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While we might not all be blessed with wide plank floors and exposed wood beams, there is one aspect of the farmhouse look virtually anyone can achieve at home: whitewashed wood furniture. A favorite among designers and homeowners for its casual, textural look, whitewashing was been a popular (and easy) form of treating wood for centuries—as anyone who’s read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer well knows. “In the South we call it ‘pickling,'” says KK Harris, owner of the Richmond, Virginia–based artisanal fabric and wallcovering company Maiden Maxwell. Terms and techniques range from one region to another.
The most popular way to whitewash wood furniture comes down to one of two relatively simple traditional methods:
Paint the piece white all over, then wipe off the excess paint with a rag.
Mix paint and water and apply that solution with a brush or rag to the wood.
I gave the second technique a try, guided by advice from several trusted expert designers. Here’s how it went.
Wooster 8-Piece Pro Roller Tray Set
4 ft. x 10 ft. Double-Guard Drop Cloth
Warner Sanding Block
Prepare the Surface
Begin by thoroughly sanding the wood item or surface you want to whitewash. I selected an adorable child’s chair that I picked up at my local vintage shop. You want to make sure the paint will adhere to the wood (which is harder when it’s watered down), so get any trace of sealant or previous paint off with sandpaper. Then wipe the item down with a rag.
Mix the Whitewash
Next step: Mix your white paint with water. “I play around with ratios depending on how much wood I want to show through,” explains designer Heather French of French & French Interiors in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For a more opaque look, go for a one-to-one ratio (this is French’s preference for whitewashed ceilings); if you want it to be a little streakier, add more water. I ended up adding a bit more water, so my mixture was probably three parts water to two parts paint.
Apply the Whitewash
There are three ways to do this, according to designer Susan Jamieson of Bridget Beari Designs, who whitewashes using her firm’s own brand of paint. “Apply with a brush for grain, a rag for a smooth look, or pour on for an all-over glaze,” she advises. Since I don’t mind the look of brushstrokes, I used a paintbrush.
Pro tip: Since the whitewash is much thinner than paint out of the can, it will splash and drip MUCH more than regular paint. Be prepared!
Add a Second Coat
Depending on how opaque you want the whitewash (and how watered down your paint mixture is), you may want to add a second coat.
Let It Dry
Your whitewash will likely dry faster than normal paint since it’s thinner, but give it at least a few hours before you touch it. And let it sit overnight before using.
Style Your Furniture
Voilà! You have a pretty new piece, ready for styling. “I love how it gives old pieces a fun, uncontrived feeling,” says French. Us too!
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