The chemical industry offers today a huge range of different varnishes for woodworking finishing. Most of them are a mix of different elements (natural and synthetic) so it’s hard to make a good classification about the different kind of varnishes. Just to have some more information about them we could consider that usually they are made of tough and durable synthetic resins that have been modified with drying oils. Labels on cans of varnish will list resins such as alkyd, phenolic and urethane, and the oils used are tung and linseed, as well as other semidrying oils such as soybean and safflower. Varnish cures by the same process as true oils — polymerization — but the resins make this finish more durable than oil. In fact, oil-based varnish is the most durable finish that can be easily applied by the average woodworker. Varnish surpasses most other finishes in its resistance to water, heat, solvents and other chemicals. Varnishes that contain a high percentage of oil are called long-oil varnishes. These include marine, spar or exterior varnishes and some interior varnishes for sale on the retail market. Long-oil varnishes are more elastic and softer than medium- and short-oil varnishes that contain a lower percentage of oil. Medium-oil varnishes comprise most interior varnishes on the market. Short-oil varnishes (also known as heat-set varnishes and baking enamels) require extremely high temperatures to dry, so they’re used only in industrial applications.
The type of resin used in the varnish determines the characteristics of the finish. Alkyd varnish is the standard all-purpose interior variety with decent protective qualities. Phenolic varnish, usually made with tung oil, is predominantly for exterior use. Urethane varnish, also called polyurethane, offers a better resistance to heat, solvents and abrasions than any other varnish.
Here after is shown a small table in which are represented the durability features of the different kind of vanrishes