Home Decorating Best of Blog: How to Whitewash Walls

Best of Blog: How to Whitewash Walls

Wood paneling is one of those rare design elements that can look either lodge fabulous or Brady Bunch, with little range in between. Before scrapping those dark, outmoded panels, try this easy how-to for whitewashing walls.

Start by mixing a bleach-and-water solution, following the ratios recommended on the bleach bottle. (We probably don’t have to tell you to wear clothes you don’t mind sacrificing to the god of white blotches, and cover the floor with plastic, but we’re going to, anyway.) Apply it with a sponge or brush to a small, inconspicuous area on the wood paneling or a piece of scrap wood, and allow it to dry completely. As long as the solution doesn’t damage the wood and you’re happy with the amount of lightening, open the windows (this is key!) and get bleaching. Allow the walls to dry overnight, preferably with the windows open; then follow these steps.

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1. Mix a solution of white paint and water. We used a half-and-half solution of Benjamin Moore Timid White,  which falls in the middle of the cool-warm spectrum, making it great for whitewashing all kinds of furniture and accessories.

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2. Using a paintbrush, cover a small section of the paneling at a time with the whitewash.

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3. Wipe off the excess paint with a rag (scraps of flannel sheet are ideal; make sure you have lots of them).

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4. Continue painting and wiping, then step back every few sections to check your work. Using the same hand (and the same pressure) for painting and wiping will produce the most consistent results, and you’ll be able to fix any inconsistencies if you take frequent check breaks.

5. Allow the room to dry completely. Voilà—whitewashed walls!

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52 comments

How to White Wash a Wall | Purehome October 27, 2011 at 8:25 pm

[…] it be fence, wall, or coffee table. If you’re looking to do some white washing, here is an easy how-to from Fresh American to get you started: Start by mixing a bleach-and-water solution, following the […]

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Lark July 15, 2013 at 4:56 pm

This exactly what I’m going to be doing to my walls…do you know if I need to sand off the finish on them before beginning this process?

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Fresh American July 16, 2013 at 8:09 am

Hi there, Lark! If your walls are finished, you’ll definitely want to either sand or strip off the finish before whitewashing. Otherwise, the bleach won’t be able to penetrate the finish and the wood will lighten only slightly, if at all. Let us know how your project turns out!

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Lark July 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Thanks…will do!

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Jess April 14, 2014 at 9:33 am

Hi! I just recently started redoing my ’71 tin can… er trailer. I stripped the many many layers of wallpaper and am now working on painting the wood paneling. I painted the hallway yellow but I’m finding it’s a bit too bright. I want to white wash it (after sanding it down a bit). I’m wondering thpugh…. What exactly does the bleach mix do?

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Fresh American April 14, 2014 at 9:39 am

Hi, Jess! Sounds like your place needs a little…updating. 😉 The bleach mix is what lightens the wood, so that when you apply the whitewash on top, you get that vintage, sun-washed look. If the wood in your hallway is already very pale, you may be able to skip this step. But we’ve found that most wood could use a bit of bleaching first. We’d love to see it when you’re finished — send us some pics!

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Jess April 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

LOL It had turned into a money pit! The wood under it is the original 70s orange hrown (yuck!). I’ll be giving it the bleach a try at some point today. Cross your fingers! I’ll send pictures as well. Thank you soooo much for this post! I found it on pintrest and I think it’s going to come in quiet handy with the rest of the house!

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JACKIE July 22, 2014 at 8:49 am

In your opinion what is the difference between pickling and white wash? Also, I have a couple of instructions here:
Pickling: http://www.ehow.com/how_5202544_pickle-stain-knotty-pine.html

Bleaching: http://www.ehow.com/how_6327641_bleach-knotty-pine.html

What would be your agreements or disagreements with these instructions?

The picture above kinda reminds me of a painted barn, in which the paint was too thin or coming off. Is that the idea?

Also, would you have pictures of the finished look? Also, with furniture?

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Jean Allison September 6, 2014 at 11:51 am

Question: do you seal it when completely dry? Won’t it “dust” off if is you don’t? Thanks. Anxious to try this! Love the finished look.

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Fresh American September 8, 2014 at 8:42 am

No sealing required, Jean! It sticks just like nondiluted paint, and lasts just as long, in our experience. You can certainly apply a clearcoat, though (we’d go with matte).

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Kim September 30, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Is there a difference in types of paneling? What you have pictured here looks like real wood. We are buying a house that had the classic “70s wood paneling” that looks like cheap manufactured wood. I really like the style you have here and would love to be able to recreate it. Sorry for my ignorant post, we are just getting started on this and I would love any direction or help on this! Thank you.

