How to Whitewash Wood-Tips, Tricks, and Techniques
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The whitewashing technique is fantastic if you want to add a bright, airy feeling and a softer look to your decor or your projects. Used over old or stained wood creates a distressed look.
There are many ways to achieve this effect, and in this post, I’ll tell you how to whitewash wood to get awesome results and what techniques to use.
To achieve the desired whitewashed wood look, you can implement several different techniques that you’ll find below in this article. Just pick the one that suits you best for your current project, and I’m sure you’ll get amazing results.
Watered-down paint technique for new and “aged” wood
This technique I found to be the most popular one amongst other methods used by DIY-ers and upcyclers. It’s pretty simple, and you don’t need any special paint to do it.
Ordinary latex paint should be fine. It works great for new, smooth wood, as well as a textured one. You can also use it on wood that was artificially aged using stain.
- A cleaning solution like TSP
- Sandpaper/power sander
- Any water-based paint
- Dark-colored stain(optional)
- Paintbrush or roller
- Clean lint-free rags
- Water-based topcoat
Cleaning and Sanding
If you’re upcycling an old piece of furniture or making a project from used wood, a thorough cleaning is a must. You can use a detergent that cuts through grease, grime, and dirt, like TSP and warm water. Now depending on the project, you’d want to sand the surface. I
f the piece has a finish, you want to start with P-80/P-100 grit. If the project was made from used pallets, I’d start with P40/P60 depending on the state of the wood.
You then need t go up a grit by around 50% but don’t go higher than 180/P180. You want the wood to have some tooth for the paint to be able to stick to it. You can always sand it smoother after the whitewashing is done.
Making the Whitewash
For the paint, you can use a chalked type of paint, even DIY chalk paint. Frankly, any type of water-based paint would do.
What paint-water ratios should I use?
Well, it depends. If you paint bare wood, a 1:1 paint-to-water ratio(50-50) will be fine. It’ll give you light coverage. If you whitewash previously painted or stained surfaces 2:1 paint-to-water ratio will provide you with excellent one-coat medium coverage.
The 1:2 paint to water ratio is used when you want to rub in the whitewash without wiping the excess off.
You can always start with a light coverage ratio and paint more layers to achieve a more opaque finish if desired. And you can adjust the proportions as you go adding more water or more paint.
Test it on a piece of scrap wood or in an inconspicuous area.
Paint or stain wood with a dark-colored stain
The whitewashing technique looks great over painted surfaces as well as stained wood.
But can you whitewash stained wood?
Yes, of course, as long as the stain is not the self-sealing type that works like a topcoat as well. So, for instance, you can age new wood using the stain aging technique and then just whitewash it as normal.
Aging new wood and then whitewashing it will bring up the wood grain and wood texture more clearly.
Brushing or rolling on the paint
The next step is pretty self-explanatory. You can use either a foam roller or a paintbrush to apply the paint. Make sure you work on a small area at once, so it doesn’t get dry before wiping off the excess paint.
I recommend brushing along the wood grain when painting faux-aged wood mainly because the brush strokes will add to the visible texture.
Brush it on and then rub the paint in with a rag
If your wood is quite rough, like only sanded with P80, you can brush the paint and then rub it in with cloth along the grain. If you choose this method, there is no need to wipe the excess off, but remember, in this case, the 2:1 water-to-paint ratio is used.
Wiping the wash off
The next step is to wipe the excess paint off with a cloth. You always want to wipe along the grain. For larger surfaces, a sponge works great too.
Let it dry and repeat if necessary
Now that you got the whole surface covered, let it dry completely before deciding if you need more coverage. You may need 2,3 or even more, layers depending on the final effect you want to achieve.
Lightly sand (optional)
This step is optional. It depends on how smooth was the painted surface in the first place. If it was quite rough(like sanded with P-80), I’d sand it up to P-180 and then apply the topcoat.
If it was smooth already, I’d just sand it lightly with P-280 or similar before applying the topcoat.
Applying the topcoat
Before you apply your chosen top coat, make sure that you wipe the sanding dust off with a damp cloth. Let it dry completely. For the finish, you can choose between water-based poly, wax, or tung oil.
