Written by Terry Smith
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UK’s best exterior varnish for woodwork: Ronseal, Rustins, and Everbuild compared on price, clear glaze, and protection from water
This article was last updated on December 14th, 2021 at 1:43 am
Exterior varnish is an excellent method of protecting your fence, shed, garden furniture, and almost any wood work outside without detracting too much from your natural wood look, unlike a stain which is essentially a painted finish. Teak oil is comparable to varnish but not quite as vibrant, normally more matt. If you head to my my decking oil page you can see the difference between the finish there, and really a really vibrant varnish finish:
If you like a good light wood colour like pine and really want that natural timber look and feel to come through then you’ve come to the right place – however not all wood is quite as shiny as the pictured example above. In this article I’ve looked at the normal exterior varnish finishes including gloss and satin (matt is better for interior varnish) to give you the best overall understanding as to which exterior varnish is going to suit you and your woodwork. We’ve rated the best exterior outdoor varnish based on overall protection (does rain water form beads and run away), discolouration of timber, the quality of the finish and how it looks (bubbles?), ease of application, as well as the price. And just before you dive in, please feel free to take a look at how to get the most from your exterior varnish and some of the best methods and practises.
Best varnish: editor picks for wood exterior:
Best exterior varnish: Ronseal YVS500 500ml Exterior Yacht Varnish Satin – Designed to repel salty sea water: totally over engineered for your average garden furniture making it the best pick by far.
Alternative satin finish if you want a better price than Ronseals: Rustins EAVS500 500ml Outdoor Varnish Satin
Best gloss varnish finish: Everbuild EVBWVARCLG07 Quick Dry Wood Varnish Gloss
Alternative to the Everbuild gloss: Rustins EAVG250 250ml Outdoor Varnish Gloss – Rustins is the name in varnish and very trustable.
Quality for decking on a boat/yacht: Johnstone’s 309309 Woodcare Outdoor Yacht Varnish
How to get superb exterior varnish results
Don’t try to use a mini roller for perfect finishes. The trick is a really nice quality brush and let the stroke marks fade together as the varnish levels itself. From my personal experience of corner cutting with a roller it’ll always tend to bubble and try to ‘lift up’. The smart way is a brush and go steady. If you really need to go faster you can try paint pads which make a reasonably good job of this.
Most varnishes are ready to coat again in about six hours. Make sure you pay attention to the specific re-coating times, the last thing you want is to pull and flake or smudge the first layer. It basically then will need to set rock had and be sanded off to come back to a nice finish.
Talking of sanding. A little 240/320 grit, I don’t mind using an orbital sander here, it’s ideal with a fine grit pad. Over each layer of varnish, put a key on so the subsequent layers to bond too is always good practise (key means a light light sand). From years of experience I can tell you the application of vanish is just as much about the prep as it is the quality of material used to get a cracking finish.
Lastly plan well. This is a fair weather job and almost all formulas will rely on good warm weather and no rain.
Dark and light varnish examples (Gloss and Satin)
There are two types of varnish – dark and light. The I would break them down as gloss is the lighter (but still slightly darkens your timber) and satin which will darken your timber. Here’s a look at furniture with a satin/matt finish:
A lighter varnish is normally glossy but will still send it a bit darker – obviously much depends on the grain and colour but here’s a lighter timber with a gloss varnish:
Can I varnish over paint?
In some cases yes, but not the varnish in this article – you’ll want to strip paint before varnishing (and sand heavily to get the natural wood back). An alternative is to blast your furniture with a powerful pressure washer like my petrol version and strip off the treatment/stain/paint first. Please note going to close with so much power can tear the grain a bit so please be careful:
Don’t varnish over wax
One thing you just flat out can’t do is varnish over wax. The reason being, wax repels almost everything! And that includes your varnish too – it’ll literally stop it seeping into the grain so will just wash off, look bubbly, and patchy as well – you will pull your hair out. I highly recommend sanding and blasting off with a pressure washer – note the sanding discs will clog quickly with wax and you’ve also got to consider – do you mind getting your timber wet if using a pressure washer?
Best ways to remove varnish
There are a few sensible ways to remove varnish. My personal preference is a heat gun and then sand, it’ll basically melt the vanish out – this is the way to go without chemicals. The easiest is a varnish stripper – some use a blasting pot (sand pot blasted at timber) which is fine but it can be a bit aggressive on the timber. This is how we do it commercially.
1. Ronseal YVS500 500ml Exterior Yacht Varnish Satin
My number one pick is Ronseal YVS500 500ml Exterior Yacht Varnish Satin. Yep, you read it right, a formula made for yachts. This varnish is absolutely superior in protection to standard varnish in almost every way. The idea of yacht varnish is to repel salt water battering hand rails and decking every single day. The result is a superior finish, a far harder wearing protective layer that cracks and flakes much much more slowly and there’s no way you can call it more expensive because it’ll last miles longer than the average varnish formula.
When you think about it, you can see it stands to reason that the product has to be superior. You are not just paying the upfront extra for a few words, it has a different chemical formula to protect from UV damage to standard varnishes.
