This coastal modern raw wood finish is hot hot hot. Now you can learn how to whitewash wood in just 6 simple steps.
Prep Gone Wrong
Sometimes furniture projects have a mind of their own. These nightstands are great examples of that! I originally planned to paint them a solid color with chalk paint, but that quickly changed.
The drama started soon after we started to prep these nightstands. Usually we would give them a quick cleaning, followed by a light scuff sand to give the new paint finish something to adhere to.
Instead of lightly hand sanding these, I grabbed my orbital sander that was close by and decided that since there were so many straight lines on these that I could quickly give them a light sanding with the power sander instead.
Now, usually this works great. But not this time.
Once I started applying a little bit of pressure on a drawer front, right around the hardware hole, the old brown finish started flaking off really quickly. It was powder in a few seconds!
A lot of times that isn’t the case, and I’m really not sure what type of paint was used on these, but there was no way I could leave flaky paint finish on these before I painted.
There are two main reasons why you didn’t want a finish like that under your new painted finish.
First is that your new finish is only as good as what’s under it. If your new paint has flaky paint under it, it’s more likely to flake off too. If there is a solid foundation, your new finish is more likely to stick around for a long time.
The other reason is that the abrupt edge of the old finish against the sanded down wood would show under the new painted finish. This is especially true when your new finish is painted on in thin coats with a paint sprayer instead of thick coats with a paint brush. These straight lined nightstands definitely needed to have a smooth texture free finish.
If I’m going to sand, I might as well create a raw wood finish
So I just kept sanding. And sanding, and sanding. I kept thinking the whole time that I would love to create a raw wood finish on these nightstands. And after a little bit more sanding, I decided I was all in on the whitewashed wood finish idea. Hoping that it wouldn’t turn out like my last furniture drama.
6 Steps to Create a Raw or Natural Wood Finish with Whitewash
- Clean it with a degreaser to make sure oils, grease or wax aren’t on the old finish. You don’t want to heat it up with a power sander and push it further into your wood.
- Strip it with Citristrip or Sand it with a power sander. Be careful with the power sander to not take off too much and go through what might be a wood veneer top!
- Vacuum up and wipe off the dust
- Seal it with water-based poly to protect the wood from everyday use. Oil based poly will amber over time, so be sure to use water- based poly.
5. Take it a step or two further with whitewash. The sealer will deepen the wood tone, but whitewash will bring the wood closer to its natural look.
6. Seal it again to protect your new whitewashed wood finish.
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Here’s what you’ll need:
Mouse Sander or my new favorite tool, the Multi-Max with the included mouse sander attachment
Old lint free rags or paper towels
Cheap Paint Brush (optional)
Cleaning – Yeah it is important
I know it sounds like a joke that you need to clean the finish before taking it off, but it’s honestly really important, especially if you’re sanding. I wouldn’t say that it’s super important if you’re stripping though. And here is why. As you’re sanding, things get hot. Especially the surface that you’re working on. When wax, grease or oil gets hot, it tends to melt, which then makes it easier to spread everywhere and get into the natural wood. So you could end up with grease spots in your fresh wood. And to make matters worse, the sealer may or may not stick in those spots. So it’s best to spray your whole piece down with something like Krud Kutter that will clean those problems up before they become and issue. I like to use either a damp old rag or paper towels.
How to Strip Furniture – Stripping with Chemical or Sanding
Okay, there are two options here. I will say that I ended up sanding these ones completely without any stripping agent. But the smartest route is always to strip.
If your piece isn’t completely solid wood with no wood veneers, and it doesn’t have any details or curves, you’ll be alright to sand. So if there is any chance (and that chance is really likely) that there are wood veneers on your piece, then you run the risk of sanding right through the very thin veneer, and into wood that is a different color, or worse, MDF or particle board.
If you strip first, the risk is much lower because the stripper gets rid of 90% of the finish, and you just have to lightly sand the rest. Stripper also can get into details, corners and around curves really easy. Even the tops on these nightstands were a little bit iffy with the power sander.
Stripper really isn’t as bad as a lot of people make it sound. I would say that it’s faster, especially around details and corners. And you have a lot of downtime between putting the stripper on and taking the stripper and the finish off.
Here is a great video and written tutorial with tons of information on how to strip furniture down to raw wood.
- Lay down cardboard or plastic underneath your piece so you don’t have a messy cleanup.
- Use a good stripper like Citristrip and let it do its job while you rest. Make sure to lay it on thick. I like to put plastic wrap or garbage bags over the stripper to help it stay wet longer. The longer it’s wet, the longer it will keep working. The plastic wrap will also help the stripper stay on vertical surfaces. Here is a great example of that.
- Use a plastic straight-edged tool to get all the gunk off. Plastic won’t gouge the wood like a metal scraper would. Use a toothbrush or steel wool to get into the details.
- Scrape all of the gunk into an old food container with a lid (sour cream, cottage cheese or yogurt container).
