Whitewash has a long history that goes back well before America does. It was one of the earliest forms of painting and sealing in historic construction and the look is still popular today. It’s a great way to get that shabby chic appearance on furniture and other decor.
The traditional recipe for whitewash was a combination of unslaked lime, whiting, and salt mixed into boiling water which would create a mixture much like milk in consistency and appearance. The salt helps with adhesion.
You can still make traditional whitewash and I, in fact, like it for sealing and protecting historic masonry. Traditional whitewash essentially forms a micro-thin layer of limestone when it dries which is a great sealer and protector for old masonry and plaster walls with the added benefit that it is breathable and doesn’t cause the issues that other masonry sealers do.
While this technique is helpful for old masonry or plaster walls, my focus today is more on getting that whitewash look with simple to find ingredients that don’t cost a ton. Slaked lime is not at the corner hardware store so we won’t going that way today.
How to Whitewash Wood
The easiest way to get a great a whitewashed look is by using water and latex paint. You don’t need to pay $50 for a specialty Annie Sloan paint either. The cheapest latex white paint you can find is more than sufficient.
I’ll layout the process below and of course there is a quick video so you can see exactly how I get that old whitewashed look. This is honestly so simple you barely need a tutorial, but I want folks to know this is an easy option for spicing up your decor and craft projects for your old home.
What You’ll Need
- Flat/matte white paint
- Paint brush
- Cotton rags
- Nitrile gloves
Step #1 Sand and Prep
Sand your piece smooth and clean all the dust off. Somewhere between 80 and 120-grit is just fine for a final sanding grit.
Step #2 Mix Up
Mix 1 part water and 1 part paint. You can mix a little more or less of each to get slightly different looks. Thinning the paint by at least half with water causes it to penetrate the wood better than just straight paint.
Step #3 Brush It In
Brush your whitewash mix onto the surface and work it in pretty well. You are trying to get the mixture into the pores of the wood. Brushing with the grain is best, but honestly it’s not a big deal here since the paint is so thin.
Step #4 Wait & Wipe
Give it just a minute and then with a clean cotton rag gently wipe off the surface. You don’t want to wait any more than a minute. If you wait longer then the paint will start to dry and be gummy when you wipe off. The heavier you wipe off the more whitewash you’ll remove so test it to see how much force you need. You can always apply multiple coats to get a heavier appearance.
Step #5 Distress (optional)
After the wash has dried you can choose to distress your piece to get that shabby chic look by scraping or sanding corners or other high traffic areas to make the wear look realistic. Play with it and make something creative!
Check out my Minute Method video below to see exactly how to whitewash wood in The Craftsman way. Whitewashing wood is a ton of fun and I particularly enjoy making shelves for my kid’s rooms in this style. You can’t beat the look of whitewashed bookshelves in a nursery for my money!
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Here are some inspiration photos of the awesome ways you can use whitewashing for your projects. Hopefully, these will get your creative juices flowing!
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.