Best Varnishes for Wood – Reviews

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Totalboat Marine Spar Varnish


Best Varnish for Wood


Totalboat Marine Spar Varnish is the best varnish both for your exterior and interior wood. It provides great protection from moisture and UV rays.

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applying-exterior-wood-varnishWood varnish has been around since the heyday of the Egyptian Empire, but we’ve come a long way from those original mixtures, which basically consisted of tree sap and alcohol.

Modern varnishes offer a mix of hardness, beauty, and ease of use. At this point, varnishing a surface is no more difficult than painting that surface.

At the same time, there are some inferior products out there, and I want to do our best to help you avoid them. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some products that aren’t so inferior. We will examine different types of wood varnishes in no particular order. Let’s look, then, at the best varnishes for wood.

Best Varnishes for Wood in April, 2021

#VarnishDry time (hours)Covers (quart)Sheen 
1 TotalBoat
Editor's Choice
162,5 sq. ft.gloss, satin Check Price
2 Rust-Oleum2up to 150 sq. ft.gloss Check Price
3MCCLOSKEY 462,5 sq. ft.gloss Check Price
4Epifanes 12up to 150 sq. ft.gloss Check Price
5 System Three4100 - 125 sq. ft.satin Check Price

1. Totalboat Marine Spar Varnish – Best Outdoor Wood Varnish

This is a somewhat specialized product that is intended for marine use, but it serves well for any purpose that requires strong water resistance. Outdoor projects like decks, sheds, and patio furniture are great opportunities to use this stuff. It keeps out water with great effectiveness.

This varnish is made from Tung oil, and its finish is very hard and durable. I like the high level of clarity, as it doesn’t interfere with the natural beauty of the wood. I also like the fact that this is one of those self-leveling formulas. Some say that this feature doesn’t make much difference, but anything that makes it easier to apply a clean and level coating is worthy of praise.

Dries Fast

This one also seems to dry a little faster than most varnishes, which is probably due to its Tung oil-based formula. That stuff tends to evaporate faster than most oils, so it would make sense. However, it should be noted that other factors can influence dry time, such as temperature and humidity. Our results might simply be the product of our environment.

May Not Be Worth The Cost For All People

This paint is pretty expensive, so it isn’t worth buying for most projects. This is only worth buying if your project requires extreme waterproofing. Also, it does take quite a few coats to get the full effect. You won’t really see a lot of difference in your wood surface after the first coat, or even after the second coat. Thus, you should allocate a little bit more time when working with this product.

TotalBoat Gleam Marine Spar Varnish - How to Apply - Short Video
  • Marine grade
  • Self-leveling formula
  • Blocks UV light
  • Great clarity
  • Fairly quick drying
  • Requires too many coats
  • Pretty expensive

2. Rust-Oleum Marine Spar Varnish – Old Reliable

This paint comes from a trusted brand with a good record for quality, so it gains some points right off the bat. This is another spar varnish, but it’s even tougher than the others. This one resists water beautifully, making it bead up every time. It also resists mildew, UV penetration, and salt. Obviously, the salt protection won’t help you much at home, but the mildew protection is a nice touch.

This one is oil-based, which means that it will penetrate into the wood for a lasting finish that actually becomes part of the wood. It dries crystal-clear: Other than the shine, you won’t even know it’s there. However, that great finish will take more time to dry than most others, requiring two hours before it’s dry to the touch. Full curing takes up to 48 hours.

Long Dry Time

The long drying time is slightly inconvenient, but it’s not really a big deal. However, those who are in a hurry might find this product to be an annoyance. Professionals who are working on a strict timeframe might also have some issues. Further, vertical surfaces are going to be a little harder when you choose this varnish. With its longer dry time, there will be more opportunity for the varnish to run and drip. This will create rough spots that have to be sanded away, adding even more time to the process.

Beauty And Toughness

The oil-based nature of this product gives it a finish that is unique when compared to other products of this type. Most are water-based, which produces a hard and clear finish. While this is great from a durability standpoint, it doesn’t add much of anything to the beauty and visual appeal of the wood. If you want something that will make those grains pop like never before, this is a great one. Not only will it provide the hard and durable surface that you want, but it will also darken the wood, almost like a stain, giving your surface a classic antique look that is both classy and cheap to produce.

