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How To Choose The Right Wood Varnish For DIY Projects

After days of hard labor in the garage—and a couple of nicks on your hands—it’s finally finished. The most beautiful wooden side table you’ve ever laid eyes on. What you need is a high-quality wood varnish to keep that cute little side table in great condition for years to come. Join us as we delve into the world of wood varnish. We’ll get you familiar with the basics, discuss a few factors you should keep in mind, and introduce you to our top five wood varnish picks. Let’s get started.

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What to Look for in Wood Varnish

Before we dive into our top wood varnish picks, let’s go over a few factors you should consider before shopping. Keeping these factors in mind will ensure that the varnish you choose falls in line with your needs, preferences, and intended use.

Type

There are several types of wood varnish available on the market today. The one you choose should depend on your project and your budget. Here’s a quick breakdown of the most common wood varnish types:

Acrylic

This may be the most eco-friendly option. Its water-based design ensures a toxin-free varnishing experience and produces far less odor than oil-based varnishes. Acrylic varnish is also known for its versatility—not only can you use it for indoor and outdoor projects, but you can also use it on certain non-wood materials. That said, this type of varnish is normally used to protect acrylic paintings on wood, and this is the best application for it. Depending on your preferences, acrylic may give you the most for your money in terms of safety and quality.

Exterior

Exterior varnishes are designed for use outdoors and can stand up to the elements. They typically feature strong UV-resistance as well as resistance to fungal growth. If you want to ensure your outdoor wood creation lives a long, mold-free life, exterior wood varnish will be your best option.

Interior

Interior varnishes are best suited for indoor use. They don’t possess UV-resistant or waterproofing properties, but they can protect wood against scratches and abrasion. Popular applications of interior varnish include furniture and kitchen countertops.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane varnishes are the preferred option for wood floors. The harder surface they create tends to provide great overall protection from the effects of heavy use. On the downside, they are not UV-resistant—for this reason, polyurethane is better for indoor use.

Yacht (Marine Spar)

This variety of varnish is for use on yachts and boats. It’s specially designed to protect the wood from water exposure and a variety of weather elements. Today, yacht varnishes also include UV-resistant components, making them excellent for use outdoors. In fact, marine spar varnishes are highly popular for use as general outdoor varnishes.

Base

Most wood varnishes are either water-based or oil-based.

Water-Based

These varnishes tend to be more eco-friendly and natural-looking. They also produce less of an odor and don’t cause wood to yellow like oil-based products do.

Oil-Based

These varnishes, while less eco-friendly, tend to offer more protection than water-based varnishes do.

Hardening

In order to protect the wood, varnishes need to harden on the surface after application. You can find products that harden immediately (within hours of application) as well as products that harden over the course of several days.

The environment can also play a role in how quickly the varnish hardens. High temperatures and low humidity levels cause faster hardening, while low temperatures and high humidity will slow down the process.

Protection

There are several protective capabilities you should look for when shopping for a wood varnish. These include:

  • UV-resistance. UV-resistance will protect the wood from harmful UV radiation, which could otherwise cause cracking or fading.
  • This feature will protect the wood from water exposure. Water is known to rot wood quickly, so waterproofing is essential if the product will be used outdoors or in humid conditions.
  • Mold-resistance. In the right conditions, mold can start to grow on wood if it’s not protected. Opting for a mold-resistant varnish will keep the wood looking great and keep it from rotting.
  • Protection against heavy use. Some wood varnishes are harder than others. The harder the varnish is, the better it will protect the wood from heavy use. This is an important feature if you know the product will be used under strenuous conditions. A good example of this is a gymnasium floor.

When determining what kind of protection your woodcraft will require, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will the product be used indoors or outdoors?
  • What will it be used for?
  • What conditions will the product be exposed to?

Color / Finish

Wood varnish generally dries and hardens clear, leaving no noticeable color or finish on the wood. That said, there are some varnishes available that feature color pigments or noticeable finishes—these are useful if you don’t have time to do the staining/painting and varnishing in two different steps.

What About Paints, Stains, Lacquers, and Other Finishes?

In the world of wood, there are so many different terms to remember. While it’s tempting to say that all wood finishes are basically the same, this is simply not the case.

