Whitewashing and Drybrushing

footboard_hole_final_wm_1280That classy weathered and layered look that whitewashing and drybrushing can give you is surprisingly straightforward to create. I studied online for hours getting advice from various sites before I tried it these techniques myself.   After seeing some amazing results on Pinterest and few blogs, I spent a lot of time trying to learn how to do it. Once I actually went to it, I was so surprised when I learned far more in 5 minutes doing it than I got out of all my “research” on the subject. After my first try turned out the be (in my eyes) a very successful project, I actually had the distinct feeling that I had wasted my time reading instead of doing.

The other thing that kept me from getting started was the idea that it could cost a fair amount of money to buy paint, brushes and wood.   I soon realized that there was very little to lose.  I had old rags and a paint brush in the garage.  A couple of colors of “oops” paint and a 2 x 4 costs under $5 at any big box hardware store.  So yeah with $5 and 5 minutes, it could get real real fast.

I’m going to describe three different techniques involving whitewashing, drybrushing, or both.

I almost called this project my dumpster dive. We live in an area with on-going residential construction. According to the construction supervisor, anything in the dumpster is fair game and we have taken advantage of that. One quick drive through the neighborhood and you can get various scrap pieces of lumber and building materials. We found 2×4’s, trim boards, baseboards, even a couple of slightly damaged new doors.

Whitewashing bare wood

whitewash_header_wm_1280The first find for this project was a 4×4 post. The pine wood was heavily weathered and worn. This wasn’t your normal construction material, but old wood like this is hard to find and so I couldn’t pass it up. I knew I’d find some way to use it.
I bought a quart of plain white Glidden paint from Home Depot and in a disposable cup. I mixed it 2 parts water, one part paint. Whitewashing aged wood was the simplest process I went through. Just Apply the very runny paint with a brush or rag to the wood and then wipe off any excess paint. It’s that simple. The effect is beautiful and accentuates the grain in the wood. It’s really really hard to get this wrong.

Whitewashing primed rough cut distressed wood

whitewash_rough2_wm_1280whitewash_rough_wm_1280The second find for this project was some rough cut 2×8 trim boards. They were pre-primed in a light grey color. Before whitewashing, I decided to distress the wood.

The dings and distressing made various recessed regions in the surface. It’s not hard to get the paint into these spots but you have to be deliberate about each hole and crack. Just apply paint liberally and then press into the crevices with the rag. I left the cracks and holes unfilled on this project to give it an even more aged and weathered look. It was fairly easy to brush on the paint and leaved these spots unpainted. Just wiping off excess as before did the trick.
The main pointer here is as you wipe off the excess just try to be consistent. You’ll see the under color show through the the opaque color of the white. The more you wipe, the more white comes off and the more the under color shows through.
I painted the wood in about 70 degree temperature and was surprised how fast the watery paint dried. It didn’t seem to give me any more working time than regular thick paint. Once you wipe it down, the remaining thin coat dries very quickly. On bare wood, the water seems to absorb into the wood and leaves just the pigments alone with the air to do it’s thing. On an already painted surface, I did have more time, but it still seemed like I had to pay close attention to finishing quickly.

When wiping the whitewash off of the surface, I dragged the rag in straight lines. This fit the project I was working on, but I have always wanted to experiment with other wiping techniques like blotting or circles. Please post below if you have used other wiping methods and have some interesting results.

Whitewashing and drybrushing in layers

Whitewashing is best known for it’s ability to accentuate the grain of a wood. The watered down paint fills cracks and crevices leaving the deeper surface regions with more paint color. The final rag wiping removes more paint from the upper ridges of the surface grain showing more of the original wood color. The subtle color contrast between these varying depths makes the wood grain the star of the show.

You can also use whitewashing over a plain grainless surface. The results are an opaque color overlay that adds depth. The runny paint flattens and spreads out after wiping to some degree softening the effect of the added top color.

Drybrushing on the other hand can be used to create a visible texture on the surface. The brush hairs create a simulated grain of it’s own. Both methods are meant to allow the original surface color to show through to some degree, but drybrushing shows it in fine lines where the brush hairs either apply a thin coat of dry paint or dry brush hairs pull the applied paint off of the surface.

Both methods add visual depth to surface, but do it in different ways. When you apply both processes in layers to the same piece of work, you can quickly add an aged antique feel.

In the following piece I finished some plain white doors as the headboard for a queen sized bed. I was hoping to create a great amount of depth in the finish. To do this I used a drybrushing processes to add two different colors to create a weathered woodgrain like affect.

The first coat I used Dunn Edwards “Drifting” watered down (2 parts water, 1 part paint). I applied in in a thin blotchy coat and kept the brush dry. I did this to keep from creating a lot of visible texture. I also wanted the original color of the door (swiss coffee) to show through to some degree. door_white_wm_1280door_grey_undercoat_wm_1280paint_splatter_effect_wm_1280

You might ask why this isn’t white washing since the paint was so runny. My answer is in the technique. If you coat the surface with the paint and then wipe off excess then it’s whitewashing. If you add very little paint to the brush and keep stroking the surface until no more pigment comes off the brush, then that is dry brushing no matter how runny the paint is. It kind of comes down to whether the brush hairs are creating the final finish or not.

The second drybrush coat I used Behr “Blanket Brown” from home depot with no thinning. this coat was applied more evenly, while letting the swiss coffee and drifting colors to show through.



Drybrushing with thick paint creates a heavy texture that you can feel. The ridges in the paint remain from the brush strokes after it dries. Sometimes this can be useful to create a wood grain like finish. Sometimes you just want a visible texture. Drybrushing with watery paint helps reduce the ridges of dry paint buildup that occur when using thick un-thinned paint.


I applied a final coat of whitewashing (2 parts water – 1 part Glidden “White”) ragging the door to evenly apply the paint. I kept the dragging direction vertical.


So here are the effects all brought together into a queen sized bed. The full project will be covered in a post soon to come. I’d love to hear your comments below. Sign up for the newsletter and come back to see new projects.


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