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Fresh American October 1, 2014 at 9:16 am

That’s actually a great question, Kim. There is indeed a difference between real wood paneling and composite, though most paneling has some real wood in it. To get a sense of what yours is made of and how it will react to this treatment, we suggest trying the bleach solution on an inconspicuous area first. If it dries smooth, with no warping or bubbling of the surface, you should be able to treat the rest of the room. But if you notice any warping or bubbling of the surface, your best bet is to forgo bleaching and instead apply a coat of high-adhesion primer. Once it dries, paint over it in a light color, like white, ivory, or pale aqua.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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Bella December 2, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Hi. I love the whitewashed look. I am interested in buying an old log cabin. The walls need a good scrubbing. How would you recommend cleaning the walls prior to whitewashing? warm water and washcloth and elbow grease? or is there a product you would recommend? thank you.

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Fresh American December 3, 2014 at 9:06 am

Hi, Bella! Congrats on your potential new home. Log walls can be tricky and require a bit of extra maintenance. If the walls are really dirty and discolored, or haven’t been refinished in many years, we’d start by giving them a good sanding (with a power sander), then clean them with mix of 1 part bleach to 5 parts water in a spray bottle. Brush firmly with a soft-bristled utility brush. This process can make a mess, so be sure you’ve put a plastic liner or other protective layer on your floor first. Once the walls are clean and dry, you can move on to lightening the wood, as described in the post. Be sure to test the solution on a small, inconspicuous area first—we vote for a spot that will be hidden behind a large piece of furniture—and be prepared for a fair amount of variation in the color, as different parts of the wood will soak up the bleach and paint differently.

Good luck with the new log cabin! Let us know how it goes.

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Barb February 5, 2015 at 5:25 pm

This example looks like wood that is not varnished. What is the process if the wood is old and varnished? Thanks

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Fresh American February 6, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Hi, Barb! If your walls are finished, you’ll definitely want to either sand or strip off the finish before whitewashing. Otherwise, the bleach won’t be able to penetrate the finish and the wood will lighten only slightly, if at all. Let us know how your project turns out!

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Carolyn March 12, 2015 at 10:17 pm

I want to do this to our master bath which has the small strip oak paneling that has a finish. My ? would the white washing be better or to just paint it white?

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Fresh American March 13, 2015 at 9:57 am

Hi, Carolyn! Personally, we prefer whitewashing, which not only lightens up the room but also allows the natural grain of the wood to show through. That said, if the paneling in your bath is especially knotty, you might not want it to showcase it, so painting would be a better option.

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Kelli April 16, 2015 at 3:38 pm

I have tongue and groove pine wood walls on one side of my living room. I want to white wash it – I bought eggshell primer/paint (Swiss Cream) for the white wash, then I see that most sites say I need an oil based paint. Does it really matter or can I just use the paint I bought?

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Fresh American April 17, 2015 at 1:51 pm

Hi, Kelli! We used a water-based paint for this post, so we would give the one you have a shot. If you’re at all nervous, just try mixing up a smaller quantity and doing a test 2′ by 2′ square. If you’re not happy with the results, it will be easy enough to sand/strip off the square and start over with a different paint. Let us know how it goes!

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Jen April 30, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Hi there,

Love the WW look! Question: I have panelling that has ALREADY been painted a solid white, is there anyway to use paint remover or something else to remove some of the white paint and give it the WW look?

Thank!
Jen

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Fresh American May 1, 2015 at 8:23 am

Hi, Jen! Yes, you can definitely remove some of the paint. Sanding is our preferred method, because you don’t have to use chemical paint removers. However, it does create a bit of a mess, and you’ll need to vacuum a few times and wipe down the sanded walls before whitewashing. Chemical paint removers tend to do the job faster, and with less mess. Home improvement stores sell lots of different liquid or gel-based paint removers; your best bet is to ask a paint department rep which one they recommend, depending on the type of paint that’s been used on your walls. Happy whitewashing. 🙂

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juli May 27, 2015 at 12:27 pm

I love this and am planning on doing it in my living room. We have paneling with built in cabinets, one a bookshelf, & one china cabinet. I’m curious if I could do this process on these but not technicslly white.. What do you think if I used a contrasting darker color but the same process?

Many thanks for any input and suggestions, it is a huge room.

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Fresh American May 27, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Hi, Juli! You can most definitely whitewash cabinets and other wood furniture. In our understanding, you can also color-wash them in pale hues (think lavender, aqua, mint, butter), but not so much in darker colors…. Then again, we haven’t experimented with darker colors yet, so we’re not 100 percent sure that it wouldn’t work. Our advice is to buy pints of white paint and the darker color of your choice, and mix it up in a small quantity to start. Try applying the wash to the underside of a bleached table or chair, or, even better, a scrap of the same paneling, if you have it. If you’re happy with the results, you can probably go whole hog and refinish the entire surface of your cabinet and shelves.