- Clean the rest of the gunk off with Mineral Spirits and fine grit Steel Wool. Switch out pads as soon as they are completely saturated with gunk, you don’t want to keep spreading that gunk everywhere.
- Wipe off with paper towels to remove everything and make sure the wood is clean.
- Let the wood completely dry out before doing anything else.
- Once the wood is dry, lightly sand with 220 and then 400 grit sandpaper to lighten up the wood even more and smooth it out.
- Use an orbital sander to do most of the work. Don’t apply too much pressure, and make sure to hold the sander level with the wood. Tipping the sander to get a scratch or nick may end by going through the thin wood veneer.
- Get into the corners and edges with a mouse sander. I love my multi-max Dremel tool that does so many things, but also comes with a mouse sanding attachment.
- Always sand with the grain and not against it. Going against the grain or in a circular pattern will leave sanding marks that don’t look too good.
- Work your way up from a coarse sandpaper to a fine sandpaper. The coarse sandpaper will eat through the finish much faster, but it will leave your piece rough.
Vacuum and Dust
Once the stripping and/ or sanding is done it’s time to vacuum off the dust and wipe everything down. I like to use a lightly damp rag after I vacuum. Just make sure it’s not too wet or the wood will soak up the water and become coarse again.
Once it’s all wiped down, you might want to go back and get any places that you couldn’t see because of the dust. I like to leave a little bit of dark finish here and there and in the very corners just to give it a weathered finish. But that’s up to you! I know the OCD in me wants to get everything perfect, but I really love the look of raw wood with some dark details here and there. That’s what sets it apart from wood furniture that has never had a finish on it.
How to Seal Raw Wood for Durability
This part kind of hurts. Not in a physical way, but after seeing that really pretty freshly sanded raw wood, it’s tough to put anything on it. No matter what type of sealer is used, the wood will always darken a little bit. But I can’t imagine trying to keep the raw wood finish looking good after everyday use with no sealer. Especially when you consider a table or a surface that things will get set on constantly. But I have a solution to get the wood back to its natural light state after we seal it up.
I personally love to spray on my poly. But the next best thing is to use a painting sponge. I love this one from Country Chic Paint. I just get the sponge damp, pour a little bit of poly on a paper plate, and then dip the sponge into the poly. You’ll probably want to wear gloves if you don’t want poly all over your hands, but the sponge helps prevent the streaky foggy finish you get with a brush.
Just remember to work fast and only touch the poly once or twice once it’s on the furniture.
Or you can go the easy route and spray it on. Learn more about my favorite paint sprayer and how to use it here.
Or you can even get poly in a spray can if you want to spray it but not buy a paint sprayer.
Bonus! Whitewash Wood Stain
If you want to make the sealed raw wood finish light again, don’t worry! I have you covered. A simple white glaze or whitewash will lighten up the wood to imitate the freshly sanded raw wood coastal look you just had to cover up. It’s not going to be the exact same, but it definitely helps! Just make sure to properly seal before whitewashing the wood. All you need is one or two coats, but the sealer really helps you be able to manipulate the whitewash before it dries up or soaks into the wood too heavy.
How to Whitewash Wood with White Glaze
Whitewashing wood is super simple. I used a white glaze that I had on hand, Country Chic Paint’s Clear Glaze and Simplicity. (P.S. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for more inspiration!) Once it was mixed (per the label) I watered it down just a touch so it would go onto the nightstands thinner. You can also make up a simple whitewash with watered down Simplicity (probably a 3 parts water to 1 part Simplicity). Country Chic has graciously offered you a discount of 10% when you enter my coupon code (shown near the supply list) at checkout! Thank you Country Chic Paint!
How to Whitewash
I used a cheap paint brush to get the glaze into the corners and to brush it everywhere else. I let the glaze sit for about 30 seconds, and then I wiped it all off with paper towels. Normally I wouldn’t use paper towels, but since I was working with white glaze, any lint that was left behind blended in with the glaze. It would be best to use an old white cut up t-shirt though.
For the drawers I just dipped a paper towel into the glaze and then I wiped the paint all over the drawer, making sure to wipe with the grain. Once it was all on, I made sure that it was all even by wiping it with a cleaner paper towel. This method applied it really thin and I loved it. But the body of the nightstands were too big for this method and the glaze dried too fast. Speaking of drying too fast, make sure to stick to small areas, like one drawer or one side of the nightstand at a time. And if it’s still drying too fast, water down your paint a little bit more.
Once all the glaze was on and dry, I lightly sanded everything down with 400 grit sandpaper again to make it completely smooth and to bring out the grain a little bit. Then I vacuumed and wiped it down with a damp rag.
Seal the Whitewash
Just like before, I want to protect my hard work and finish from every day use. So I applied 3 final coats of poly to my nightstands. I sprayed mine on again, but applying the poly with the sponge or the spray can are great options too!
It’s done!! And there’s nothing like a coastal whitewashed wood finish to admire all day long.
Now the question is.. would you have left it sealed or added whitewash to it??
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