Pickling Wood to Reproduce the Old World Charm

Different sources give different definitions for wood pickling.  One account reports that galvanized nails were soaked in vinegar, and after a period of time, this solution was applied to open pored wood, such as oak or ash, giving it a dusty gray look. It can also be applied to wood such as pine. Pickling is really more of a method than a process. Other reports state the process of pickling wood had its origins in the Old World, where fine craftsmen attempted to remove old paint from a finished piece, and a resulting residue of paint was left in the grain of the wood.  It is in high demand today.  Nowadays, pickling wood is more of a finishing effect that people use to imitate that old look. One method used is taking a new piece of wood or furniture, staining it, and then applying a flat white latex paint.  The paint is then carefully wiped off, leaving the paint visible only in low lying areas of the furniture.  This is generally done with pieces that have elaborate scroll work. Pickling wood can be easily accomplished with a little practice and care of wood preparation.  It is not a process that can be rushed.

If you work with a variety of woods, and have not tried this method, be sure to experiment on scrap pieces of wood to perfect the process.  Different types of wood may produce very different results.

The first step in the process is preparing the wood.  First, you will need to seal the wood.  There are various types of petroleum based products that will accomplish this.  The idea here is to separate the soft grains of wood form the harder grains to give the finished effect.  This happens because the sealer will lay atop the harder grains, and penetrate the softer ones.  Allow the sealer to dry, and then lightly sand the wood with a 200 grit sandpaper until completely smooth.  Clean the wood thoroughly.  Some craftsmen advise using a tack cloth - others do not.  The purpose here is to have a finished piece of wood that is entirely clean.

After you have chosen the color of the oil based paint you wish to work with, mix this color  half and half (50/50) with mineral spirits.  Be especially sure to work in a well ventilated area, as the fumes from the mineral spirits can be overwhelming.  Next, apply the solution with a China bristle brush applying a heavy coat as evenly as possible.  Make every attempt to avoid runs. Still using your test piece of wood, experiment by using different times of allowing the paint to stay in contact with the wood to obtain the color of the wood you desire.  Wipe off the excess with a lint free cloth (old T-shirts work well) following the grain of the wood.  If the color meets your expectations, you can now proceed with the project.

Apply the glaze to the piece and wait the allotted time you have determined in your test strip.  Carefully wipe off the glaze with a clean lint free cloth.  Don't allow the cloths to become saturated, but instead change frequently to avoid over glazing the wood. This process allows the glaze to remain in the grain of the wood, giving the effect you desire.

After the glaze has thoroughly dried, and you are well satisfied with the results, it is time to apply a sealant. Generally, a quality polyurethane is used for greater durability and protection of the finished piece.

Some craftsmen advise using a water based paint (latex) instead of oil based paints.  Their reasoning is the latex will not reproduce the amber coloring of an oil based paint when used as a pickling agent.  It can also be mixed with water, making it potentially safer than using mineral spirits with oil based paints.  Either way, the effect must be one that pleases you, and works the best for your purpose.  Taking time to pickle wood can produce very pleasing results.  Always follow simple safety precautions such as good ventilation and proper disposal of waste when doing any project. Because of the different definitions of pickling wood, do your own due diligence to determine what effect you are striving for.  The best place to begin is the internet, for it will give you many choices to achieve the effect you wish to reproduce.

Alden Smith is an award winning author and regular contributor to DoItYourself.com. He writes on a variety of subjects, and excels in research.