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How to Varnish Over Dark Paneling With a Lighter Shade

Updated February 21, 2017

Although dark panelling can have a retro "man cave" appeal, it also makes updating a room challenging if you want a modern, lighter look. Dark panelling can be upgraded with stain and varnish, making it lighter while still allowing the character of the wood to remain. Whether it's real wood or faux, vinyl-coated wood-look panelling, you have several options for lightening it up with stain and varnish. If you want to get a bit creative, you can use some faux finishing techniques to bring it up to date.

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  1. Clean the panelling with dish-washing detergent and warm water to remove wax, oil and surface dirt. Rinse it thoroughly and allow it to dry.

  2. Sand the panelling with 180-grit sandpaper, working with the grain of the wood.

  3. Choose a gel stain in a lighter colour than your panelling. Most gel stains are available in tint bases, and can be tinted to almost any colour you desire, according to Paint Pro magazine.

  4. Apply the gel stain as directed on the product label. Typically gel stain is applied liberally with a rag or natural bristle brush.

  5. Wipe the excess stain away with a clean rag or sponge. Use wood graining tools (available at some paint stores and most craft stores) for a faux wood grain effect. Allow the stain to dry for eight to 10 hours.

  6. Apply another coat of stain if you want it to look even lighter. If one coat gives you the effect you like, seal the stained panelling with two or three coats of varnish, sanding lightly between each coat.

  7. Prepare the panelling by cleaning and sanding it as outlined in the first section.

  8. Purchase varnish stain, mix your own or ask a paint store to mix it for you. Varnish stain is simply oil-based varnish with transparent colourant added. Acceptable colourants are oil-based artist paints, universal colourants or oil-based stain. Applying light varnish stain over dark panelling will give you a whitewashed effect.

  9. Brush at least two coats of the varnish stain onto the panelling, working with the grain of the wood and sanding lightly with 180-grit sandpaper in between coats. Use a 3- or 4-inch natural bristle brush.

  10. Tip

    Unlike penetrating stain, gel stain can be used on many different non-porous materials such as metal, vinyl, fibreglass, or over previously painted or varnished surfaces like panelling. Test the finish and your technique on the panelling first to make sure you are getting the effect you want. If you're unhappy with a method, wipe the test patch clean with white spirit and start over.


    Open windows and use fans for ventilation and to dissipate the fumes from stain and varnish.

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Things You'll Need

  • Detergent
  • rags and sponges
  • Sandpaper
  • Gel stain
  • Wood-graining tools
  • Varnish
  • Varnish stain
  • Natural bristle brush

About the Author

Stevie Donald has been an online writer since 2004, producing articles for numerous websites and magazines. Her writing chops include three books on dog care and training, one of which won a prestigious national award in 2003. Donald has also been a painting contractor since 1979, painting interiors and exteriors.

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