  • Trusted brand with a good record
  • Resists UV, mildew, and salt damage
  • Absolutely crystal-clear
  • Oil-based for deep penetration
  • Nasty odor
  • Very flammable
  • Long drying time

3. MCCLOSKEY Voc Mow Spar – Volatile But Effective

This is a premium brand, and a premium product. As such, you can bet that you will pay more for this one. The quantity is a little greater than that of our other choices, but you will pay a bit more for that extra quality, and that’s putting it lightly. While we’re talking about the negatives, let’s talk about the other big one: Volatility. This stuff is made with toxic and flammable chemicals that are somewhat unpleasant to the nose.

Flexible Finish

This one is engineered for maximum UV protection, and so it should last a lot longer than most. Also, it is engineered to dry flexible. This is a great touch for wooden surfaces, which will often bend and warp a little bit as the weather changes. A flexible finish ensures that the varnish layer can flex along with the rest of the wood and avoid flaking.

Resistant To All

This one also does a great job of resisting salt and chemicals, so it’s a great choice for those who live near the ocean. That salty sea air can really do a number on your paint after a few years, but this product should keep those issues down to a minimum. Those who don’t live by the sea might want to consider another product, as the salt resistance won’t make any real difference for them.

  • Maximum UV protection
  • Provides a flexible finish
  • Resists salt and chemicals
  • Good for indoor and outdoor use
  • Quite volatile and bad-smelling
  • Very expensive

4. Epifanes Clear Varnish – A Great Bargain

This is a very high-gloss marine varnish that is suitable for pretty much anything. You can apply it to inside jobs, outside jobs, and marine applications with brushes. Like other marine finishes, it is kind of expensive. However, it’s not as expensive as most products of that type, so that’s a plus.

This product is suitable for both new and old wood, so it’s a great choice for those restoration projects. It resists UV light, so that should do even more to help it resist degradation. This is a definite plus, as it helps you to be sure that your product will last a long time. A longer-lived varnish equals less time before you have to varnish again. This is a major consideration for today’s busy environment.

Imported Equals Extra Taxes

I do see a couple of problems here, in spite of the value factor. This product is imported from Holland, which is only a problem because the import taxes have surely added more to the cost of this product. If it had some kind of special quality, it would be worth the extra money, but it does not. Also, some customers say that this product is prone to bubbling up after a few months.

What Do You Mean By “Bubbling Up?”
When I say “bubbling up,” I’m referring to a phenomenon that is often seen from paint that contains too many ingredients. In the process of adding all those things, they end up mixing in a lot of oxygen from the air around the product. Once the can is sealed up, that air has nowhere to go, and it turns into tiny bubbles that may get bigger once they are again exposed to the open air.

  • High gloss
  • Suitable for indoor, outdoor, or marine use
  • Suitable for old and new wood
  • Resists UV degradation
  • Imported- extra cost
  • Sometimes prone to bubbling

5. System Three Clear Marine Spar Urethane Varnish Coating – The Budget Option

This spar urethane varnish is quite possibly the most affordable item on my list, and it comes with all the features and advantages that you would expect. First of all, you can get this stuff in several different forms. That’s a very nice touch because some jobs really don’t require a high-gloss approach. The satin paint does a great job of sealing and protecting the wood without making it glisten in the sun. Some people prefer a matte look to their furniture, and those people will probably like this product.

Easy To Use On Pre-Treated Surfaces

This one can be applied over existing paint, other coatings, wood putty, and even epoxy. So, if you’re one of those people who like to use glue for a lot of household repairs, this product will suit you. It has a strong UV protection level, which should keep it from becoming dulled by exposure to sunlight. There is no need to worry about outdoor use with this one.

Relatively poor coverage

At the same time, this product does not give very good coverage. When you consider its lower price, it seems like the obvious winner. However, that relatively low coverage will probably negate the money that you save on each can. You are likely to need more than one can for any large project, so take that into account when planning to use this product. Also, this one is even more flammable and toxic than most of these products.

  • Available in gloss or satin finish
  • Can be applied over epoxy
  • Never gets dulled by sunlight
  • Fairly cheap
  • Very flammable and toxic
  • Poor coverage


Varnish finish is easily one of the most versatile tools in the handyman’s arsenal. It protects, it shines, it improves the look of any wooden object, and it seals the product from moisture, mold, and all sorts of other things. Of course, there is always a right way to make something, and also a wrong way to make something. That is why some varnishes give you a strong finish that will last the ages, and why some others produce a thin and weak veneer that flakes and chips away at the first sign of bad weather.

