How to varnish wood

Give your projects a smooth and lustrous protective finish. Here’s how to varnish wood for satisfying, professional-level results every time.

How to varnish wood

A durable finish for woodworking pieces, furniture, and flooring, varnish beautifies wood and protects it from scratches and stains. To the uninitiated, achieving a smooth and lustrous look may seem like a magician’s trick, but once you understand the basics, varnishing wood couldn’t be much easier.

Make sure the surface you wish to varnish has been sanded smooth, and don’t begin varnishing until you have cleaned your work space. Varnish dries slowly and rarely fails to attract dust, hairs, and loose debris, so the success of your project ultimately depends, in part, on how well or poorly you clean up beforehand.

How to varnish wood

A good brush has a thick head of bristles, and none are falling out! Photo: JProvey

Step 1

Use a newly purchased varnish. A product that has sat for years in your workshop may contain lumps that could compromise your final results. (Test the quality of a varnish by coating it on a piece of scrap wood.) Of equal importance is the paintbrush used. Don’t waste time with a subpar tool: Opt for a natural-bristle brush that feels thick at its heel—that is, the bristle area opposite the brush tip. Likewise, pass on any brush whose bristles shake loose when they are firmly clenched.

How to varnish wood

Stir until your stick no longer pulls up jelly-like globs. Photo: JProvey

Step 2

With a clean stirring stick, stir the varnish thoroughly, but do it slowly enough to avoid forming air bubbles. (For this reason, take pains to avoid shaking the can excessively in transportation.) Next, carefully pour enough varnish for your first coat into a plastic container marked on its side with volume measurements.

How to varnish wood

Mix a thinner, such as gum turpentine, into your varnish before applying it. Photo: JProvey

Step 3

Add a thinning agent, preferably gum turpentine, to the varnish in your mixing cup. By making varnish dry more slowly, thinner effectively counteracts surface imperfections like streaks and bubbles. How much thinner is enough? Opinion varies. If the varnish you are preparing will be applied as a first coat, finishing guru Steve Mickey recommends a mixture containing 20 to 25 percent thinner; subsequent coats should contain about 5 or 10 percent thinner.

How to varnish wood

Apply varnish with the grain in one direction, not back and forth. Photo: JProvey

Step 4

When coating on varnish, work with a light touch; only the tip of your brush should bend. If you’re right-handed, start in the upper-left corner of the surface. Varnish a one-foot-square area, brushing in the direction of the wood grain—never back and forth—then move on to an adjacent square of similar dimensions. Proceed in this way until you have a full coat. While the varnish is still wet, remember to “tip off”: Drag the tip of your brush over the work piece to smooth any remaining streaks or lingering bubbles. Your tipping stroke goes in the same direction as your application stroke (in the direction of the grain).

Further Notes

  • For best results, apply several thin coats, not a couple of thick ones.
  • After the first two coats have cured, lightly sand the workpiece with 320-grit, open-faced abrasive paper. Vacuum and wipe away all residue before continuing.

Calling all DIYers. Want your wood to look good? Of course, you do. Whether it’s indoor or outdoor furniture, a garden fence, bit of decking, or something else – varnishing is a must. Why varnish wood? Cos it preserves it, protects it from scratches and abrasions, plus waterproofs, transforms, restores, and generally brings it (back) to life. And we’re going to show you exactly how – the Plane & Simple way. That way, you simply can’t go wrong. It’s only a wee bit of varnish on some wood though, we hear you say. How hard can that be? Well, yeah, that’s true; but if you want to be bang on first time, make no mistakes, and save time and cash – it pays to follow the steps of the P&S pros. So, let’s get started.

Forget Google – get the job done in our 5 easy steps.

We’ll run through the steps in more detail, but they are as follows:

  1. What to wear and where to work
  2. Preparation of wood
  3. Pick your preferred varnish
  4. First coat
  5. Finishing strokes

1. What to wear and where to work.

Sounds obvious but planning is key to any job done well. So we ain’t gonna beat around the bush. Just remember to:

  • Wear the proper protective gear – like you would when working with any chemical.
  • Make sure your working area is well-lit and well-ventilated.
  • Also, make sure your working area is as clean as it can be – mop it down and get rid of any dust (especially as dust can stick to the varnish).
  • Working outside? Do a weather check – you don’t want to work in rainy, windy or baking hot days.

