The Simple Way to Whitewash Oak Wood Furniture

Discover this easy way to whitewash furniture and create a beautiful before and after furniture makeover.

In this blog post, I will walk you through step-by-step how to prepare an antique oak wood secretary desk for whitewashing, how to use milk paint to create a whitewashed look and how to seal the whitewashed furniture to enhance the look of this furniture makeover!

I will even show you how to make simple repairs you can make to your vintage furniture piece! Let’s get started!

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Old piece of antique oak furniture before a whitewashing technique is used to give it a makeover.

What is Whitewashing Furniture?

Whitewashing furniture is a great way to update an old piece of furniture while still enjoying the grain of the wood. Old wood furniture can become orange-toned and many people do not like that look. Others enjoy the warm tones of old oak like on a family heirloom side-by-side secretary desk.

For those who treasure antique wood furniture but want to change the color of the wood, giving the piece of furniture a white wash look is the perfect solution! It’s the best of both worlds in my humble opinion. 

The whitewash paint technique is simple. It is as easy as mixing one part water-based paint with additional water to create a thin consistency. You could also call this a whitewash stain because it will soak into the wood surface. We will talk about mixing the paint later in the post.

Supplies Needed to Whitewash Furniture

Here are the supplies you will need to whitewash your next antique furniture piece the easy way!

Containers of dry milk pain powder used for a whitewashed furniture makeover technique.

Step One Prepare the Furniture

Let’s go over the steps needed to prepare the wooden furniture for whitewashing.

Clean the Furniture

The first step with any furniture makeover is a good cleaning. This step should never be skipped! It’s important to clean the piece BEFORE sanding the furniture. Sanding will grind the dirt and oils from the existing finish into the wood and we don’t want that to happen! You will want the new finish to last a long time and good adhesion is essential! So it is a must to clean the furniture piece first!

I like to give the old piece of furniture a good once over with a shop vac. Then I roll it out to my driveway and scrub it with an alternative TSP cleaner and warm water solution. I use a microfiber cloth and a scrub brush over sections of the piece. Then I use my outdoor hose and rinse it off.

This step is best done early in the morning on a sunny day so that the piece can set out in the sunshine and dry thoroughly. This also helps to eliminate old furniture smells!

It is best to remove the hardware like drawer pulls during the cleaning process. Save the pieces in a ziplock bag for safekeeping!

Tip: If you need to use a chemical stripper, you can use your favorite product before cleaning the piece of furniture. I wouldn’t say I like to use furniture strippers but when I do I like to use Ready-Strip. It’s a safe way to strip off the existing finish.

Old piece of oak furniture sitting in the driveway on a sunny day ready to be washed with a bucket of hot soapy water.

Sand the Wood

Those words might scare some of you! But don’t worry, this step is not difficult, especially on antique wood furniture! The finish on antique and vintage wood furniture usually deteriorates to the point that it takes very little effort to get to raw wood.

Sanding the wood is as simple as using a power sander on the wood surface and sand in the direction of the wood grain. You can also use a small hand sanding tool like the yellow one you see below. Use 150 grit sandpaper on your orbital sander. When the finish is removed, switch to 220 grit sandpaper for a smooth finish.

Work in small areas at a time. For instance, I visually divided this secretary desk like this: the flip-down section, each tall side, the drawer fronts, and so on.

When you tackle one section at a time, it’s not so bad! Put your earbuds in and listen to a good book or podcast! Sand the entire piece down section by section until you have a smooth surface.

Tip: I recently heard a new way to remove the existing finish from intricate details like the scrollwork on this secretary desk. Simply use acetone and a small nylon scrub brush. The acetone dissolves the old finish and you can use the scrub brush to coax it along. Wash that section well and allow it to dry completely. If only I had known that tip before I worked on this piece. It would have saved me about one hour of sanding time! It wasn’t hard work just time-consuming. I wish I could link it but I can’t remember where I saw it!

thanks for being here!

I hope you are enjoying this project! Let me know if you have any questions. Or leave me a comment to tell me about your project and ideas!

thanks, Cindy 😀

Step Two Apply the Whitewash

There are several types of paint you can use for this technique. Let’s look at what kind of paint to use for whitewashing wood furniture and what type of paint to avoid.

Chalk Paint and Milk Paint

Chalk paint is one of the types of paint you can use. It’s as easy as mixing one part paint, and one to two parts water to create a watery consistency. I’ve used chalk paint and mineral paint (very similar to chalk paint) for this method and it works great! 

Milk paint is another good option for whitewashing solid wood furniture. True milk paint comes in a dry powder that when mixed with equal parts water becomes an amazing paint with great adhesion. I won’t go into the details of mixing this paint for a regular painted furniture makeover project but you can read more in my post How to Mix Milk Paint.

Tip: I do not recommend using oil-based paint for this whitewashing method! I also suggest you avoid using craft paint and latex paint. Those paints are not made to soak into the wood even when watered down.

Color Choices and Mixing the Paint

Before we mix the milk paint, let’s chat about color. Remember I said this could also be called a whitewash stain? That’s because the paint wash will soak into the wood grain. Keep that in mind as you choose your paint color. There are so many different colors to choose from when it comes to milk paint (or chalk mineral paint for that matter!) 

If you choose bright colors, keep in mind that the richness of the color will be toned down due to the water-to-paint ratio as well as the type of wood your furniture

I chose to use an off-white paint mixed with a pale blue paint. The blue tones will help to counteract the orange tones in the oak wood. This will create a true whitewashed look on this secretary desk.

