Pickling (sometimes called "liming") is a finishing technique that lightens dark wood or older wood that has darkened naturally over time. Essentially a pickled finish is a white stain applied to the surface and then wiped off, allowing the underlying wood grain to show through, with the white highlights brightening the overall appearance of the wood. Limed wood has been around for years, but these days it's enjoying a resurgence in popularity among designers so you might want to know how to do it yourself.
Making or Buying the Stain
You can either buy pickling stains at your paint or home store or you can make your own. If you're going to make your own, start with a primer paint (either latex or alkyd) and dilute it about 25% (add one cup of water or paint thinner, depending on whether you're using latex or oil-based to a quart of paint and mix it well). Use a primer rather than regular paint because primers have dull flat finishes that won’t add any shine to your finished wood surface.
Choosing between latex and alkyd, or oil-based paint, is a personal choice. Latex has minimal odor, plus it's easy to work with and clean up, but the water in latex paint will tend to raise the grain in the wood, so final finishing will require more work since the surface will need to be sanded smooth again before applying varnish or polyurethane. Alkyd has a stronger odor than latex and some people find it disagreeable, plus it is more difficult to clean up, requiring turpentine or solvent.
If you're working on furniture or a cabinet, start by removing all the hardware. Depending on what you want the finished piece to look like, you'll have to decide whether to clean the hardware and reuse it for its old appearance or replace it with new.
If the wood has been sealed, you need to get the sealer off the surface since the pickling stain needs to get right into the wood grain. Use sandpaper or steel wool to remove it as well as removing any dirt that might be on the surface. This will open the wood grain. Finish the preparation by going over the surface with a tack cloth to remove any dust or residue from the sanding.
Start by lightly dipping your brush into the pickling stain and brush it on following the direction of the wood grain. Wait a few minutes, and then wipe the stain with a dry cloth. Remember, you're not painting the wood, you're applying highlights. You want just some of the stain to remain down in the wood grain, but you don't want the wood to look painted white.
Keep up the process, applying the pickling stain and wiping it off until you've coated all the wood. It's important to use a dry cloth when wiping away the stain so you aren't putting any stain back onto the wood.
Allow your newly pickled wood to dry thoroughly (probably overnight) then apply a clear varnish or polyurethane to protect the surface.
That's it! You've just pickled or limed your first piece of wood.
Looking for a way to liven up an out of date room? Get the step-by-step for pickling your paneling.