In this article, we’re covering varnishes. A wood varnish is specifically designed to offer the wood a protective layer to shield it against a variety of potential stressors: UV radiation, water exposure, and mold. But there are other wood finishing products out there that are equally useful, but intended for different purposes.

Paint

The primary purpose of paint is to add color to the wood. However, paint actually has several protective properties as well: it can block UV radiation, reduce water damage, and keep wood looking great in the long run.

Stain

Stain is added to wood in order to give its color more depth. It typically makes the wood’s natural color appear darker and more prominent, which can do wonders for the product’s appearance! That said, stain has little to no protective properties and a proper finish needs to be added after staining.

Lacquer

Lacquer provides a smooth and glossy finish, as well as great overall protection. It does tend to be thinner than other finish types, though, so it will degrade over time.

Polyurethane

A polyurethane finish offers both color enhancement and protective properties. You can purchase either water- or oil-based polyurethane finishes, and each type has its pros and cons (similar to the pros and cons of water- vs. oil-based varnish).

Shellac

This all-natural finish is safe and eco-friendly. It’s made using lac bug secretion in conjunction with other natural solvents. It offers decent protection and can greatly enhance the appearance of wood furniture.

The Top 5 Wood Varnishes

Now that you know a little more about wood varnishes, you’re well-equipped to start scouring the market for your ideal product. Browse through our top picks, keeping the key factors in mind to ensure you make the best possible purchase!

A quick note before we dive in: Most of the products on our list are labeled ‘marine spar,’ but their application is not limited to boats. These products feature a range of protective properties that make them ideal for general outdoor use.

1. TotalBoat Gleam Marine Spar Varnish

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This marine spar wood varnish from TotalBoat is what you might call a ‘jack of all trades.’

It’s specially formulated to withstand salt water exposure as well as UV radiation, making it excellent for any type of outdoor wood protection. The strength and durability of its tung oil-phenolic resin makeup also makes it ideal for protecting indoor furniture or other items you plan on keeping inside. It can be applied via brushing, rolling, or spraying, so you can get started with whatever you have on hand.

Short on time? Then you’ll appreciate its quick-drying design which allows you to reapply within one hour. This means you can get three or more varnish coats on in just one day, after which you should wait a mere 48 hours before sanding and applying the finishing coats. You’ll spend much less time finishing your woodcraft with this varnish than you would with many other top products!

You can purchase this varnish in either Gloss or Satin finishes—or both! Satin will give the wood a more natural appeal while the Gloss will lend it an absolutely gorgeous sheen.

Who Should Buy It?

Anyone looking for an affordable, versatile, and high-quality varnish for their indoor and outdoor woodcrafts.

Pros:

  • Dries quickly so you can apply multiple coats in one day
  • Doesn’t require sanding in-between coats
  • Excellent for both indoor and outdoor use
  • Specially designed to withstand salt water and UV radiation

Cons:

  • May not dry and harden as smoothly as other varnishes (due to drying quickly)

2. Epifanes Clear Varnish

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Produced in Holland, this varnish from world-renowned brand Epifanes is a top-notch product with a lot to offer.

Whatever woodworking or furniture-upgrading plans you have, rest assured that this clear varnish can handle it. From finishing that shed you started building last month to getting that old coffee table looking good as new, this varnish is designed to tackle a range of jobs! You can use it on both hardwoods and softwoods, and for both indoor and outdoor projects.

Composed of a tung oil, phenolic resin, and alkyd resin mixture, this varnish is tough as nails when it comes to protecting wood. While it takes longer to dry and harden than many other varnishes on the market, the wait is more than worth it for the protection and longevity you get. It protects against UV radiation and offers salt water protection, making it ideal for any type of outdoor or marine projects you have going.

If you’ve been looking for a varnish that will not only protect the wood, but also make it look stunning—look no further. The High Gloss finish of this varnish will lend the wood an air of sophistication you won’t get from most other varnishes.

A word to the wise, though: Because this product is so high-grade, it’s not as user-friendly as similar products. It will make the perfect addition to your woodworking arsenal if you already have lots of varnishing experience; if not, you may struggle to get a clean, smooth finish.

Who Should Buy It?

Anyone looking for a high-end varnish with exceptional protection properties and a classy finish.

