Best Varnishes for Wood – Reviews & Buyer’s Guide

After putting hours into a woodworking project, choosing the best varnish to finish the job can be a daunting task. The best varnish will not only bring out the natural beauty of the wood but add some protection as well.

I’ve used countless varnishes for a variety of wood types and projects, and I put together these reviews of my favorite products. These, along with my buyer’s guide, should help you choose the most appropriate varnish for your piece.

Best Varnishes for Wood – My Top Picks

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1

TotalBoat Gleam Marine Spar Varnish

TotalBoat makes varnishes and products specifically designed for use on boats, and they specialize in waterproofing materials.

This is a polyurethane finish that is thin and light, making it easy to brush onto your project. It’s far easier to apply than varnishes that require a rag. It goes on smoothly and evenly.

It dries quickly and is ready to be re-coated in about an hour. This means you’ll spend little time waiting for the varnish to cure and can apply multiple coats in a single day for faster results.

This poly is clear and won’t change the appearance of your wood much. It comes in a satin and gloss finish, each of which will make the grain pop and darken the wood surface to make it stand out.

This is a highly waterproof coating that is perfect for projects like lawn furniture that will remain outdoors. It also provides UV protection to help reduce fading on your projects. It is somewhat expensive, but the added protection is worth the extra cost for many woodworkers.

As with most varnishes, the fumes from this product are strong and potentially dangerous. When applying this product, always wear a mask or respirator and always use it outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.

Pros
  • Easy to brush onto the surface
  • Dries very quickly
  • Won’t change the appearance of your wood much
  • Makes the grain stand out
  • Highly waterproof
  • Protects from UV damage
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Contains VOCs
2

Rust-Oleum 207008 Marine Spar Varnish

Rust-Oleum is a well-known and trusted name for paint, polyurethane, and other protective coatings, and their products are used across multiple industries.

This is an oil-based spar varnish, so it’s a bit thicker than water-based polyurethanes. It’s still relatively straightforward to apply, and it can be wiped or brushed onto your project.

This varnish soaks deep into the wood surface, which means that the drying time is longer than with most other options. I found that it still wasn’t dry to the touch after about an hour and a half, and the manufacturer recommends two full days for each coat to cure. It will likely take you quite a while to apply multiple coats if you need them.

It dries clear with a glossy appearance and will bring out the natural beauty of the wood you used.

This varnish is intended for use on boats, which means it’s very durable and waterproof. It provides UV protection and resists mildew formation as well. It’s an excellent option for outdoor projects or those that will be exposed to moisture changes.

It expands and contracts with your wood, so it’s unlikely to crack or separate, even in harsh conditions.

This varnish emits potent vapors that you should avoid breathing, so make sure to wear proper safety equipment when applying it.

Pros
  • Straightforward to apply
  • Dries clear with a professional-looking finish
  • Brings out your wood’s grain
  • Durable and waterproof
  • Protects against UV damage
  • Can stand up to expansion and shrinking
Cons
  • Takes a long time to dry
  • Contains VOCs
3

Rust-Oleum 262025 Varathane Premium Stain

This is a rich wood stain that will add beautiful, deep color to your projects. It comes in a wide variety of colors. I’ve used several of them and have been pleased with the saturation and final appearance of the projects on which I’ve tested them.

This stain is oil-based, but it’s relatively thin. It’s straightforward to apply with a brush or rag.

It sets very rapidly, and I found it dry to the touch within about an hour of applying it and wiping it clean. It can take up to 24 hours to cure fully. You’ll likely only need one coat, given how rich the color is, so this varnish helps save time on the application process.

It drastically changes the appearance of your project, as do all stains. It will add color and bring out the grain, but you may need to apply a polyurethane or other protective coating over the stained wood once it cures. This stain doesn’t offer any protection from the elements, and it won’t add a glossy, finished appearance to your piece.

It isn’t waterproof, so it’s not suitable for outdoor projects. However, you can use it in combination with poly for outdoor furniture, decks, or swing sets.

This varnish produces some pretty strong fumes, so make sure to take the proper precautions when using it.

Pros
  • Adds a beautiful appearance to your wood
  • Very easy to apply with a brush
  • Comes in a variety of colors
Cons
  • Takes quite a while to cure
  • Drastically changes your wood’s appearance
  • Doesn’t offer protection from water or UV radiation
  • Contains VOCs
4

McCloskey 7505 Man O’ War Spar Varnish

McCloskey is known for manufacturing highly protective varnishes for wood projects that are exposed to harsh conditions.