How to varnish wood

2. Preparation of wood.

Whether you’re working with newly bought wood or restoring old wood, make sure that:

  • Old paint or varnish is removed with either a paint stripper or by sanding.
  • Paint/varnish stripping or thinning may simply require a paintbrush plus turps or water.
  • A sanding block or handheld sander will remove old finishes and fine-grit sandpaper will prepare the wooden surface for varnishing.
  • If you need to fill in any gaps or holes (usually when restoring old surfaces) – grab some grain filler, apply and dry.
  • Finally, clean the wood with a hardy damp cloth or mop.

3. Pick your preferred varnish.

Depending on your DIY project, you’ll want the right varnish. Worry not, we’ve got the lot (Just remember you’ll also need to consider whether to use a clear or tinted varnish):

  • Water or acrylic-based varnishes can be mixed with water and your brushes can be cleaned in soapy water. Remember, these varnishes aren’t as durable as oil-based ones.
  • Oil-based varnishes are the most durable of the lot. However, they need to be mixed with a paint thinner such as turps. Your brushes will also need to be cleaned with a paint thinner.
  • Spray-on varnishes – super easy to use and you don’t need a brush.

4. First coat.

Now you’re all set to apply the wood varnish – but you need to thin the first coat:

  • Thin your water or acrylic-based varnish with water – normally one part varnish to one-part water.
  • It’s the same ratio for oil-based varnishes, but using turps or a similar paint thinner.
  • Spray-based? No prep is required. Simply spray and you’re away.
  • Your first coat should be lightly applied and allow to dry for 24ish hours. Simples.

How to varnish wood

5. Final strokes.

Almost done and dusted. Phew. Here goes:

  • Apply the second coat of varnish and allow to dry.
  • Sand this coat after 24ish hours using fine-grained (not course-grained) sandpaper.
  • Apply and sand another coat – the more coats, the more durable the final product. Be patient and you’ll be rewarded!
  • Wipe down and you’re done.

DIY wood varnishing should be simple, fun and fulfilling when you choose the Plane and Simple way.

Why not share your results on any of our social media channels? Just tag us @planeandsimplediy or use the hashtag #PlaneandSimpleDIY

Calling all DIYers. Want your wood to look good? Of course, you do. Whether it’s indoor or outdoor furniture, a garden fence, bit of decking, or something else – varnishing is a must. Why varnish wood? Cos it preserves it, protects it from scratches and abrasions, plus waterproofs, transforms, restores, and generally brings it (back) to life. And we’re going to show you exactly how – the Plane & Simple way. That way, you simply can’t go wrong. It’s only a wee bit of varnish on some wood though, we hear you say. How hard can that be? Well, yeah, that’s true; but if you want to be bang on first time, make no mistakes, and save time and cash – it pays to follow the steps of the P&S pros. So, let’s get started.

Forget Google – get the job done in our 5 easy steps.

We’ll run through the steps in more detail, but they are as follows:

  1. What to wear and where to work
  2. Preparation of wood
  3. Pick your preferred varnish
  4. First coat
  5. Finishing strokes

1. What to wear and where to work.

Sounds obvious but planning is key to any job done well. So we ain’t gonna beat around the bush. Just remember to:

  • Wear the proper protective gear – like you would when working with any chemical.
  • Make sure your working area is well-lit and well-ventilated.
  • Also, make sure your working area is as clean as it can be – mop it down and get rid of any dust (especially as dust can stick to the varnish).
  • Working outside? Do a weather check – you don’t want to work in rainy, windy or baking hot days.

How to varnish wood

2. Preparation of wood.

Whether you’re working with newly bought wood or restoring old wood, make sure that:

  • Old paint or varnish is removed with either a paint stripper or by sanding.
  • Paint/varnish stripping or thinning may simply require a paintbrush plus turps or water.
  • A sanding block or handheld sander will remove old finishes and fine-grit sandpaper will prepare the wooden surface for varnishing.
  • If you need to fill in any gaps or holes (usually when restoring old surfaces) – grab some grain filler, apply and dry.
  • Finally, clean the wood with a hardy damp cloth or mop.

