Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood? Best Varnishing Tips for DIYers 2022

With time, a varnished deck loses its appealing character, requiring you to consider painting.

But you need the correct strategy to yield a satisfactory result. So, let’s address the concern: Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood?

The answer depends on the desired outcome. For example, feel free to paint over varnished wood when simply changing the wood’s color.

However, it is advisable to strip the surface if you want a more durable surface.

The painting process is pretty straightforward.

This article gives you all the information needed to guarantee a professional paint finish. Also, you will learn the best way to strip the varnished surface.

What Is Wood Paint?

Image of application of latex paint, but can you paint over lacquer?Wood Paint is any pigmented liquefiable or liquid composition that converts into a solid film after application.

It mostly colors, protects and textures wood surfaces.

The formula is available in multiple colors and types. Moreover, you will find it oil- or water-based, each with unique attributes.

Oil-based wood paint has synthetic alkyd or natural oils. It also comprises a pigment and resin in a solvent thinner to give the wood color.

The resin delivers a hard coating when the thinner evaporates, leaving a solid finish.

This formula works best when you want the finish to last for an extended duration or don’t intend to change the color often.

Oil-based paints can withstand frequent contact and are incredibly durable, making them perfect for trims and moldings.

In addition, the resin compound creates an unbreathable hard coating. Hence, the surface resists rust and stains.

But these formulas have a strong odor and need more time to dry. Also, they are harder to clean.

Therefore, use the product in a well-ventilated workspace, give it enough time to cure, and utilize solvents during clean-up.

On the other hand, water-based wood paints comprise a binder and pigment and use water as a carrier.

Further, they deliver excellent color retention over time, cure faster than their counterparts, and give fewer odors.

Experts recommend this formula for exterior walls and surfaces exposed to elements. 

Also, it works best for areas with more moisture exposure like bathrooms, mudrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms.

Lastly, it is easy to clean as water and soap are sufficient for the desired outcome.

What Is Wood Varnish?

Varnish is a transparent solid protective film or coating. But please note it is not a stain.

The formula has a yellowish hue from the manufacturing process and compounds used.

However, most brands pigment it as desired. Besides, they sell it commercially in different shades to accommodate various projects. 

Woodworkers primarily use varnish as a wood finish to accentuate the surface’s tones and grains.

In addition, the formula is naturally glossy, but you can also get flat and satin/semi-gloss sheens.

Varnish is a drying oil, resin, and thinner or solvent combination with a metal drier to accelerate curing.

After application, the film-forming compounds in the finish harden directly or after the solvent evaporates.

Environmental factors such as humidity and heat play a primary role in the drying duration. Thus, choose a fair weather day for the project.

The finish delivers a protective coating for wood painting, surfaces, and decorative objects.

It also protects and enhances the appearance of furniture, interior wood paneling, and wooden floors.

How to Paint Over Varnished Wood

Painting over varnished wood is appropriate if you are doing a quick make-over and do not want to go the long hog.

Besides, the strategy is much easier than staining as you do not have to strip the finish.

The primary purpose of the formula is to seal and protect the wooden surface from moisture and other contaminants.

In addition, the varnish is naturally non-porous. Hence, it ensures that moisture and water stay at bay.

But this attribute poses an issue when you want to paint over the finish. The coating stops the new paint from adhering to the surface.

Thus, it just sits on the wood, making it susceptible to peeling and chipping.

Fortunately, all hope is not lost. You can easily remove the varnish coat and instantly upgrade the wooden surface.

Below is a simple guide on how to paint over a varnish surface.

  • Clean the Wood

Wipe down the surface with a household cleaner. You can use any cleaning product, only wipe it in circular motions.

Use a clean rag or a scouring pad, depending on the residue or dirt. Also, read over the detergent’s instructions for optimal performance.

Cleaning the wood removes anything hindering the paint from sticking. So, give it enough time.

  • Repair Damaged Areas

Floors, doors, furniture, and other wooden objects experience wear and tear. Further, sometimes the damage can be pretty heavy.