It doesn’t take much paint for this mixture. I started by mixing one part dry powdered milk paint with two parts warm water. Allow the paint to sit for about 15 minutes so that all of the milk paint particles are absorbed.

Lady showing thin consistency of watered down milk paint for a whitewashed furniture makeover.

Apply the Whitewashing Solution

The next step is to grab your paint brush and a couple of rolled-up paper towels! Stir the milk paint then apply the first first coat of the paint mixture using long strokes with the paintbrush.

Allow the paint to soak in just a minute or so then wipe off the excess paint. Have the paper towel ready close by so the paint doesn’t begin to dry (especially if it’s a warm day!) Work in small sections around the entire surface of the furniture.

Tip: Work quickly so that you maintain an evenly damp surface. If parts of the surface dry, then you will have a blotchy appearance. Work in small sections efficiently and quickly.

When you have finished painting and wiping back the paint wash, move on to the next section of the furniture.

I only applied one coat using this whitewashing technique to this old secretary desk. You can add a second coat for a thicker whitewash appearance if you like. Allow the first coat to dry completely before applying the second coat.

Test in a small hidden area first because sometimes the first coat can reactivate with the second coat of water and paint solution.

Step Three Seal the Whitewashed Finish

This secretary had been sitting in someone’s outbuilding for years and the wood was very dry. I applied one coat of hemp oil to nourish the wood. At first, it had a warm tone but once it was dry, the light-toned whitewashed wood looked amazing! 

I also applied one coat of hemp oil to the back of the piece. The interior of the drawer section had one coat of a scented wood salve. This nourished the wood as well as added a beautiful scent to this old piece of furniture!

Next, I applied a little bit of white wax to the horizontal surfaces like the desk surface. These areas will get additional use so I thought it best to protect them.

If this desk would have more use than I would give it, I would have added a flat water-based sealer to preserve the finish. Consider the use your furniture piece will get and seal it accordingly!

A cup of hemp oil and a chip brush used to seal old wood furniture makeovers.

Repairing Damaged Furniture Bonus Tips!

This step-by-step tutorial focuses on the whitewashing technique but I want to include some of the repairs we made to this piece. Old furniture often needs to be repaired but don’t let that scare you! You will need wood glue and clamps for these repairs. Make the repairs after cleaning and sanding the furniture.

Locate the areas that are coming apart and apply wood glue to both sides of the separated parts. Use clamps to slowly bring the separated sections together and allow to dry overnight.

Some areas might need an additional scrap of wood to prevent the heavy clamps from damaging the wood surface on the furniture. When tightening down the clamps, apply pressure a little at a time so that the wood has time to move into place.

Old wood can be stubborn so it is important not to tighten too much. This could create more damage! Take your time!

You can see the repairs I made to this secretary desk. I also repaired the gorgeous scrollwork on this piece! Fortunately, the little interior drawer had all of the broken pieces!

Step Four Add the Finishing Touches

We are down to the final countdown of this DIY furniture makeover! I decided to replace the drawer pulls with newish pulls that I had in my stash. They have the vintage look that I love and they are perfect on this secretary desk! I also had to purchase a new brass chain for the drop-down desk.

This desk only had a chain on one side. I saved the old chain and will keep it in the little interior drawer! By the way, we also found a 1941 wheat penny in that drawer! Woohoo for fun finds in old pieces!

Look at the interior section of this gorgeous writing desk. I deliberately left the wooden organizer in its original color to preserve its original look. It’s something I love to do on old pieces!

Close up view of vintage inspired drawer pull for a furniture makeover.
Inside detail of an old secretary desk used in a whitewash furniture before and after tutorial.
After shot of staged and whitewashed furniture makeover on an antqiue secretary desk that is solid oak. Staged with flowers, and old office chair.
Antique fold-down secretary desk after a furniture makeover using a whitewashing technique and staged with home decor pieces and a lamp.
Detailed wood grain on a furniture makeover that used a whitewashing technique with milk paint.
Final shot of an old secretary desk made over using a whitewashing technique and staged with flowers, brass lamp and old books.

YouTube Video Tutorial

I have a video tutorial for you but I am still editing it! Stay tuned because it is coming to my YouTube channel soon! Be sure to subscribe to my channel so you don’t miss it!

Thanks for being here. I hope you found this furniture makeover tutorial helpful! Feel free to ask any questions you may have. I would love to help you the best I can!🤗

If you have a furniture makeover you would like to share with me, I invite you to join my Facebook group Recreate and Decorate! Click below to join so you can inspire and be inspired by others!

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Cindy Rust

Cindy has been decorating her home with thrift store finds for 40 years. She is an avid thrift store shopper who loves to makeover the items she finds into vintage-inspired home decor and furniture. When she isn’t thrift shopping or painting a piece of furniture, you can find her making homemade butter, working in her garden, or painting with watercolors.

More Whitewashing Inspiration!

Whitewashing furniture is a great way to breathe new life into old pieces like a coffee table or an old dresser. Here are a few more posts for you to enjoy and be inspired by!

Upcycled Dining Table Turned Coffee Table

Discover how to turn an oak dining table into a functional coffee table for your home!

White Waxed Tool Box Storage Unit

Learn how to lighten dark paint and raw wood using white wax!

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4 Comments

  1. I kind of forgot about whitewashing. It’s easy and it gives an old piece of furniture a fresh new look. I love the desk!

    1. Cindy Rust says:

      It’s an easy technique. I’m loving the desk!

  2. The Slipcover Maker says:

    Oh my gosh, what a transformation! That piece is gorgeous!

    1. Cindy Rust says:

      I agree Karen! It’s perfect in my office!