Their Man O’ War product is a spar varnish that’s intended for use on boats. As such, it’s made to be extremely durable and can stand up to constant water exposure. This is one of the best varnishes for use on exterior furniture. However, it doesn’t resist physical wear very well, so it’s not ideal for surfaces that get foot traffic or may get scratched.

It’s a relatively thick, oil-based protective coating, but it’s thin enough to apply with a brush. I also recommend brush application, as it shouldn’t come in contact with your skin.

It takes about 4 to 6 hours to be dry to the touch, and it cures fully within 24 hours. You’ll likely only need one or two coats for the best protection, so despite the long curing time, this varnish is faster to apply than many others.

It dries mostly clear but will darken your wood a bit. I found that it makes the grain stand out a little more and puts a beautiful, semi-gloss finish on the surface. It’s excellent for highlighting the natural beauty of cedar or other hardwood projects.

This varnish is highly waterproof, and it also protects against UV and salt damage. It will keep your projects looking new for longer, even in harsh conditions.

It’s banned by the EPA in several states because McCloskey makes this with volatile organic compounds. It’s unsafe to breathe, so be very careful during use and always wear a respirator when applying. The odor is powerful and will persist for several days, so I only recommend it for outdoor application.

Pros
  • Highly waterproof
  • It’s easy to apply
  • Highlights your wood’s natural beauty
  • Protects against UV radiation and salt
Cons
  • Doesn’t resist physical damage well
  • Takes a relatively long time to dry
  • Changes the appearance of your wood quite a bit
  • Contains a high concentration of VOCs
5

McCloskey 6509 Voc Mow Spar Gloss

This varnish from McCloskey is oil-based and about the consistency of honey. It’s a bit more challenging to apply, but you can still put it on with a brush for a relatively smooth finish.

It’s a clear-coat varnish that you can either apply to painted surfaces for protection or untreated wood for both protection and a beautiful, shiny finish.

It takes quite a while to soak into the wood and dry, so you should plan to wait about 24 hours for the varnish to cure. It goes on reasonably thick, so you’ll likely only need a single coat.

Once it’s dried, the coat is entirely clear. It will darken the appearance of unstained projects a bit, but I found that it brings out the wood’s natural beauty. It has a gloss finish and will make your stock shine.

It’s made for use on boats, so it’s highly waterproof, UV resistant, and won’t wear away quickly in response to salt and other chemicals. This varnish adds some of the best protection possible.

It contains volatile components, so you’ll need to take every safety precaution possible when using this product. You should only apply it outdoors, as the odor is strong and can last for several days.

Pros
  • Provides a beautiful finish
  • Waterproof
  • Protects against UV radiation
Cons
  • Takes a long time to soak in and cure
  • Only available in a glossy finish
  • Contains VOCs
  • Doesn’t offer the best physical protection
6

Epifanes Clear Varnish

Epifanes is a company from Holland that produces high-quality, high-durability varnishes intended for use in marine conditions.

This is a clear-coat varnish that is relatively thick. Although it can be applied as-is, I recommend thinning it before use for the most effortless application. You should have no problem painting it on with a brush, even if you don’t thin it first.

It dries very slowly and typically requires several coats to get the best protection for your project. As such, this will take a relatively long time to apply correctly.

It goes on and dries clear. While it won’t tint or stain painted surfaces, it is likely to darken natural wood a bit. I found that my projects’ grain pattern and quality were elevated with this varnish, and it’s one of the most beautiful protective coats I’ve used.

This is a spar varnish that provides a robust waterproof layer. It’s resistant to UV radiation and salt, so you can use it on just about any project, indoors or outdoors.

The fumes from this varnish can be hazardous, so you’ll need a respirator or a face mask when applying it. I strongly recommend you only use this product outdoors or in a very well-ventilated area.

Pros
  • Brings out the beauty of your wood
  • Provides protection from water
  • Defends against UV radiation from the sun
Cons
  • Should be thinned for easier application
  • Dries very slowly and requires multiple coats
  • Contains VOCs
7

System Three 1850S16 Clear Marine Spar Urethane Varnish

System Three makes reliable wood varnishes, hardeners, and protective coatings for a variety of projects.

This is an oil-based urethane varnish that is thin enough to paint on with a brush. The application is very straightforward and shouldn’t take much time at all.

It takes quite a while to dry, and I recommend waiting a full day in between coats. It will be dry to the touch within about 6 hours, but curing takes longer.

It goes on clear but will change the appearance of the wood you’re applying it to a bit. It will darken the surface, and depending on whether you choose the gloss or satin finish, it will make your project look shiny and beautiful or give it a matte look.

