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How to Easily Paint Wash Wood Furniture in any Colour

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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Ever wondered how refinishers have achieved that raw wood, or weathered, rustic look? It’s a rather simple trick of paint washing wood furniture to highlight the grain of the wood while lightly toning the overall wood colour. 

This technique can appear difficult your first time, but it is actually incredibly easy and can delivery stunning results.

Table of Contents

What is a Paint Wash?

A paint wash is a watered down paint mixture that is brushed onto a surface. It’s a great way to easily transform and update wooden furniture pieces with beautiful variation, depth, and even create an aged patina look.

Unlike fully painting  furniture, a paint wash adheres lightly and transparently to let the wood grain show through. The translucent layers of thinned paint settle into crevices and edges, creating a multi-tonal, timeworn appearance.

paint wash in white on drawer fronts
paint wash drawer fronts and top

Supplies Needed.

To create a paint wash for furniture, you’ll need just a few basic supplies:

  • Paint – You can use any water based paint to achieve a paint wash. You’ll want to select a paint colour that will look good against the existing wood tone. 

  • Water – You’ll be diluting the paint with water to create the wash. Tap water is fine, unless your water contains high mineral content which could effect the paint.

  • Paint Brushes – Choose a paint brush that is specifically made for furniture painting, that won’t leave much brush strokes.

  • Rags – Ensure your rag is lint-free and absorbent.  It should be able to wipe up the excess paint wash.

  • Misting Bottle – Have a misting bottle is not a must but can be handy to keep the paint wash wet before wiping. 

A few of the tools you will require. Don't forget the lint-free rags.

Selecting your Paint

When creating a paint wash for furniture, you need to choose a paint which is water based. You can reach for any of your water-based furniture paints.

Avoid cheaper acrylic paints or craft paint which is not made for wooden furniture. 

Acrylic or Chalk Paint

I have had success paint washing with both acrylic based paints and chalk paints.   

If you are unsure the difference of these two types of paints, or are thinking, what about mineral paint? then check out this handy explanation of different types of furniture paints.

types of furniture paint; examples of chalk paint for furniture
Chalk paint is one option that you can choose for your paint wash.

What about Milk Paint?

I have not done a paint wash with milk paint. The reason being that milk paint dries incredibly fast and will not allow the time necessary for wiping back the excessive paint. Furthermore, Milk Paint bonds with wood rather than creates a film on the wood like other paints. You will not be able to wipe the milk paint wash off like you would the acrylic based paint wash. 

That being said, milk paint is essentially a paint wash with more coverage.  If you were to simply dilute your milk paint beyond the normal 1 to 1 ratio, you could achieve a paint wash look.  However, it will be a different effect as the paint bonds to the wood.

types of furniture paint; Milk Paint Brands

Opt for a Matte Paint

Matte or flat paints have no shine and hide imperfections well.  A matte paint will also create a rustic or raw wood look more affectively then a glossy paint ever could.

The lack of sheen in matte paints allow more of the wood’s natural pattern and texture to show through. It blends naturally into the wood.

Light vs. Dark Paint Colours

  • Light paint colors like white, cream, and tan work well for a subtle wash effect that blends into the natural tones of the wood. The most common colour used for paint washing is white or off-white paint.  Hence why a paint wash is often referred to as a white wash. 

  • Darker paint colours like black, brown, or grey make bolder statements. They accentuate the wood grain more dramatically and can even have a similar effect as stain.  

 

The look you wish to achieve will determine whether you use light or dark paints for the wash. Light colours highlight the natural wood while dark colours make the grain stand out.  

Tone Down Red Wood

If you are working with a wood which is rather red or orange in colour, you can use a paint wash to neutralize the strong colour.  

Reach for a pure green paint and thin it out with water and apply similar to other paint washes.  The green will tone down the red.  But try it out first in an inconspicuous location to make sure that the colour achieved is what you are looking for.

Mixing Your Paint Wash

The key to a good paint wash is getting the paint-to-water ratio correct. I always start with a 1:2 ratio – 1 parts paint to 2 parts water. It is my personal preference to start with a more watery mixture and build up the paint look with multiple layers rather than opt for more paint in the mix.  

It is also common to see a mix of 1 part paint to 1 part water being advised, so if you would prefer a thicker mixture with more coverage, this may be the option for you.  Either way, the more water you add, the more the paint will act like a glaze or stain and allow the natural wood and grain to show through. The less water, the more the paint will cover the surface as a film.  Consider this when deciding how much water you wish to add.

Paint and Water mixed in plastic cup to create a paint wash
Water and Paint mixed together to create a paint wash.

Mix the paint and water together in a separate jar or even a plastic cup. I opt to use luke-warm water.  As cold temperatures can effect paint, I choose to avoid cold water.  

Ensure that the water and paint is mixed thoroughly before applying to the furniture. This avoids potential uneven coverage. Stop to stir frequently as you apply the wash, since the paint pigments will settle on the bottom over time.

Prepping Your Furniture Piece

Before applying your paint wash, you’ll need to properly prepare the furniture surface. This prep work is crucial for achieving an even, smooth finish.  

Prepping your furniture for any type of paint requires you to thoroughly clean and sand the surface back to raw wood. The existing finish on a piece will need to be fully removed.  

For full details on how to correctly clean and sand your piece of furniture, check out how to prep your furniture correctly.

If you are looking for a raw wood or want your wood grain to appear through the wash, skip the normal step of priming your furniture.  Primer will cover any wood and ruin the effect of a paint wash. 

Taking the proper time to prep and protect the surface will ensure your paint wash goes on smoothly and evenly.