When you choose a varnish, I hope that you will remember the basic ideas and principles that you have learned today and that they will help you make the perfect choice for you and your home. You just need to remember that every product is unique. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all varnishes are the same, because that mistake could lead to a lot of extra work on your part. Then, as you grumble and curse while scraping away the old finish so that you can try again, you might wish that you had listened more closely to the things that I told you!

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34 thoughts on “Best Varnishes for Wood – Reviews

  1. Sir I thank you for all the above information. I have a patio set of eight large chairs an oval table with a lazy Susan I tried stripping by hand as they were in a bad way blistered and patchy so I asked someone to sand blast them. I now wish to finish them any suggestions. Thank you. Tony

    1. Hi Tony.

      There are several options: varnishes, sealers, and oils. Varnishes and sealers are pretty similar except that sealers penetrate the wood whereas varnishes create protection layer on the surface. Oils penetrate the wood and increase its natural color. If you just need protection then you can go for varnishes, for example, TotalBoat.

  2. Hi, I’m really new to DIY projects but I’ve just sanded down my patio set. Do I need to use a sealer & then a varnish or do I just go straight to the varnish. I live in a area that’s extremely hot most of the year but ofcourse also want something that would protect the wood from rain .

    1. Hi Jim.

      I can’t really say that some varnish on the list is better for this kind of wood. Just go for TotalBoat, it works with any type of wood.

  3. Hi,
    We have a large summerhouse that has been painted with Cuprinol Garden Shades in a light cream colour several years ago. We would very much like to change that to a medium wood colour and wondered whether there is a strong enough oak-coloured varnish we could use over the old garden shades paint, so that it actually looks wood colour instead of cream. Or do we have to sand it all back completely which would be a huge job?
    Any suggestions gratefully received!

    1. Hi Eva,

      Unfortunately, varnishes don’t have that many colors to choose from (at least I don’t know of one that does). Changing color is always a tricky task, you know. You may buy a pint of some varnish to check how it will work for you. But I think you will have to sand down all the paint even though it would take time.

  4. Hi William,

    I need to weather protect a painted bench that although is supposed to be for indoors, we have it outside.
    I am thinking a matt exterior varnish water based would be best as I don’t want it to colour or go ‘yellowy’ – a cheap but good one – home base do a ronseal exterior matt varnish but it does not say ridiculously if water based or ok to go on paint and cannot find this info anywhere? Do you know or do you have any suggestions?


  5. Hello, I have some left over untreated rough cut pine I want build a small treehouse with for my son. I don’t want to spend a lot, but I do want the treehouse to last as long as possible. Can I get your opinion on what would be the best/cheapest route to waterproof it. Thanks

    1. Hi,

      I recommend using RainGuard Sealer. It will protect the wood from moisture and rotting for a long time (manufacturer gives warranty for 10 years). By the way, it’s easy to apply (just like paining) and eco-friendly so playing in the treehouse will be completely safe.

  6. Greetings,
    I am building a large interior barn door made out of black walnut & maple. However, it faces west through a large wall of windows. I’m trying to protect it from the harsh sun but don’t want a high gloss finish. What would you recommend?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. I would recommend Spar Varnish, the only thing is it’s hard to find it not glossy. I would recommend this satin Spar Urethane or this semi gloss clear lacquer, although Lacquer is mainly used for protection from scratches it also protects wood from sun damage. I would see if you could find anything like those two products with the least amount of gloss.

  7. Hello William,
    I don’t see my question so I am trying again. We recently bought a children’s wooden playhouse built in China and measures 6x6x6. The paperwork claims it has been treated and guaranteed for 1 year. It is located outside under the fig tree in shade until the leaves drop. Sacramento doesn’t really receive snow. the door is red and the exterior walls are brown. I want to protect from moisture and rain and sun damage.
    What do you recommend?

    1. I would recommend Spar Varnish. Spar Varnish protects wood from sunlight and from water damage. You can get it at any hardware store or even order it online using the link in the reply.

  8. Hello, I have a deck I just burned so I can make a shou sugi ban look. I want to apply a little stain to it to give it a nice look, sunbleached by rustoleum, got the idea from a guy on youtube. The Stain is interior grade so I need something to go over it to either penetrate the wood or cover it but I wanted to last. Do you have something you recommend for my application?

  9. I recently fitted large wardrobe in master bathroom from pine timber wood(white wood) and then painted with white lacquer. My wife is not happy and want some shiny finishing likewise to use clear varnish. Please let us know that which varnish/paint or anything else is good to keep it in nature wood colour and shinny. Thanks and regards

  10. Hi William,
    I’m going to use the Totalboat varnish to refinish a cedar lawn chair that has a weathered finish of polyurethane over shellac. Most areas look fine. A few small areas are bare wood, but no peeling or flaking.
    I don’t want to go thru the work of sanding it all to bare wood. Can I just sand lightly and cover it all with a few coats?

