How to Apply Varnish

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Varnishes protect wood from scratches and stains with a durable coating. These instructions apply specifically to oil-based varnishes, which are easiest to work with.

Things You'll Need

  • Disposable Containers
  • Disposable Foam Brushes
  • Clean Rags
  • Steel Wool
  • Varnish
  • Mineral Spirits
  • Rubber Gloves
  • Newspaper
  • Linseed Oils
  • Tack Cloths
  • Pollen/dust Masks
  • Set out a layer of newspapers to protect the work area. Make sure the area is well-ventilated.

  • Set the room temperature between 70 and 75 degrees F, which helps the varnish dry quicker without causing air bubbles and streaking.

  • Gather your disposable foam brushes, clean rags, steel wool pads and mineral spirits so that they are nearby when needed.

  • Strip any pre-existing finishes with a paint stripper. Wear gloves and a face mask while you work.

  • Clean the wood to be treated with a steel wool pad dipped in about 1 c. mineral spirits mixed with 2 tsp. linseed oil.

  • Use a clean rag to dry the wood.

  • Pour enough varnish into a separate container to do the first coat, and dilute it with 20 percent mineral spirits (one part mineral spirits to four parts varnish). This coat seals the wood. (Read the label before use and follow the manufacturer's warnings and suggestions carefully.)

  • Use the foam brush to apply this diluted varnish into the wood. Work with the grain.

  • Let that coat dry at least 6 hours, but not more than 20.

  • Apply the second coat (nondiluted) with a new foam brush.

  • Put on up to five coats, depending on how much wear you anticipate the surface to receive. Use a new brush for each coat.

  • Dispose of rags, brushes and remaining stripper as advised by the stripper's manufacturer.

Tips & Warnings

  • Keep everything as clean as possible. A piece of lint or dust stuck in the varnish can ruin its smooth look. If you discover dust in the varnish, let it dry and then sand it with very fine sandpaper before applying the next coat.
  • Dragging the brush across the rim of the can will cause bubbles. Dab it instead. If you keep getting too many bubbles, thin the varnish with a little bit of mineral spirits.

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