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Varnish on wood stairs Varnish.jpg
Varnish on wood stairs
Varnished oak floor Oak flooring.jpg
Varnished oak floor

Varnish is a clear transparent hard protective coating or film. It is not to be confused with wood stain. It usually has a yellowish shade due to the manufacturing process and materials used, but it may also be pigmented as desired. It is sold commercially in various shades.


Varnish is primarily used as a wood finish [1] where, stained or not, the distinctive tones and grains in the wood are intended to be visible. Varnish finishes are naturally glossy, but satin/semi-gloss and flat sheens are available. [2] [3]


The word "varnish" comes from Mediaeval Latin vernix, meaning odorous resin, perhaps derived from Middle Greek berōnikón or beroníkē, meaning amber or amber-colored glass. [4] A false etymology traces the word to the Greek Berenice , the ancient name of modern Benghazi in Libya, where the first varnishes in the Mediterranean area were supposedly used and where resins from the trees of now-vanished forests were sold.

Early varnishes were developed by mixing resin—pine pitch, for example—with a solvent and applying them with a brush to get the golden and hardened effect one sees in today's varnishes. [5] Varnishing was a technique well known in ancient Egypt.

Varnishing is also recorded in the history of East and South Asia; in India, China and Japan, where the practice of lacquer work, a species of varnish application, was known at a very early date. The Tang Chinese used medieval chemistry experiments to produce a varnish for clothes and weapons, employing complex chemical formulas applied to silk clothes of underwater divers, a cream designated for polishing bronze mirrors, and other formulas. [6]


Because of flammability concerns, many product containers list safety precautions for storage and disposal for varnishes and drying oils as they are flammable, and materials used to apply the varnishes may spontaneously combust. Many varnishes contain plant-derived oils (e.g. linseed oil), synthetic oils (e.g. polyurethanes) or resins as their binder in combination with organic solvents. These are flammable in their liquid state. All drying oils, certain alkyds (including paints), and many polyurethanes produce heat (an exothermic reaction) during the curing process. Thus, oil-soaked rags and paper can smolder and ignite into flames, even several hours after use if proper precautions are not taken. Therefore, many manufacturers list proper disposal practices for rags and other items used to apply the finish, such as disposal in a water filled container. [7] [8]

Components of varnish

Varnish is traditionally a combination of a drying oil, a resin, and a thinner or solvent plus a metal drier to accelerate the drying. However, different types of varnish have different components. After being applied, the film-forming substances in varnishes either harden directly, as soon as the solvent has fully evaporated, or harden after evaporation of the solvent through curing processes, primarily chemical reaction between oils and oxygen from the air (autoxidation) and chemical reactions between components of the varnish.

Resin varnishes dry by evaporation of the solvent and harden quickly on drying. Acrylic and waterborne varnishes dry by evaporation of the water but will experience an extended curing period for evaporation of organic solvents absorbed on the latex particles, and possibly chemical curing of the particles. Oil, polyurethane, and epoxy varnishes remain liquid even after evaporation of the solvent but quickly begin to cure, undergoing successive stages from liquid or syrupy, to tacky or sticky, to dry gummy, to dry to the touch, to hard.

Environmental factors such as heat and humidity play a large role in the drying and curing times of varnishes. In classic varnish the cure rate depends on the type of oil used and, to some extent, on the ratio of oil to resin. The drying and curing time of all varnishes may be sped up by exposure to an energy source such as sunlight, ultraviolet light, or heat.

Drying oil

There are many different types of drying oils, including linseed oil, tung oil, and walnut oil. These contain high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Drying oils cure through an exothermic reaction between the polyunsaturated portion of the oil and oxygen from the air. Originally, the term "varnish" referred to finishes that were made entirely of resin dissolved in suitable solvents, either ethanol (alcohol) or turpentine. The advantage to finishes in previous centuries was that resin varnishes had a very rapid cure rate compared to oils; in most cases they are cured practically as soon as the solvent has fully evaporated. By contrast, untreated or "raw" oils may take weeks or months to cure, depending on ambient temperature and other environmental factors. In modern terms, boiled or partially polymerized drying oils with added siccatives or dryers (chemical catalysts) have cure times of less than 24 hours. However, certain non-toxic by-products of the curing process are emitted from the oil film even after it is dry to the touch and over a considerable period of time. It has long been a tradition to combine drying oils with resins to obtain favourable features of both substances.


