Paste stain and varnish - best way to finish your woodworking project?

No question about it - if you want the toughest possible clear finish on a project, polyurethane varnish is the way to go. It's hard, lustrous, and impervious to alcohol and water. But it is some trouble to apply. You have to mess up a brush, worry about runs and sags - and then there's the dust problem.

Paste varnishes and their companion products, paste stains, avoid all these problems while still giving you all the advantages of a polyurethane finish. I've been seeing them in the woodworking catalogs, and decided to order some to give them a try.

I made up some wood samples - hunks of oak, maple, and pine - and applied the stain and varnish according to the directions. For comparison, I also finished a sample in satin polyurethane - brushed on.

The paste varnish is simple to apply. You just wipe them on with cheesecloth, applying a light, smooth coat. The stains I tested is just as easy. It goes on smoothly and cover evenly. Between coats of varnish, I buffed off the samples with steel wool, then wiped on a second coat.

In our dusty shop, the paste varnishes came out as smooth as a carefully applied brushed-on and hand-rubbed finish. The brushed-on polyurethane, on the other hand, was full of dust.

There was some variation in the degree of yellowing or warm tone the varnish gave to the wood. After the samples were thoroughly dry, I gave each a coat of paste wax. Then, to test them for durability, I dribbled both water and alcohol on all the samples, letting them stand until dry.

This torture test did show up some differences between paste varnish samples and the brushed-on polyurethane. There was some slight discoloration and grain rising on the paste varnish samples, while the brushed-on polyurethane wasn't affected at all.

However, the paste finishes were easy to repair. To patch them, I buffed all with steel wool and applied another coat of wax. I could still see very faint traces of raised grain in all samples after rewaxing, but nothing that couldn't be lived with. All in all, I'd have to rate the paste finishes as being tough and easy to care for.

A distinct advantage of the paste varnishes is that the finish itself is very thin, without much buildup. This gives that hand-rubbed look without all the elbow grease. The cost of the paste varnishes and stains is in the same ballpark with brushed-on varnish, and a little seems to go a long way. Another plus is that paste varnishes and stains are virtually odorless.

My advice - give them a try! I think you'll agree that paste varnish and stain solve a lot of finishing problems.