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What is a pickling finish and how do I do it?

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Although certain stains are sold under the name pickling stain, technically, pickling is a method not a finish. Originally, pickling was preformed on new wood to make it look old. One such little known formula was to take a handful of galvanized nails and soak them in white vinegar for about 2-3 days, the vinegar would dissolve the galvanizing and when applied to oak would produce a beautiful gray "dusty" look to the oak, hence the term "pickling".

Today when most people refer to a pickled finish, they automatically think of a white or off-white pastel semi-transparent stain applied to an open pored wood such as oak or ash. This finish is quite fashionable today. The stains that are now labeled and sold as pickling stains are usually heavily pigmented white or off-white stains. They can be purchased in oil or water-based formulations.

The Materials

You can use either a specially formulated stain labeled and sold as pickling stain or you can make your own by taking either oil based paint or latex (water based) paint and reducing it about 25 percent, this will vary depending on how much of the original wood you want to show. It is best to use primers when making your own as they dry flat and accept top coats much easier than a reduced semi-gloss or gloss enamel. Always reduce your paint with the appropiate thinner. If you use an oil based paint, reduce it with either a paint thinner or gum turpentine. If use a latex paint, use water. Oil based does not raise the grain and dries slower so you have more time to apply it and remove just as much as you want. If you are sensitive to chemicals or fumes use latex paint. The disadvantage to using latex paint is it raises the grain of the wood and it dries much quicker, therefore you do not have much control over how much you can wipe off once it sets up.

Use a white or off-white paint, depending on what color you prefer. You can also tint the paint or stain to make various shades of pastels using Universal tinting colors which are commonly sold in paint stores or you can have your local paint store tint the paint for you.

Applying The Stain

Applying the stain is easy. Simply wipe it over the wood and then wipe off as much of the excess as necessary until you achieve the look you want. Today, pickling is usually done on open pored woods like oak, and ash. The result is very effective because most of the pigment (color) remains in the large pores and accents the overall appearance of the grain. However, such woods like pine are also pickled and can produce a beautiful look.

Once you are satisfied with the color, apply at least two coats of finish to seal in the color and protect it. Water based topcoat finishes are best to use because they have no amber tint to them like oil based finishes, therefore the finish will not yellow or change the color of the stain. Make sure the finish is either satin or flat, don't use a gloss finish because it will reflect too much light and you will not be able to see the accents in the grain very well.

This pretty much covers how to pickle new or unfinished wood but what if you have a previously finished item you want to pickle? Try this,
Apply the pickling stain over the top of the existing wood color, this will give to a lighter finish but the resulting color will be a mixture of the existing color plus the addition of your white pickling stain. for example if you start with a cherry stained finish and apply a white pickling stain the end product will be a light "pickish" color stained wood. I refer to it as a stained glass effect, the base color is showing thru a transparent colored overglaze.
The amount of the existing color that show thru will depend on how much you reduce your pickling stain, naturally the more you reduce it, the more of the original color will show. I have had some jobs where we used straight white primer, no reduction to hide as much of the original as possible.
Brush on a small area and lighty wipe off the excess until you get the color you like.

Go ahead and try a small area to see if you can come up with a color you can live with. A drawer front is a good place to experiment with, remove the handle, play around with the color and when finished remove your trial stain with the proper thinner for the paint you used before it dries. If after experimenting you cannot come up with a satisfactory color using the existing finish as a base you will have to strip the existing surface and start with the original wood color.
Stripping wood is a whole new project area so if you decide that is what needs to be done, go here to "Stripping wood finishes".

When applying your pickling stain or Any stain for that matter, use a brush to cover a small area, wipe off the excess with a rag until you achive the desired color THEN use a dry soft bristle brush and with long strokes brush over the entire surface. This eliminates any heavy "ropey" streaks that may be left by the wiping process and leaves your finish with a softer smoother look.

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