Many different kinds of resins may be used to create a varnish. Natural resins used for varnish include amber, kauri gum, dammar, copal, rosin (colophony or pine resin), sandarac, balsam, elemi, mastic, and shellac. Varnish may also be created from synthetic resins such as acrylic, alkyd, or polyurethane. A varnish formula might not contain any added resins at all since drying oils can produce a varnish effect by themselves. [9]


Originally, turpentine or alcohol was used to dissolve the resin and thin the drying oils. The invention of petroleum distillates has led to turpentine substitutes such as white spirit, paint thinner, and mineral spirit. Modern synthetic varnishes may be formulated with water instead of hydrocarbon solvents.



Varnished violin German, maple Violin.JPG
Varnished violin

Violin varnishing is a multi-step process involving some or all of the following: primer, sealer, ground, color coats, and clear topcoat. Some systems use a drying oil varnish as described below, while others use spirit varnish made of resin(s) dissolved in alcohol. Touchup in repair or restoration is only done with solvent based varnish.

Drying oil such as walnut oil or linseed oil may be used in combination with amber, copal, rosin or other resins. Traditionally the oil is prepared by cooking or exposure to air and sunlight, but modern stand oil is prepared by heating oil at high temperature without oxygen. The refined resin is sometimes available as a translucent solid and is then "run" by cooking or melting it in a pot over heat without solvents. The thickened oil and prepared resin are then cooked together and thinned with turpentine (away from open flame) into a brushable solution. The ingredients and processes of violin varnish are very diverse, with some highly regarded old examples showing defects (e.g. cracking, crazing) associated with incompatible varnish components.

Some violin finishing systems use vernice bianca (egg white and gum arabic) as a sealer or ground. There is also evidence that finely powdered minerals, possibly volcanic ash, were used in some grounds. Some violins made in the late 18th century used ox blood to create a very deep-red coloration. Today this varnish would have faded and currently be a very warm, dark orange. [10]


Most resin or gum varnishes consist of a natural, plant- or insect-derived substance dissolved in a solvent, called spirit varnish or solvent varnish. The solvent may be alcohol, turpentine, or petroleum-based. Some resins are soluble in both alcohol and turpentine. Generally, petroleum solvents, i.e. mineral spirits or paint thinner, can substitute for turpentine. The resins include amber, dammar, copal, rosin, sandarac, elemi, benzoin, mastic, balsam, shellac, and a multitude of lacquers.

Synthetic resins such as phenolic resin may be employed as a secondary component in certain varnishes and paints.

Over centuries, many recipes were developed which involved the combination of resins, oils, and other ingredients such as certain waxes. These were believed to impart special tonal qualities to musical instruments and thus were sometimes carefully guarded secrets. The interaction of different ingredients is difficult to predict or reproduce, so expert finishers were often prized professionals.


Shellac is a very widely used single-component resin varnish that is alcohol-soluble. It is not used for outdoor surfaces or where it will come into repeated contact with water, such as around a sink or bathtub. The source of shellac resin is a brittle or flaky secretion of the female lac insect, Kerria lacca , found in the forests of Assam and Thailand and harvested from the bark of the trees where she deposits it to provide a sticky hold on the trunk. Shellac is the basis of French polish, which for centuries has been the preferred finish for fine furniture. Specified "dewaxed" shellac has been processed to remove the waxy substances from original shellac and can be used as a primer and sanding-sealer substrate for other finishes such as polyurethanes, alkyds, oils, and acrylics.