Therefore, assess the surface and determine the damage extent.

You can choose to ignore the flaw if it is not too bad. Or fill up and repair depressions or heavy impact marks to deliver a professional finish.

Also, it is not necessary to match the filler with the wood’s tone. You do not have to break your back looking for a matching hue.

Nonetheless, the surest approach is to color match as you may want to strip the surface again.

There is no specific wood filler to use as they are many in the market. Only ensure that you can paint the surface after filling.

For instance, consider a non-shrink filler as it is easy to sand down. Otherwise, a powder filler may not work well.

Mix the paste and apply it over cracks and imperfections with a scraper or wood putty.

Also, utilize a larger scraper than the blemish. This way, you can spread the product evenly across the wood.

Spend some time evening out the surface with putty to guarantee even and smooth paint application.

Give the putty enough time to dry and sand until it sits flush with the surrounding surface.

Finally, examine the wood for steps and non-feathered edges. And eliminate them in the sanding stage.

  • Sand the Surface Over

Sand the wood thoroughly with fine grit paper to even the surface. And use sandpaper ranging from 120- to 220-grit for a better result.

Also, you can get a sander for an effortless operation. But consider using your hand for intricate details and spots.

Sand in small, circular motions till the wood is smooth and level. This way, you etch the surface and enhance paint adhesion.

Further, cover your mouth and nose with a facemask to avoid inhaling sawdust and debris.

Use medium grit, usually 60- to 80-grit, for an extra smooth finish. The exercise also helps when the surface is uneven.

After sanding, wet a clean cloth under your faucet and wipe the surface. As a result, there won’t be dirt particles under the paint.

  • Applying the Primer

It’s time to prime the surface once you finish all the damage repair and sanding.

Apply the first primer coat following the manufacturer’s instructions. 

Further, a two-inch paintbrush or mini roller will do just fine. Only ensure you cover fine details and tight areas and allow the surface to dry.

Most primers dry within eight hours. But again, confirm with the product label for the exact duration.

It is advisable to use a water-based primer as it delivers a more durable result. The formula also seals the undersurface.

Lastly, stir the solution and pour it into a paint tray. Then, dip your applicant and apply a solid, uniform coat in broad strokes.

  • Sand Off the First Primer Coat and Apply a Second One

Rub the first primer layer with 220-grit sandpaper to remove roller or brush strokes. Then, wipe it with a damp rag.

Give the primer about 30 to 60 minutes to dry. However, depending on the brand type, this drying time may lengthen or shorten.

Touch the surface with your fingertip. And ensure it is not tacky before proceeding to the next step.

  • Apply the First Paint Coat

Paint on the chosen topcoat using a two-inch paintbrush. Ensure it is of good quality to reduce brushstrokes and loose bristles.

Use long brush strokes running in the wood grain’s direction, not over it. Further, do not apply too much force on the paintbrush; let it glide over the wood.

Work gently and patiently to deliver a decent topcoat and cover awkward and tight areas. You can also use a dry brush to eliminate drips.

Then, leave the surface to dry for about 30 to 60 minutes before adding another coat.

  • Apply Subsequent Paint Coats

Add another one to two paint layers depending on the desired look. 

Besides, adding more coats guarantees even application and keeps the primer from showing through the final finish.

Give the surface enough time to cure, ideally 12 hours or overnight. This way, you guarantee a solid and durable result.

Here’s a Video On Painting Over Varnish:

Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding?

It is possible to paint over varnished lumber without sanding. But, first, you need to prepare it properly.

In addition, use an oil-based primer to prepare the varnished surface for the new paint coat.

The oil-based formula sticks to the sealed or varnished wood. Then, it helps the paint coat bond tightly to the surface.

Also, super bonding primer makes the process easier. It prepares the surface for painting without a chalk paint layer.

How to Paint Over Varnished Wood Without Sanding?

There are five primary methods to use when painting over varnish without sanding.

They include mineral paint, bonding primer, milk paint + bonding agent, chalk paint, and liquid deglosser.