Pros:

  • Can be used in a wide variety of contexts, both indoor and outdoor
  • Excellent for use on various woods, both hard and soft
  • Provides a strong, long-lasting protective layer
  • High Gloss finish will make the end result look fantastic

Cons:

  • Takes a long time to dry
  • Requires multiple coats
  • Not user-friendly for newbies

3. Rust-Oleum 207008 Marine Spar Varnish

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We get it: You want to protect your woodcraft and make it look nice, but times are tough and your budget’s tight. With this marine spar varnish from Rust-Oleum, you can get excellent wood protection and a refreshing finish without breaking the bank!

You can use this varnish for a variety of projects, both indoor and outdoor, due to its exceptional durability and protective properties. It protects wood from UV radiation, salt water, and mildew growth—come hell or high water, you can rest assured that your woodcraft, furniture items, or boat will come out of it looking better than before.

This varnish boasts a clear, gloss finish that will complement—not overpower—the wood’s natural coloring and beauty. It also dries and hardens relatively quickly, so you won’t have to worry about endless varnishing and sanding!

Who Should Buy It?

Anyone looking for an affordable varnish that doesn’t compromise on protection or style.

Pros:

  • Can be used in a wide variety of contexts, both indoor and outdoor
  • Provides mildew resistance and other weather-related protection
  • Clear, gloss finish gives the wood natural-looking flair
  • Less expensive than many other similar products

Cons:

  • Some users noticed yellowing on wood after use
  • Takes a long time to dry

4. System Three 1855S16 Clear Marine Spar Urethane Varnish Coating

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System Three’s marine spar varnish has everything you could want: versatility, durability, top-notch protection, and longevity.

As with most marine spar wood varnishes, you can use this product both indoors and outdoors for a variety of different projects. It’s designed to protect wood from UV radiation, salt water, and salt air, making it particularly practical for use on boats and other seafaring woodcraft. In addition, it offers protection against scratching and against any solvents or cleaners that may be spilled. These numerous protective properties ensure that the wood will live a long and happy life!

If you’re health-conscious or prefer eco-friendly products, you’ll appreciate the that fact this varnish features a VOC-compliant formula. This makes it better for the environment—and your health—than many other varnishes on the market today.

You can purchase this varnish in a Satin or Gloss finish to suit your tastes. Both are guaranteed to improve the wood’s appearance, without being overbearing. Enjoy.

Who Should Buy It?

Anyone who needs an eco-friendly, safe-to-use varnish that doesn’t skimp on protection or style.

Pros:

  • Can be used in a wide variety of contexts, both indoor and outdoor
  • VOC-compliant formula ensures safety
  • Scratch resistance and solvent/cleaner protection ensure longevity

Cons:

  • Takes a long time to dry

5. Varnish Oil, Quart

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Here’s a simple, no-frills varnish for you.

This solvent-free wood varnish is a more natural approach to wood protection, and it’s also been deemed “safe for food contact surfaces” according to FDA standards. Unlike the other varnishes on this list, this one is ideal for indoor use.

Whether you need to add a layer of protection to your favorite wooden furniture piece or get your wooden cutting board up to par (you know how scraggly those can get…), this varnish will get the job done—and done well, we might add. It’s highly resistant to abrasion and scratches, making it the perfect protection solution for your indoor items.

This varnish boasts a formula that becomes more and more durable as time goes on, so rest assured that your furniture won’t be getting scratched up anytime soon. Better still, it gives wood an attractive semi-gloss finish that you’ll just love!

Who Should Buy It?

Anyone looking for a safe, simple, and effective varnish for indoor use.

Pros:

  • Becomes more durable over time
  • Highly resistant to abrasion and scratches
  • Provides a natural-looking, semi-gloss finish
  • Solvent-free design makes it safe for various indoor uses

Cons:

  • Takes a long time to dry
  • Not ideal for outdoor use

Conclusion

There you have it: an overview of what to look for in a good wood varnish and our top picks. Each of the products on our list is high-quality, offering the utmost protection for your woodcraft, furniture, or boat, and available in a range of finishes.

We hope you found one that suits your needs, preferences, and budget! But if not, we encourage you to keep looking until you find your perfect match—your furniture will thank you for it. Until next time, happy shopping (and even happier wood-shopping)!