Prepared shellac is typically available in "clear" and "amber" (or "orange") varieties, generally as "three-pound cut" or three pounds dry shellac to one US gallon of alcohol. Other natural color shades such as ruby and yellow are available from specialty pigment or woodworker's supply outlets. Dry shellac is available as refined flakes, "sticklac," "button lac," or "seedlac." "White pigmented" shellac primer paint is widely available in retail outlets, billed as a fast-drying interior primer "problem solver", in that it adheres to a variety of surfaces and seals off odors and smoke stains. Shellac clean-up may be done either with pure alcohol or with ammonia cleansers.


Modern commercially produced varnishes employ some form of alkyd for producing a protective film. Alkyds have good solvent, moisture and UV light resistance. Alkyds are chemically modified vegetable oils which operate well in a wide range of conditions and can be engineered to speed up the cure rate and thus harden faster. [11] Usually this is by the use of metal salt driers such as cobalt salts. [12] [13] Better (and more expensive) exterior varnishes employ alkyds made from high performance oils and contain UV-absorbers; this improves gloss-retention and extends the lifetime of the finish. Various resins may also be combined with alkyds as part of the formula for typical "oil" varnishes that are commercially available.

Spar varnish

Spar varnish (also called marine varnish or yacht varnish) was originally intended for use on ship or boat spars, to protect the timber from the effects of sea and weather. Spars bend under the load of their sails. The primary requirements were water resistance and also elasticity, so as to remain adhering as the spars flexed. Elasticity was a pre-condition for weatherproofing too, as a finish that cracked would then allow water through, even if the remaining film was impermeable. Appearance and gloss was of relatively low value. Modified tung oil and phenolic resins are often used.

When first developed, no varnishes had good UV-resistance. Even after more modern synthetic resins did become resistant, a true spar varnish maintained its elasticity above other virtues, even if this required a compromise in its UV-resistance. Spar varnishes are thus not necessarily the best choice for outdoor woodwork that does not need to bend in service.

Despite this, the widespread perception of "marine products" as "tough" led to domestic outdoor varnishes being branded as "Spar varnish" and sold on the virtue of their weather- and UV-resistance. These claims may be more or less realistic, depending on individual products. Only relatively recently have spar varnishes been available that can offer both effective elasticity and UV-resistance.

Drying oils

Drying oils, such as linseed and tung oil, are not true varnishes though often in modern terms they accomplish the same thing.


A table green wood-stained and varnished with three layers of polyurethane varnish Polyurethane varnished table.jpg
A table green wood-stained and varnished with three layers of polyurethane varnish

Polyurethane varnishes are typically hard, abrasion-resistant, and durable coatings. They are popular for hardwood floors but are considered by some wood finishers to be difficult or unsuitable for finishing furniture or other detailed pieces. Polyurethanes are comparable in hardness to certain alkyds but generally form a tougher film. Compared to simple oil or shellac varnishes, polyurethane varnish forms a harder, decidedly tougher and more waterproof film. However, a thick film of ordinary polyurethane may de-laminate if subjected to heat or shock, fracturing the film and leaving white patches. This tendency increases with long exposure to sunlight or when it is applied over soft woods like pine. This is also in part due to polyurethane's lesser penetration into the wood. Various priming techniques are employed to overcome this problem, including the use of certain oil varnishes, specified "dewaxed" shellac, clear penetrating epoxy sealer, or "oil-modified" polyurethane designed for the purpose. Polyurethane varnish may also lack the "hand-rubbed" lustre of drying oils such as linseed or tung oil; in contrast, however, it is capable of a much faster and higher film build, accomplishing in two coats what may require multiple applications of oil. Polyurethane may also be applied over a straight oil finish, but because of the relatively slow curing time of oils, the emission of certain chemical byproducts, and the need for exposure to oxygen from the air, care must be taken that the oils are sufficiently cured to accept the polyurethane. One of the disadvantages of a polyurethane-based varnish is the tendency to yellow over time. This is because the hydroxyl groups of a regular alkyd are reacted with TDI to produce a urethane-alkyd. This introduces a high degree of aromaticity and hence tendency to yellow. [14]

Unlike drying oils and alkyds which cure after evaporation of the solvent and upon reaction with oxygen from the air, true polyurethane coatings cure after evaporation of the solvent and then either by a variety of reactions of chemicals within the original mix, or by reaction with moisture from the air. Certain polyurethane products are "hybrids" and combine different aspects of their parent components. "Oil-modified" polyurethanes, whether water-borne or solvent-borne, are currently the most widely used wood floor finishes.

