Adding color to a surface is a great way to improve various objects and structures’ aesthetic appeal. Using one of the many varieties of surface coatings available can also improve other aspects of an object or structure, providing protection from the elements and pests and slowing deterioration. But which is better, paint, varnish, or wood stain?

Wood stain, varnish, and paint each has its pros and cons. In reality, to determine the best surface coating for the specific job, you need to understand the surface you will be working with, your expectations of the materials, and the job’s requirements.

This article will look at the different qualities of each of these materials and how they function on different surfaces. This thorough examination of varnish, paint, and wood stain qualities will give you everything you need to know to figure out which material is best for your purposes. If you have ever wondered which of these options is best, read on.

Paint vs. Varnish vs. Wood Stain: A Quick Comparison

 PaintVarnishWood Stain
SurfacesMetal, Wood, Fiberglass, PlasticWood, Metal, FiberglassWood, Metal (some varieties), Fiberglass (some varieties)
ProtectionMedium to ExtremeMedium to HighHigh on wood, low on other surfaces.
Color1000’s of colors. Opaque.Semi-translucent. It is generally without pigment.Semi-translucent. Different pigments and tones are available.
Durability5-10 years depending on exposure2-5 years depending on exposure2-5 years depending on UV exposure

This table provides a few quick facts about each of these materials, but to better understand what is best for your specific needs, we will have to take a more in-depth look at each surface coating on its own.

Paint

Paint - When to use it and a comparison with wood stain and varnish.

This material has the broadest uses of the coatings we are examining, making it suitable for all kinds of different jobs and applications. If you are looking to change or enhance the color of just about any structure or object, paint is your best option.

Versatility

Paint can be applied to just about any surface you can think of: metal, wood, fiberglass, concrete, asphalt, masonry. Paint can do it all.

This is the reason that paint is ubiquitous across so many different industries. It is used to paint homes, airplanes, cars, and bridges. Another characteristic of paint that sets it apart from some other surface coatings is the different ways it can be delivered.

Paint can be spread on using rollers and brushes. However, the ability to transform paint into an aerosol is where paint stands out. By applying paint in a fine mist, whether in the easily portable spray-can or more elaborate paint gun or compressor setups used in automotive industries, this ability drastically improves paint’s versatility and effectiveness.

How It Works

Paint uses a three-part structure that allows the color to adhere to the surface you’re working with. Binders and solvents are made up of pigments, and they work together, giving paint the properties that make it such a versatile coating.

The pigments supply the color itself. However, these colorful substances are generally solids, so they are mixed with binders to congeal them together as well as allowing them to stick to the surface you are painting. Originally, binders were derived from sources like natural rubber, although most are now synthetic.

The third component, solvents, gives the thick pigment/binder mixture the smooth, liquid texture that allows the paint to be evenly spread across a surface. It is also these solvents that allow paint to be aerosolized.

However, when using paint you should always lay a base coat to ensure proper coverage and that the paint will fully adhere to the surface.

When Should You Use Paint?

As we have discussed, paint is a versatile material that can be used on almost any surface. However, it reacts differently to some materials and is not always the most optimal choice depending on your needs.

Metal

Paint is the best option for painting metal, as there are several different paints designed specifically to paint metal. Automotive paints, in particular, can be used on almost any metal surface and can yield some stunning results. Spray paint is also an excellent choice if you are looking to add color to metal surfaces.

Plastics and Fiberglass

This is another area where paint excels. Once again, the versatility of paint is highlighted by the variety of formulas designed specifically to adhere to these synthetic materials, making paint the best option when painting plastic and fiberglass. Model airplane paint is a classic example of a product specifically for this application that many people are familiar with.

Wood

Wood is one material where paint can sometimes underperform. While there still aren’t any better options if you are looking for vibrant colors, the problem with painting wood is that the paint doesn’t fully penetrate this porous material.

Because paint only sits on top of the wood, as it cracks and deteriorates over time, the protection it provides becomes compromised, and water can seep in and lead to rot and other structural problems.

