Let’s talk about when to use a paint wash (aka diluted paint) instead of stain to finish wood. Under the right circumstances, a brown paint wash can mimic the look of stain.
There comes a time in every DIY project when things are not going well and you begin to regret the choices that led you to this point. It’s in this moment of profound clarity when you’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time and money on something that does not look good that you realize you could have bought it on Amazon for a tenth of the price and zero of the headaches. Now you have to decide whether this project is salvageable or not.
Or does that just happen to me?!?
But one of those DIY moments is how I know when to use a paint wash instead of stain to finish wood.
Perhaps something useful, other than the dreaded character building, does come from my DIY foibles.
First, let’s define paint wash. It just means paint that is diluted with something – usually water. You can create a paint wash out of many different types of paint but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m referring to latex paint.
Second, when should you use a paint wash instead of a stain? If you know you like the look of a paint wash you can skip right to applying that technique.
The rest of us usually get there after trying to stain something and it is not going well. In fact, it’s probably a disaster. A paint wash is how we try to salvage the situation.
Stain penetrates into the wood but because wood is a natural substance there is going to be some variability in how it accepts the stain. It might look gorgeous or it might turn out all blotchy.
There are a bunch of factors affecting how wood takes stain including wood species, stain application, and wood preparation, but the bottom line is there is variability.
You might do all the right things when staining wood because you are the type of person who never takes shortcuts.
Same here. *wink, wink*
However, you still might not get the outcome you want from the stained wood because it is fickle and here to mess up your day.
That’s when you can salvage your DIY project and use a brown paint wash to mimic the look of a stain.
If you dilute brown paint the right amount with water and brush it onto the wood it’s going to sit on the surface of the wood and will allow the wood grain to show through while providing the illusion of evenly stained wood. When done well, the brown paint wash is going to cover up all the blotchiness of your bad stain job and no one is going to know it’s painted and not stained.
What’s the right amount of water?
Everyone has a formula but the truth is you need to experiment to get it right for your project. Some people want only the barest amount of coverage. Others might like their paint wash to be a bit more opaque.
If it’s a super small project like a picture frame and you’re like me and never learn your lesson, then you’re probably going to wing it with your paint wash mixture and hope for the best. This is how we get our kicks, apparently. When it all goes wrong, you can write a blog post about it.
If you want to mix a paint wash the right way, the key, particularly if you have a large surface area to cover, is to measure what you are doing so that you can always make more of the same brown paint wash.
I’d start out with a one-to-one ratio of paint to water and test how that looks before adding more water to the mixture.
Whatever ideal ratio you end up with of paint to water, you’ll be able to recreate that formula no matter what you’re using for a measuring device. I’ve used any number of things over the years to measure paint and water including a proper measuring cup, a coffee scoop, and a plastic spoon.
Let’s look at my real-world example of how a brown paint wash saved a bad stain job.
I started off with a frame made out of scrap wood pine. Pine is not the best wood for a fancy-looking picture frame because it is a soft wood with lots of grain and knots. I know this! I was definitely setting myself up for a DIY disaster but it was a free project since we had the wood sitting in our garage.
Here’s how the frame looked before I stained it.
Here’s how the frame looked mid-project when I was regretting all of my DIY choices.
The stain was blotchy and had a grey undertone that I could not get rid of. If I was going for a rustic look this would have been okay but I was aiming for an outcome that was a little more refined.
Here’s a close-up of how the frame turned out with a brown paint wash applied over the top of the stain.
You can still see all the movement in the wood grain, which I like, but there is a warmth and evenness to the entire picture frame now.
Basically, I don’t think anyone would look at this frame and think the final outcome was achieved with paint, not stain.
This was a DIY crisis averted. In fact, I think it turned out to be a DIY win.
P.S. Pretty much everything in these photos was thrifted or handmade including the painting, the bench, and the wainscoting. You can read about the bench and its makeover here.
The wainscoting color is Behr Khaki Shade in semi-gloss. The wall color is Behr Arcade White in satin. The white window trim is Behr Bit Of Sugar in semi-gloss. The brown paint used for the paint wash is Behr Rave Raisin in flat.
Thanks for being here today. If you enjoy reading about DIY projects gone awry that somehow work out in the end, I have more blog posts you might enjoy!