As a DIY and home painting enthusiasts, many a times we face the dilemma of making the right choice between a varnish or a stain for our woodworking project.

Though paint experts say that they both serve similar purposes to beautify and increase the durability of our woodworking, however, they are indeed different in some ways from each other.

Let’s discuss its major differences, which is better a varnish or a stain in this blog post to make your choice easier. 

Cost of Varnishing and Staining in Australia

varnish vs stain


According to hi pages, prices range:

  1. $30 - $40 per m2 using solvent-based polyurethane.
  2. $35 - $45 per m2 using water-based/oil-based varnishes.
  3. $55 - $60 per m2 using lime wash.

Deck staining prices range:

  1. $300 to $450 to stain a small deck.
  2. $700 to $1000 to stain a medium size deck.
  3. $1300 to $2500 to stain a larger deck.

What is a Varnish? 

What is varnish


Varnish is a clear transparent hard protective coating or film. It is not to be confused with wood stain. 

It usually has a yellowish shade due to the manufacturing process and materials used, but it may also be pigmented as desired. It is sold commercially in various shades.

Varnish is primarily used as a wood finish where, stained or not, the distinctive tones and grains in the wood are intended to be visible. 

Varnish finishes are naturally glossy, but satin/semi-gloss and flat sheens are available.

Though there are many different types of varnishes, Polyurethane varnish is the most commonly used type for wood.

What is the Stain?

what is the stain?


Pigment, solvent and a binder make up a stain. 

Wood stain is a type of paint used to colour wood. 

It consists of colourants dissolved and/or suspended in a vehicle or solvent. 

Vehicle is the preferred term, as the contents of a stain may not be truly dissolved in the vehicle, but rather suspended, and thus the vehicle may not be a true solvent. 

The vehicle often may be water, alcohol, a petroleum distillate, or a finishing agent such as shellac, lacquer, varnish and polyurethane. 

Coloured or stained finishes do not typically deeply penetrate the pores of the wood and may largely disappear when the finish deteriorates or is removed.

Oil-based stains add colour to your wood without raising the grain. They take around 3 or more days to properly dry.

Water and solvent-based stains dry quickly.

Types of Varnish




Durable and water-resistant option suitable for high-traffic areas.


Traditional and easy-to-apply finish with a warm tone.


 Quick-drying and easy to repair, ideal for furniture.

Spar Varnish

Specifically designed for outdoor wood surfaces.

Water-Based Varnish

 Eco-friendly option with low odour and quick drying time.

Varnish vs. Stain: Major Differences



Protective finish that provides a hard, transparent coating on wood surfaces, enhancing durability and providing resistance to scratches, moisture, and UV rays.

Coloured liquid that penetrates the wood to enhance its natural grain and colour, providing a beautiful finish while offering minimal protection against wear and tear.

High quality brush is used for application

Rag or a normal brush used to apply liberally

Multiple coats for durability 

Multiple coats for desired colour intensity

Available in gloss, satin and matte finishes

Comes in a variety of colours to match different wood tones.

Can be oil-based or water-based.

Oil-based or water-based formulas.

Requires periodic reapplication for maintenance

Offers different levels of opacity (transparent to solid).

Which is better, stain or varnish?

If superior stain resistance, durability and easy usage is highlighted as your primary need, the experts at Paint Access suggest going for a varnish. 

But if your woodworking project requires a higher level of moisture protection, or you just want to go colour the wood without compromising the natural wood grain then we suggest going for a stain. 

The good news is that you can use both a stain and a varnish on the same woodworking project. 

*Paint Access pro tip*

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.

Keep in mind that interior projects have different requirements from exterior ones, especially in terms of protection and waterproofing.

As always, for the best paint and woodcare advice we recommend you speak to our professionals at Paint Access regarding your project.

  • For best looking wooden floors in your house, choose a stain.
  • For your wood protection needs, choose a varnish. 
  • A combination of both will give you a beautiful and a durable timber flooring. 
  • Varnish require 4 to 6 hours of drying. 
  • Stain drying is faster as it requires 15 to 30 minutes of drying.
  • Water-based stains are odour and VOC-free. 
  • If you choose staining for your project you get a variety of colour choices for your final product.

  • How to make the right choice for your woodworking project?

    1. Wood type.
    2. Durability.
    3. Aesthetic preferences.
    4. Maintenance level.

    How to achieve the best results?

    1. Prepare your wood surface properly before a finish is applied.
    2. Remove any dust or debris by sanding the wood. 
    3. Apply a suitable wood conditioner if necessary.
    4. Use suitable tools.
    5. Apply the finish in a well-ventilated area.

    *Pro Tip*

    1. Take your time when choosing the right finish that right for your woodworking project.
    2. Consider your project goals.
    3. Follow recommended guidelines.
    4. Inspect for best results.

    Long term care

    1. Make use of furniture polish or beeswax to nourish and restore lustre to your wood/timber.
    2. Furniture inspection is a must for any signs of damage and make it a habit to address them promptly to avoid further issues.

    Pros and Cons of Varnish and Stain



    Durable finish

    Enhance natural wood grain.

