How to Whitewash Furniture


Tom Sawyer's "thirty yards of board fence nine feet high" waiting to be whitewashed cast a pall over his bright Saturday morning.

His whitewash was a bucket of cheap slaked lime and chalk, the economical fence and exterior paint used as far back as anyone could remember. Your Saturday whitewashing chores will require far less mess and produce far more satisfying results -- and you won't have to trick anyone into doing the job for you.

Whitewashing furniture is a quick, easy way to upscale an old dresser or chair into a useful "new" shabby chic-style addition to your decor.

Wood and Liming Wax

Wood furniture and liming wax turn an undistinguished bare wood table into a suitably shabby addition to your cottage dining room. Waxed whitewash works on wood bed frames, dressers, nightstands -- even baseboards and window frames.

Step 1: Roughen up the wood to "open" its pores.

Use a bronze bristled brush and lightly sand the roughened wood with fine sandpaper.

Step 2: Wipe down the wood dust.

Use soft cloths or vacuum the wood.

Step 3: Rub in liming wax.

Use soft cheesecloth, and remove any excess wax with ultra-fine steel wool.

Step 4: Apply at least one coat of clear or neutral wax.

This will seal the whitewash finish before you use the table.


  • When you lime wax previously painted wood, you'll have to sand away or strip the old paint first, so the wax can penetrate the wood.

Painting Salvaged Furniture

Step 1: Prepare a salvaged cupboard, chair or bookshelf.

Use the same method you would for lime waxing, removing all the layers of old paint so your whitewash will penetrate the grain.

Step 2: Work plain white latex interior paint into the wood.

Paint the wood grain with a stiff-bristled paintbrush, "scrubbing" the paint in with one hand and wiping excess paint away with a soft cloth in the other hand.


  • Recipe: Thinning the paint with water gives you a more transparent white. Experiment with 2 parts paint, 1 part water for more opaque paint, or a 1:1 ratio for more translucence.

Step 3: Sand when dry.

When the whitewash dries, lightly sand any solid white areas of the furniture so it looks overall shabby.

Step 4: Coat the piece.

Then coat the piece once or twice with clear satin-finish polyurethane that looks like a wax finish and protects the delicate chalky white.

Alternative to Stripping

An alternative for times when stripping an old piece of furniture is not going to happen is a sand-and-streak paint method that's quicker but won't give as fine a result.

  • Sand the wood to remove as much old paint as you like, getting down to bare wood in spots and revealing layers of previous paint in others. 
  • Dry-brush interior latex over the wood. Aim for an uneven, streaky look, not a smooth painted finish. 


  • Full-strength paint and a very dry brush will leave a whiter, patchy finish; water-diluted paint is lighter and may require an extra coat of whitewash once the first coat dries.

  • Seal this instant whitewash topcoat the same as you would a proper whitewashing. 

Dry Brushing Wicker

You can tackle wicker pieces with a dry brush and whitewash after cleaning them in three easy steps.

Step 1: Rough up the paint.

Rough up glossy painted or lacquered wicker a bit with sand paper so the new paint will "grab." No need to sand bare or already weather-worn wicker.

Step 2: Dry-brush method works best on wicker.

Dry-brush white paint over the wicker -- it may work better to thin the paint slightly to avoid thick globs of it settling into crevices in the woven fibers.

Step 3: Protect the wicker.

Paint or spray on a clear protective coat once the whitewash dries, especially if your newly shabby pieces are destined for the porch.

Faux Whitewashed Metal

This method is more distressing, not whitewashing, and used when you want to shabby up an old iron bed frame or an ornate side table. A faux finish technique on metal using white-tinted clear metal glaze creates the look of age and wear. After cleaning the piece, all you need to do is add glaze.

Clean the piece first, then go with one of three glazing methods:

  1. Quick Glaze Glaze it as-is with white-tinted clear metal glaze. 
  2. Strip and Glaze Or, note that the color of the paint underneath will show through, so you may want to strip or sand a painted piece before applying a glaze.
  3. Crackle Glaze Typical faux finishing methods, such as sanding off the new white topcoat where natural wear would happen on an old piece, or applying a crackle glaze to sections of the metal before painting the piece white, will give you shabby chic-style wrought iron or other metal furniture.  


  • Dry-brushing over an existing finish gives the impression of a worn white topcoat; always use paint formulated especially for metal.

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