how to varnish wood and apply stain, wax and oil

How To Varnish Wood and Apply Stain, Wax and Oil

We’ve all seen shows like Amazing Spaces and The Repair Shop, where vintage furniture is glossily repurposed. Yet this apparent transformation often involves little more than smoothing exposed wooden surfaces before applying protective treatments.

The four treatment options (Varnish, Stain, Wax and Oil) each have their merits, and which one you choose may depend on the timber you’re treating. 

This DIY guide considers these four wood treatments and their key differences. 

Tools & Materials

You don’t need many tools for this relatively simple DIY project. Many of the items listed below are specific to a particular treatment or dependent on your circumstances and personal preferences:


  • Small paintbrush (for varnish)
  • Lint-free cloth (for wax, wood stain and oil)
  • 0000-grade steel wool (for wax, as an alternative to cloth)
  • Fine sandpaper
  • Electric sander (if you have a large area to cover)
  • Vacuum cleaner


  • Gloves
  • Varnish, oil, stain or wax (as preferred)
  • Wood filler and a filler knife (if there are holes to fill in the timber’s surface)
  • Product-specific remover/stripper liquid (if you want to remove a previous coating)

It’ll come as no surprise that there are innumerable varnish, oil, wax and wood stain products on today’s market. What might surprise you is the difference in composition between one product and the next and how they vary in their roles. You can see examples of this in our guide to choosing the best floor varnish.

The Four Treatments — Varnish, Wood Stain, Wax and Oil

Before we get into the step-by-step instructions, we must understand these four treatments, their uses, and their differences.


Varnish is commonly used to prolong timber’s lifespan, reducing the chances of it splitting while protecting it against moisture or damage. 

By contrast, wax is best for repelling scratches and surface impacts, while oil and wood stain soak into the timber to change its appearance and composition.

Wood stain

Like varnish, wood stain comes in two shared variants — water and oil-based.

  1. Water-based treatments are more environmentally friendly, containing fewer chemicals and emitting less odour. Because they dry quickly, it can be challenging to achieve an even finish.
  2. Most varnish and wood stain treatments are oil-based. They soak deeper into timber, last longer, and take longer to dry.


Wax comes in three main varieties — Beeswax, Vegetable Wax and Paste Wax.  

Beeswax is soft and tends to remain slightly sticky, whereas vegetable wax (carnauba) is shinier and longer lasting. 

Paste wax is suitable for most timbers, often containing a blend of beeswax and carnauba alongside chemicals like turpentine.

In any guise, wax is an ideal protector, forming a barrier between the wood and the wider world.


Linseed is the best-known wood oil and takes several days to dry but delivers an enduringly glossy finish. 

Danish oil (teak oil) dries more quickly yet demands more frequent reapplication, whereas tung oil is hard to apply but delivers a robust waterproof finish.

How To Varnish Wood and Apply Stain, Wax and Oil — Step-by-Step Instructions

carpenter varnishing wood

Each of the four treatments above has differing application techniques, so we’re treating them individually (pun intended!)

The step-by-instructions below focus on varnishing wood, the most popular of the four treatments. However, several steps also apply to the other three options.

Pro Tip: Always treat timber in a well-lit environment with good airflow. If sanding is required, cover surrounding furnishings with a dust sheet or move them out of the room.

1. Remove any previous coatings

carpenter removing the coating from wooden floor

As with most of the products in our guide, varnish won’t sit nicely on top of an existing treatment. So sand off the top surface, or use a remover/stripper suitable for eliminating whatever has been used in the past. Our feature on removing varnish from wood is an ideal starting point.

Pro Tip: An electric sander could take too much wood off. Use individual sheets of fine sandpaper by hand unless you’re working on a massive area like a floor.

After this stage and the next one, use a dry brush or damp cloth to remove any lingering dirt or grease. Then vacuum your surroundings to prevent flakes or wood dust from settling on the surface.

2. Fill any holes

If you don’t have a reasonably crater-free surface, the varnish will soak into the holes and give an inconsistent finish. 

Choose a filler suitable for varnish and of a similar colour to your chosen wood. Level it out with a filling knife and then sand it down using fine sandpaper.

The ‘YouCanMakeThisToo’ team has produced this in-depth video about filling holes from 0:57 onwards.

3. Stir the varnish

Many people skip this step, only to rue the tiny air bubbles that detract from the quality and uniformity of your finish. 

Stir the tin as if you were stirring an over-full cup of tea — slowly and gently — and avoid shaking the tin.

Pro Tip: Avoid spray-on varnish. It’s hard to apply consistently, goes everywhere, and requires your chosen timber to be surrounded with dust sheets or old newspaper.

4. Apply lightly and evenly

varnish brush strokes on wooden floor

There’s always a temptation to load your brush, but varnish doesn’t respond well to this approach. I.e. it drips and coagulates when applied in excessive quantities. 

