Varnishing wood

Varnishing wood is a straightforward decorative option to using paint. Varnish can be used inside and out, as long as recommended by the manufacturer, and you can buy varnish either water-based or oil-based. The water-based options are quick drying and more user friendly but I still think the oil-based options offer a harder wearing finish. Take care when choosing filler to carry out any repairs as you need to choose a type/colour that is compatible with your chosen varnish.

how to prepare wood for varnish 1. After filling any holes, and allowing the filler to dry, sand the entire surface with a medium grade of sandpaper.
how to varnish wood 2. Dust off the surface and apply varnish evenly, making sure that the finishing strokes are in the direction of the grain. Keep checking for drips.
sanding between coats 3. Once the first coat of varnish is dry, it is essential to sand the surface with a fine grade of sandpaper to remove any specks of dust and dirt – also in many cases the woodgrain is raised by the application of the varnish, so a quick sand returns the wood to a smooth surface.
cleaning with white spirit 4. Remove any dusty residue from the surface with a cloth dampened in white spirit. Allow the white spirit to dry before continuing.
wood varnishing 5. Apply the second coat of varnish, again making sure that the finishing strokes are in the direction of the wood grain, and brush out any drip marks.

Applying wood varnish

  • Two coats of varnish on bare wood is normally sufficient, but a third will definitely give the best, and most hardwearing finish.
  • Varnish will always highlight, rather than camouflage, any imperfections in a wood surface, so thorough preparation is essential.
  • Matt, gloss, and semi gloss finishes are available.
  • Varnishing over previously coated surfaces is normally tricky. If you are using the same type of varnish (a maintenance coat on outside windows for example), you should be okay as long as you give the wood a good sand and dust down before application. In most other cases, you will need to strip off all other coatings before applying the varnish. For some general information in this area, see my guide – ‘Stripping paint’.


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