Whitewashing: Pretty or Pretty Ugly?

I learned a very valuable lesson today: white-washing is the home interiors equivalent of luxe grunge. It looks easy to do, but in fact is very easy to do badly. Very badly. MK or Ashley Olsen of the furniture world, I am not.

We picked up this little side table a few months back at our favourite salvage shop:


I hated the colour (too dark and too red next to all our teak and charcoal furniture) and really disliked the cheap silver hardware, but was drawn to the simplicity of the shape. So it came home with us, and went on the list of ‘things to refinish’.

I’ve been loving the look of white washed wood floors, but the place we’re moving to has lovely original wood flooring, which we don’t want to mess with. So I thought perhaps I’d try white-washing on this instead.

After an hour of power sanding and cleaning to get rid of the original finish (the poor piece of wood was lacquered to death), we were ready to go. I mixed equal parts white primer with water, and started painting away. I also had an old t-shirt on hand to rub the stain into the wood. After a few strokes and rubs, I was worried. It was looking more ‘I painted this while I was drunk’ and less ‘This table has spent the last fifty years sailing the north sea’. Definitely not quite the effortless look I was going for. I stopped using the t-shirt and just worked on using the brush to rub the finish into the wood. That worked better for a bit, but then the paint started catching more in some places than others and was becoming a bit blotchy. I’d also definitely lost the original grain by this point. So out came the sandpaper, and I scraped off a few layers before re-applying a very light finish.

I’ve gotten to a place we’ll call stalemate for now (sorry for the dark photos – light was pretty much gone by the time I’d finished). At least if we hate it, we can paint directly over it, but first we’re going to live with it for a few days and see what we think.

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The drawer needs a few more coats, and the entire thing needs a quick run with some super-fine sandpaper. Plus, I’m off to find some brass hardware tomorrow to replace the cheap silver knobs, which might help pull everything together. I do like the texture and the fact that the woodgrain comes through in person. But part of me thinks I’d prefer the same piece created in perfectly bleached and finished wood. So something more slick and less shabby chic.

What do you think – pretty ugly or understated pretty? Any experiences you’ve had with white washing that you’d like to share?


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