What You Need to Know About Varnishing Wood

Do you have a piece you think could do with a refresher? Maybe you’d rather upgrade than throw it out? The simplest way to give your furniture a facelift is with a lick of varnish. Take a look at our guide to varnishing your furniture to get it right the first time.

Open the windows

The problem with varnishing is that a lot of little bits of dust can find a place on your wet varnish, and once they are there, you’re not going to get rid of them without starting over. Open the windows on the day of your DIY, run a hoover around the room, and put something down to protect the floor. Varnish is not going to come off of laminate or carpet.

Plus, varnish has fumes that might cause a headache at best, so keep the window open for somewhere for the chemicals to escape.

Know your varnishes

You can use one of a number of variations on varnish, the most common being water-based, oil-based and acrylic. Oil-based varnishes are the most durable but take the longest to dry. Water-based varnishes are a lot less harmful, so you don’t have to worry about the smell giving you a migraine, and they’re easier to clean, but they’re not as durable.

Remove the old finish

If you’re not painting virgin wood, you might want to remove the old finish. This can be done a number of ways. Leaving paint stripper on it for a while will allow you to scrape off the paint as it bubbles. You can also use paint thinner. Just rub it over the surface of your piece and scrape it off. If you do want virgin wood, you might consider consulting building merchants for all the wood you’ll need.

Prepare the wood

Either way, you’ll need to then sand the piece to make sure the varnish sticks. This will get rid of any residual gloss or paint and will prepare the piece for varnish. At this point, you want to use a fine grit, like 180-220 grit sand.

And now it’s time to clean it to make sure there is no dust or residual from all the products you’ve used so far. A damp cloth will be enough to do the trick here.

Prepare the varnish

Depending on the varnish you’re using, you’ll need to prepare it in different ways for the first coat. Once the first coat is down, you don’t need to mess with the formula again. For oil-based varnish, you should mix one part varnish with one part paint thinner and for water-based varnish, mix one-part varnish and one part water. This will seal the wood for the next coat.


And we’re finally ready to paint. Use a flat paintbrush or a foam application to apply the varnish with long strokes with the wood grain.

And wait

Pick up a book because you’re going to have to wait 24 hours.

Once it’s dry, give it another sand with a 280-grit pad to smooth out the varnish. Give it another wipe down with a damp cloth and get ready to apply another coat.


Apply two or three more coats, leaving time for it to dry in between, and remember to sand and wipe down the piece before moving on. Once you’re satisfied with the shade and the applications, don’t touch it. The varnish still has to cure, which should take at least 24-48 hours. Check your tin because some varnishes take up to 30 days to fully cure.

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