The choice depends mostly on the durability of the finish you want to use. For high-traffic areas, I’d recommend water-based poly with a low or flat sheen. You may find this post on how to seal surfaces for high traffic helpful.
Dry brushing technique
This method uses undiluted white paint to achieve the whitewashing effect. It’s pretty straightforward but requires mastering the brushing technique more than the watered-down method.
Before you start, make sure the wood surface is clean and dry. Sand the sealant off if necessary. You want to have access to bare wood. Saying that, you can also use this technique on painted as well as stained surfaces.
The secret to this method being successful is to master the brushing technique. Dribble a small amount of paint onto a paper plate. You then want to use a dry brush and dip it very lightly in the paint.
Wipe the excess paint off on the paper towel so you work with a tiny amount of paint. Then quickly and lightly brush the wood along and across the grain using short brush strokes.
Adding color depth
If you’re using this method on painted or stained wood, you may want to add some of the same color/stain on top of the whitewash in some places. The method is the same, but you don’t brush the whole piece. This will enhance the dry-brushed effect.
Seal your piece
Same as in the method above, you want to protect the painted surface with a sealant of your choice.
This method is perfect for textured, reclaimed wood like a pallet, old fence, or barn wood. The paint(water-based)needs to be a consistency of a crepe batter, so if it’s too thick, just dilute it with some water.
Then you just pour the paint onto the wood and, using a scraper, spread/scrape it along the wood grain. Because of the wood texture, some of the paint will get into the groves greeting the whitewash effect. Finally, seal the surface.
This is a distressing method, as well. It creates a chipped, shabby-style white-washed wood effect. First of all, clean the wood surface, which can be old reclaimed wood or new wood.
It’ll work with either. Rub some candle wax at random spots on the surface. Paint it with white paint and let it completely dry.
Once dried, take a cloth/rag and wipe the surface with some pressure. The paint will come off in places rubbed in with the candle, creating that shabby chic look.
Although it works with new wood, I think it looks better with the aged one. You can always fake the aged look by using stain first or choose any aging methods from my post on how to distress wood and make it look old and weathered.
Whitewashing pine using wax or gel stain
What wood is best for whitewashing?
From all the woods available like oak, maple mahogany, etc., pine is the best choice to create a whitewash effect. You ask why?
Pine has yellow, warm undertones that are easily balanced by the crisp, airy whites coming from the whitewash technique.
Other woods have more red undertones, and when whitewash is applied, they will appear more pinkish than white. Of course, you could try and balance the red out using different shades of white, but why complicate things?
Unless it’s a piece of furniture you’re upcycling made out of this kind of wood, I would just go with pine for your projects.
Pine is also very often used in wooden pallets, so upcycling those will yield you an excellent whitewash effect. Just keep in mind that while pine looks great whitewashed, it’s also a softer type of wood.
It’s still great for furniture and other projects, but it will indent, mark, and scratch more than hardwoods.
Below you’ll find two great whitewashing techniques using readily available products- a gel stain and white wax.
Gel stain technique
This is a simple technique using a gel stain. What is a gel stain? It’s an oil-based stain that is very thick and doesn’t drip. It’s easier to apply, especially to vertical surfaces.
It can be applied to non-porous surfaces like metal or fiberglass, as well as wood.
- Surface protector like an old bed sheet or plastic foil
- Lint-free rags – old t-shirts would do
- Sandpaper and power sander if needed
- Stir stick
How to apply gel stain
The application process is pretty much the same for any gel stain brand. But I recommend checking the manufacturer’s instructions anyway.
Make sure you work in a very well-ventilated area as the stain has a quite intense odor, and it’s full of chemicals.
You can use a face respirator as well to avoid fumes inhalation when working indoors. Then use some kind of surface protection like old bedsheets or foil. Even rubbish bags will do.
First of all, you need to make sure that the surface is clean from any dirt, grease, or dust and sand the surface smoothly.
Then stir the stain thoroughly. Don’t shake it, though. You don’t want air bubbles to form.
Then you either use a paintbrush or lint-free clean rag to apply a liberal amount of the stain along the wood grain. You can even rub it in the wood a bit if you want to.
