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Paint Wash for Furniture; Easiest Way to Mute Outdated Furniture Tones

Check out this simple tutorial on how to paint wash furniture or color wash wood. Paint washing furniture is a great way to mute unwanted furniture tones and is so easy! 

I had no intention of writing this post. My plan was to continue with my two toned furniture makeover and do a big reveal blog post that included the tan wash steps in it. BUT… as I was preparing for this project I realized there wasn’t much information or examples of paint washing or tan washing furniture anywhere on the web. I decided I needed to share my experience about how to tan wash furniture for an easy paint technique. 

What is a paint wash or color wash for furniture?

Color washing furniture is similar to white washing furniture in that you dilute your paint with water, apply it to the surface and then wipe it off with a lint-free rag. Applying color wash or paint wash to a surface is a similar process to stained wood

Color washing a piece of wood is a way to give the surface a “washed” look, meaning you can still see a hint of the wood grain on the remaining surface underneath. This is a great technique if you are simply wanting to mute the tones in the existing wood or change them slightly. The best part is that you can pick whatever color you choose to create a color wash. This gives the artist more freedom in what the final product looks like. If you want a more modern look with a dark wood tone, choose a dark paint color. If you want a lighter color with a more rustic look, you can always create a thicker whitewash look with less water and more paint. The sky is the limit!

paint washed cherry cabinet

What paint to use to color wash furniture

My favorite paint for color washing furniture is a regular old latex paint (or any water based). This way it can be easily mixed with water for a beautiful color wash effect. 

If you are using an oil based paint, you will need to thin the paint with a solvent like turpentine or mineral spirits. 

I personally never use an oil based paint to create a tan wash or color wash effect because of the high VOCs. I can achieve the same look with a water based paint and less harmful ingredients. 

As far as what color to use? That is entirely up to you. You can use any color to paint wash wood! If you want something vibrant, use a deep bold color like blue or red! If you are looking to mute the wood tones, stick with a lighter white or tan tone. If you want to make the wood darker, try using a brown or dark navy tone. 

For this post I chose to use the color Swaying Hammock by Clark and Kensington in satin. 

Clark and Kensington Swaying Hammock

What ratio do you mix for a color wash furniture finish?

The mix ratio for a paint wash finish is ultimately a personal preference. The most common ratio is 1 part paint to 1 part water (or paint to solvent) solution. 

If you want a more translucent look, add a higher ratio of water or solvent to paint. If you want a more opaque look, you add a higher ratio of paint to water. 

tan washed (color wash) wood cabinet top


  • lint free cloths
  • water based paint of your choice
  • cup of water
  • seperate cup for mixing
  • Stir stick
  • Wood

Below is a piece of Heart Pine that I’m going to color wash the surface of the wood. I wanted to mute the orangish red tones and give it a lighter look. As with most DIY projects, always test small areas first to make sure you will get the desired effect. 

Heart Pine wood before color wash

Do you need to sand the piece of furniture before paint washing the wood?

Yes, it is generally recommended to sand furniture before painting it. Sanding helps to smooth out any rough patches or imperfections on the surface of the furniture, which can help the paint to adhere better and create a more even finish. Sanding also helps to remove any existing finish or varnish on the furniture, which can prevent the new paint from adhering properly. The extent of sanding required will depend on the type of furniture and the existing finish that is currently on the surface. 

Since you are applying a “wash” over the existing wood, chances are you won’t have to sand the entire surface down to raw wood or bare wood to get the desired look you are going for. My best suggestion is to sand lightly with a fine grit sandpaper if the surface has a matte or satin paint or sealer. If it has a high gloss finish, you will probably want to start with a heavier grit sandpaper (40-60 grit) and then end with a finer grit (120-360). 

Always test a small area first. This is key! 

How do you color wash or paint wash wood?

This technique is really simple and there are a few ways to do it. I’m going to show you the easiest way I like to paint wash wood. 