    Protects against scratches and water damage.

    A variety of colour options.

    Just few coats for a full coverage

    It’s easy to apply and reapply.

    Popular for high traffic areas

    Best for customised projects.

    Time consuming

    More challenging 

    Requires sanding between coats for a smooth finish.

    Reapplication for appearance and protection. 

    Staining Wood – Paint Access Tricks and Benefits



    Use a pre-stain wood conditioner

    Helps the stain to penetrate more evenly.

    Apply multiple thin coats

    Prevents uneven buildup and drips

    Important tools for cleaning Varnish

    1. Soft cloths (microfiber or cotton).
    2. Mild dish detergent and water.
    3. Paper towels.
    4. Over the counter right cleaning products for your wood and finish.

    Paint Access Varnish cleaning Tips!

    1. To clean wood furniture with a varnish, lacquer or shellac finish, mix one part dish soap with one part water, then rub down the surface with a damp cloth. 
    2. To prevent damage to the wood, use a lint-free cloth to dry the surface completely before continuing. 
    3. Grab a paste wax like our Wood Wax and a buffing pad, then apply wax to the surface to bring the wood furniture back to its original sheen.

    Prepare your timber surfaces for varnish/stain using Paint Access’s tips!

    Remember a good foundation is the key to a perfect varnish/stain job. 

    For timber, age is just a number. What really counts is how your timber surface is prepared for varnishing/staining.

    Here are some professional tips from our experts at Paint Access.

    1. Use a natural bristle or soft nylon brush to remove dust and any loose fragments.
    2. Sand your timber until the surface is smooth. If possible, complete this step outdoors to minimise the dust in your workspace.
    3. Dust the wood with a clean and dry brush. 
    4. Clean your work area. This is especially important if you’re working in the same space where you sanded your wood. 
    5. Allow the wood dust to settle before cleaning. 
    6. Use a clean, damp cloth to wipe the area clean. We recommend methylated spirits. Never use white spirits as this leaves a greasy film.
    7. Allow the area to dry for a few hours before applying your coating. 
    8. If you’re applying a wood stain, the nature of the product will determine the best type of brush to use.  
    9. We say synthetic brush with water based products and a natural bristle brush with solvent based.  The same goes for a varnish, which you may choose to apply on top of your stain when the stain has had time to dry.
    10. Before applying stain, test the colour on a scrap piece of wood or any area of your timber project to make sure it matches your desired shade.
    11. Apply stain in the direction of the wood grain.
    12. Don’t forget to wipe off any excess stain to prevent blotching and uneven colour.
    13. Allow your stain time for penetration for the time recommended and allow it to dry properly.
    14. Make sure you know the type of wood you are using for stain as different wood absorb stains differently.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    1 – What are the disadvantages of Varnish?

    Varnish is more time consuming to apply than stain because sanding is required between coats for a smooth finish. 

    Has a glossy appearance that would not suit every project or personal preferences.

    2 – Does Varnish change wood colour?

    Some varnishes do include colour to enhance or alter the wood shade. Varnishes provide wood with additional durability, so they are often used on areas that get plenty of wear and tear.  Varnishes come in matt, satin and gloss finishes but always be sure to check that your choice is best suited for outdoors or indoors.

    3 – Can I stain over a varnish?

    Yes, as long as the right materials and painting process.

    4 – Do I need to varnish after staining?

    Once you have finished staining, apply a fresh clear coat of a varnish or polyurethane. Without a clear coat, the stain will wear out slowly due to wear and tear. 

     5 – What happens if you don’t seal wood stain?

    Sealing wood stain prevents from discolouration or stains by liquid and from absorbing water. A protective barrier against wear and tear.

    6 – What is the difference between a lacquer and a varnish?

    No, they are the same thing. 

    7 – How to get a smooth finish with varnish and stain?

    1. Don't skip Sanding. 
    2. Wipe Away all Dust Before Staining.
    3. Sand Between Finish Coats.
    4. Carefully Apply Your Final Finish Coat for a Smooth Wood Finish.
    5. Buff the Final Finish with Paper.

    8 – Why is my varnish not smooth?

    Make sure that before you start your woodworking project, it should be dust and dirt free. Or else, your hard work will be spoiled. 

    9 – Is it better to varnish with a brush or a roller?

    Use a brush for a better control and precision on small or intricate pieces.

    10 – Can I use a foam brush for varnish?

    Foam brushes are cheap and a good option for one time use for varnishing. 

    What it all comes down to?

    Deciding between varnish and stain for your woodworking project depends on the type of look you want to get and the level of protection needed for your wood. 

    Stain penetrates the wood to enhance its natural colour and grain, while varnish provides a protective coating that can bring out the wood's beauty and durability. 

    We always advice our clients to first consider the purpose of your project, the type of wood you are working with, and the final look you desire when picking between varnish and stain. 

    Both options have their unique benefits, and both work in their own way but the best choice will be based on your specific woodworking project goals.

    If you are still unsure, speak with the paint experts at Paint Access for expert recommendation and advice or you can visit our store at