3. Pick your preferred varnish.

Depending on your DIY project, you’ll want the right varnish. Worry not, we’ve got the lot (Just remember you’ll also need to consider whether to use a clear or tinted varnish):

  • Water or acrylic-based varnishes can be mixed with water and your brushes can be cleaned in soapy water. Remember, these varnishes aren’t as durable as oil-based ones.
  • Oil-based varnishes are the most durable of the lot. However, they need to be mixed with a paint thinner such as turps. Your brushes will also need to be cleaned with a paint thinner.
  • Spray-on varnishes – super easy to use and you don’t need a brush.

4. First coat.

Now you’re all set to apply the wood varnish – but you need to thin the first coat:

  • Thin your water or acrylic-based varnish with water – normally one part varnish to one-part water.
  • It’s the same ratio for oil-based varnishes, but using turps or a similar paint thinner.
  • Spray-based? No prep is required. Simply spray and you’re away.
  • Your first coat should be lightly applied and allow to dry for 24ish hours. Simples.

How to varnish wood

5. Final strokes.

Almost done and dusted. Phew. Here goes:

  • Apply the second coat of varnish and allow to dry.
  • Sand this coat after 24ish hours using fine-grained (not course-grained) sandpaper.
  • Apply and sand another coat – the more coats, the more durable the final product. Be patient and you’ll be rewarded!
  • Wipe down and you’re done.

DIY wood varnishing should be simple, fun and fulfilling when you choose the Plane and Simple way.

Why not share your results on any of our social media channels? Just tag us @planeandsimplediy or use the hashtag #PlaneandSimpleDIY

To successfully apply varnish, it helps to understand valuable parameters. You need to consider things such as the time required for each coat to set, the time to allow between consecutive coats and the reaction to humidity and temperature. The following information will be helpful as you prepare for such a task.

Step 1 – Work in the Correct Temperature

The first thing that you have to observe is that the temperatures in your surroundings are adequate enough to facilitate curing. Generally, varnish won’t cure well if you apply it in temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Such low temperatures delay the curing by several days if not weeks.

The best temperature range is between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Varnish application in temperatures higher than these is also not advisable as the solvent tends to evaporate too fast leaving the varnish to set prematurely. In such a situation the work quality is negatively affected and you are most likely going to observe uneven films, bubbles, and brush marks on the work surface.

Step 2 – Prepare for the Main Task

Varnish application is very sensitive to the presence of dust. Your application site should be prepared beforehand. If the application is to be done within the workshop, no other sanding tasks should be done simultaneously. If you plan to use another room, begin by mopping the floor and placing the item of furniture on plastic sheeting.

Step 3 – Apply the Varnish

Varnish can be applied in any of three ways: by brush, with a roller and pad, or by spraying. Brushing is a time-tested technique and many high-quality brushes are available.

Although they are costly, the best brushes for the task are those made using China bristles or natural hairs. A cheap but effective alternative is the polyfoam brush, which is disposable. You can buy a Polyfoam brush for each coat of varnish that you’ll apply; they are that inexpensive. You will also be assured of good quality work even with inexperience since these brushes don’t leave brush marks behind.

Step 4 – Apply the Sealer Coat

Before the main varnish is applied, you need to seal the wood’s surface. Fortunately, the varnish itself can act as your sealer. Proceed to thin an adequate amount of varnish to 50 percent by adding either gum turpentine or mineral spirits in a ratio of 1:1. Uniformly mix the two and strain twice into an open container where you’ll be dipping your brush.

To apply, dip the brush into the sealer and let the excess drip off. Proceed to brush it on the wood, along the grain, without leaving any drips or puddles. The item of furniture should then be allowed to dry overnight before you use 320-grit paper to sand it. The number of sealer coats depends on the wood’s porosity. Repeat the process as necessary.

Step 5 – Apply the Main Varnish Coats

Using three or four coats of varnish is the ideal way to get the job done. You should apply these coats in the same manner as the sealer.