In my experience applying this to the trails of my boat as well as the decking I found that I covered about 8m2 and you’ll want 2-3 coats. However, on the sawn wood of fences with far more surface area as a result of the rugged finish, I would say I didn’t get much more than 6m2. I do grant you it’s not the cheapest way to go about protecting your fence or shed, but it sure looks superb. I feel the satin gives just the right look between gloss and dull, and for that reason the Ronseal YVS500 500ml Exterior Yacht Varnish Satin is my favourite exterior varnish. I know I get a bit excited about Ronseal and Cuprinol but that’s for good reason, especially Cuprinol 5 Star, that is some product over the decades I’ve been using it trust me. Anyway don’t let me waffle about wood treatments, you’ll soon get bored – this is a top top product that leaves a lovely hard wearing sheen that’s shiny but not in an over the top gloss way. And by the way the gloss thing is my personal preference, unseal have you covered with the gloss version of this formula which gives serious shine if you so prefer!
If you want to try to fault this product then you might say it’ll slightly darken your timber. Given it’s a satin finish, and what almost all other varnishes will do, I think this is me nit picking. Use this product with absolute confidence.
2. Rustins EAVS500 500ml Outdoor Varnish Satin
Let’s say you want a really good finish with a very good quality varnish without the Ronseals yacht varnish price tag, then Rustins EAVS500 500ml Outdoor Varnish Satin is your go to product in my mind. It’s an excellent formula and much like the Ronseal you will get 6-8m2 out of half a litre tins. It has the added benefit of being pretty much touch dry on a Summers day in half an hour and you can coat it again in four hours. This is due to it being a water based formula. Don’t ty to do this in cold weather, it doesn’t set quickly or right. It needs to be warm. Rustins say it should be at least 10 degrees but let’s be realistic, painting outside in 18 + degrees is much more comfortable anyway. Have an eye on the weather too, you don’t want rain in sight.
A handy tip with this varnish is to add a little water and stir it up well. Yep you hears that right. It’ll help with the viscosity and applies that much more easily. Use a decent soft tipped paint brush to apply for the best looking finish. Where it falls down though compared to the yacht varnish is coats. Expect to layer up 4 but possibly even 5 times to get a really deep solid finish. A porous fence panel will certainly drink this varnish so if you need plenty then follow the link for this product on the review table and select a bigger tin. You get far better value that way.
To sum this product up, it is only beaten by Yacht varnish in my opinion. It’s better than all other standard vanishes I know.
3. Everbuild EVBWVARCLG07 Quick Dry Wood Varnish Gloss
Everbuild make some really nice sealants. That’s not just for wood, I also really like their Everbuild patio sealer too. I’ve found their sealers to be good for both domestic and commercial application and always strike the balance between quality and price, with good value being their strongest card.
If you’re looking for a varnish that doesn’t do the ‘yellowing thing’ then this is probably a good choice for you. A 2.5 litre tin is a bargain at £25 quid and covers about 40-50m2. It’s pretty much a low odour varnish and dries quickly like the Rustins gloss , however has the advantage of being overcoat-able in about an hour. I would say though with the discolouration almost any varnish can do this if you ty to put too much on in one go. Keep your coats thin and neat. This will give a much bette look in the end despite being more work.
Don’t be concerned when you open the tin to find a milk colour. This is not a gone off batch. This is normal. It will dry clear so no panicking 🙂
Overall it’s a good buy and well priced and probably a flip with Rustin’s but I still prefer Ronseal even though it costs double.
4. Rustins EAVG250 250ml Outdoor Varnish Gloss
As I mentioned earlier glossy varnish isn’t my hat but it wouldn’t be fair to leave out Rustins EAVG250 250ml Outdoor Varnish Gloss. It’s a cracking product, almost second to none with exception only to the yacht vanish.
Like the Rustins satin, it’s touch dry in 30 minutes and re-coatable in four hours. You’l also need four to five thin coats to get a really nice looking finish. It’s almost identical to the satin but with a shinier finish. Brush cleaning is easy and the formula is pretty good as far as non drip is concerned.
The thing I like about this formula is it will go nicely on top of paint and certainly does highlight and even accentuate a paint finish. Make sure the surface you apply to is solid or it’ll flake and look naff. This is pretty much 101 of any paintwork prep though. It’ll go slightly darker than your natural finish but that’s to be expected of almost every single varnish.
A great product and one of those rare ones that actually does what it says on the tin. A definite recommend for anyone looking for a gloss finish.
5. Johnstone's 309310 Woodcare Outdoor Yacht Varnish
To round off the reviews I had to go with another yacht vanish. The Johnstone’s 309310 Woodcare Outdoor Yacht Varnish is a superb product and only second to Ronseal’s on price really. You can expect superb results from this formula and considerably cheaper too – an absolute bargain when you pick the 750ml tin over the 250ml – don’t worry, I’ve updated the link to send you to the 750ml – my apologies, I previously listed the 250ml.
It coats very nicely over previously stained or vanished wood and leaves a really study hard wearing surface. It’s designed for boat decking that is walked on everyday as well as battling the elements – sea water spray, rain, and seagull’s droppings. It won’t crack or peel easily at all and is easily superior to standard exterior varnish – it has to be, a deck on a yacht costs literally thousands, there’s no way you can formulate a sub standard product here so if the intention is garden furniture, then expect years of service if you coat it up heavy. It’ll repel a cordless pressure washer too – something I’ve personally tested.
It’s oil based so in my opinion darkens timber, perhaps even a little more than Ronseal however I don’t personally find that to be a problem. I think the finish enhances over a long period of time and it’s a very natural looking finish that essentially lifts the overall look.
A word of waning, don’t try to lay this on thick, it’ll take ages to set. Go with nice thin coats in warmer weather (essentially following the exterior varnish guidelines I gave above).