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How To Apply Varnish to Wood

If you have a favourite piece of furniture in the house, you might be thinking of applying a varnish to it. A good varnish helps prevent damage and provides a layer of protection which means the wood looks better and lasts longer. Varnished wood takes in much less moisture than unvarnished wood, and this reduces the chances of your wood warping and splitting.

Applying a varnish will bring out the natural colour of the timber, providing a long-lasting, beautiful deep sheen.

How do I prepare the wood for varnishing?

Step 1

Varnish will take to the wood much better and last much longer if you prepare thoroughly. The wood should be as clean and dry as possible before you start varnishing.

  • First of all remove any existing varnishes, waxes, oils or stains with a suitable remover/stripper.
  • Take care to remove any other stains, grease, dust or dirt with either a damp cloth or a dry brush.
  • Fill any holes with a wood filler that’s suitable for varnish. Level with a filling knife and allow to dry completely.
  • Sand the surface with a fine or medium grain sandpaper as appropriate, e.g. 100 grit (medium) or 180 grit (fine).
  • Your work area then needs to be free of dust and dirt, as this can settle on newly varnished wood and spoil the finish.
  • Varnish dries slower in cool or humid conditions. So choose a warm dry day if you’re varnishing outdoors.
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Which varnish should I use?

Step 1
  • Water-based varnishes are a quality all-purpose varnish to use. They are low odour, low toxicity and dry more quickly than oil-based varnish. They are ideal for indoor wooden furniture in particular. Water-based varnish is best applied with a synthetic bristle brush.
  • Traditional oil-based varnishes are more durable than water-based varnish. They can cope better with temperature variations, so are more suitable for use on exterior wood. Oil-based varnish takes longer to dry though. It is best used with a natural bristle brush.

What is the best way to apply varnish?

Step 1

A question commonly asked with varnishing is “how do I get a smooth finish?”. Luckily there are several tips to help you achieve this.

  • Stir the varnish gently but well – shaking the tin produces bubbles, which can prevent you achieving a smooth finish.
  • Don’t overload the brush and just dip the tip when brushing edges.
  • Apply the varnish evenly with smooth light brush strokes, working in the direction of the grain. 
  • For the best finish it’s important to “tip off” after application. This means lightly dragging the tips of an unloaded brush across the wet varnish, whilst holding the brush at a steep angle. Tipping off also prevents any runs or pools before the varnish starts to dry.
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Step 2

Let the varnish dry completely. Once the varnish has dried, lightly sand with extra fine grain sandpaper, e.g. 240 grit. Then wipe down with a soft damp cloth to remove any dust.

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How many coats of varnish should I apply?

Step 1

Apply as many subsequent coats of varnish as you need – an additional 2 or 3 coats is standard. Remember to tip off each coat, then gently sand in between each coat with fine grain sandpaper. Again work with the grain of the wood when applying the varnish. You may need to use a thinner with the varnish – refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the best results.

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How To Apply Stain To Wood

Whilst a varnish is a protective layer on the outside of wood, a stain will deeply penetrate the wood. A stain will change or enhance the natural colour of wood and the grain. However, a stain won’t provide as much protection as a varnish.

Every piece of wood is different, so it’s advisable to first of all use a small area for testing. This is a great way to see if the wood will accept the stain, and that you end up with the colour you want.

How do I prepare the wood before staining?

Step 1

Just as with varnishing there are a few simple steps you need to take to make sure the wood takes the stain properly.

  • First of all remove any existing varnishes, waxes, oils or stains with a suitable remover/stripper.
  • Take care to remove any other stains, grease, dust or dirt with either a damp cloth or a dry brush.
  • Fill any holes with a suitable wood filler. Level with a filling knife and allow to dry completely.
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Do I have to sand the wood before staining?

Step 1

You should always sand wood before staining, and make sure the surface is as smooth as possible and blemish-free. It’s best to use a medium or fine grain sandpaper, e.g. 80 - 120 grit. If the grain is too rough the wood will end up being too dark. If the grain is too fine the wood won’t accept the stain properly.

What is the best way to apply stain?

Step 1

Make sure all the dust from sanding has been cleaned away and your working surface is clean and dry.

  • Wet the wood by wiping it with a wet cloth. This raises the grain for better sanding. Allow the wood to dry completely.
  • Stir the stain gently but well – shaking the tin produces bubbles, which can prevent you from achieving a smooth finish.
  • It’s often easier to apply stain using a lint-free cloth or rag rather than a brush. Stain dries quickly, so this is an effective technique for quick application on larger surface areas.
  • If you do use a brush then don’t overload the bristles.
  • Wipe away any excess stain before it dries.
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How many coats of stain should I apply?

