Varnish vs. Polyurethane Wood Finish: Understanding the Distinctions

Varnish vs lacquer

Varnish and polyurethane are two popular wood finishes, but what are the differences between them?


When it comes to protecting and enhancing the beauty of wood, choosing the right finish is crucial. Varnish and polyurethane are two commonly used wood finishes that offer different characteristics and benefits. Understanding the distinctions between varnish and polyurethane can help you make an informed decision when selecting the appropriate finish for your woodworking project.

What is Varnish?

Varnish is a transparent, protective coating that is typically made from a combination of resins, oils, and solvents. It is known for its durability and ability to provide a glossy or satin sheen to wood surfaces. Varnish is often used on outdoor furniture, boats, and other wooden structures that are exposed to harsh weather conditions.

Advantages of Varnish:

  • Excellent protection against moisture, UV rays, and temperature changes
  • Enhances the natural beauty of wood by highlighting its grain and color
  • Provides a hard and durable finish
  • Available in various sheen levels, from high gloss to satin

Disadvantages of Varnish:

  • Requires multiple coats for optimal protection
  • Longer drying time compared to polyurethane
  • Can yellow over time, especially in areas with high exposure to sunlight
  • May require sanding between coats for a smooth finish

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a synthetic resin that is commonly used as a wood finish. It is available in both oil-based and water-based formulations. Polyurethane provides a clear, protective coating that is resistant to scratches, stains, and chemicals. It is widely used for interior woodwork such as floors, cabinets, and furniture.

Advantages of Polyurethane:

  • Offers excellent durability and protection against wear and tear
  • Dries relatively quickly, allowing for faster project completion
  • Available in different finishes, including gloss, semi-gloss, and satin
  • Does not yellow over time
  • Easy to apply and provides a smooth, even finish

Disadvantages of Polyurethane:

  • May not withstand extreme weather conditions as well as varnish
  • Can be more prone to showing brush or roller marks if not applied carefully
  • Requires proper ventilation due to the fumes emitted during application
  • Water-based polyurethane may raise the grain of the wood, requiring additional sanding

Comparison Table: Varnish vs. Polyurethane

ProtectionExcellent against moisture, UV rays, and temperature changesExcellent against scratches, stains, and chemicals
Finish OptionsGlossy or satinGloss, semi-gloss, or satin
Drying TimeLonger drying timeRelatively quick drying time
YellowingMay yellow over timeDoes not yellow over time
ApplicationMultiple coats, may require sanding between coatsEasy to apply, provides a smooth finish


Choosing between varnish and polyurethane depends on the specific requirements of your woodworking project. Varnish offers excellent protection against harsh weather conditions and enhances the natural beauty of wood, but it may require more coats and has a longer drying time. On the other hand, polyurethane provides exceptional durability, dries faster, and does not yellow over time. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each finish to make an informed decision that suits your needs and preferences.

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