Wait for a short while, and wipe the excess off using a clean rag along the grain as well. Some brands recommend using a cloth dampened with mineral spirits (again, check the manufacturer’s advice) Repeat if you want more coverage.
You always want to apply the topcoat after staining to protect the surface. The stain itself only provides the color, not the protection to the surface. Unless it’s a self-sealing stain, then the topcoat is not necessary.
With the gel stains, you can use a water-based or oil-based sealant. You’d want to avoid the latter ones since they can cause yellowing of the stain over time.
I recommend using a water-based topcoat. But you must make sure that a minimum of 24/72hrs have passed since the stain application(depends on the brand-please check manufacturer’s directions).
Since you use an oil-based product first and then a water-based one, the surface must be completely dry.
There are many different brands available, like Minwax gel stains or Old Masters in pickling white. You can also use a semi-transparent regular stain in whitish color like Benjamin Moore.
But keep in mind that it’s more liquid and therefore a bit harder to work with. Especially on vertical surfaces.
White wax technique
This technique simply uses a wax in white that is used to seal painted surfaces to give them a softer, vintage look. The kind of wax you use to seal chalk or milk paint. Here you can use it on bare wood to achieve a whitewash effect.
Wax is pretty easy to work with. No drips, low odor, and it seals the surface as well. So if you use it for low-traffic areas, there is no need to apply a topcoat.
This technique is best for places that are not in direct sunlight or outdoors. So any wood beams, side tables, or shelves. I don’t recommend using wax on countertops or tabletops. Basically, places with a lot of daily use, sunlight, or moisture.
- Surface protector
- Thick round wax brush or lint-free rag
- Sandpaper and power sander if needed
How to apply white wax
This is pretty straightforward. Using a brush or a clean lint-free rag, you apply the wax to the surface. Wait around 10 min and buff it with a clean cloth, and you’re done.
Bear in mind that wax has a curation time as well, which can be anything from 5-21 days depending on the brand, temperature, and humidity.
Whitewashing is not complicated, and the results are pretty amazing. Choose your favorite method, remember to follow a few simple steps, and I’m sure your results will be amazing.
If you, however, have more questions about how to whitewash wood, let me know in the comment section, and I’ll do my best to help you. Thanks for stopping by!
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You’re a star. Thank you soooo much. We make so many things from pallets and this is the first time all the whitewashing techniques are summarized in one spot. Pinned because I’ll be back t try them all.
I’m glad I could help Michelle!Thank you for your kind comment 🙂
I’m trying to strip a dark brown 60 inch farmhouse round table and I want to have the restoration hardware Look. , From my research I’m thinking strip,sand stain with a light stain like weathered Oak or some other color I’m not sure of. After drying use some chalk paint with water two parts paint to one part water. I’m not sure but possibly brush on and wipe off and then when you are happy with the color lightly sand and seal with polyurethane. If I’m not correct could you please give me some helpful hints? Possibly some gray and white undertones with a little bit of taupe. I was hoping to post a picture but it would not let me!
Thank you for your question. The process you’ve come up with is perfectly fine. I have a few tips for you :)) After stripping, make sure you don’t sand the wood more than P-180 grit sandpaper. You don’t want it to be too smooth for the stain to take in properly. Check my article on staining wood for more tips. If you’re going to use the watered-down chalk paint wash, wood shouldn’t be too smooth. So you don’t need too much sanding between the stain coats(if you plan on doing more than one). The paint has to have the ability to get into the wood grain. Make sure you use water-based stain because then you’re using water-based paint on top.
After you’re done with the chalk paint, sand it smooth and apply water-based poly. You can check this article on finish for high traffic areas like tabletops. Make sure you sand between the finish coats for a smooth surface.
Saying that there is a way that is a lot simpler. You can use the stain you want, or you can use the homemade wood aging mix of steel wool and vinegar for a lovely gray shade. And then sand it smooth and use a cerusing wax to create the restoration hardware look.
The wax will harden and create a nice protective layer. Keep in mind that using a stain, in this case, will give you more control over the actual color of the wood. The steel wool/vinegar mix creates a chemical reaction, and the final shade depends mostly on the type of wood used. This method has only two steps, so it would be a lot easier/quicker to do. I hope this helps :)) Let me know if you have any more questions. Have a lovely day, Tola!