Exterior use of polyurethane varnish may be problematic due to its heightened susceptibility to deterioration through ultra-violet light exposure. All clear or translucent varnishes, and indeed all film-polymer coatings (e.g. paint, stain, epoxy, synthetic plastic, etc.) are susceptible to this damage in varying degrees. Pigments in paints and stains protect against UV damage. UV-absorbers are added to polyurethane and other varnishes (e.g. spar varnish) to work against UV damage but are decreasingly effective over the course of 2–4 years, depending on the quantity and quality of UV-absorbers added, as well as the severity and duration of sun exposure. Water exposure, humidity, temperature extremes, and other environmental factors affect all finishes. [15]


The word lacquer refers to quick-drying, solvent-based varnishes or paints. Although their names may be similarly derived, lacquer is not the same as shellac and is not dissolved in alcohol. Lacquer is dissolved in lacquer thinner, which is a highly flammable solvent typically containing butyl acetate and xylene or toluene. Lacquer is typically sprayed on, within a spray booth that evacuates overspray and minimizes the risk of combustion.

The rule of thumb is that a clear wood finish formulated to be sprayed is a lacquer, but if it is formulated to be brushed on then it is a varnish. Thus, by far most pieces of wooden furniture are lacquered.[ citation needed ]

Lacquer may be considered different from varnish because it can be re-dissolved later by a solvent (such as the one it was dissolved in when it was applied) and does not chemically change to a solid like other varnishes. [16]


Acrylic resin varnishes are typically water-borne varnishes with the lowest refractive index of all finishes [17] and high transparency. They resist yellowing. Acrylics have the advantage of water clean-up and lack of solvent fumes, but typically do not penetrate into wood as well as oils. They sometimes lack the brushability and self-leveling qualities of solvent-based varnishes. Generally they have good UV-resistance.

In the art world, varnishes offer dust-resistance and a harder surface than bare paint – they sometimes have the benefit of ultraviolet light resistors, which help protect artwork from fading in exposure to light. Acrylic varnish should be applied using an isolation coat (a permanent, protective barrier between the painting and the varnish, preferably a soft, glossy gel medium) to make varnish removal and overall conservation easier. Acrylic varnishes used for such a final removable art protection layer are typically mineral-spirit–based acrylic, rather than water-based.

Two-part epoxy

Various epoxy resin systems have been formulated as varnishes or floor finishes whereby two components are mixed directly before application. [18] Sometimes, the two parts are of equal volume and referred to as 1:1 but not always, as 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 and even 5:1 mixing ratios are commercially available. The individual components are usually referred to as Part A and Part B. All two-part epoxies have a pot-life or working time during which the mixed material can be used. Usually the pot-life is a matter of a few hours or less, but this is highly temperature dependent. Both water-borne and solvent-based epoxies are used. Epoxies do have a tendency to yellow over a fairly short period of time. [19]


Used when a fast-curing, tough, hard finish is desired, such as for kitchen cabinets and office furniture. Comes in two parts: a resin and an acid catalyst. The first is a blend of an amino resin and an alkyd. The acid catalyst is added right before application in a set ratio determined by the manufacturer. Most produce minimal yellowing. There are, however, two downsides to this finish. The first is that as the finish cures, it gives off formaldehyde, which is toxic and carcinogenic. The second is that the finish can crack or craze if too many coats are applied.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acrylic paint</span> Water resistant paint type meant for canvases

