Paint and varnish- What is the difference between them?

varnish and paint

Almost every kind of wood furniture needs a protective coat to withstand rough conditions. Such as preventing water damage, temperature effects, insect attacks, to increase their longevity. 

There are mainly two types of finishes for wood.

Layered-finishes- This type of finish always remain on top, for example, paint and lacquer.

Penetrating finishes- This type of finish penetrate into a surface, for example, varnish.

Paint and varnishes both offer almost the same purpose. They both can be used as a sealing coat over a wooden, metallic, and plastic surface. 

Despite their similar purpose, they are two completely different products.

Here is the difference between varnish and paint.

The differences between paint and varnish are that the varnish is used to give a surface transparent topcoat and a hard-thick coat to protect it from hazards like decaying, scratching, and water damage. Whereas, painting is a coloring product. Their coats are not transparent as we get from varnish. But can be protective.

In simple terms. Varnish is a transparent, odorless product used to make a wood piece transparent, they go deep into wood grains, and after they become dried provide a thick layer of coat. As opposed to paint, which is a color used only when the topcoat needs to be changed color. They stay on the top of a surface.

Specify Varnish Paint
Made from Varnish is a product of natural oils, like linseed oil, walnut oil, etc. Paint is a product of colored pigments.
Use cases Varnish is used to provide a transparent, glossy, and shiny look to a surface. Paint is used when we need to change color.
Appearance When applied it looks glossy. When applied it transforms the color.
Drying time It takes 24-48 hours to dry. Depending on the paint type, it can take 6-to-24 hours to be dried to the touch.
For indoor It’s suitable for most indoor projects. It’s less suitable for many indoor applications.
For outdoor It’s not suitable for outdoor projects. A preferred choice for outdoor projects.
Application To apply varnish on a surface, a clean surface is required. To apply paint over a surface, sanding is required to smoothen a surface.
Protection Varnish gives a protective coat, except for direct sunlight effects. Since it peels off. Paints also give a protective coat, unlike varnishes, they can protect against sunlight effects as well.

What is varnish?


Varnish is made from oils and resins and offers a transparent finish to a wooden surface. To give a wood a naturally pleasing look while preventing hazards is an additive bonus. 

Many types of varnishes are available in the market, each with its own unique characteristic and properties. 

Since all vanish products are based on some kind of natural oil including some chemicals like adhesive, some of the oils used in production are linseed oil, tung oil, soybean oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. If you want to explore more about what a specific oil does for a varnish, you can explore that on the internet. Or read before buying, read the description of your product.

As stated above, varnish characteristics like durability, color, drying time, such factors depend on the type of oil that is used. Unless the oil used is known in advance, these factors cannot be predicted. 

When should you use varnish?

Varnish uses are versatile to be applied over many wooden surfaces like chairs, cabinets, tables, as a finishing coat. It

 can be applied on a wood surface that is stained, painted, primed, as well it can be applied on surfaces with no finishing coat.

The following reasons are why you should use varnish as your finish coat:

  • They provide excellent protection against water.
  • They protect furniture from cold and hot temperate effects. 
  • They cover the topcoat to reduce scratches.
  • Adds natural-looking vibrant and glossy finish.

What is the paint?

Paint is a product of colored pigments and adhesive. When combined, we get a thick colorful layer as a finishing coat over a wood surface. 

A paint layer can prevent a wooden block from many hazards, like rotting, sunlight effects. As a whole, when it comes to advantages, a paint coat can be as effective as varnish. Yet, it cannot be transparent.

When applying paint on a surface. A base coat of primer is needed so the paint coat remains equally balanced. It is because of woodgrains. As wood grains rise up when exposed to liquid which affects the surface.

That’s the reason when applying a coat of oil-based paint on a surface that is already coated, with a stain, varnish, or primer, sanding is necessary to make the surface a bit rough so the paint can hold on to in a better way.

Paints fall into two categories: water-based latex paints and oil-based paints. Liquid paints are mainly water-based, and oil-based paints consist of petroleum distillates and organic solvents. 

When should you use paint?

Painting a block of wood is preferred when your aim is to change the look/color of your old indoor or outdoor furniture. 

In the following cases, you can use paint as a top finish.

  • They can make a surface water-resistant.
  • They can change color to any color you wish
  • They can provide durability, as temperature effects are turned down.

Varnish vs Paint.

To decide which one you should go after for your project. Let’s get into a little more detail to know how they both act when used.


Varnish regardless of the type you use, give a transparent, glossy, and shiny look. If you want your furniture to look naturally beautiful, your best option should be a coat of varnish. And it’s well suited for bare woods.

Use paint when you aim to change the color of something. It’s well suited for old woods which have many dents since paint can fill those up and make the surface evenly smooth again.  However, there are paints available that provide a transparent look.

For indoor projects

Varnish is a better option if you want to use it on your indoor furniture. It has less VOC, which means it’s more environmentally friendly than many paints.

Paints can be used indoors but due to the high VOC, they emit, better to use varnish if possible.

For outdoor projects.

Varnishes are not ideal for projects that are mostly kept outdoors. Sunlight affects them the most, resulting in their looks turning yellowish. It happens with most of the varnishes.

Use paint to protect your outdoor furniture. Paints are good to resist moisture, temperature, and keep the insects out that can damage a wooden thing.

Drying Time

Water-based and oil-based paints dry at different rates, depending on how they’re applied, for instance using a brush for the application will take a longer time than that using a spray gun. 

The drying time of brushed-on oil-based paint can be up to eight hours, whereas spray-on paint may take as little as an hour. It’s because of the quantity each tool takes in. Sprayer applies thin coats whereas using brush most likely the coats will be thicker. With that said, the thicker the coat will be, the more time it will take to dry. 

Varnish has a long drying time, around 24-hours to 72 hours because a coat of varnish is supposed to soak down into wood grains. which allows dust particles to settle on the surface. Moreover, The drying time for varnish varies depending on the formulation, environment, and the type of wood. For example, softwoods that have open pores and less density take less time to absorb the applied varnish.

How to apply paint on wood?

Before applying the subsequent coats of paint, a primer coat is usually applied. Mind that, with water-based paints use oil-based primers to get the best match. Anyways, if you skip priming the surface first, the paint will not adhere and it will peel off very easily. 

Read this blog to know what will happen when you don’t apply primer first.

How to apply varnish?

Before applying varnish, make sure the surface is cleaned up well and there are no dust particles over there. That can later stick to the surface and become a part of the hard-thick layer. Varnish can be applied by only using a brush, and the environment should not be humid to prevent the problem.

Sometimes too thick varnish is a problem. It takes days or even weeks to get dried. With that said, use some minerals to make your varnish watery first.

Can I paint over varnish?

Paint can be applied on a surface already varnished, stained, or painted. With the help of sanding first. The right sand grit to use is 220 grit which will create some holes for the paint coat to hold onto in a better way.

Therefore, without sanding it’s difficult for the applied paint on a varnished surface to stay any longer. It will likely peel off over time. Therefore, sanding is necessary.

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