a pickled oak bench
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How to Create a Pickled Finish on Wood

A rag and a bit of primer can give plain wood the whitewashed look of driftwood

Pickling, bleaching, whitewash—they're all variations on the theme of treating light-colored woods, usually pine, oak, or ash, to make them appear even lighter, almost ethereal. This "limed" look stems from the 16th-century European practice of infusing wood with a paste of caustic lime to ward off insect infestation. Even then, it was appreciated for its decorative value.


Steps // How to Create a Pickled Finish on Wood
1 ×

Overview for Pickling an Oak Bench

 
Step One // How to Create a Pickled Finish on Wood

Overview for Pickling an Oak Bench

a close up of the pickled oak bench
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Pickling, bleaching, whitewash—they're all variations on the theme of treating light-colored woods, usually pine, oak, or ash, to make them appear even lighter, almost ethereal. This "limed" look stems from the 16th-century European practice of infusing wood with a paste of caustic lime to ward off insect infestation. Even then, it was appreciated for its decorative value.

Today you can just use leftover primer to create a simple pickling solution, or try one of the commercial pickling formulas out there. In either case, the process couldn't be simpler: Sand the wood, brush on the solution, wipe it off with a rag. The whitewash collects in the darker grain, creating a sort of sun-bleached negative of the natural wood for a weathered, driftwood look. Along with furniture like the red oak bench shown here, pickling is a great choice for pine floors, beadboard wainscot, and paneled shutters.

No primer on your shelf of leftover paints? Try a premixed pickling solution such as Minwax White Wash Pickling Stain, about $12 per quart at paint stores.

 
2 ×

Prep the Bench

 
Step Two // How to Create a Pickled Finish on Wood

Prep the Bench

prepping the bench surface with a sanding sponge
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Using a medium-grit sanding sponge, scuff up all the surfaces to open the pores of the wood. Be sure to work with the grain.

When you're finished, vacuum up any sawdust and wipe the surface
 with a reusable microfiber cloth.

 
3 ×

Brush on Pickling

 
Step Three // How to Create a Pickled Finish on Wood

Brush on Pickling

brushing pickling solution onto bench
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Mix 1 part white latex primer-sealer with 3 parts water. Using a 4-inch brush, paint on a patch of the pickling solution.

Tip: When pickling soft woods like pine, apply a water-based wood conditioner first, then sand lightly to allow the pickling to take evenly.

 
4 ×

Rub it in, Wipe it off

 
Step Four // How to Create a Pickled Finish on Wood

Rub it in, Wipe it off

ragging the pickling solution onto the bench
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Using a clean, dry rag, work the pickling solution into the wood by rubbing against the grain. Then, using a fresh rag, wipe with the grain to remove the excess and expose the grain.

Repeat this sequence, working in patches to cover the entire bench evenly. Let dry overnight.

 
5 ×

Apply Clear Coat

 
Step Five // How to Create a Pickled Finish on Wood

Apply Clear Coat

applying a clear polyurethane coat onto the pickled bench
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Stir—but don't shake—a can of polyurethane clear coat. Pour some into a lined paint cup. Using a 2½-inch paintbrush, evenly coat the entire surface of the bench. Let dry for 24 hours.

Sand lightly with a fine-grit sanding sponge. Wipe down the surface thoroughly with a dry rag and apply a second coat. If you plan to leave it on a covered porch, like we did, it will need a third coat, too.

 
 
 

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