This varnish is intended for use on boats, so it provides a highly waterproof layer, protection from UV radiation, and protection from salt. It will leave any indoor or outdoor project protected and looking professionally finished, even if it’s exposed to harsh conditions.

Although it’s VOC-compliant, it gives off potentially harmful vapors that you shouldn’t inhale. You’ll need proper protective gear when applying this clear coat.

Pros
  • Application is very straightforward
  • Provides a waterproof barrier
  • Protects against UV radiation and salt
Cons
  • Takes a long time to dry
  • Changes the appearance of your wood quite a bit
  • Doesn’t offer the best physical protection
  • Contains VOCs

Buyer’s Guide

Varnishes for wood surfaces come in many different forms, each designed for a particular application. Some are best for waterproofing your projects, while others are meant solely to bring out the natural beauty of your wood. Ensure you keep the below factors in mind when choosing a varnish, as these will affect your projects’ look and longevity.

Types of Varnish

There are a few different kinds of varnish from which you’ll need to pick. The best varnish is the one that is ideal for your time constraints and will bring the most beauty to your project.

Acrylic Varnish

Acrylic varnishes are water-based, which means they’re thinner, more comfortable to apply, and easier to clean than oil-based options. They dry rapidly and can often be handled in just an hour or two. They don’t soak into the wood and instead create a layer on the surface, so they are best for those looking for moderate protection. They may darken natural wood a touch, but they won’t yellow or discolor the wood or paint they’re used to protect.

Exterior Varnish

Exterior varnishes are made to protect projects that you intend to keep outdoors or in high moisture areas, like bathrooms or some kitchens. They are often oil-based and soak deep into the wood to create a thick, waterproof coating.

They usually offer UV protection to prevent fading from sun damage, and some are mildew-resistant.

They generally take a long time to dry because they are oil-based, and they may need multiple coats, especially if you use them on less porous hardwoods.

They are usually clear but can cause some discoloration or darkening on natural or painted wood.

Polyurethane Varnish

Polyurethane varnishes are topical clearcoats that dry reasonably quickly. They don’t soak into the wood, but they form a durable, protective surface on top that resists physical wear.

They offer moderate protection from moisture and liquids, so they’re commonly used on projects like dining room furniture that may experience water but isn’t continuously exposed to it. They usually don’t offer UV protection either, so they’re best for indoor projects.

Spar Varnish

Spar varnish, also called yacht varnish, is often oil-based and is made to protect surfaces that experience constant exposure to water, salt, and sun. They soak slowly into the wood to create a highly waterproof protective layer. They resist UV radiation and will keep outdoor projects looking new for long periods.

They don’t provide much physical protection, so they’re not suitable for surfaces that will be exposed to foot traffic or scratching.

Alkyd Varnish

Alkyd varnishes are made with alkyd resin, a thermoplastic polyester that can stand up well to heat and sun exposure and offers light water-resistance.

The term “alkyd varnish” may be used for various other varnish types since many protective coatings take advantage of the natural protecting capabilities of alkyd resin.

Shellac

Shellac is most often used as a penetrative ingredient in other varnishes. It’s made from a waxy resin secreted by the lac bug, and it’s usually mixed with other topical treatments to help them soak into the wood to provide better protection.

Lacquer

Lacquer is a thin, non-curing varnish that offers little protection for your project. However, it will provide a high-gloss finish on most surfaces and can lead to a very professional-looking finish.

Lacquer is most often and most efficiently applied with a high-volume, low-pressure spray gun rather than a brush or rag.

Drying Oils

Oils aren’t technically varnishes, and they don’t offer any protection to your project. However, they alter the appearance of wood and bring out the natural beauty of the grain.

Common drying oils include tung oil and boiled linseed oil, both of which can take quite a long time to dry thoroughly.

Varnish Ingredients

Most varnishes contain three main ingredients in varying ratios that determine how well they protect and how quickly they soak into the wood and dry.

Varnish Oils

The oil in a varnish mostly determines how readily it will absorb into the wood. Varnishes with little or no oil barely soak into the grain and will dry quickly as a consequence. Oil-based varnishes have a higher oil ratio, soak deep into the wood, and take many hours or even days to dry.

The oils most commonly used as a base in varnish are linseed oil and tung oil. They cause a bit of discoloration in some cases, and they generally make natural wood appear a bit darker.

Resin

Resin can refer to quite a few compounds. Tree resin is an organic secretion that trees use to heal and prevent further damage to their hard exterior. Resin can also be secreted by insects, like the lac bug I mentioned before. It can also refer to synthetic compounds comprised of polymers or other plastics.

