A No-Hassle Technique to Pickle Wood
Step into any furniture store and chances are you will see a pickled finish on at least one item. You might spot it on a bed, dresser, table, desk, and even cabinet. A pickled finish is one of the methods furniture makers use to “antique” their projects, and it is quite a popular technique.
In the simplest terms, pickling is a finishing technique that whitens wood. Although you can find pickling stains sold in most hardware stores, technically pickling is a method and not a finish. I’ll explain more about the method below.
Many sources claim that oak and ash are the most common woods pickled; some even claim these are the only two woods you can pickle – not true! You could pickle any wood, however you would probably have better results staying with lighter colored woods. For my project, I used pine.
You can buy a pickling stain or you can make your own. Let’s talk about how to make your own.
Here’s What You’ll Need
- Sandpaper (150 – 220 grit)
1 quart of white paint (less if your project is considerably smaller than my pantry)
1 quart of water
Mixing can (I just used the paint can)
A cloth (soft and clean is best)
Varnish / polyurethane
Dark dye or stain (optional)
You can use oil or latex paint. The material list above is geared toward latex (i.e., water-based) since that is the type of paint I had leftover from a previous project. If you choose oil, you’ll need about a cup of paint thinner instead of water. Everything else is the same.
There is some debate as to whether you should use primer or regular paint. Some claim primer works best because primers have better coverage and come in dull, flat finishes that won’t add any shine to the wood surface. I tried both regular paint and primer and noticed no apparent difference. If you only have regular paint, and you are concerned about the shine, just use a flat paint instead of glossy.
Here’s How to Create an Amazing Pickled Finish, Step by Step
1) Prep the wood.
The general rule when finishing wood is that if you can see a blemish before you apply the finish, the blemish will be magnified by the finish. Make sure you take the time to sand your project well. Smooth out any sharp edges or corners. For the pantry, the plywood needed extra sanding because of unsightly pits in the wood.
Once the project has been sanded, clean off as much sawdust as you can.
Optional Step: Wet the wood.
Depending on the species of wood you use, and its grain patterns, you may want to wipe down the entire project with a wet sponge. Allow the wood to dry, then sand with about 150 grit sandpaper. The water raises the wood fibers before you apply the stain, which can still be sanded smooth without removing any stain. Otherwise, the liquid in the stain could raise the grain.
I tested the wood on my project beforehand and found that wetting the entire pantry wasn’t necessary. The plywood and pine boards simply did not have any noticeable grain raise.
2) Make the Stain
This next step is not science. I had about a quart of paint leftover in a gallon can. I started by adding 1 cup of water and then ended up pouring in about 2 cups of water total.
Mix the water with the paint. The amount of water you add isn’t too important because you will be wiping away most of the paint anyway. Just make sure it is thinner than the original paint but not as runny as straight water.
One thing that is important is to mix enough stain to provide coverage for the entire project. Otherwise, if you have to remix the stain, you might have one solution brighter than the other, and that wouldn’t look good. Or, if you want to make pickling a science, just remember the exact portions of paint and water you mixed. Then repeat the portions.
3) Wipe On the Stain.
Use a brush since it’s easier to reach into corners than just using a rag. Apply a thick coat of the stain on a manageable area – not so much that it completely dries before you can wipe it down with a rag.
At this stage, it’s not important to worry much about wiping the stain in the direction of the grain, unless of course you allow the stain to dry before wiping it down. More on that later.
4) Wipe Off Excess Stain.
Before the stain dries completely, use a damp rag to wipe away the stain. Depending on how hard you press, you can wipe off almost all of the stain or leave most on. It’s mostly preference. Just make sure you keep the surfaces of the wood the same consistency of whiteness.
At this point, I like to wipe the stain in the direction of the wood grain. However, don’t stress too much over this because the rag smooths out most noticeable strokes.
Tip: It’s a good idea to use some leftover scrap wood to test the finish. This will give you a good idea as to how well the wood accepts the stain. I found that the pine boards did not absorb as much as the plywood, which helped me gauge the amount needed for each surface type.
5) Repeat Steps 3 and 4
Adding another coat will result in a whiter, less transparent look. For the pantry, I applied 3 coats of stain because it matched the dinning room better than having only 1-2 coats. Also, by applying 3 coats I was able to match the plywood with the pine boards perfectly.
6) Apply Varnish
Varnish is important because your pickling finish is basically a wash, which can be, well, washed off. Not easily, but it can happen, especially if you might use any cleaners or other chemical products on your project. To protect against the finish washing off, apply a coat of non-yellowing varnish.
If you decide to follow Step 7, it’s a good idea to apply a coat of varnish to the project now. It will help prevent against any possible muddying up that may occur between the pickling stain and the accent stain. Some people suggest using a spray-on varnish, which I used but did not find necessary because the pickling had completely dried and does not wash off very easily.
If you don’t follow Step 7, just wipe on a coat of varnish. I used my favorite varnish, Kel-Thane. It is very important to work the varnish in the direction of the wood grains. I also purposefully used a brush to give a subtle texture of grain to the wood.
7) Optional Step: Apply a Dark Stain
If you want to add more of an antique feel to your project, like I did with mine, follow this step. I purchased a gel stain from my local craft store (a dark walnut color). You pick whatever color matches your project best.
I mixed the gel with water so that it would be easy to apply. For this accent stain, the runnier it is the better because you need to be able to wipe off as much as possible. Use a clean rag to wipe off almost all the accent immediately after you wipe it on; it dries quickly. Note: A little goes a long way, so start sparingly. I made sure to follow the grain direction with this accent stain. It is crucial to follow grain direction on this step.
Tip: Test out the accent stain in an inconspicuous location first – either on scrap lumber or somewhere unseen. I tested it on the underside of one of the shelves before proceeding to apply it on the whole pantry.
Apply one more coat of varnish once this accent stain has dried.
You are now finished with your finish.
May 17, 2012
We stayed in a cabin last winter that had the logs and furniture pickled. Very cool. I took some pictures with my phone. Not the best quality but you get the idea.