What Is the Difference Between Wood Stain, Varnish and Lacquer?

Wood finishing is the final touch, the icing on the cake, the coup de grâce. The proper use of stain, lacquer or varnish isn't an art form -- it's routine -- and there's no need to be intimated.

What Stain Does

Wood, in its natural state, is somewhat benign. Stain is the first step you can take to bring out the wood's beauty. Complex, hidden grain patterns lie under the surface, and they might never be found without the use of stain. It adds definition and color.

Water-Based and Solvent-Based Stains

Water- or solvent-based stain is a mixture of water and pigment, or solvents and pigment. When it's applied to wood, the solvents or water evaporate, leaving the colored pigment behind.

Water- and Solvent-Based Stain Traits

  • Dries fast, in about 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Hundreds of available colors.
  • Easy to clean up.
  • Requires a top coat.
  • May cause grain to raise.

Water- and solvent-based stain is used the majority of the time in woodworking, because it's fast and user-friendly. It's typically applied with a brush or cloth, but can be sprayed on. Use it for moldings, trim and cabinets. Follow it up with a film-forming top coat of your choosing.

Oil-Based Stain

Oil-based stain penetrates deeply. It adds color without raising the grain, and doesn't always require a film-forming top coat to protect wood. Oil-based stain allows for more workable time than solvent- or water-based stain before it dries.

Oil-Based Stain Traits

  • Oil-based stain requires 72 hours or more to dry.
  • Can be recoated at regular intervals, such as every six months to renew the finish.
  • Brings out deeper, more pronounced patterns and color than solvent or water-based stain.
  • Won't produce a hard surface when used without a top coat.

Use oil-based stain for a traditional finish on furniture, or wherever you want an old-school finish. Follow it up with coat of paste wax for a delicate finish.

Top Coats

Lacquer and varnish are film-forming top coats used to protect and add luster to wood, and are typically applied over stain after it's dry. Sometimes referred to generically, lacquer and varnish are not the same thing. Varnish is made from oils and resin. Lacquer is solvent-based.

Lacquer Traits

  • Lacquer dries fast, and is typically applied with spray equipment.
  • Can be recoated within about 15 minutes.
  • Two coats of lacquer are typically sufficient to protect wood.
  • Lacquer has minimal water resistance.

Use lacquer for a speedy, durable finish that's easy to apply on interior woodworking, cabinets, moldings and trim. Lacquer is not suitable for exterior use.

Varnish

  • Varnish is thicker than lacquer, and typically applied with a brush.
  • Varnish requires four to six hours or longer to dry.
  • Provides better overall moisture-resistance than lacquer.
  • Some formulations of varnish are suitable for exterior use.

Use varnish for an old-school finish that imparts depth to flooring and specialty projects. Varnish can be used in place of lacquer on cabinets and trim, but it's time consuming.

Durability

The question of durability is contentious. Varnish is more flexible than lacquer, moves with the wood, and is not as likely to crack as lacquer. Lacquer dries harder than varnish, and will not dent or scuff as easily as varnish, but can crack, especially if you apply numerous coats.