Concrete

This is another material that is perfectly suited for paint. The semi-porous nature of concrete can be troublesome for some paint varieties, although spray paint, as graffiti artists around the world can attest to, is excellent for this purpose.

Application

The wide variety of different types of paint means that there isn’t any single application process for all situations. However, there are a few steps that apply to most paint projects.

  1. Having a clean surface to paint is essential, so wiping down the area is always a good idea. When preparing wood for paint, many people choose to use a bit of sandpaper to rough the area and increase its ability to bind to the surface.
  2. Whether you are painting a car, brick wall, or a wooden door, a base coat is your best bet for a uniform final product. A base coat will generally be a lighter color than your final paint choice. Typically, neutral tones like gray and white are preferred.
  3. Generally, several coats of the final color should be applied regardless of the surface, although high-end car paint jobs are notorious for multiple coats.

Varnish

Varnish and a brush - What it is and how to use it.

Rather than being one specific material, varnish refers to the hard, glossy appearance achieved through the application of several similar materials. Lacquer, polyurethane, and acrylic resin are all varnishes with different qualities and applications and each of these products are favored for the protective qualities they provide surfaces.

Versatility

The fact that the term varnish refers to a wide variety of different materials means that odds are, there is a varnish out there that is suitable for your specific task.

Most wood varnishes need to be painted on using a brush to ensure proper coverage and a glossy finish, though some other varieties can be aerosolized similarly to paint. Lacquer, for example, is a type of varnish that typically contains acetate as a solvent and is sprayed onto surfaces. While some people may not consider lacquer a true varnish, it fits with our broader definition.

Another example of the versatility of varnish is the polyurethane variety. These extremely tough surface coatings are often favored for use on wood floors to resist abrasions, durability, and hardness.

How It Works

As we mentioned, varnishes are a broad and diverse group of materials, but most function based on similar principles. Varnish is usually translucent and lacks the pigments found in other surface coatings, making it popular for use on wood, allowing the grain’s natural appearance to show through.

Varnishes are typically a combination of three components: drying oil, resin, and solvent. Once applied, the solvents that allow varnish to remain in a liquid state begin to evaporate, some almost instantaneously. As the solvents evaporate and the oils dry, they work with the resins to form a hard, translucent, and glossy surface.

The variety of different materials and components in modern varnishes range from natural products like linseed oil and rosin to polyurethane, acrylic, and turpentine. This diversity in composition allows for the versatility of these surface coatings.

When Should You Use Varnish?

The variety of different varnishes available means that several surfaces can benefit from the glossy, durable finish that is characteristic of these materials.

Wood

This is the material that varnishes were originally designed to treat and wood remains one of the most common surfaces that varnish is applied to. It isn’t just the glossy finish that makes it such an excellent coating for wood. The protection that several coats of varnish offer makes this material aesthetically pleasing and functional, helping wood to stand up to the test of time.

Since varnish is usually clear without any pigment, many people choose to combine it with wood stain to take advantage of this surface treatment’s different colors while maintaining the protective qualities of varnish. Applying varnish over pre-stained wood provides the best of both worlds.

Metal, Plastic & Fiberglass

While traditionally, varnish wasn’t suitable for use on these materials, developments in these surface coatings’ chemical composition mean that there are now several options for use on metal, plastic, and fiberglass.

Many of the aerosolized lacquers, in particular, are specifically designed for use on these surfaces. One common use for these aerosolized lacquers is the ad a clear coat that will protect the existing patina on metal antiques, cars, and motorcycles.

Application

While several types of varnish can be sprayed on, this product is typically applied with a brush, so this is the method we will look at.

  1. Most people prepare the wood surface with a light sanding, or wiping it down with a clean rag. They will varnish with a light sanding to rough the area and improve binding. Unlike most paints, varnish usually needs to be diluted, and experts use a thinner such as turpentine to achieve the desired viscosity. Most experts recommend a thin first layer, with subsequent layers being less diluted.
  2. It is best to apply 2-3 light layers of varnish, allow them to dry, and lightly sand the area a second time. How many coats you apply is dependent on the surface, with large objects like furniture generally requiring more coats (5 or 6) than small areas like trim (1 or 2).
  3. Once complete, a glossy coating will help protect the surface. Varnish on indoor surfaces like furniture will last for many years, although outdoor areas like decks may need to be re-varnished after 2-3 years.