Applying the Paint Wash on Wood Furniture

The key to applying a paint wash is working in small sections. Don’t try to paint wash the entire piece of furniture at once!

It’s better to focus on areas that are 2-3 square feet at a time or approximately 1 meter square. This allows you to maintain control over the application process and to achieve an even look over the whole piece.

Brush paint wash on wood with direction of the grain
Brushing on a ratio of 1 to 1, in direction of the wood grain.

It can take a little practice to know when to wipe away the access paint wash.  Wait to long and it will have started to dry and will wipe away blotchy.  Wipe to soon and it will not have had time to adhere to the surface.  I normally wait 1 to 3 minutes depending on the ratio of water to paint.  

Wipe paint wash off of surface to create rustic, transparent look
Wiping the paint wash off to allow the wood to show through the paint wash.

Thankfully paint wash is a forgiving technique and you can play around with the ratio of water and the time you wait to wipe the access wash away.  This is where the misting bottle can come in handy, if you feel the paint is drying too fast, give it a good misting to keep it from drying fast. I

f you like the effect created with the wash, you can even opt to not wipe away the access, for a more painted look. 

If you want the wood grain to show through the paint and create a raw wood look, it’s better to apply multiple thin layers of wash rather than one heavy coat. In this case you may even want to dilute your paint beyond the 1 part paint to 2 parts water. Remember, to allow each section to dry before moving on. 

Tip!

Don't forget to rinse the brush in water and dry it on a rag frequently so that you don't overload it with too much paint.

Light Wash to Let the Wood Shine Through

If you want the wood grain to show through the paint and create a raw wood look, it’s better to apply multiple thin layers of wash rather than one heavy coat. 

In this case you may even want to dilute your paint beyond the 1 part paint to 2 parts water.  A 1:3 or 1:4 ratio of paint to water will create a very sheer and more opaque look.

 This translucent wash over wood creates a softer weathered, raw or rustic look. With a lighter wash, more of the natural wood grain and character will show through the minimal paint. 

white wash on small side table.
White wash on small side table.

Second Coats

When applying a paint wash to furniture, you may find that one coat does not achieve the desired look. Applying multiple coats allows you to slowly build up the effect.

Before applying a second coat, it’s important to allow the first coat to fully dry.

This may even take longer then your normal paint drying time, due to the added water, despite wiping the access off. Rushing into another coat while the paint is still wet could cause dripping, smearing, and an uneven finish.

Check that the first coat is completely dry by gently running your fingers over the surface. If any paint comes off onto your fingers, it needs more drying time. Once the paint feels smooth and solid with no sticky or tacky areas, you’re ready for a second coat.

When applying the second coat, use the same paint wash recipe but you can vary the ratio to achieve a different look. For example, use a higher concentration of paint if you want the wood grain and texture to show through less. Or use a higher water ratio for a subtler, more translucent effect.

Sealing and Protecting

After the paint has fully dried on the furniture, you’ll want to seal and protect it. This helps prevent the paint from chipping or wearing away over time. You can turn to your favourite top coat which is compatible with the paint you used.  Apply a minimum of two coats of your coat coat, or perhaps you opted for a soft, clear wax finish to further develop the rustic look. 

Sealing is a crucial final step to ensure your newly painted furniture is preserved and protected for a long time!

White wash in contrast to black paint on secretary desk
Wood with a white wash finish, a stark contrast against black chalk paint.

Example of Different Colour Washes

In order to show case how different colours can effect the outcome of your paint wash, I used pine mouldings and opted to paint wash with 4 different colours.  

I used a Tan (algonquin), a white (raw silk), a green (bellwood) and a black (coal black) from fusion mineral paint.  

Each paint I mixed in a ratio of approximately 1 paint to 1 part water. This created a thicker coat of paint wash and you can immediately see with only one coat, that the colour is  dominate. 

example of different colours of paint washes
Paint wash on Pine - Top Left in Algonquin, Top Right in Coal Black, Bottom Left in Raw Silk and Bottom Right in Bellwood.

Tips and Tricks

When using a paint wash on wood furniture, there are some tips and tricks to keep in mind:

Common mistakes to avoid:

  • Applying the wash too thickly – this can result in paint pooling and an uneven look. Go light and build it up gradually.

  • Not correctly preparing the surface first – make sure to remove any grease or grime so the paint adheres properly.

  • Using too much water in the wash – start with a 2:1 ratio of paint to water and adjust as needed. Too much water will make the paint wash harder to control and potentially run.

  • Not sealing the finish – it’s important to seal with a some type of topcoat after painting to protect the finish.

White Wash on Wood - Vintage Theatre Chairs
White Wash Wood with Multiple Coats of Polyvine wax Varnish Finish

Make the look last:

  • Use a high-quality furniture paint designed for longevity. Stay away from cheap craft paints.

  • Allow proper drying time between coats. 

  • Consider where the piece will be located – high traffic areas may require an extra protective topcoat.

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2 Responses

  1. This is a great article. I have been searching for information on paint wash technique and this has been very, very helpful!! I signed up of I believe your newsletter!! Looking forward to my project!! Thank you so very much!!

    1. Hi Mary,
      Your message made me incredibly happy. I am glad that the information in the post was helpful and wish you a successful project! If you have any questions or want to share your finished project, drop me a message at info@boldwallflowers.com.
      Once you sign up for the newsletter, you will receive an email asking you to confirm your subscription. This is a step to stop unnecessary bots from signing up. When you confirm, you will receive an email with a link to the free painting guide PDF. The Next day you will also receive a link to get the free guide to shellac wood finish. I hope you find both products useful and keep an eye out for the weekly newsletters. I try and include useful tips and updates on what I am working on and experimenting with in the workshop.

      Sarah

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