The first coat should be applied only after you have cleaned off the sand dust from the wood using either tack cloth or vacuum. Apply the varnish in slow motions to prevent the solvents from evaporating too fast. The item should then dry overnight and be sanded the next day.

The sanding process will indicate how well the drying has occurred. If the sandpaper becomes clogged, then it shows that more time is required for drying. If the varnish becomes powdery, then the next coat can be applied. Apply all the coats similarly and then allow for curing.

This final step to your DIY project is crucial to keep it looking good for years to come. With this guide to applying varnish, it will surely be a masterpiece.

Protect your project and keep it looking beautiful for years to come.

Click on any of the topics below, scroll, or use the arrows to the right to navigate through the how-to steps and tips from Minwax®.

  • Protect For Long Lasting Beauty
  • Choosing a Clear Finish
  • Clear Finish Comparison Chart
  • How to Apply a Clear Protective Finish

Protect For Long Lasting Beauty

While wood stains add color and bring out the beauty of the wood, clear finishes protect the wood and enhance its beauty. Whether you choose to stain your wood project or not, it is important that you protect the wood with a clear finish, such as polyurethane.

Most clear finishes are available in gloss, semi-gloss and satin sheens. Choosing a sheen is a matter of personal preference.

The gloss level will affect the appearance of your piece, but not its durability.

Clear finishes, sometimes called “topcoats” will protect your project against damage from water, household chemicals, and everyday wear. And the beautiful finish will make your wood come alive!

Choosing a Clear Finish

Choosing the best clear finish for your project will depend on a few key factors:

  • Project type: A project that will see heavy use, such as a table top, requires more protection than a project that will be subjected to less wear and tear. Be sure to choose a clear protective finish that is right for your project.
  • Exposure to sunlight and humidity: Doors, windows, bathroom cabinets, kitchen countertops and outdoor furniture can all be exposed to sunlight, temperature changes and humidity. For these conditions, you need to protect your project with a finish that has ultraviolet absorbers and special oils that expand and contract with temperature changes.
  • Crystal clear or amber tone: Many clear finishes add a rich, warm, amber tone to the wood. Others remain crystal clear. You can choose whichever look you prefer for your project. However, if your project is a light color—whether stained or unfinished wood—it is best to protect it with a finish that remains crystal clear.
  • Ease of application: Some Minwax® clear finishes can be easily applied with a cloth—no need to worry about drips or brush marks. Some dry very quickly and can be cleaned up with soap and water, while others require mineral spirits.
  • Note for hardwood floors: Some general-purpose clear protective finishes can be used on floors. Minwax® also offers topcoats that are specially formulated for hardwood floors. They have application benefits that make them ideal for large surface application.

Minwax ® Clear Finish Comparison Chart

Use the chart below as a guide to selecting your clear protective finish. Click on any product for more details.

Product Ideal for Use on These Projects Protects Against Sunlight and Humidity Amber Tone or Crystal Clear Application Tools Time to Recoat Soap and Water Clean Up
Fast-Drying Polyurethane Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors, Floors No Amber Natural Bristle Brush 4-6 Hours No
Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors, Floors No Amber Synthetic Bristle Brush 2 hours Yes
Polycrylic™ Protective Finish Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Crystal Clear Synthetic Bristle Brush 2 hours Yes
Helmsman® Spar Urethane Interior & Exterior Doors, Windows, Bathroom Cabinets, Kitchen Countertops, Outdoor Furniture Yes Amber Natural Bristle Brush 4 hours (6 hours for 350 VOC formula) No
Water Based Helmsman® Spar Urethane Interior & Exterior Doors, Windows, Bathroom Cabinets, Kitchen Countertops, Outdoor Furniture Yes Crystal Clear Synthetic Bristle Brush 2 hours Yes
Clear Brushing Lacquer Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Crystal Clear Natural Bristle Brush 2 hours No
Wipe-On Poly Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Amber Lint-Free Cloth 2-3 hours No
Water Based Wipe-On Poly Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Amber Lint-Free Cloth 2-3 hours Yes
Super Fast-Drying Polyurethane for Floors Specially Formulated for Hardwood Floors No Amber Lambswool Applicator or Natural Bristle Brush 3-4 hours (4-6 hours for 350 VOC formula) No
Ultra Fast-Drying Polyurethane Specially Formulated For Hardwood Floors No Slight Amber Synthetic Pad Applicator 2 hours Yes
Ultimate Floor Finish Specially Formulated For Hardwood Floors No Crystal Clear Synthetic Pad Applicator 2 hours Yes

