How Do I Whitewash Varnished Knotty Pine?

I say it quite often, I hate the look of knotty pine in a home. It became so popular for a while that manufacturers began to make paneling that looked like knotty pine. It likely makes your room look small, dark, enclosed, and outdated. For those who have real tongue-and-groove wooden knotty pine on their walls, I’m sorry.

All is not lost, though. Knotty pine can be changed with only a few steps and a little hard work. This usually includes painting and staining the wood. Have you considered another alternative that will brighten the wood but still keep it looking natural? You can whitewash your varnished knotty pine walls pretty simple once you know how. Many homeowners use this technique when they want to bring a nautical, farmhouse, or cottage feel to their rooms.

how do i whitewash varnished knotty pine

Whitewash has changed over the years. It used to be a lime-based wash that was put on wood in outdoor spaces, like barns and fences. It would actually bleach out the wood over time. This whitewash served two purposes: it protected the wood, and it had antiseptic qualities (making it perfect for places where animals lived). Today’s DIYers usually are not looking to whitewash a chicken coop, but instead want to bring that classic, rustic look indoors. When we refer to whitewashing wood now, we’re usually talking about thinned paint or a white stain.


Step 1: Remove Old Varnish

If you’re lucky, you may have some knotty pine on the walls that were never finished. I say this is lucky because you can simply skip this step. Ideally, wood should always be conditioned, sealed, and finished as a final product. However, you may be the one deciding to add that knotty pine. I promise I’m not judging. Whether whitewashing a wall or a piece of furniture, you’ll need to remove the old varnish- the shiny topcoat covering the wood.

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There are primarily two ways to get rid of the varnish: sanding or stripping. Sanding takes the longest but is also the safest. On top of removing the varnish, sanding will also remove the stain that was used initially and bring a brand-new layer of fresh wood to the surface.

However, this takes time and patience. Also, if you have very thin wood, it may take off more wood than you would like. However, you really want to have the raw wood to properly whitewash.

Using a chemical stripper is your other option for removing shellac and polyurethane. There are many kinds out there that will work, so if you know what type of varnish is on your wood, it will help a lot. Denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner work really well on shellac and lacquer.

All other finishes will need a harsher stripper, which tends to be caustic (though many newer strippers are environmentally safe) and comes in a paste. For the thinner, you’ll use a brush to get it on the wood, then use a putty knife to scrape the old varnish off. With the paste, use some steel wool to apply and scrape off the old finish (for both you’ll want to follow the grain).

Step 2: Prepare Your Whitewash

Select the type of whitewashing you’d like to use. Again, modern whitewashing uses paints and stains, not the actual calcimine chemical. Do you want to use water or oil-based paints or stains? This is really up to you, but latex paint is water-based and inexpensive.

Whitewashing is also a general term for the lightening of wood, so many people will use grays and blues along with white. The primary point of whitewashing is to brighten a room while maintaining the natural grain of the wood.

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For the sake of this article, we’ll consider whitewashing with white, flat latex paint. Keep in mind, the stain does not require thinning, and oil-based paints will need to be thinned using turpentine.

However, once you’ve thinned your paint out using water, the process for both paint and stain will pretty much be the same. The common mixture for whitewash is one part water to two parts of paint.

Step 3: Whitewash

The materials you’ll need for whitewashing are basic:

  • Whitewash (thinned paint or stain)
  • Paintbrush
  • Rag

How much of the whitewash you put on the wood will depend on what you want your finished product to look like. The more you use, the opaquer the whitewash will become. Many people suggest using a dry brush technique, which means you wipe off the brush before dipping it back into the paint.

Try to use a lighter touch with the whitewash on the brush. Go with the grain, and do small areas at a time. This will prevent the whitewash from drying more in some spots since it does dry quickly. Simply brush the whitewash in long strokes to fill in a patch of wood.

I suggest sticking to one panel of wood at a time, this way it will be consistent across each board.

Once the whitewash is on the wall, use the rag to wipe it off (still following the grain). Again, if you want to do more coats or want this to be a very light application, use more pressure when removing the excess whitewash. Typically, you’ll only want to remove the excess gently and evenly.

For those grooves where the wood meets, you can use a regular paintbrush or a sponge brush. Do these separately for each of the boards as well to keep your project looking even. Of course, you’ll also want to run the rag over the grooves once you have applied the whitewash.

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Step 4: Sand and Reapply

This step may also not be necessary. Depending on how rich you want the whitewash, you may find you’d like a second or third coat. Be sure to let the whitewash dry entirely before prepping for the other coats.

Typically, latex paint takes between four to six hours to fully dry, while oil-based paints require 24 hours to dry. Once it is dry, sand it very gently. This will help the wood to take in the whitewash, but it will also even out any blotchy spots. Then, reapply the additional coats as you did the first coat.

Step 5: Finish

This step is optional, but a varnished piece will last longer and look more professional. Consider using polyurethane shellac to seal the paint and wood.

When putting on polyurethane, you’ll want to use a similar application as the whitewashing.

Always use minimal varnish on the brush. Use long strokes, with the grain, to apply the polyurethane.

After you’ve applied the first coat of varnish, check for any dried drips. If you’re able, remove them gently with the brush while still wet, but still go with the grain. It should take between four to six hours for it to be properly dried and ready to prep for the second coat.

You’ll want to sand down the first coat with fine-grit sandpaper before applying the next coat (this will also take care of any drips you may have missed). For a wooden wall that has been sealed in the past, you’ll need only two coats of polyurethane, but three coats work best for raw wood.