  • Mineral Paint

Mineral paint saves you the hassle of priming anything beforehand. Besides, it will adhere to any surface.

The paint is also durable and stain resistant; you do not need a topcoat.

However, although the surface needs no heavy sanding, consider lightly scuffing the workpiece for the best results.

  • Bonding Primer

High-quality bonding primers often state ‘no sanding needed. And they adhere to various shiny surfaces, including metal, glass, and tile.

The product is more expensive than other priming formulas. But the results are incredible as they bond tightly with the surface.

You’ll save time and use fewer resources to deliver a professional finish.

  • Milk Paint + Bonding Agent

Mix milk paint with a Bonding agent to create a paste. Then, apply the mixture to the surface and expect perfect adhesion.

The formula is easy to use and provides a firm grip. However, only apply it on the first coat.

  • Chalk Paint

Chalk paint is an excellent way to paint any surface without sanding practically.

Further, it delivers a fantastic matte finish without prior surface preparation.

You will also find multiple chalk paint brands in the market. Therefore, it is easy to get a product meeting your project needs.

  • Liquid Deglosser

Deglossers or liquid sandpaper are the least known methods that free you from sanding wooden surfaces.

However, the strategy is pretty straightforward. Apply the liquid directly to the surface and wait.

A chemical reaction happens when you apply paint to the surface, helping it to stick to the existing finish.

Also, the product produces a smell. Thus, it is advisable to use it in a well-ventilated area.

How Do You Remove Varnish from Wood Without Sanding?

Removing stains and old varnish gives the lumber a fresh start.

Fortunately, sanding is a common and effective stain removal technique. It cuts through the finish and reveals a fresh wood layer.

Although the process is quicker, it leaves a lot of fine particle dust, which is easy to inhale. Also, the process may remove more wood than needed.

So, here are alternatives to sanding. They include:

  • Use the Stripping Method

Gel and liquid strippers soak into the finish and loosen it, whereas heat guns soften the surface.

However, both techniques need scrapping to remove the varnish. So, you’ll still do some hard work.

Most citrus-based gel paint and liquid chemical paint strippers help remove stains and varnish.

Chemical strippers only need 30 minutes to give bare wood. But the fumes can be overwhelming.

On the other hand, citrus strippers have less odor. But they are slower and need two or more attempts.

Avoid citrus strippers requiring water rising, as the water raises the wood grain. And you’ll have to sand the wood.

Heat guns soften stains and varnish within two minutes, making the workpiece slippery and rubbery. So, ensure you do not overheat the surface.

In addition, standard heat guns quickly char the lumber. Thus, consider using infrared heat guns with less heat.

The most affordable way to strip stains and varnish while covering the most area is a conventional chemical stripper.

Standard and infrared heat guns are pricey but reusable. Also, they need minimal time to give the desired result.

  • Preparing the Wood

Unfortunately, citrus and chemical strippers can mar the surrounding regions. Hence, it is prudent to cover other areas when stripping the workpiece.

For instance, protect the floors and walls at the staircase’s head and floor during stripping.

Use painter’s tape and drop cloths for the best result. Also, cover any accents or fixed parts you do not need to strip.

Remove bolts, hinges, and drawer pulls where possible.

Also, move items outdoors or ventilate rooms with fans and open windows when working with chemical strippers.

Alternatively, use cloths to catch the varnish during scraping if you choose heat over gel or liquid strippers.

  • Stripping With Liquids and Gels

Image of one of the best wood deck stain strippersLiquids and gels are affordable and easy to use.

Moreover, you can expect an excellent result with an inexpensive, natural-fiber craft paintbrush.

Consider wearing eye-protection and chemical-resistant gloves even with milder citrus formulas.

Liquid strippers are thinner and work faster than citrus options.

But they dry faster, requiring you to monitor the progress closely. Otherwise, the product will dry on the wood, leading to more complications.

Sometimes, you will work with large surface areas.

Apply the stripper to one linear or square foot area and remove it before moving to the next region.

Also, the surface appears wrinkled when the stripper softens the varnish. Do not panic, as this makes the finish easy to scrape.