Acrylic paint is a fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion and plasticizers, silicone oils, defoamers, stabilizers, or metal soaps. Most acrylic paints are water-based, but become water-resistant when dry. Depending on how much the paint is diluted with water, or modified with acrylic gels, mediums, or pastes, the finished acrylic painting can resemble a watercolor, a gouache, or an oil painting, or have its own unique characteristics not attainable with other media and are meant for canvases.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paint</span> Pigment applied over a surface that dries as a solid film

Paint is a liquid pigment that, after applied to a solid material and allowed to dry, adds a film-like layer, in most cases to create an image, known as a painting. Paint can be made in many colors and types. Most paints are either oil-based or water-based, and each has distinct characteristics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shellac</span> Resin secreted by the female lac bug

Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. Chemically, it is mainly composed of aleuritic acid, jalaric acid, shellolic acid, and other natural waxes. It is processed and sold as dry flakes and dissolved in alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colorant, food glaze and wood finish. Shellac functions as a tough natural primer, sanding sealant, tannin-blocker, odour-blocker, stain, and high-gloss varnish. Shellac was once used in electrical applications as it possesses good insulation qualities and seals out moisture. Phonograph and 78 rpm gramophone records were made of shellac until they were replaced by vinyl long-playing records from 1948 onwards.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Resin</span> Solid or highly viscous substance

In polymer chemistry and materials science, a resin is a solid or highly viscous substance of plant or synthetic origin that is typically convertible into polymers. Resins are usually mixtures of organic compounds. This article focuses mainly on naturally occurring resins.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Epoxy</span> Type of material

Epoxy is the family of basic components or cured end products of epoxy resins. Epoxy resins, also known as polyepoxides, are a class of reactive prepolymers and polymers which contain epoxide groups. The epoxide functional group is also collectively called epoxy. The IUPAC name for an epoxide group is an oxirane.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lacquer</span> Liquid or powder coating material which is applied thinly to objects to form a hard finish

Lacquer is a type of hard and usually shiny coating or finish applied to materials such as wood or metal. It is most often made from resin extracted from trees and waxes and has been in use since antiquity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Enamel paint</span> Paint with a glossy finish that dries hard.

Enamel paint is paint that air-dries to a hard, usually glossy, finish, used for coating surfaces that are outdoors or otherwise subject to hard wear or variations in temperature; it should not be confused with decorated objects in "painted enamel", where vitreous enamel is applied with brushes and fired in a kiln. The name is something of a misnomer, as in reality, most commercially available enamel paints are significantly softer than either vitreous enamel or stoved synthetic resins, and are totally different in composition; vitreous enamel is applied as a powder or paste and then fired at high temperature. There is no generally accepted definition or standard for use of the term "enamel paint", and not all enamel-type paints may use it.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oil paint</span> Type of slow-drying paint

Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint that consists of particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil, commonly linseed oil. The viscosity of the paint may be modified by the addition of a solvent such as turpentine or white spirit, and varnish may be added to increase the glossiness of the dried oil paint film. The addition of oil or alkyd medium can also be used to modify the viscosity and drying time of oil paint. Oil paints were first used in Asia as early as the 7th century AD and can be seen in examples of Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan. Oil-based paints made their way to Europe by the 12th century and were used for simple decoration, but oil painting did not begin to be adopted as an artistic medium there until the early 15th century. Common modern applications of oil paint are in finishing and protection of wood in buildings and exposed metal structures such as ships and bridges. Its hard-wearing properties and luminous colors make it desirable for both interior and exterior use on wood and metal. Due to its slow-drying properties, it has recently been used in paint-on-glass animation. The thickness of the coat has considerable bearing on the time required for drying: thin coats of oil paint dry relatively quickly.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Drying oil</span> Oil that hardens after exposure to air

A drying oil is an oil that hardens to a tough, solid film after a period of exposure to air, at room temperature. The oil hardens through a chemical reaction in which the components crosslink by the action of oxygen. Drying oils are a key component of oil paint and some varnishes. Some commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, tung oil, poppy seed oil, perilla oil, and walnut oil. Their use has declined over the past several decades, as they have been replaced by alkyd resins and other binders.