The type and ratio of resin in a varnish determine the coating’s protective qualities. A high proportion of resin to the other main ingredients can create a durable coat that resists physical wear. A lower concentration of resin can soak into the wood and help create a waterproof seal.

The type and amount of resin used to make a varnish also affects how your wood’s appearance will be changed. For example, synthetic resin tends not to discolor wood quite as much as organic resin.

Solvent

Varnishes also include solvents, sometimes referred to as thinners. Resin and oil mixed in any ratio will be far too thick to apply easily. The solvent, which can be anything from water to alcohol, dilutes the mixture. A high proportion of solvent to resin and oil will make a less potent and protective varnish but straightforward to apply with a brush. The solvent evaporates once applied, and the resin and oil remain behind to protect your project.

You can add additional solvent to a varnish to make it easier to apply. To get an idea about how to do this, check out this video:

Varnish Hardening Properties

Varnishes harden in one of two ways depending on the ratio and type of the three main components.

Rapid Hardening

Rapid hardening occurs when the oil and resin’s liquid properties are determined by the solvent’s presence. Solvents make the varnish application simple, but they evaporate rapidly when exposed to air. The oil and resin left behind harden in a short amount of time, leaving the surface dry and moderately protected.

Slow Hardening

The oil and resin in slow-hardening varnishes continue to interact even in the absence of the solvent. Once the thinner evaporates, the other two components seep into the wood and harden slowly. The hardening process can take several days, but the result is often a highly waterproof protective layer.

Tips to Apply Varnish

Surface preparation is important for a professional-looking finish. I recommend starting to sand at 100-grit and gradually work your way down to 320-grit sandpaper. Once the surface is smooth, wipe your project with water and let it dry. This process makes any loose grains stand up.

To see how this process works, check out this video:

Once your surface dry, sand again with 320-grit or 400-grit sandpaper. Make sure to wipe off any sawdust, as it can ruin the look of a varnish and require re-application.

To get an idea of how this process works, check out this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=136CADcdbZI

I recommend you apply your first coat with a 10%-diluted varnish. You can dilute with mineral spirits or water for water-based varnishes. Applying the initial coat with a cloth will help get the solution into the wood grain. Wait for the coat to dry completely according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Sand your project with high-grit sandpaper. I recommend using 1,000-grit or higher. Apply a second coat of undiluted varnish and let it dry fully before you handle your pieces.

Varnish Vs. Polyurethane

The word “varnish” is an umbrella term that refers to a multitude of products. Polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, and clearcoat can all be called varnishes.

Polyurethane is a particular kind of varnish that tends to dry quickly, provide good physical protection, and offer moderate protection from water. It’s essentially a liquid plastic that dries to form a clear coating on your wood.

Recommendation: How to Prevent Leftover Varnish from Drying at the Top of the Can

Any woodworker who has poured varnish or paint from a can knows how frustrating it can be to have the liquid dry in the groove that holds the metal lid. The best way I have found to prevent this is to use a removable plastic spout. You can find them online or at your local home improvement store, and they’re very inexpensive.

Safety Concerns

Before even opening the can of varnish you plan to use, you must take proper safety precautions. Varnishes often contain volatile organic compounds that make the fumes unsafe to inhale. Always wear a face mask at least, and I recommend you get even more protection with a respirator.

I strongly suggest you only apply varnishes outdoors. If you must be inside when you work, make sure the area is well-ventilated. If I’m forced to apply varnish indoors, I open all the doors and windows and set up an exhaust fan to push air outside. Even with these precautions, I still wear a respirator.

Wrapping Up: Which Wood Varnish is Best?

As I’m sure you can see by now, there is no such thing as the perfect wood varnish. Different types offer varying levels of protection. If your project will get a lot of physical abuse, you’ll use a different varnish than you would for a piece that will be outside in the sun and rain. The varnish you choose should be selected for your specific project.

However, my favorite varnish overall is the TotalBoat Gleam Marine Spar Varnish. It’s a breeze to apply, it creates a robust, waterproof seal, and it protects wood from sun damage, leaving projects looking new for longer.

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Dan's interest in woodworking began while watching his dad build furniture in a pieced-together home workshop. He inherited old but reliable tools from his father and quickly became enamored with the ability to make something out of nothing. Starting with a simple picture frame and moving onto building all the furniture for his house, he's proud to have begun his own home workshop, built a stronger relationship with his dad through the craft, and developed a love of all things woodworking.

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