Step 1

Stain can’t usually be removed once it’s been applied. So it’s better to apply thinner coats and add more as required. This way you can build up to the colour you want – the more layers are added, the darker the wood will be. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for guidance.

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How To Apply Wax To Wood

Waxing has long been a traditional way to finish and protect wood. A wax finish produces a distinctive look compared to varnishing or staining. It’s a very effective way to restore older pieces of furniture which would have originally been finished with wax.

Wood wax can also be applied over almost every other finish such as paint, varnish, oil and stain. But it’s not advisable to apply any other finish on top of the wax. This could potentially damage your wood and ruin the finish.

What is the best wax for wood?

You can use different types of wax depending on your project and the type of look you’re after.

  • Beeswax produces an attractive natural finish and is easy to apply. It’s a very soft wax though, so it doesn’t offer much protection. Beeswax can remain slightly sticky unless buffed properly.
  • Carnauba wax is a popular vegetable wax which produces a long-lasting finish. It can also be added to polish and buffed to a high shine. Refer to manufacturer’s instructions on whether to add to polish and how much to add.
  • Paste waxes are specially formulated and are versatile enough to be used on a variety of projects.

Should I use coloured wax for wood?

Depending on the nature of your project, you may want to use coloured furniture wax such as a white, black, or antique wax. Before using coloured wax you must always apply a layer of clear wax first. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for specific details on how best to apply certain colours.

How do I prepare the wood before waxing?

Depending on your project there are a few simple steps you need to take before waxing wood. You don’t necessarily need to strip off previous layers of lacquer or wax. This is especially true if you want to retain the character of the wood.

  • Start with a clean surface and remove any other stains, grease, dust or dirt with either a damp cloth or a dry brush.
  • Fill any holes with a suitable wood filler. Level with a filling knife and allow to dry completely.
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What is the best way to apply wax?

It’s best to use a lint-free cloth to apply the wax. For a more thorough penetration, 0000 grade steel wool is more suitable. Work the wax smoothly into the wood using circular motions. It’s best to apply several thin layers, which will result in a more even coating. Thick layers of wax dry unevenly and will look blotchy and dull.

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Let the wax dry according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The wax will dull slightly as it hardens. Then buff the wax with a new clean cloth. Gently rub the wood in circular motions until the shine comes through. A softer cloth will produce a better shine.

Wait at least 4 hours for the wax to harden properly and for the best results allow 24 hours. Then repeat the process according to your preference.


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How To Apply Oil To Wood

Oil is another popular and traditional finish to apply to wood. Just like wax it doesn’t quite protect the wood like a varnish, but oil brings out the natural character of the wood beautifully. Oil is also easy to apply and most of them are non-synthetic and eco-friendly.

What oil should I use to condition wood?

  • Danish oil and teak oil are quick drying oils which are suitable for all types of wood and result in a resilient finish. These oils only need to be re-applied periodically.
  • Linseed oil takes much longer to dry (between 1 and 3 days per coat), and you will need to apply multiple coats to new wood. A linseed oil finish is rich and glossy but isn’t really suitable for outdoor wood.
  • Tung oil is generally accepted as a superior natural finish for wood. It results in a superb waterproof finish which is very durable. Tung oil sometimes requires a more complex application method – refer to manufacturer’s instructions for the best results.

How do I prepare the wood before oiling?

  • First of all remove any existing varnishes, waxes, oils or stains with a suitable remover/stripper.
  • Take care to remove any other stains, grease, dust or dirt with either a damp cloth or a dry brush.
  • Fill any holes with a wood filler that’s suitable for varnish. Level with a filling knife and allow to dry completely.
  • Sand the surface with an extra fine grain sandpaper, e.g. 220 grit. This will open up the pores in the wood and result in a better finish.
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What is the best way to apply oil?

  • Oil can be applied using a brush, a lint-free cloth, or a clean cheesecloth pad – refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for application.
  • Oil needs to be well absorbed so apply it evenly and liberally, working with the grain of the wood. If you’re using a cloth then rub the oil firmly into the wood using circular motions.
  • The longer you rub, the warmth you generate will help the wood absorb the oil. After thoroughly rubbing the wood, remove any excess oil with a clean dry cloth.
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Once the first coat of oil has completely dried, apply further coats as required until the finish is rich and hard. Sometimes you can apply additional coats using extra fine grit sandpaper, which will help push the oil deep into the pores of the wood. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the most suitable application method. Remember to let the oil dry out completely between each coat.

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