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 Europe 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–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. 

Faux Whitewash

With ordinary white flat sheen latex 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 get that streaky effect. 

Faux whitewash excels for indoor spaces and for surfaces that will be touched. On the downside, it takes more creative effort to properly streak the paint to simulate the whitewash look.

Tools and Materials Needed

For True Whitewash

  • Type S hydrated masonry lime (not gardener's lime)
  • Fine grade table salt
  • Dust mask
  • Distilled water
  • Measuring cup

For Faux Whitewash

  • White acrylic-latex paint, flat or matte sheen
  • Clean cloth rags
  • Water spray bottle

For Both

  • Chip brush or any other type of rough brush
  • Sandpaper
  • Clean empty bucket for mixing
  • Wooden paint 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: Add 12 cups of hydrated builders lime with four cups of salt in two gallons of warm water. Mix gently.
  • For Faux Whitewash: Mix paint and water (room temperature) at a 1:1 ratio in the empty 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.

Subsequent 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.

Tips for Making Your Whitewash Look Fantastic

  • If you are whitewashing new wood, you may want to consider staining the wood first as this brings out more of the desirable features like knots.
  • 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.