Restoring or refinishing an old piece of furniture can be a time consuming and expensive process. Certain finishes like French Polish can often only be applied successfully by an experienced professional.
Whitewashing though, is a simple technique for breathing new life into a tired piece of wooden furniture that anyone can get great results with. Sometimes called antiquing or pickling, whitewashing involves applying a thin stain or a thinned coat of paint to wood to add a wash of colour and bring out its grain.
If you’ve seen pictures of those old French farmhouses with faded white shutters and sun bleached furniture, you’ll have some idea of what whitewashed furniture looks like.
The great advantage of whitewashing or antiquing, over simply painting furniture, is that it still allows the grain of the wood to show through and provides far more texture than a coat of solid white gloss paint.
In order to whitewash or pickle a piece of furniture you need to take it back to naked wood. Only in this way can you expose the grain and achieve the required antique-looking effect.
Use sandpaper or an electric sander to remove existing coats of paint. If you are sanding by hand a sanding block (usually a block of cork – available at hardware shops) will make things quicker and far less painful on the hands.
For more intricate pieces of furniture, or those which are heavily painted, a chemical stripper may be a more effective means of removing paint.
Note: The aim of whitewashing is to achieve a weathered, rustic look, not an absolutely flawless finish. If you prefer a more primitive look, your paint removal doesn’t have to be perfect. A few patches or streaks left here and there can actually add to the effect.
After removing any existing paint clean away all dust and dirt by wiping the piece of furniture with a damp cloth. Allow to dry thoroughly.
The Paint or Stain
The basic idea of whitewashing is to achieve a semi-transparent finish. To this end you need to use either a pickling stain, or paint which has been diluted.
If you use paint, it doesn’t really matter what type of paint you use – gloss, latex, water-based etc. – the choice is yours, depending on what type of finish you’re after. If you use a water-based paint dilute it with water. If you use an oil-based paint dilute it with turps or mineral spirits.
Again, the level of dilution is up to you, but a good place to start is with a 50:50 solution.
On large, flat surfaces, applying your stain or paint mixture with a brush will yield an even look that is pretty much uniform across the surface of the piece of furniture. If this is what you want – great. But for a more pickled or antique look, applying your paint with a rag is the way to go.
Dip your rag into the paint/stain and then, following the grain of the wood, rub the paint into your piece of furniture. Use long strokes and be sure to work the stain into any knots in the wood to bring out their full texture. Allow to dry.
You can repeat this process to build up several coats, but be aware that with each successive coat you will be moving closer to a fully opaque finish and away from the textured antique look. Take it step by step and assess your work after each coat has dried.
If you’ve applied too much paint you can use a fine sandpaper, once the paint is dry, to expose more of the grain.
An Alternative Method
An alternative to the whitewashing technique outlined above is to apply a thicker paint solution and then to immediately wipe over it with a clean cloth. In this way you will remove a good portion of the paint and expose the wood’s grain. This technique works well with gloss and oil-based paints.
Once you have whitewashed your piece of furniture allow it to dry thoroughly and then protect your hard work by coating the paint with a clear satin polyurethane sealer. Use a brush, not a rag, to apply this seal.
Whitewashing is a very forgiving technique. What you might think of as mistakes during your application will often simply add even more character to your piece of furniture. So don’t be afraid to get the white paint and thinners out. A little time spent with a rag and some sandpaper could add a world of rustic charm to your home.
For an alternative whitewashing technique check out this video.How to Whitewash Wooden Furniture,