Use a putty knife or paint scraper to remove the varnish. In addition, get a stiff-bristled paintbrush for fancy and curved details.

Some finish may linger after scraping. So, consider using a soft, damp, fine-grade steel-wool pad.

Apply more paint stripper and rub it against the surface. Also, work along the wood grain and wipe off the softened varnish with a clean rag.

Finally, confirm with the manufacturer’s instructions before stripping the surface. For instance, some chemicals need turpentine to deliver a successful outcome. 

  • Stripping With Heat

Heat guns are a faster alternative. However, they cover less ground at a time than chemical strippers.

In addition, it is advisable to hold the device far from the surface. But consult the manufacturer’s guidelines for accuracy.

Use a putty knife or paint scraper when the varnish softens. And act fast before it cools or dries.

Please note that traditional heat guns generate intense heat. Thus, be careful not to char the lumber or burn your skin.

Conversely, you can opt for infrared guns. They work like conventional devices but do not produce much heat.

A heat gun may leave more stains than gel and liquid strippers.

Therefore, you may require turpentine, rags, stripper, and steelwool to loosen these last traces.

Does Vinegar Remove Varnish from Wood?

Vinegar’s natural acidic compounds make it an excellent solvent and stain remover. Besides, it can tackle harsh substances like varnish.

All you need is a fifty-fifty mix of white vinegar and warm water to clear the finish.

However, water and vinegar as a homemade hardwood cleaning solution eventually damage the surface.

Vinegar is acidic and thus, beaks down the finish on the hardwood floor. As a result, it will reduce the sheen, leaving a dull appearance.

Nonetheless, the formula is an excellent stain remover if you use it wisely.

Here are some things to prepare.

  • Vinegar

The vinegar amount needed for the project depends on the varnished area.

The product’s flexibility makes it ideal for primary home tasks and woodworking projects. So, you do not have to worry if you purchase excess.

In addition, the product is affordable and eco-friendly. Therefore, it is food safe and ideal for food contact areas.

  • Tools and Supplies

Find a jar for your vinegar. You can use any container suitable for the job.

Also, get a vacuum cleaner; the first step is cleaning the varnished surface. Then, prepare a piece of cloth and a wood scrapper.

Fortunately, these items are available at home. So, you won’t stretch your budget.

Next, follow this step-by-step guide.

  • Clean the Varnished Surface

Ensure the surface is clean before removing the varnish. Otherwise, you’ll end up wasting time and the solution.

Use a suitable vacuum to remove dust and dirt.

Also, get a vacuum appropriate for hardwood when working on a wooden floor or stairs.

Another alternative is to use a broom and dustpan. Only ensure that you remove all the dry dirt to ensure it will not entangle the formula later.

  • Prepare the Vinegar

Apply the vinegar properly to guarantee effective varnish removal. Besides, you can formulate an easy-to-do procedure.

Find a clean container for the vinegar and ensure it is enough to clean the surface.

Then, place the solution in an oven and heat it. 

Further, you do not need to boil the formula; simply heat it to deliver a ready-to-apply solution.

Next, drench a rag into the formula and apply it to the stained or varnished area.

  • Let the Vinegar Settle on the Varnish

Give the solution a few minutes to settle on the surface. It will act on the finish and soften it, making it easy to detach from the wood.

However, do not scrape the lumber immediately after vinegar application. The finish will not have softened, and scraping may damage the surface.

The vinegar solution must sit on the surface for about 20 to 30 minutes. This way, you guarantee a successful outcome.

Lastly, repeat the process several times till you remove the entire varnish finish.

  • Scrape the Varnish

The varnish is soft at this stage and ready for scrapping. However, your hands alone cannot pick up the varnish.

Use a typical floor scraper or putty knife to remove it.

Also, lightly scrape over the finish. And aim at a specific area, moving forward until you cover the entire area.

Please avoid exerting excessive force during scraping. The wood is sensitive and may get scratches.