How to Apply a Clear Protective Finish

Most clear finishes are applied with a brush, working in the direction of the grain of the wood. After it dries, sand lightly. Then remove all the sanding dust and apply a second coat. For added durability, a third coat can be applied. Most projects will be ready for normal use in 24 hours. Be sure to follow the label directions for the product you are using.

Minwax® clear protective finishes are also available in convenient aerosol sprays that are great for trim, molding and hard-to-reach areas.

Stir the clear finish well before and occasionally during use.

Be sure to mix in all material that may have settled to the bottom of the can.

Never shake a can of clear finish.

Shaking will cause bubbles in the dried finish.

Always apply thin coats.

Thick coats take longer to dry and are more likely to be uneven and attract dust.

“Tip off” each section.

To minimize brush marks and bubbles, “tip off” each section of your project at a 45-degree angle and lightly run the bristles over the entire length of the wood.

Test before you sand.

To be certain that the finish is ready to be sanded, sand a small, inconspicuous area first. If the finish starts to “ball up”, STOP. It is not dry enough to be sanded. Wait at least 30 minutes then test again.

Regardless of whether you are a professional joiner or a weekend carpentry enthusiast, it is highly recommended that you apply a natural wood finish to your projects as a final step of the production process. In this way, you will not only protect them from the natural elements and preserve their color and grain, but you will do so in a way that spares the environment and avoids further pollution. Here are five commonly used natural wood finish options to help you select the right one for your next project.

Beeswax

This is a hard natural substance produced by bees, which needs to be softened with liquid oil before it is applied. The exact wax-to-oil proportion depends on the oil brand. Beeswax will protect your joinery against stains and moisture and will leave a mild pleasant scent. Unfortunately, a beeswax coating is not very durable and will have to be reapplied on a regular basis. Moreover, the beeswax will alter the original color of the wood, giving it a pale yellow to copper brown tinge, depending on the thickness of the coating.

Tung Oil

Derived from the seeds of the Asian tree with the same name, tung oil contains only natural substances and is 100 percent biodegradable. It is distinguished by its excellent sealant properties and the lovely, glossy finish it gives to wood surfaces. On the other hand, since its ingredients need to be imported, it is not inexpensive, and you will have to pay considerably more for it than other finish alternatives. Furthermore, tung oil must be mixed with turpentine or a citrus thinner prior to its application.

Note that many hardware stores sell “tung oil” finishes that contain no tung oil at all, but are rather made of entirely synthetic substances. Therefore, always check the ingredients tag before making your purchase. Also, avoid pre-mixed finishes. Instead, buy 100 percent pure tung oil and citrus solvent for a thinner.

How to varnish wood

Shellac

Produced from the secretion of the female lac bug and dissolved in denatured alcohol, shellac is yet another natural wood finish you can use. Given that it is available in many shades that range from very light yellow to very dark brown. it will match almost any interior color design, giving your wooden furniture a warm, pastoral tinge. On the downside, a shellac coating is prone to wear and may trigger allergies in some people.

Linseed Oil

This is oil made from flax seeds, which will provide excellent protection for any wooden object. A coat of linseed oil will tinge the wood a light yellow color, but the grain will still show through perfectly well.

An alternative of this wood finish is the boiled linseed oil which contains petrol solvents and metallic agents. It is recommended that you refrain from using it if you want to live in an entirely natural and non-hazardous home environment.

Walnut Oil

Although a relatively expensive option, walnut oil is easy to apply, pleasant-smelling finish with good wood preservation characteristics. However, it may be a source of allergies, particularly in small children.

Whether you have a new interior wood door you plan to stain, or an existing one you have already stained, you will want to add a protective coat of varnish to complete your project. This additional step will not only protect the door’s surface, but will add an attractive glossy finish. To varnish your wood door, follow the steps below.

