How to Accomplish a Ceruse Wood Finish

Written by catherine hudgins
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How to Accomplish a Ceruse Wood Finish
Upgrade the look of pine or oak with a whitewashing technique. (wood image by Alison Bowden from

Ceruse originally referred to the ingredient also known as white lead. Mixed with vinegar, it formed a popular make-up used during the 1500s. Also used in lead paint, ceruse has come to mean a finish for wood where an overlay of white fills and reveals grain lines while having little effect on the overall colour of the wood's base colour finish. Pickling is another term for the process of creating the look of aged wood that has lost its original coat of white paint over time or giving a soft, frosty patina to raw or stained wood.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Oak or other open-grained wood
  • Wire brush
  • Sandpaper
  • Tack cloth
  • White wood filler, wax, glaze or stain, or acrylic- or oil-based white or off-white paint
  • Water or paint thinner/white spirit
  • Mixing/application container
  • Mixing stick
  • Applicator
  • Top-coat/sealer

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  1. 1

    Clean any foreign matter from surface of wood. Use wire brush, stroking with the grain of wood to open wood pores and raise grain. Use fine-grade sandpaper to smooth raised grain. Remove all sawdust and debris from wood with tack cloth. Prepare your chosen cerusing material in mixing container according to product directions, thinning paint, if used, with appropriate diluting material.

  2. 2

    Apply filler, wax, stain, thinned paint or glaze in a smooth, even coat with applicator such as brush or clean lint-free cloth. Work one section at a time, feathering edges and applying in the direction of the wood grain. Time the ceruse absorption carefully so that only the most-open grainlines absorb colour. Wipe off evenly with the grain, using clean, lint-free cloths.

  3. 3

    Allow ceruse finish to dry completely. Brush on a topcoat of polyurethane, varnish, shellac or sealer and allow it to dry. Apply a second coat of your chosen sealer and let it dry. Sand lightly. Continue this process until you have achieved the desired protection for your ceruse-finished wood.

Tips and warnings

  • Use water or diluted bleach to raise the grain on unfinished wood.
  • Wear protective clothing and filtering mask to block sawdust and toxic fumes.
  • Use gloves when working with cerusing materials and other chemicals. Work in a well-ventilated area.
  • If using this method on pre-stained wood, you may want to apply a sealer and let it dry prior to raising the grain and adding the ceruse finish to ensure the base colour stays uniform.
  • Mix your paint very thin or use a glaze and build up the ceruse effect gradually by applying and wiping off several thin coats, allowing adequate drying time between coats.
  • Practice on a scrap piece of wood to determine proper application, any absorption time and the effect and amount of cerusing produced before using this finish technique on the actual wood project.
  • Follow product instructions concerning drying times between coats of base stain, cerusing material and sealing coats. Do not re-sand until you are sure the wood is perfectly dry.
  • Read information on all products you plan to use on the wood before you begin to ensure they are compatible, that is, all oil-based or all water-based.
  • Tightly-grained or dense hardwoods such as maple are not suitable for this technique.

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