Wood Stain

Wood stain - What it is and when to use it.

Far more specialized than the other materials we have examined, stains are almost exclusively used on wood. Unlike paints and varnishes, wood stains are designed to be absorbed into the wood’s porous surface, providing a different type of protection than the previous materials we have examined.

Versatility

Wood stains are generally designed with a much more specific use case scenario in mind. Stains differ from paints and varnishes, making them not versatile materials. However, they are excellent for their specific purpose: providing protection and subtle color to various wood surfaces.

Some developments have led to several appropriate products for use on surfaces other than wood, however. These gel stains are far thicker than traditional stains, allowing them to be applied to less porous surfaces. Gel stains are often used on metal to provide subtle colors that can often mimic wood.

How It Works

Similarly to paint, wood stains are made up of a three-part combination of pigments, solvent, and binders. While each material’s components are similar, the ratios are much different, leading to the difference in functionality.

Typically, stain has a higher percentage of solvent, followed by pigment and, lastly, binder. The lower percentage of the binder allows the stain to penetrate the wood, while the pigment typically remains closer to the material’s surface. The lower amounts of pigments also account for the semi-translucent quality. It allows much of the wood grain to show through.

The limited use of binders in stains also means that a much less formidable surface layer is produced than paints and varnishes. This is not to say that stains do not protect the material they are applied to, only that they do so differently.

While paints and varnishes work to produce a coating around the outside, stains penetrate the substrate, preventing water from being absorbed and reducing the likelihood of termite infestation. This is why stain is such an excellent choice when treating wood surfaces.

Wood

This is where stain comes into its own. Perfect for decks and fences, the protection that stains provide makes them a necessity for wood surfaces exposed to the elements. The limited use of subtle pigments will allow the natural grain of the wood to show through while adding a depth of tone that can make for some beautiful finishes.

The variety of colors available range from natural tones like redwood and deep brown mahogany, to greens, blues, and purples. As previously mentioned, combining the deep protection and subtle colors of wood stains with the durable outer layer and glossy appearance of varnishes produces the ultimate in treatment for wood surfaces.

Metal, Veneer & Fiberglass

Gel stains have a much higher viscosity than traditional stains, meaning that they can be applied to non-porous metal surfaces. Unlike liquid wood stains, these thicker products are usually applied with a cloth instead of a paintbrush.

This same process allows the subtle colors of wood stains to be applied to other non-porous surfaces like fiberglass and veneer without the need to be absorbed into the substrate. When properly applied, some of these gel stains can even reproduce the look of wood on more durable materials like metal or fiberglass.

Minwax 660910000 Gel Stain, quart, Coffee
  • The non-drip formula makes it ideal for vertical...
  • The thick-bodied consistency makes it ideal for giving...
  • Rich, wood appearance
  • Recoat: 8-10 hours

Application

  1. The first step is to lightly sand the area where you will be applying your stain. This will remove any blemishes and ensure that you are beginning with a clean surface. Like varnish, stain allows the wood grain to show through, so it is a good idea to make sure the grain looks as nice as possible before you begin.
  2. Using either a brush or a rag, apply the stain in even strokes to the surface, waiting several minutes before wiping off excess stain with another rag. The longer you let the stain sit, the more it will absorb, generally leaving you with a darker tone. Let the area dry overnight and add another layer if you are looking for a deeper color.
  3. Once you are happy with the look of your wood, applying a coat or two of varnish will provide an added layer of protection and a glossy finish that will bring out the natural beauty of the wood grain.

You may want to read: How to Paint Over Stained Wood

Conclusion

As you can see, these three different types of surface coatings can provide a near-limitless variety of final products. From the natural tones of wood stain to the Day-Glo colors of paint to the varnish’s glossy finish, the material you choose depends on the task and aesthetic you are going for.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to adding color and depth to a surface. However, with an understanding of the materials and how they function, you are sure to find the right combination of protection, visual appeal, and longevity that will fit your needs.

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