Step 1 – Apply in Appropriate Temperature and Humidity

When applying varnish it is important the temperature of the surface you are painting, the temperature of the varnish, and the temperature of the room in which you are painting are all between 70 and 80 degrees. These temperature factors are all necessary if you want your varnish to be smooth and to dry properly on the surface of your door. If your varnish has become chilled before you are ready to use it, warm it by placing it in a pail of very hot water. Be sure the lid is tight before placing it in the water.

Most varnishes should be applied in normal humidity conditions. If you plan to apply varnish in a higher than normal humidity level, you should plan to use a varnish that can be applied in these conditions. Otherwise, excessive humidity can often present problems with the varnish.

Step 2 – Use Adequate Ventilation

When applying varnish it is important you do it in an area where there is adequate ventilation. Good ventilation is necessary in order for the varnish to harden sufficiently and for you to avoid breathing fumes that might be noxious.

Step 3 – Apply Varnish Over Dry Stain

How to varnish wood

Before applying varnish to your stained door, make sure that the stain on the door has completely dried. Wipe the door off with a clean cloth to remove any debris, so your varnished surface will have a smooth finish.

Step 4 – Mix Your Varnish

It is important you stir your varnish thoroughly before applying it. This will help mix sediment that has collected in the bottom of your can. Avoid shaking the can to mix the varnish. Shaking can create air bubbles on the finished surface and make the surface rough.

Step 5 – Use a Quality Brush

When using varnish use a high quality paint brush that will prevent runs and lines from forming in your finish. Apply the varnish to your door in long, even strokes in the direction of the wood grain.

Step 6 – Allow to Dry

Allow the first coat of varnish to dry overnight. It must be completely dry before you begin sanding.

Step 7 – Sand Your Varnished Door

How to varnish wood

Once the door has completely dried, lightly sand it with fine sandpaper until you have a smooth surface. If, when you begin to sand, you find you are producing little balls of varnish, you should allow the door to dry longer before continuing.

Step 8 – Complete Your Project

After your varnish has dried, and before applying your next coat, use a soft clean cloth to remove any dust particles. Repeat steps five through eight until you have the finish you desire.

Have you ever wanted to “de-orange” your dated, wooden cabinets or furniture? Welcome to my step-by-step tutorial where I will teach you how to create a weathered wood finish WITHOUT sanding OR staining! Ready to learn how?

I don’t know about you, but the thought of stripping the varnish and stain from wood to get down to raw wood, then re-staining and sealing sounds like a lot of work. And it is. There is a lot of room for error as well. But, refinishing something you already own or have found affordably second hand is typically a better option than buying something brand new in a stain or finish you prefer. Follow the tutorial below to learn how to achieve a weathered wood finish with NO sanding and NO staining required! This is probably the simplest way to get that light, natural Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware wood finish over an existing surface. You can get this weathered wood look over paint, stain, or varnish.

How to varnish wood

Here is the dated, orange vanity wood before.

STEP 1: Clean the surface

As far as prep work goes, all that is required is to clean the surface of the wood before applying the chalk style paint.

STEP 2: Chalk paint

I used my favorite chalk paint additive to create a custom chalk style paint.

I used painters Frog tape to tape off the borders of the vanity against the wall, floor and countertop. Next, begin painting. The chalk style paint is thicker and has more texture than typical interior latex paint. Brush strokes are visible when the paint is wet on the first coat. After the first coat has dried (dry time is much quicker than typical latex paint), I painted a second coat. After the second coat, my brush strokes disappeared and I got opaque coverage.

How to varnish wood

STEP 3: Antiquing Wax- the key to the weathered wood finish

I wrote about this product in other posts outlining how I refinished my dining room table with Liming and Antiquing Wax (see the HUGE transformation here!) and my vintage bar cart. The Antiquing Wax works so well over chalk paint and in my opinion can mimic a real wood finish over a painted surface.

To use this product, be aware that a little goes a long way. Using a chip brush, get a small amount of wax on the bristles of your brush and work it into the surface using long strokes. It dries in a minute or two, so it’s important to work in small sections. Work it in with the brush until you have a look and texture you like. I sometimes do a second coat in places once the first coat is fully dried.