  1. Mix one part water based paint to one part water in a separate container. 
  2. Using a stir stick, make sure it’s mixed really well to an even consistency.
  3. Dip a lint-free cloth in the paint wash and apply it to the wood surface IN THE DIRECTION of the grain of the wood.
  4. Continue to wipe the wood with (or without) the paint wash until you get the desired finish you want on the entire piece. 
  5. If necessary, use a clean lint free cloth to wipe away any excess paint wash on the surface. 
  6. Once the surface is dry, if it’s still not the color you want then repeat steps 3-5  with a second coat of paint wash until you are pleased.
  7. When you are done with your new wood furniture project, make sure to seal it!

Note; If you want a more translucent look and more wood grain to show, use more water and less paint. If you want a more opaque look, use more paint and less water. The amount of water to paint is ultimately a personal preference and will require some experimenting.  It’s best if you have a sample piece of wood to try out first before you begin applying the wash on the entire surface. 

applying tan wash or paint wash to pine wood
Heart pine wood after paint wash or tan wash

As far as sealers go, I’ve got a few resources for that. Always seal the finished wood!

Best Clear Coat for Wood for a Lasting Finish

How to Seal Painted Furniture for a High Traffic Finish

Do you need to seal whitewash furniture and wood?

Like I said there are a few other ways to create a paint wash. I’ve even seen some creators dip a wet rag in an undiluted paint can and then wipe the surface. The problem with this is that it can create an uneven blotchy look. This is why I prefer to mix the paint with water BEFORE applying it to the surface. 

Another tip; If you want an non blotchy finish try using a wood conditioner before you apply the paint wash. Work in small sections to make sure you get the desired finish. 

Wasn’t that easy? I wish all my paint projects were this simple. For more simple paint techniques like this check out my painting and refinishing page here. 

Thanks for stopping by!


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  1. Yes you could try to lightly sand it and see what happens. As far as undoing the paint wash, since every piece of wood absorbs the wash differently I can’t give you a straight answer. As far as the varnish, yes some varnishes (especially oil based) will darken the finish.

  2. Nicole says:

    2 questions:
    I paint-washed some tables in the Swaying Hammock shade in a 1-1 ratio. I have not yet used varnish.
    There are a few areas that I feel grabbed the paint too much. Maybe they weren’t sanded enough to begin with. Could I sand it down and “repair” it? How do you undo the paint wash?
    Second question, does the varnish darken the finished look at all? I feel like the tables are super light.

  3. Caye says:

    Good lesson, Lindsey! There is a piece of furniture in my stash that has those “orangey” tones, and I’m glad to know how to tone that down and yet keep the appearance of the grain. Many thanks.

  4. The gray trend is definitely dying. I would definitely try a small area to see what it looks like.

  5. Shanna says:

    Have you or anyone else tried to mute or counteract a gray hue or leftover stain and would a tan wash work? I’m over the gray. I’ve stripped it down, bleached it, and it still looks gray. Would prefer a tan or cream look.

  6. Probably so. If the current furniture piece has a matte or satin paint or sealer finish, I would use a fine grit sandpaper all over the wood just to rough it up a little so the paint wash will stick. If it’s a more glossy finish, start with a coarser sand paper and then finish with a finer sandpaper. Always test a small area first!

  7. Sandy says:

    Do you sand the furniture before applying the wash?

  8. I normally use a satin or matte water based sealer.

  9. MimiLee says:

    Do you use a water-based or oil based sealer in matte or glossy?

  10. Marsha says:

    I have two medium oak tables (they look just like yours!) and I would like a gray wash look. Is that possible? Could I use a gray paint mixed with water? I would want it to stay a warm tone.

  11. That totally depends on what paint you are using and what surface you are painting. I do have a post on how to choose the right type of paint for any surface here that might help you.

  12. Kerri says:

    Thanks for sharing your technique! Do you have to do anything to furniture beforehand to prep the wood for the paint wash? For example, do I need to strip or sand first? Thanks!

  13. I used Clark and Kensington paint in the color Swaying Hammock in Satin. I bought it from Ace Hardware. And a paint wash technique can really transform an outdated wood tone so easily. Good luck and I hope it works.

  14. Melissa says:

    Hello Lindsey. Pls share what color paint u used to tone down the heart pine? As I have a WALL of
    This and want to update it desperately!! Thx u in advance for your help! Love this!