What is Whitewash?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Whitewash is a form of paint which is made from a mixture of slaked lime, chalk, water, and an assortment of other ingredients. It has been used for hundreds of years to paint various structures around the world, and it continues to be utilized in some regions. The primary advantage to whitewash is that it is very inexpensive, but it is also impermanent, forcing people to re-treat whitewashed structures on a frequent basis.

Lime washing, a form of whitewash, may be used to finish furniture.
Lime washing, a form of whitewash, may be used to finish furniture.

You may also hear whitewash referred to as calcimine or calsomine. The slaked lime is made by heating limestone at high temperatures, turning it into calcium oxide, and then adding water to the mixture to make calcium hydroxide. Typically chalk is added as a whitener. The base materials were historically mixed with a wide range of ingredients like milk, ground rice, glue, egg whites, salt, and flour, among others. To use whitewash, people simply painted it onto the surface which needed whitewashing.

Whitewash may be used on fences.
Whitewash may be used on fences.

As the whitewash is exposed to carbon dioxide in the air, it cures, acquiring a distinctive bright white color. When first applied, whitewash may seem rather thin; patience is recommended, as it will harden up and turn solid as it cures. Depending on what is added to the whitewash, the whitewash may tend to flake or run in the rain; the addition of glue is often recommended for this reason, as it helps the whitewash to stick. Hide glue flakes, available at craft and construction stores, are ideal for this purpose.

A special form of whitewash known as lime wash is made with pure slaked lime and no adulterants. It can acquire an interesting glint due to small calcite crystals which form as the lime wash cures. Lime washing is sometimes also used to finish furniture; it tends to penetrate very well and produce a pleasing patina.

Whitewash is ideal for the interior of dim structures like barns, because it can brighten up the environment and make it easier to see. It is also often used in homes to create a more reflective environment inside, ensuring that homes stay bright, even in the winter months. Fans of Mark Twain may be aware that whitewash is also used on fences, and it has historically been used on walls as well. This material adheres to a wide variety of surfaces, and it is also possible to paint over it, although the painted design will flake off as the whitewash wears away.

Whitewash may be ideal for the interior of barns.
Whitewash may be ideal for the interior of barns.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Why are my sheep licking the rocks in my old barn?Would it be because of the limestone and white wash?


Hey, DonBales, you have it wrong in two ways. First, this is about a lime finishings, not politics.

Second, the political "whitewash" is that the Republican Bush administration created our recent economic crash and deficit situation. Individual misdeeds be damned, the Republicans sold our whole country down the river to pursue their stupid agenda.


I'm trying to find out in colonial 1776 if they used whitewash for painting the interior walls of their homes? Specifically in Philadelphia? Thanks.


I appreciate the chemistry mentioned in this article. As for the chemistry between the media and political candidate's misdeeds, I believe the whitewashing is usually done by their spinmeisters and does not originate with the media per se. I recall President Clinton's misconduct did not get a pass, i.e. a Democrat, nor did President Nixon's. So I think overall it is fairly even-handed treatment over the long run, but may not seem so to the myopic.


There's another kind of whitewash, too. It's often used to gloss over a social injustice or to cover up a scandal.


Whitewash is what the so-called mainstream media (to me a group whose composition and values do not reflect those of the mainstream of the populace zgvtis really not mainstream) does to Democrat or liberal misdeeds and what they do not do to Republican or conservative misdeeds.

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