How things work: 100 scientific explanations
Preservation property has always been important to humans. Historians in the ninth century were the first to record the use of varnish, a protective liquid composed of resins, natural oils, and alcohol, among other ingredients. Furniture makers learned that if they painted coats of the stuff on a piece of furniture or wood floor, it made it impervious to liquids and their damage and shielded it from normal wear and tear. And the makers liked the shine furniture had after it was varnished.
Varnish comes in many formulations. Some are oil based, using linseed or tung oil, while others are water-based. Varnish cures, or dries, on what it’s painted, creating a glossy, clear film on the surface. Some oil-based varnishes can turn to a yellowish color; water-based varieties do not. Wood must be carefully cleaned and sanded before any varnish is applied. Several coats are often required. All varnishes contain resins — terpenes with five-carbon molecules called isoprenes and also include a drying oil or solvent to reduce drying time.
Although furniture and flooors are still the most frequently varnished items, the wooden hulls of boats are also often varnished. Clear nail polish, a type of varnish, can be used for countless small fixes: dab small amounts to keep splintered wood from snagging, prevent ink from running, and stop buttons on clothing or screws on sunglasses from coming loose.
(National Geographic Special Publication “How Things Work” Adapted.)