Water-miscible oil paint is oil paint either engineered or to which an emulsifier has been added, allowing it to be thinned and cleaned up with water. These paints make it possible to avoid using, or at least reduce volatile organic compounds such as turpentine that may be harmful if inhaled. Water-miscible oil paint can be mixed and applied using the same techniques as traditional oil-based paint, but while still wet it can be removed from brushes, palettes, and rags with ordinary soap and water. One of the ways its water solubility comes from is the use of an oil medium in which one end of the molecule has been engineered to be hydrophilic and thus bind loosely to water molecules, as in a solution. This type of paint is different to those that are engineered to enable cleaning of brushes and application equipment in water but are not in themselves water reducible.

Japan black is a lacquer or varnish suitable for many substrates but known especially for its use on iron and steel. It can also be called japan lacquer and Brunswick black. Its name comes from the association between the finish and Japanese products in the West. Used as a verb, japan means "to finish in japan black". Thus japanning and japanned are terms describing the process and its products.

In organic chemistry, a polyol is an organic compound containing multiple hydroxyl groups. The term "polyol" can have slightly different meanings depending on whether it is used in food science or polymer chemistry. Polyols containing two, three and four hydroxyl groups are diols, triols, and tetrols, respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wood stain</span> Type of paint used to colour wood

Wood stain is a type of paint used to colour wood comprising colourants dissolved and/or suspended in a vehicle or solvent. Pigments and/or dyes are largely used as colourants in most stains.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wood finishing</span> Process of refining or protecting a wooden surface

Wood finishing refers to the process of refining or protecting a wooden surface, especially in the production of furniture where typically it represents between 5 and 30% of manufacturing costs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alkyd</span> Polyester resin modified by the addition of fatty acids and other components

An alkyd is a polyester resin modified by the addition of fatty acids and other components. Alkyds are derived from polyols and organic acids including dicarboxylic acids or carboxylic acid anhydride and triglyceride oils. The term alkyd is a modification of the original name "alcid", reflecting the fact that they are derived from alcohol and organic acids. The inclusion of a fatty acid confers a tendency to form flexible coatings. Alkyds are used in paints, varnishes and in moulds for casting. They are the dominant resin or binder in most commercial oil-based coatings. Approximately 200,000 tons of alkyd resins are produced each year. The original alkyds were compounds of glycerol and phthalic acid sold under the name Glyptal. These were sold as substitutes for the darker-colored copal resins, thus creating alkyd varnishes that were much paler in colour. From these, the alkyds that are known today were developed.

Spar varnish is a wood-finishing varnish, originally developed for coating the spars of sailing ships, which formed part of the masts and rigging. These had to withstand rough condition, being flexed by the wind loads they supported, attacked by sea and bad weather, and suffering from UV degradation from long-term exposure to sunlight.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tung oil</span> Chemical compound

Tung oil or China wood oil is a drying oil obtained by pressing the seed from the nut of the tung tree. Tung oil hardens upon exposure to air, and the resulting coating is transparent and has a deep, almost wet look. Used mostly for finishing and protecting wood, after numerous coats, the finish can even look plastic-like. Related drying oils include linseed, safflower, poppy, and soybean oils. Raw tung oil tends to dry to a fine, wrinkled finish ; this property was used to make wrinkle finishes, usually by adding excess cobalt drier. To prevent wrinkling, the oil is heated to gas-proof it.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Reactive diluent</span>

Reactive diluents are substances which reduce the viscosity of a lacquer or resin for processing and become part of the lacquer or coating during its subsequent curing via copolymerization. A non-reactive diluent would be a solvent or plasticizer.

Waterborne resins are sometimes called water-based resins. They are resins or polymeric resins that use water as the carrying medium as opposed to solvent or solvent-less. Resins are used in the production of coatings, adhesives, sealants, elastomers and composite materials. When the phrase waterborne resin is used, it usually describes all resins which have water as the main carrying solvent. The resin could be water-soluble, water reducible or water dispersed.


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Varnish for musical instruments