  • Wipe the Surface

Remove dirt and debris to get ready for your wood refinishing product. Also, use a broom and dustpan to collect the dirt.

Further, you might need a wet-dry vacuum as the wood would probably be wet.

Then, wipe the surface with a rag. And ensure there is enough ventilation to maintain the wood’s quality.

Will Paint Thinner Remove Old Varnish?

Paint thinner removes old varnish. However, you need to use the correct procedure and product.

Soak a clean cloth into the paint thinner solution. Then, rub it in circular motions on the surface.

Keep refreshing the rag in the formula until you remove the varnish.

Paint thinner is a liquid product that thins or serves as a solvent for oil-based finishes or other coatings.

Besides, paint thinner describes the formula’s function, not the ingredients.

Thus, environmentally friendly products from soy, citrus, pine, or other organic material are under the paint thinner category.

However, paint thinner often comes from pure mineral spirits. It may also have additives such as benzene for optimal operation.

The solution is transparent and has low or no odor.

Besides removing old varnish, you can also use paint thinner on oil-based stains and paints, making them less viscous.

In addition, it cleans brushes and oily tools and wipes off oily surfaces.

Paint thinner and shellac acid contain alcohol. Therefore, you can use them to stip various surfaces.

Further, you do not need to remove the residue since the formula does not have residual wax or solvents lingering over the wax.

How Do You Make Homemade Varnish Remover?

Varnish is a perfect coating for most wood items, including flooring and furniture. It protects the surface from damage and gives it a glossy appearance.

However, the wood needs refinishing over time, requiring you to remove the coat.

You can remove varnish with chemical removers or opt for more natural mild homemade products.

Follow this simple procedure to get an effective solution.

  • Add four water cups to a pot and boil it. Then, remove the container from the stove and let it sit for five minutes.
  • Mix half a cup of cold water and one cornstarch cup in a small container.
  • Pour the boiled water into a container and add ¾ cup of baking soda, one tablespoon of white vinegar, and ½ cup of ammonia. Then, stir with a wooden spoon.
  • Add the cornstarch and cold water solution and stir thoroughly.
  • Wear rubber gloves and work in a well-ventilated area.
  • Ensure the rags are clean before the removal process. Otherwise, other chemicals may react with the varnish and discolor the wood.
  •  Dip a clean brush into the hot solution. Then, apply it to the wood varnish using a brush matching the furniture’s size.
  • Apply the mixture several times for hardwood floors. Also, give the surface about 30 seconds before wiping the varnish.
  • Reheat the mixture in a microwave when it becomes cool. This way, you keep it potent and ready for use. 
  • Let the solution sit on the wood for a few minutes.
  • Dip rags in hot water and wring out the excess. Next, scrub the wood with hot cloths to remove the varnish.
  • Repeat the process until you remove the finish.

NB: Rinse the surface with clean water after removing the varnish and let it sit in the sun or a well-ventilated space.

Also, add a water softener when working with hard water.

Frequently Asked Questions

The questions include:

  • Can I Paint Acrylic Paint Over Varnish?

It is okay to paint acrylic paint over a varnished surface. However, please be moderate in the process, especially where you need to do minor touch-ups.

Sometimes, it is better to remove the varnish when painting on extensive areas.

Also, check the varnish bottle’s label and confirm it is removable. Then, adhere to the correct procedure.

The brand’s website will also give details on how to remove the varnish.

Nonetheless, paint acrylic paint over varnish when touching up small areas. It saves time and energy.

  • Can I Paint Directly Over Varnish?

It is not a good idea to paint directly over varnish. But you can coat the surface without sanding.

In addition, use Chalk paint and seal it with a finish if you want to protect the wood permanently.

Alternatively, you can use a special bonding primer to prepare the wood for painting without sanding.

  • How Do I Remove Varnish from an Acrylic Paintings?

Apply a varnish remover and gently rub it into the film. The exercise is successful when you see slight pigment on the cloth.

Also, use plenty of clean rags to clear the entire surface and avoid undue abrasion.

Here are simple steps to help you out.