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Nina Pruitt July 6, 2015 at 8:48 am

Hi! I have a bedroom floor that has been covered in carpet since we moved in. I recently peeled back some carpet and found oak hardwood. It is in good condition but with the room decor I’d like to white wash the floors. It is rather faded but does seem to be stained. How would I go about white washing? Sanding first? And if so, how much do I sand before I know its ready to WW? And do I need a latex paint or acrylic or a white stain of some sort? And do I need a top coat of something because it is a floor and will have traffic on it? Thanks in advance..:)

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Fresh American July 6, 2015 at 10:24 am

Hi, Nina! Sounds like you’ve got a big (but potentially stunning!) project ahead of you. We definitely recommend sanding the floors to remove the residue of any carpet glue; this will also help with some of the staining; keep in mind that deep and set-in stains may be harder to remove, no matter how much sanding you do. It’s always a good idea to be judicious when refinishing floors, and not overdo the sanding. We like this tutorial from This Old House: http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/how-to/step/0,,20333774_20721211,00.html

For whitewashing floors, we’d still go with a water-based white paint, plus two coats of water-based polyurethane on top. As for any stained areas that didn’t quite come out…well, those are the perfect spots for placing rugs, lamps, and furniture on top. 😉

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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Glenna August 6, 2015 at 3:37 pm

What do I use to bleach the wood? Does it come premixed or do I need to mix ingredients?

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Fresh American August 10, 2015 at 10:40 am

Hi, Glenna! You will use the same bleach you buy in the supermarket or home improvement store for household use. We’re not sure whether there are premixed varieties or how effective they might be, so we just use regular bleach, following the ratio you see in this post. Good luck with your whitewashing project!

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Erika Sandy October 25, 2015 at 11:52 pm

I recently moved into an older home and every room is the old Brady bunch paneling. I love the white wash look. And was wondering what types of paint you would recommend for this. And after painting a section what exactly you meant by wiping the excess off. Is it kinda like wax on wax off. Only paint on then rub off some? I will say.. I am not a very crafty or artistic person. I apologize for asking so in depth but I want to do this so bad.. And I’m excited. Also some of the wood paneling is different than the other and noticed you saying something about real and fake.. What the difference is. Is there a way I could send you pictures for you to see the wood paneling??

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Fresh American October 27, 2015 at 11:57 am

Hi, Erika! No problem at all. We love a good whitewashing project, so we’re happy to help.

We always choose water-based, flat-finish paints for whitewashing; the brand doesn’t matter, as long as the paint is made for interiors. As for wiping off the excess, it’s a similar process to staining: paint over a given section, then wipe gently with a rag to remove any extra paint, especially if you notice any dripping. With whitewashing, you want to give the wood grain a sheer covering, not coat it completely so that it looks like a solid white.

The best way to tell real from imitation paneling is to step back and look at a 10- to 15-foot section of a wall. Real paneling tends to be thicker and is tongue-in-groove, so you can see an interlocking seam where each piece connects to the next (as you often see with wood flooring). Imitation paneling is simply a large piece of very thin plywood (usually about 1/16 inch thick) with a faux wood grain and grooves cut into it, to mimick the seams of tongue-in-groove paneling. If you’re still unsure after a closer look, take a trip to your local home improvement store and ask to see examples of each. You’ll get a sense pretty quickly of which one you have in your home. Good luck with your project — we’d love to see pics when you’re finished!

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Rachel October 28, 2015 at 1:40 am

I want to whitewash my knotty pine living room. When I was cleaning the walls, I noticed several knots are still weeping (and the paneling is 30 years old). What do I do about this or will it matter when it’s whitewashed?

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Fresh American October 29, 2015 at 2:08 pm

We feel your knotty-pine woes, Rachel. This can be a tough obstacle to overcome. At the moment, your two best options are a white-pigmented shellac or BIN (which is essentially shellac mixed with other chemicals to form a primer). If you choose these, however, you’ll need to be careful to only treat the knots; otherwise you’ll end up with a finish on your paneling that can’t be whitewashed over. Once you’ve treated the knots, proceed with the rest of the whitewashing as instructed in the post. Note that the treated knots will likely appear darker than the rest of the boards. The sad truth is that particularly troublesome pine knots can still bleed through shellac or paint over time. The best bet for very knotty pine is darker-colored paint, which does a great job of camouflaging any sap weeping.

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Tracey January 1, 2016 at 9:38 pm

Can I use this same bleaching effect with a light gray paint? Just wondering…

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Fresh American January 4, 2016 at 7:56 am

Hi, Tracey! Great question. We think so, but we haven’t yet experimented with this technique. We suggest trying it on a test board first to make sure the “color wash” works in a way that you like before going whole hog on the walls. We’re working on a color-washing tutorial, and hope to have more details for you in the coming months!

