How to Whitewash Wood for a Vintage Look

White bedroom
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Whitewashed wood declares itself as a vintage look right off the bat, evoking visions of farmhouses, fences, and barns in New England or Old World European settings. Whitewashed wood is lively, textured, and fascinating to look at. Outside of natural wood itself, there is no better way to let wood's grain show through than with whitewash. You can brighten the walls of a drab attic bedroom, turn your outdoor deck into an inspired summer retreat, or bestow instant personality on a dull outdoor table.

You can learn how to whitewash wood quite easily. Unlike some other wood treatments, whitewashing is clean, fast, safe and inexpensive. It does not have the offensive, lingering odor of oil-based stains and paints. Unlike chalk paints—a coating that produces a similar look—traditional whitewash does not require purchasing from pricey specialty retailers. It is an eco-friendly coating and has zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Its cost ranges from cheap to practically free, all because of two inexpensive ingredients: salt and hydrated lime. Or if you prefer, you can spend a bit more money and make faux whitewash with paint.

What Is Whitewash?

Traditional whitewash is a mineral-based protective coating for weather-impacted exterior surfaces like barns. A thin, watery product, it requires multiple layers and leaves a chalky residue. Right after you apply the first layer, it doesn't look like much. But when you come back an hour later, the coating has cured and formed a light chalky appearance, much like dried salt. More layers intensify the whiteness.

You can either go the classic route and make authentic whitewash or you can create faux whitewash with latex paint.

True Whitewash

Hydrated builder's lime (limestone), a substance unrelated to lime fruit or to gardener's hydrated lime, is the main ingredient. Salt adds more white to the mix. Water is the substance that slakes, or dissolves, the lime. Water is also the vehicle for applying the whitewash to the wood.

True whitewash has the advantages of authenticity at an extremely low cost. On the negative side, it isn't good for surfaces that get touched frequently, like benches or tables. Also, the type of hydrated lime needed for authentic whitewash may be difficult to find. 

Always use caution when handling lime powder, which is caustic. Wear goggles, rubber gloves, and a good-quality dust mask when moving bags of lime, pouring lime powder in a bucket, or mixing lime initially. Once the lime powder is fully mixed with water and cannot become airborne or breathed in, it is less hazardous to work with, but it is a good idea to wear goggles or safety glasses when whitewashing.

Faux Whitewash

With ordinary white, flat sheen, water-based paint, you can create attractive simulated whitewash by thinning down the paint to the consistency of true whitewash. Equal amounts of water and paint are used in order to give the substance a watery, soupy consistency. 

Because latex paint whitewash does not produce that classic salty look, realism comes by way of creative application. Using cheaper, rougher brushes like horsehair chip brushes is a good way to replicate the streaky effect of traditional whitewash. 

Faux whitewash is preferable for indoor applications and for surfaces that will be touched because it does not have the chalky feel of real whitewash. On the downside, it takes more creative effort to properly streak the paint to simulate the old whitewash look.

Tools and Materials Needed

For True Whitewash

  • Dust mask
  • Safety goggles
  • Rubber gloves
  • Type S hydrated masonry lime (not gardener's lime)
  • Crushed rock salt
  • Extra mixing bucket
  • Plastic sheeting

For Faux Whitewash

  • White acrylic-latex paint, flat or matte sheen
  • Clean cloth rags
  • Spray bottle filled with water

For Both

  • Chip brush or any other type of rough brush
  • Sandpaper
  • Clean empty bucket for mixing
  • Wooden stir stick

Sand the Wood

Sanding the wood helps open up and expose the wood fibers to the whitewash. It also scuffs away any impurities on the surface, like oil, which might repel the coating.

Make the Mix

  • For True Whitewash: Put on a dust mask, goggles, and rubber gloves. In one bucket, mix 1.5 gallons of water with 6 pounds of rock salt. Mix to dissolve the salt. Fill a second bucket with 2.5 gallons of water; add 25 pounds of hydrated lime and stir well. Pour the salt solution into the lime bucket and stir well. Cover with plastic and let the mixture sit for 24 to 48 hours to slake the lime.
  • For Faux Whitewash: Mix paint and water (room temperature) at a 1:1 ratio in a bucket. Do not worry that it may seem too watery.

Brush It On

With both applications, brush in the direction of the grain. Do not slop on too much paint: go easy, since you will be making multiple coats.

While true whitewash pretty much takes care of itself, faux whitewash requires tweaks with the spray bottle and rags. If you have an area of thick paint, hit it with a quick spray to thin it down, then wipe it with the brush. Finish by wiping away the faux whitewash with the rags. You want the surface to be nearly dry to the touch, not soggy and wet.

Apply More Coats

Wait at least one hour before deciding whether to apply more coats. True whitewash usually needs two or three coats; faux whitewash may look good after only one coat. Apply as many additional coats as needed, letting each coat dry before adding the next.

Tips for Making Your Whitewash Look Fantastic

  • If you are whitewashing new wood, you may want to consider staining the wood first to bring out the wood grain, knots, and other desirable features.
  • Whitewash tends to look better on soft woods like pine or cedar because they soak in the coatings better than hardwoods can.
  • After whitewashing, use the sandpaper to scuff edges or random spots for an added antique appearance.