard Products RF1016 Restor-A-Finish, 16 oz, Neutral
  • Restor-A-Finish is a unique finish-penetrating formula that restores wood finishes while blending...
  • Available in nine colors to match almost any wood finish tone; Neutral, Maple-Pine, Golden Oak,...
Bestseller No. 2
Rust-Oleum 207008 Marine Spar Varnish 1-Quart
  • Ideal for use on exterior wood surfaces above the water line, including trim, railings and wood...
  • Oil-based formula expands and contracts with changing weather conditions
Bestseller No. 3
Howard Products FW0016 Feed-N-Wax Wood Polish and Conditioner, Beeswax &, 16 oz,...
  • Polishes all wood surfaces to a soft luster with a protective coating of Carnauba Wax and Beeswax
  • Introduces conditioning oils that "feed" the wood and helps keep it from drying and fading

What’s the Difference Between Polyurethane, Shellac, Varnish, and Lacquer?

Many woodworkers and lay people alike use these substances interchangeably – this is a big mistake.

Polyurethane

For all intents and purposes, polyurethane is liquid plastic.

Pros:

  • Several finish choices including satin and glossy
  • Water-based options dry quickly
  • Water-based options are minimally toxic
  • Great for indoor items

Cons:

  • Doesn’t fare well against high temperatures or chemicals
  • Not good for outdoor items or kitchen tables
Rust-Oleum 207008 Marine Spar Varnish 1-Quart
  • Ideal for use on exterior wood surfaces above the water line, including trim, railings and wood furniture
  • Oil-based formula expands and contracts with changing weather conditions
  • Dries to the touch in 2 hours and covers up to 150 sq ft

Shellac

Believe it or not, shellac is naturally derived from the female lac bug.

Pros:

  • Naturally derived
  • Very safe when dry
  • Great for fine furniture

Cons:

  • Doesn’t hold up to heat or chemicals
  • Not good for outdoor items or kitchen tables
Rust-Oleum Zinsser 304H 1-Quart Bulls Eye Clear Shellac
  • This product adds a great value
  • 1 quart
  • Seals, preserves wood, art, Statuary & metal

Wood Varnish

This type of finish is extremely durable because it’s very viscous and soaks into the wood.

Pros:

  • UV protection
  • Holds up against water
  • Great for outdoor items

Cons:

  • Tends to yellow over time
  • Bubbles can dry in the finish
Rust-Oleum 207008 Marine Spar Varnish 1-Quart
  • Ideal for use on exterior wood surfaces above the water line, including trim, railings and wood furniture
  • Oil-based formula expands and contracts with changing weather conditions
  • Dries to the touch in 2 hours and covers up to 150 sq ft

Lacquer

Lacquer is an excellent choice for both indoor and outdoor items because it’s very resistant.

Pros:

  • Very smooth
  • Extremely durable
  • Available in many colors
  • Suitable for outdoor items

Cons:

  • Vulnerable to scratches
  • Can discolor over time
  • Application requires a high-volume low-pressure (HVLP) spraying device
Deft Interior Clear Wood Finish Satin Brushing Lacquer, Quart
  • Easy to application provide professional results
  • This crystal clear lacquer is non-yellowing
  • Seals and finishes interior wood furniture, cabinets, paneling, bar tops, and crafts

How to Varnish Wood

Before jumping into how to varnish wood, it’s important to talk about preparation.

Preparation:

  1. Find a well-ventilated and clean area without dust or dirt. A fan or open window is fine.
  2. Consider your lighting and humidity. Go for bright lamps or natural light and a room temperature between 70° and 80° for optimal drying.
  3. Wear proper attire.
  4. Remove the old finish with either sandpaper, paint thinner, or paint stripper. This step is optional.
  5. Sand the wood to ensure optimal varnish coverage.
  6. Clean the wood and workspace with a damp rag. Let it air dry.
  7. Fill any gaps in the grain (if desired).

Application:

  1. Thin some of the wood varnish for the first coat to ensure absorption. Use either turpentine (for oil-based varnish) or water (for water or acrylic-based varnish).
  2. Use a paint brush or foam piece to apply the first coat. Stroke in the direction of the wood grain.
  3. Let it dry for 24 hours.
  4. Rub the first coat with sandpaper and wipe away the dust with a damp rag.
  5. Use a clean brush to apply the second coat – full strength this time.
  6. Let the second coat dry for 24 hours.
  7. Rub the second coat with a fine-grit sandpaper and wipe away the dust.
  8. Continue the varnish, sanding, and drying cycle another two or three times. Use sandpaper with a finer grain each time but don’t sand the final coat.
  9. Let it cure. This could take anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days depending on the variety of varnish.
  10. Enjoy!

How to Remove Varnish from Wood

As for how to remove varnish from wood, you have a few options that will safely remove the varnish without damaging the item itself.

  • Sanding
  • Chemical-free heat guns
  • Liquid and gel strippers or thinners

When using liquid or gel chemicals, make sure to work in a well-ventilated area. After soaking for a short period of time, scrape the wood piece with a paint scraper or stiff scrub brush. Keep a damp rag handy and don’t let the stripper dry into the wood.

Citristrip QCSG801 Paint & Varnish Stripping Gel
  • Size: 1 Quart
  • Citrus scent; no harsh fumes
  • Contains no methylene chloride, is non-caustic and ideal for indoor use

How to Stain Wood

For staining wood, follow the same procedure from the wood varnishing steps.

However, there are a few caveats:

  • No need to sand in between coats
  • You should wipe or stroke both with and against the wood grain
  • It’s important to apply a finish like varnish after you’re done staining the wood.

Selecting Your Finish

It’s all about how you plan on using your wood piece.

Will it be stationed outdoors? Will you set hot dishes or drinking glasses on top? (Everyone forgets a coaster sometimes.)

Each finish comes with its own set of pros and cons. Aside from lacquer, most finishes are relatively easy to apply with minimal experience and tools.

Now you just need to decide what works best for showing off your fabulous carpentry.

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