Pickling Your Paneling

A gold-leaf picture frame against pickled paneling.
What You'll Need
Plastic drop cloths
Painter’s tape
Palm Sander
100 grit sand paper
Dust masks
White latex paint
5-gallon bucket
Paint rollers

Fifty or sixty years ago, someone was very proud of himself when he figured out how to emboss fake wood grain onto sheets of pressboard. Designers of the day went mad for it and wood paneling went up in the hippest joints, from the Playboy Mansion to the Brady house. And it’s still there. Maybe back then it really looked special. Now it’s dated, boring and tacky. And I tolerated it as an accent wall in my living room for too long.

I was ready to tear it out, but my brother came up with a better idea. “Let’s pickle it.” Technically, pickling and whitewashing aren’t same thing, but in modern times the terms are pretty much interchangeable. We’d take that wall from being a dark, old fashioned eyesore that crowded the room, to a bright focal point that lightens the room and has the character of aged barnwood or a beachy, oceanfront shack.

Step 1 – Prep the Room

This is going to be dusty. Clear all the decorations, furniture and fixtures from the paneled wall and protect the area with plastic drop cloths and painter’s tape. Since you’re only working on one wall, you don’t have to empty the room, but make sure everything is out of your way and covered up.

The room prepped for pickling.

Step 2 – Sand the Paneling

Paneling isn’t made to be painted or even altered. If this was real wood, you’d sand it just enough to rough up the surface to accept the whitewash. In this case, use a palm sander with about 100-grit paper to knock the finish off the wall. Pay attention, because you want to remove the top layer, but the “grain” is only millimeters thick and you don’t want to sand past it. Still, chances are if you make a mistake, it’s sanding too little, not sanding too much. Work with the grain, from “board” to “board,” to hide the sanding marks. You won’t get the color off the wall, but the paneling will appear lighter and duller where it’s been sanded. This stage is messy. Wear a dust mask so you don't breath in the powdered paneling.

Sanding the wall.

Step 3 – Dust and Prep the Paneling

Now that the finish is off the wall, wipe the sanding dust away with clean, damp rags. This does two things. First, any surface you paint should be free of dust, so the paint adheres to the wall, not to the particles. Second, the dampness opens up the pores in the paneling so it will take in the pickling better, just like a damp sponge absorbs water better than a dry one.

Step 3 – Mix the Whitewash

For one wall, you probably won’t use more than a gallon of paint. Pour the paint into a 5-gallon bucket and add as much water as you need to achieve the look you want. It should be about the consistency of half-and-half. It depends on the paint you use, but my ratio turned out to actually be half and half, equal parts water and paint.

Step 4 – Roll It On and Rag It Off

Give the wall a good base coat with the roller. You could do this with the rags, but the rollers are faster. Because the paint is so thinned it dries pretty quickly, so by the time the wall is covered the side where you started will be ready for the rag.

Rolling out the wall.

Dip the rags in the whitewash and rub the color into the paneling, spreading the basecoat and the new paint as deep as you can into the grain and the pores. You will not end up with even coverage. That’s the point. Some spots will have been sanded more than others. Some areas of paint will be thicker than others. Just like real wood weathers unevenly and develops character out in the elements, your paneling takes on the pickling unevenly and ends up looking more like real wood.

Ragging in the whitewash.

Step 5 – Clean Up and Put the Room Back Together

Because the pickling dries so fast, you can do this project on an afternoon, and have your room back in the evening.

The pickled wall.  And a beverage.

Pull up the painter’s tape, roll away the drop cloths and put your furniture and decorations back in order. You just changed the whole look and feel of your space in half a day and with a single can of paint.

(Find a way to thank your army of helpers. In my case, home-made barbecued ribs.)


Old fashioned wood paneling.


The room put back together.