  • Give the painting at least three weeks to cure before removing the varnish. Otherwise, the pigmented paint will come off quickly.
  • Prepare the workspace and get the necessary supplies.
  • Open the windows and switch on the fan. Also, get a face mask as the chemical fumes from the stripper are harsh.
  • Prepare a practice piece similar to the surface if you are a beginner. This way, you can practice before the real deal.
  • Consult the manufacturer’s manual to figure out which varnish stripper to use.
  • You can utilize mineral spirits, white spirits, or turpentine to remove the finish from acrylic painting.
  • Wear your mask and gloves and position all the materials. Also, take a clean rag and place it in the tray.
  • Saturate the cloth with the stripper and gently wring out the excess formula. Then, smooth the rag over the painting’s upper corner to remove wrinkles and bubbles.
  • Lift a cloth corner every two minutes and check whether the varnish liquifies. If not, give it more time.
  • Repeat the exercise with a second clean cloth and smooth it like the first. However, remove it immediately after smoothing.
  • Fold the rag and softly rub the remaining varnish. Expect some pigment lifts, so don’t panic as it happens. 
  • Use fresh rags each time to keep track of how much pigment lifts. It also prevents you from transferring the finish to the painting.
  • Repeat the above steps until you complete the entire surface. Then, feel for leftover varnish or stickiness.
  • Let the painting dry. Further, you can save the varnish remover for later use.


  • Why Should I Apply Varnish on Wood?

Varnish protects the lumber from expansion, abrasion, shrinking, and fiber erosion. Further, it keeps living organisms like bacteria, fungi, and bugs at bay.

The finish gives the surface superior resistance to external factors and highlights the wood pores.

As a result, it gives the wood a durable aesthetic appearance.

Varnish protects painted surfaces from atmospheric elements. Thus, it does not break down in harsh weather conditions.

In addition, the wood is easier to clean.

A varnish topcoat gives paintings an even sheen. Besides, a double layer evens the art’s final look, giving it a consistent overall appearance.

Over time, dust accumulates on the painting, especially if it hangs in a smoky and dusty environment.

Therefore, you can use varnish to restore the workpiece’s original look.

  • What Are the Precautions When Handling Varnish?

Varnish possesses a strong and unpleasant odor. Hence, wear a mask and work in a well-ventilated area.

In addition, rub the finish gently as it has low resistance to abrasion.

  • Why Should I Remove Varnish?

Varnish is a protective layer adding sheen to surfaces. It also enhances a painting’s aesthetics while protecting it from harmful sunlight and dust.

Manufacturers make high-quality varnish, knowing that an artist would later remove it when needed.

Therefore, you’ll quickly find a removable finish type.

In addition, some varnish finishes yellow overtime or get dust particles. As a result, the art’s beauty decreases, requiring you to add a new coating.

  • Is the Varnish Removal Process for Old Oil Paintings Any Different?

The varnish removal process is similar for all paintings, whether old or new, water- or oil-based.

However, consult a professional if the painting has monetary or sentimental value.

But if the painting is not valuable, the instructions are as follows:

  • Identify the varnish type and consult the manufacturer’s directives on the recommended moval product.
  • Apply the varnish remover.
  • Use a deactivating agent when necessary. But apply it seconds after removing the varnish for a better outcome.
  • Remove the finish in smaller sections.
  • Apply another varnish coat to guarantee your masterpiece protection from elements.


Varnished wood needs refinishing as it ages. You may also want to do some furniture, wall, or floor touch-ups needing varnish removal.

So, engage in the above discussion to see your options.

Can You Paint Over Varnished Wood?

You can paint over varnished wood. Get the correct supplies and adhere to the recommended method.

Clean the surface, sand it down, and apply a primer to enhance adhesion. Then, apply thin paint coats until you deliver the desired finish.

Image of a woodworker wearing hearing protectors for woodworking

Tyron Otieno

Tyron is an avid woodworker and writer. He founded this website to help other woodworkers, whether hobbyists or professionals by sharing his knowledge and experiencie after a decade of woodworking.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.