Capture Old World Charm with Cerused Wood

Cerused wood lets DIYers bring Old World charm into their homes. Here's an explanation of what the ceruse finish technique is and how to get the effect yourself.

cerused wood desk cactusPhoto: Courtesy of Little Green Notebook

Cerusing wood is a centuries-old technique for adding flair to wood finish. Originally developed in the 1500s, it was popular among Art Deco artisans, and also in the 1950s. It’s a technique currently enjoying a renaissance among artisans and DIYers, who love the ease of the application and the antiqued look of the finished product. If you want to add a dynamic design element to your projects, give cerusing a try!

What is Cerused Wood?

Cerusing (sometimes called a “limed finish”) is a technique designed draw out the detail and character of the grain in a piece of wood. It takes its name from a type of skin cream that was repurposed as a wood preservative. (Which says something about the skin cream!) A side effect of the preservation was that the white cream embedded in the wood grain, creating a pleasing pattern.

Modern cerusing techniques use liming wax or paint to accentuate the wood grain, usually on a piece with a dark stain. By using two distinct colors, cerused wood gives a strong sense of contrast, and the wood grain becomes a feature to celebrate and highlight, rather than something to push into the background.

Cerused wood also has a certain “distressed” feel to its appearance, without having to create any damage to the wood itself. If you distress wood with a punch and an angle grinder, that wood will always be distressed. With DIY cerused wood, you do have the option to strip and refinish it at a later date.

cerused woodPhoto: Courtesy of Amy Howard Home

How to Ceruse Wood

The trick to cerusing is opening up the wood grain so that it will accept the highlight color. This is traditionally done with a wire brush. You can ceruse both previously finished and unfinished wood.

In either case, you’re first step to achieving a ceruse finish will be to prep the wood. If you’re removing an existing finish you’ll want to strip the paint or stain using your preferred technique. As you’re stripping the wood, use a wire-bristle brush to scrape in the direction of the grain. Never scrape against the grain, as that will give light, surface scratches that muddy the beauty of the finished piece. Unfinished wood should be sanded, then scraped with the wire brush. How hard you scrape will depend on how much you want the grain to stand out, and how distressed your want the wood to appear. (You may want to practice on a piece of scrap wood to find the right amount of pressure.)

Now it’s time to apply a finish to the wood. Use a stain or dye of your preference. If possible, you’ll want to use a stain that doesn’t contain polyurethane. Also, if your stain is an “all-in-one” type that has sealer infused in it, you’ll be filling in the grain that you just spent all that time opening up with the wire brush. Once the base stain is down, you’ll apply your cerusing material. This might be a water-diluted paint, or it might be actual liming wax. Apply the material with a rag, massaging the paint or wax to push it into the open pores and grain of the wood.

Next, you’ll wipe the bulk of the cerusing material away, cleaning off the flat surfaces and leaving behind the material in the grain. If you used diluted paint, do this right away with another rag or cheesecloth; if you used liming wax, follow the manufacturer’s instructions (which will usually tell you to wait 30 minutes and then take it up with 000-gauge steel wool).

Finally, you can apply sealer over the diluted paint and stain. If you used liming wax it will actually create a seal when buffed with a rag, but if it’s a frequently used item, you may want to apply more sealer.

ceruse gray floorPhoto: Courtesy of Uptown Floors

Best Wood to Create a Ceruse Finish

The techniques described above will work on any kind of wood with a visible grain, but some pieces are better suited to the process. Oak is a favorite wood for cerusing because its heavy grain and open cellular structure means that it takes the diluted paint or liming wax easily. In addition, some oak furniture is made from wood that is cross-cut to highlight the grain pattern. Once cerused, such wood quickly becomes a dramatic conversation piece in any room.

Other types of woods can also be cerused, but the effect may be more subtle. To determine if a specific piece of wood will take cerusing well, run your fingers over the surface. Do you feel the ridges and veins of the grain? Now step back and try to look at the flow of the grain rather than the wood itself. Try to not see it as a table or cabinet, but just notice the flow and direction of the grain. Will it look good highlighted against the rest of the piece? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you’ve got a perfect candidate for cerusing.

Now it’s time to try cerusing yourself. You can use this technique on anything with a strong grain, from kitchen cabinets to patio furniture, as long as you seal the wood against the elements. Good luck with your ceruse finish project!

Dan Stout
Ohio-based freelance writer and author Dan Stout is a former residential remodeler, commercial site supervisor and maintenance manager. He’s worked on nearly all aspects of building and DIY including project planning and permitting, plumbing, basic electric, drywall, carpentry, tiling, painting and more. He also publishes noir fantasy thrillers, including The Carter Series, from Penguin imprint DAW Books.