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Karen March 21, 2016 at 10:14 pm

I have someone who wants the dark paneling to show through and just whitewash the paneling. Does it require me to bleach or can I skip this step since they really want it to have that dark tint.

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Fresh American March 23, 2016 at 11:38 am

Great question, Karen! We haven’t experimented with this approach, so we suggest trying it on a scrap piece of wood to see if you like the finish. Let us know if you have any other questions! 🙂

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Jill April 26, 2016 at 4:21 pm

Hey!!! So love your article, thanks for the info!! So this is kinda a weird question…. But I have a authentic wood paneled wall that is painted over with a dark grey (2 years ago). Now I want to give it a weathered grey/white look, you think I can go over the paint with a moderate sanding and keep some of the grey paint there? And then do the white washing with the water/paint mixture? This way I will get the weathered grey look? Im sure it’s possible you’ve never done this before which is totally fine, however, would this be something you would ever do? Or do you foresee trouble? Thanks in advance!

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Jill April 26, 2016 at 4:25 pm

And in this case do you think the bleaching would help the look? I don’t mind doing the work, just wanted your opinion!

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Fresh American May 4, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Great question, Jill! We haven’t experimented with this approach, so we suggest trying it on an inconspicuous area of your wall to see if you like the finish. Let us know if you have any other questions! 🙂

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Lisa May 19, 2016 at 6:14 pm

Do you think this would work on honey oak kitchen and bath cabinetry?

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Fresh American May 20, 2016 at 11:42 am

Great question, Lisa! We haven’t experimented with whitewashing cabinetry, so we suggest trying it on an inconspicuous area (maybe an inside door) or on a scrap piece of wood to see if you like the finish. If you snap any pics of the finished product, we’d love to see how it turns out. Let us know if you have any other questions! 🙂

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Diy Refinishing Wood Paneling – Paul F Ramsey July 3, 2016 at 12:32 pm

[…] to the doityourself forums! To post questions, help other diyers and reduce advertising (like the. It’s a wash how to whitewash walls fresh. Wood paneling is one of those rare design elements that can look either lodge fabulous or brady […]

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Heather August 31, 2016 at 8:26 pm

I just got to your site, and it’s pretty awesome. I’m working with 40 year old, clear cut (no knots), rough sawn, tongue-in-groove, 5″ vertical cedar planks on both the 10 ft walls and ceiling! Lots of color variation, from dark red to light gold, and everything in between. I’m planning on leaving the ceiling as is. The floors are walnut stained ash (oak like grain), with more of a brown tone. I’m afraid to beach the wood, as its virgin, no stain or varnish. Can I WW directly, or even color wash more of a grey tint, as I want to lighten the room but keep more of a weathered cedar look to compliment the floors.

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Annie_Selke September 7, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Thanks so much for your question and it seems like quite the project. Our suggestion is to always test color and technique before starting to white wash your walls. If you have extra planks at your house or an inconspicuous section of wall to paint first you’ll be able to see the result before diving in too deep.

A grey wash is certainly attainable and sounds gorgeous; once again, just do some tests to make sure you have the color and application technique figured out. Happy painting!

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Mary Ann October 10, 2016 at 6:25 pm

Did you use any kind of wood conditioner prior to the whitewash step?
I remember bleaching a hardwood table (decades ago) and the wood soaked up the pickling ‘stain so fast, I couldn’t keep up. Kept getting ‘edges’ wherever I’d stop/start. It was such a mess, I think I ended up sanding the whole thing and starting over. Might’ve even passed it on to my handy friend. Can’t recall what happened to the table, but I sure remember the ‘challenge’!

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Annie_Selke October 14, 2016 at 10:21 am

Hi Mary Ann! We did not use a conditioner, but we were also working with very watered down paint so we were working in layers. Thank you for your comment!

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Serena October 13, 2016 at 8:55 pm

Hey There! Great site! Great tips! Great instructions! Just bought a 70s cabin with a cedar interior. Way too dark! I’m gonna try the whitewash! Wish me luck! OR…Will you guys come do it for me? Thanks!

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Annie_Selke October 14, 2016 at 8:17 am

Hi Serena! That sounds like a great project! Although we can’t physically assist you in whitewashing, definitely refer to our blog post and feel free to ask us if you have more questions!

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Coco Bush October 16, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Did you clean and sand the paneling prior to the whitewash process? Thanks

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Annie_Selke November 4, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Yes we did!

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Kelley Bowen February 6, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Will this technique and these paints work on stone (fireplace) also? Thank you.

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Beth February 17, 2017 at 8:27 am

Hi Kelley, great question! Here’s a great tutorial from the pros at Lowes: https://www.lowes.com/creative-ideas/paint-stain-and-wallpaper/whitewash-a-brick-fireplace/project. Good luck with your project!

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