    1. Yes, that should work. I would try to even out the previous coat as much as you can. You would get the best results if you completely sanded it but that’s up to you.

    1. Yes, you can. I would just make sure the teak oil is completely dry and settled before adding the varnish finish to the wood for the best result.

  11. Hi William,
    I wanted to paint my deck before applying a varnish. Would the paint interfere with the effectiveness of the varnish? Or should I skip the paint and use a waterproof stain instead?
    Many thanks!

    1. You can paint or a stain under the varnish. If you decide to use paint, just don’t use an oil-based paint or the varnish won’t adhere properly.

  12. Hi William,

    I’m making a river table with spalted beech and need some advice regarding finishing the wood. It’s very light and has some wonderful subtle hues of green/blue in places which I don’t want to obscure with, for instance, tung oil. Ideally I would like something that would penetrate the top layers of the wood which then when scraped back would leave, for want of a better wood, a plasticised feel i.e. you get to feel like your touching the wood but the surface is totally impervious to water. I realise I might be asking for something that doesn’t exist but do you have any recommendations?



    1. The best product to use to get that plasticized feel on the wood would be a spar varnish or spar urethane. Marine spar varnish is the topcoat they use on boats to help protect it from water and sunlight. If you decide to use this product and still want the color in the wood, just make sure you get it clear and don’t make the coat/s too thick. I would suggest using spar urethane by Minwax, or a marine spar varnish by Rust-Oleum. The Rust-Oleum product would probably give you the most plasticized look and feel than the Minwax one but both will work. Getting it in gloss and not satin also helps.

  13. Thanks for your information.

    What about the environmental effects?

    I live north of Seattle on a tiny lake, and I am trying to sand/repair our docks. I have been perusing Marine Spar varieties of varnish, but I just don’t see any clear picture of what is the most biodegradable option, in lieu of all the Wild life living in our lake.

    I know it’s a weird question, but do you have any ideas, or a point in the general direction?

    Thanks again!

    1. Hello Frank,
      First, I want to congratulate you on your way of thinking. We all need to take an example from you. We must live in peace and harmony with the environment so as not to lose it.
      Fortunately, the industry has begun to look in your direction,
      now water-based varnishes are available which are more harmless do not need additional chemical thinners (to wash your brush for example or to dilute the varnish)
      I think a product like this by TotalBoat even its packaging is more environmentally friendly (uses less material and less space for disposal).
      However, keep in mind that water-based varnishes may not be as durable as chemical varnishes.
      Another important thing before applying water-based varnish, if there is old varnish on the boards may not bond well with the old varnish. Ideally, the varnish is applied to the wood.
      Good luck!

  14. Great article and info, William. Thanks.
    I have another scenario to ask about:
    We have an outdoor octagonal gazebo adjoining the back of our house, With 4’x4’ screen windows that let in mist from rain storms and sometimes a dusting of snow in a Minnesota blizzard. The interior is tongue and groove cedar—two full walls and the peaked ceiling, as well as above and below the windows. The old varnish was getting mold/mildew and we have resorted to sanding it all down (except the grooves—too much!). Based on this post I was looking at the RustOleum and putting on several thin coats to minimize dripping on the walls and ceiling. Or do you have another suggestion?

    1. Hi Kevin.
      I understand that you had a lot of grinding work to do, but, these efforts are always rewarded.
      I think you made a good choice.
      If the coating is thick enough it will protect the wood well. At the first signs of damage to the coating, apply another one, so you will protect the wood without having to remove the old varnish.

  15. Thanks for this article, William. I have loved using Osmo for my furniture finishes and reclaimed wood because it is so very close to the feel of unfinished wood.
    But I am working on some bathroom vanities that are made of wood near the basin.
    I am wanting to know which product comes in matte and will also be really good in resisting water and moisture.
    And finally, do all of the products darken the wood equally?

    1. Hi Michael.
      This varnish by TotalBoat is available with both a glossy finish and a matte finish and has excellent water resistance.
      It is necessary to apply more coatings for an excellent finish.
      This varnish is oil-based and will give a yellow tint. Most oil-based varnishes give yellowing.
      Acrylic-based varnish does not turn yellow or at least much less.
      Most varnishes make the wood look wet.

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