Varnish Versus Paint

A guide to comparing paint and varnish, listing the pros and cons of each.

Paint and varnish... both seem to do more or less the same thing (cover and protect wood), but what are the real differences between the two? Which is better, and which is worse? Well, the simple answers are both and neither, depending on what it is that you're wanting to cover and protect.

First of all, let's look at varnish (and wood stains, which more or less fall into the same category). Wood stains and varnish are designed to penetrate the wood, bringing out and enhancing the wood's natural beauty while protecting it from water, dirt, and sunlight. Stains and varnishes often require several applications, depending upon the type of wood that they're being used on and the condition that the wood is in... after all, the wood is going to be soaking in the varnish and the oils within it. When you're done, you should be able to see all of the natural woodgrain patterns in the wood, with the wood enhanced to the color of the stain or varnish (and often given a glossy finish.)

Paint, on the other hand, is designed to cover and coat the wood. Painting over wood often masks most if not all of the natural woodgrain, sealing it in a coating that can be pretty much any color that you can imagine. Two or more coats are often used, though as many as three to five or more might be needed if the wood is very dry or old (as it will soak up the paint to replace oils and natural moisture, just like it will varnish or stains.) What you might lose in the natural beauty of the wood you make up for in versatility of color and resilience... if primer is used as a base coat, you'll often have to repaint less than you would have to refinish the same piece if it were varnished or stained. (Of course, you should always use a primer... paint sticks to it better than it does to bare wood, and it prevents the wood from soaking in the paint as it would otherwise.)

So, which should you choose for your wood? Well, it mostly depends upon what you're wanting from the wood. As previously mentioned, both varnish and paint offer protection from the elements for the wood... though some paints are designed to offer additional protection from certain types of abuses. (As an example, there are household paints available that are designed so that crayon marks can be easily removed, so this type of paint would be preferable if you were painting a desk or table for a child's playroom.) Varnish, however, makes your wood look like wood... so if you're finishing a piece where you like the look of the wood (or you want it to look as natural as possible), then go with the varnish. Consider the look that you want to achieve, as well as the surrounding decor and any possible use that the piece might receive, and use all of this information to make your decision.

One last bit of advice is that no matter which you pick, the paint or the varnish, don't skimp out and use the cheapest brushes that you can find. Often cheap brushes will have rougher bristles, which can leave streaks and brushmarks in your finish (especially with paint.) The last thing that you'll want to do is to spend your time finding the perfect paint, varnish, or stain and then end up with brushmarks marring the surface of your finished piece.

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