All You Need to Know About Cerused Wood
Find out why this 500-year-old finish is trending again, and how to recreate it at home like the artisans of old.
While some prefer to disguise the patina of their wood furniture with paint or contact paper, a growing number of homeowners and renters are choosing to play it up through the age-old finish of cerused wood. Read on to learn what this finish is, whether it’s right for you, and which tips to enlist for a pro-quality application.
What is cerused wood?
Ceruse—a white lead-based pigment—first made history in the 16th century as a cosmetic for European high society before it ever wound up on furniture. So when it was repurposed by craftsmen into a decorative finish for wood, the technique was dubbed cerused wood. The resulting weathered white finish muted the original color of the wood and emphasized the texture of its wood grain.
The 500-year-old finish persists in the furniture market today, everywhere from headboards (available at Wayfair; $199.95) to trunks (available at Lowe’s; $155), even cabinetry and light fixtures—especially in coastal-, farmhouse-, or French country-style interiors that complement its rustic-chic aesthetic. The good news? It now comes minus the health risks associated with the old lead-based finish. Today, do-it-yourselfers can recreate the look on their own hardwood pieces by filling in the grain with a liming wax, a blend of clear wax and white liming paste usually made with paint or an oil and plant blend.
Which woods can you ceruse?
Cerused wood is also known as cerused oak or limed oak because it’s often found on this species of wood. Oak’s highly visible grain makes it one of the surfaces for the finish. But you can ceruse any open-grained hardwood (i.e., those with large pores) such as mahogany. After you brush one to two coats of liming wax onto the wood and buff away the excess with a cloth, the deep ridges of the woodgrain will hold onto some of the white coloring.
You can use the same technique to ceruse bare, stained, or painted wood, but the deep pores in the grain of bare or stained wood get the most dramatic effect. The texture on bare or stained wood is the most receptive to absorbing the liming wax, creating a whitewash that allows grain to peek through. Pores of painted wood have already been filled with viscous paint, meaning that they can’t hold as much liming wax; here, this technique produces a less pronounced finish.
How does it compare to similar DIY wood finishes?
Cerused wood can be used as an alternative to whitewashing or bleaching, two wood finishes that similarly lighten and brighten wood while accentuating its grain. The simple brush-and-buff technique used to ceruse wood is the simplest, least messy option. Meanwhile, whitewashing requires diluting paint in water before application, and bleaching entails neutralizing the applied finish with vinegar and water.
However, you’ll usually pay a higher price for liming wax (anywhere from $15 to $20 per 8 ounces at craft or home stores) compared to supplies for the other finishes ($2 per 8 ounces for basic white paint or $0.40 to $1.00 per 8 ounces of bleach).
What’s the best way to get the look of cerused wood?
Use these tips to ensure a successful DIY cerused wood finish.
• Settle on a wax. Liming wax, sold in brands such as Briwax (available on Amazon; $19.49), consists of liming paste and a wax made of petroleum, beeswax, carnauba, or shellac. Waxes made with the latter three ingredients are more natural options with lower volatile organic compounds (VOCs) compared to petroleum-based waxes. Liming wax is most commonly sold in the color white—which you should choose to mimic the classic white cerused look—but it can also be found in neutrals such as black or gray, which can be used to create a more modern or dramatic look.
• Pick your wood wisely. For the most striking cerused wood finish, opt for wood surfaces that already have a highly visible or distinct grain that can be accentuated.
• Strip and/or stain light-colored wood. The classic white cerused wood finish isn’t noticeable when applied to bare, light-colored hardwoods like poplar or woods painted white or cream. If you want to ceruse light-colored bare hardwood, your best bet is to stain the wood first with a dark-colored wood stain. If you want to ceruse painted wood that’s currently a shade of white, use a wood stripper to strip the wood, then either ceruse the bare wood or stain the wood and then ceruse it.
• Lose the hardware. To ensure a uniform finish, detach removable knobs, pulls, and other hardware on the wood surface you plan to ceruse.
• Start with a spotless surface. Clean the wood surface with a sponge dampened with a solution of one teaspoon dish soap and four cups of warm water to remove dust, dirt, and grime from the grain and surrounding wood surface. Make a second pass over the wood with a dry rag, then let the wood dry fully.
• Perfect the pores. Working a soft wire brush over the wood in the direction of the wood grain will help open up the pores of the grain so that the liming wax is absorbed to the fullest extent.
• Smooth it out with sandpaper. Whether cerusing bare, stained, or painted wood, gently sand the entire surface with 150-grit sandpaper to smooth uneven spots and remove splinters left by the wire brush.
• Brush, then buff. Dip—don’t douse—a natural-bristle chip brush in the liming wax. Offload any excess wax onto a scrap piece of cardboard, then apply what’s left on your brush to the wood in no more than three-by-three-foot sections at a time. Crosshatching (intersecting) brush strokes will maximize the wax absorption by the wood grain. Let the coat become tacky (slightly sticky but starting to set, which can take at least 10 minutes depending on the wax), then gently buff the waxed section with large, sweeping motions of a dry cloth or rag; this will remove the excess wax while some white pigment remains in the grain. Once the wax has cured according to the wax instructions, which can take at least 30 minutes, repeat section by section until the entire surface has been waxed and buffed.
• Go for seconds. If desired, deepen the color contrast between the grain and the surrounding wood by brushing on the second coat of wax as you applied the first, then buff it with a cloth. Let the second coat cure.
• Pass on poly. Limed wax can act as a top coat, or you can coat it with a clear wax such as Briwax Original (available on Amazon; $19.49) to lend a more durable finish to wood surfaces in high-traffic areas. But don’t top liming wax with polyurethane or polyacrylic sealants, as the wax doesn’t bond well to these products.