How to Varnish With a Rag

Updated February 21, 2017

Varnish is an old-school finish that is still in use today. It consists of natural plant resins, drying oil and solvents. Varnish is used on woodworking that is exposed to water such as in marine applications, and it can also be used on stairs or hardwood floors. Varnish takes far longer to dry than lacquer but is just as durable. A few rags is all you need to apply varnish to the wood that you want to protect.

Form the rag into a ball shape and hold the ends together so that the ball end of the rag is facing down away from your hand. Use a cotton cloth that is as smooth as you can find. A plain white T-shirt is a good example. Keep five or so T-shirt rags available and switch them out when they become saturated.

Dip the rag ball into the can of varnish and allow it to soak for 10 seconds. Start in the middle of the object you are varnishing. Place the rag down and begin making strokes that go with the grain of the wood. Use short strokes at first, then go back over it with longer strokes to even out the varnish.

Stroke from the centre to the outside, working your way toward the edges of the object you are varnishing. Squeeze the ball over the can to get excess varnish out of the cloth.

Stroke over any small pools of varnish that might have accumulated near the centre. When you come to the edges of the object, pull the cloth off evenly and quickly to prevent varnish from pooling on the edges.

Brush lightly over the varnish while it is still wet with a cloth that is damp with varnish. Examine the surface and wipe off any drips, sags or runs with a clean, dry cloth.


Keep a dry rag handy for spills and drips. Wearing rubber gloves is a good idea when working with varnish or any other paint or finishing product.


Always work with varnish in a well-ventilated area to prevent being overcome by fumes.

Things You'll Need

  • Varnish
  • Rags
  • Rubber gloves (optional)
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About the Author

Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.