What is Varnish?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Varnish is a finish which can be applied to wood and other surfaces to create a hard, glossy film which will resist the elements. This type of finish is used in a wide range of situations, and it is a very popular method of finishing for floors, boat trim, and some cabinetry. Many home supply and hardware stores stock an array of varnishes for people to choose from, ranging from high-rated marine varnish which will last for years to more delicate furniture finishing varnishes.

Varnish may be applied to wood furniture to give the piece a new look.
Varnish may be applied to wood furniture to give the piece a new look.

The goal of varnishing is to protect the underlying surface from damage. The finish will resist scratches, water, ultraviolet radiation, spills, chemicals, and many other hazards. Over time, the varnish itself may discolor, flake, peel, or crack, but the underlying surface will be perfectly safe. Eventually, it may become necessary to strip the finish, sand the surface to condition it, and then reapply a new layer.

Using several coats of varnish while lacquering gives wood a glossy appearance.
Using several coats of varnish while lacquering gives wood a glossy appearance.

People have been using varnish since the days of the Ancient Greeks; the term “varnish” comes from “Berenice,” a city in modern-day Libya where this finish was supposedly first invented. Varnishes contain resins suspended in a solvent and blended what is known as a drying oil. Drying oils are oils which will firm and become glossy when they are exposed to the air. Linseed oil is a classic example of a drying oil. The presence of the oil requires a curing time after varnish is applied to give the material a chance to set all the way.

Varnish can help keep wood surfaces clean and polished.
Varnish can help keep wood surfaces clean and polished.

People can use multiple layers of varnish, in a process known as lacquering. This results in a finish with a very high gloss and a high level of hardness. It is also possible to use fewer layers for a less slick finish, and some varnishes have dullers for a semi-gloss appearance, for people who dislike the classic high shine of traditional varnishing. In all cases, the finishing material is transparent and minimally colored, if at all.

In addition to natural varnishes made with material like shellac, it is also possible to find polyurethane and acrylic varnishes. Purists sometimes insist on using a natural varnish, especially for furniture and home restoration, so that the new finish is as similar as possible to the old, while other people find synthetic varnishes much more durable and long lasting, and therefore preferable. It is always a good idea to spot test varnish on a hidden area of a project to see if the finish causes unsightly staining, and to allow varnish to cure completely between coats to avoid creating a tacky or gummy finish.

Varnish is a very popular method of finishing for cabinetry.
Varnish is a very popular method of finishing for cabinetry.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I am working on my first wood project, and am using a urethane varnish. I am having a hard time with the surface getting little bubbles on it.

Does this come from the kind of brush I am using or type of varnish?

I tried to follow the directions exactly, but have been frustrated by this. Is there a way to get rid of the bubbles without completely starting over?


I love to use varnish on the wood parts of our boat. Being on the water and in the sun exposes the boat to the elements on a regular basis. Several coats of a high quality varnish can go a long ways towards keeping the wood in good shape.

I have learned a few good tips through the years. I always make sure I sand between each coat. Another thing that is important to me is that the varnish I use have UV protection additives.

Since this is going to be exposed to the sun, this is really important. I have noticed that some of the "quick dry" varnishes don't have this.

Using a rag between coats of varnish can also help cut down on the dust particles. It can be hard to totally avoid dust, so this is one way to help with that problem.


I have refinished a few pieces of furniture and always like to apply a clear varnish. I usually end up putting on several coats to get the shine and durability I am looking for.

I know some people prefer a more natural looking finish, but I have always enjoyed the shiny, glossy look of varnish.

I also don't really enjoy doing this very often and feel like varnish gives me the most protection and long term durability. In other words, the longer I can go without doing anything else to the piece of furniture, the better.

My finished pieces of furniture have all held up well when I have used varnish. I always wait at least 24 hours between coats. The last thing I want to do is mess it up after I have gone to all that work.


My friend works at an ad agency, and she recently did some graphic work for me. She told me about something called UV varnish that could be applied to the photos in my brochures and even to my business cards.

They have some sort of machine that can apply UV varnish either to part of a design or the whole sheet. It makes the area appear glossier, and it keeps it from fading out if left in the sun.

Since I had plans to leave a few brochures on stands outside of businesses, I thought a UV varnish sounded like a great idea. I would hate for my promotional material to fade, because that could present a negative image of my company.


You should never get in a hurry when using wood varnish. I did, and I made a big mess out of a piece of furniture I wanted to give my sister as a wedding present.

I am bad about procrastinating, and I waited until I only had one day left to varnish a beautiful wooden antique chair. I ignored the instructions on the label that told me to let the first coat dry for 24 hours before applying a second coat. I waited only three hours, because that was all the time I had.

As I started painting on the next coat, I could feel the brush getting stuck. The surface started to look tacky right away, and I knew I'd made a mistake. I had to sand everything down and start all over, and I had to tell my sister her gift would be a little late.


@StarJo – I love the high gloss acrylic varnishes. To me, they make every artwork appear magical. Their intense shine is what draws people to them, though, so if you are not all about shimmer, you might want to go with either a semi-gloss or satin varnish.

Satin varnishes basically seal in your painting without changing the appearance of it at all. Only you can tell that it has a layer of protection.

Semi-gloss varnishes are the way to go for people who are undecided. You get a bit of shimmer without that intense sparkle.

You might want to do what I did for starters. Paint a small canvas as a test piece and try several different varnishes on different sections of it. That way, you can be sure of what each one will look like.


I do a lot of painting, and I'm trying to decide on an acrylic paint varnish to seal in my artwork. I will be shipping some of it to customers soon, and I don't want to risk it getting damaged in transit. I've heard that acrylic varnish can keep the canvas from getting scratched and keep the paint from peeling off.

I don't know whether I should go with a high gloss varnish or a satin one. Are the glossy ones so shiny that they detract from the piece itself? Are the satin ones too dull? I would appreciate input from other artists who have used these.

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