Dip your brush tip into the varnish pot and brush it onto the timber. Remember to always brush in the direction of the grain. 

Pro Tip: Matthias Wandel’s YouTube guide demonstrates some effective brushing techniques.

5. Tip-off

This step is only relevant to varnish — the other materials we cover don’t require this step. Tipping-off ensures liquid pools don’t gather in the holes mentioned in step 2 above.

Lightly drag a varnish-free brush across the wet varnish at a near-90-degree angle. 

Pro Tip: Varnish dries more quickly in warm conditions. So if you’re in a hurry, take your wood out into the sun, or turn up the thermostat!

Repeat steps 3-5 if you’re not happy with your wood’s shine or finish after applying a single varnish coat. Three coats generally suffice, though it varies according to the varnish you’re using, the condition of the timber and your preferred finish.

6. Lightly sand the treated timber

Once you’ve applied enough coats, use extra fine-grain sandpaper to scour the surface lightly. 

The varnish should have soaked in by now, but this will remove any imperfections left on the surface. Finish by buffing with a soft, damp cloth.

The Others — Wood Stain, Wax and Oil

The steps above focus on varnish. This section looks at wood stain, wax and oil and how their properties and application differ from varnish.

Wood stain

unfinished wood stain on wood

Wood stain penetrates timber more deeply, changing or enhancing its natural colour, but it doesn’t offer much protection against daily wear. Also, it may not dry completely, so it’s often advisable to apply varnish or wax over the top to prevent leaching.

Once wood stain is applied, you can’t remove it. Always test a new product on an inconspicuous piece of timber, such as the underside of a table. If you don’t like the results, you’re not committed to using it.

Because varnish sits on the surface as an invisible barrier, many people will stain timber before varnishing it. This approach is fine as long as you don’t mix oil and water-based treatments. 

Note: Oil-based wood stain takes a long time to dry, which can significantly increase the project timeframe.

Start your preparations by following steps 1 to 3 from the varnishing instructions above. When you’re ready to stain, we recommend using a cloth or rag rather than a brush, as the latter slows the application process and can soak the timber with too much stain.

Pro Tip: From personal experience, applying two light coats of wood stain is better than one thick one. The results are more consistent because the timber will darken according to how much stain is applied.

The Charlie DIYte video below shows how to apply wood stain to a timber floor.

YouTube player


desk with finished wax

Compared to varnish, wood stain and oil, wax is an outlier. 

As well as treating timber in isolation, you can apply wax on top of these three liquids as a protective barrier. As long as you apply the wax on top, you can mix and match materials to your heart’s content.

While wood stain is excellent at soaking in and changing the colour of timber, coloured waxes can apply a surface coating which achieves a similar effect. Black and antique waxes are particularly characterful, though your local DIY store will sell a variety of wax colours and finishes.

Removing existing varnish, wood stain, or oil layers is unnecessary if you’re applying wax on top of them. However, ensure the surface is smooth with no holes before you do so — see step 2 of the varnish instructions above.

Using a lint-free cloth or 0000-grade steel wool, apply the wax to the wood in light circular motions. As explained above, several lightly applied layers give a more consistent outcome than slathering on a single thick coat.

Don’t worry if the wax looks dull initially — you can buff it the next day to achieve a shine. Cover large areas quickly by attaching a soft brush to an electric drill.

Pro Tip: While varnish can last for years, wax coatings benefit from a new application every six months. Note that you don’t need to remove the old wax layers.


woodworker applying oil to wood furniture

As outlined above, wood oil comes in various compositions, from quick-drying Danish oil to linseed oil that may need 72 hours to bed in.

Start by observing steps 1 to 2 from the varnishing instructions above. As with wood stain, you’ll generally get a better finish if you use a cloth rather than a brush, though the latter will do if it’s all you’ve got. 

Always apply the oil in the direction of the grain using smooth brush strokes — if you’ve chosen a cloth, make gentle circular motions.

Timber responds to heat, and the friction generated by rubbing a cloth over the surface will improve its ability to absorb the oil.

It’s up to you how many coats of oil you apply. Always let the last application dry thoroughly before assessing whether another coat is necessary. Danish oil tends to look its best after two coats, but linseed oil may require numerous applications.

Pro Tip: Linseed oil remains permanently sticky, and my old garage door would ensnare anything from tiny insects to dandelion spores. For this reason, experts don’t recommend linseed oil for outdoor use.

Final Thoughts

carpenter varnishing wood table

Hopefully, this article has given you all the information you need about varnishing wood and applying stain, wax and oil.

If you’d like to see how different finishes are applied, the Rag ‘n’ Bone Brown video below offers a detailed visual guide.

YouTube player

Of all the timbers in your home, staircases can deliver the most dramatic visual impact when appropriately treated. Our guide to staircase refurbishment costs offers inspiration and ideas for repairing, replacing and refurbishing stairs.