REAL Scandinavian white-washing and installing the pine ceiling

Wood gives beautiful warmth to any space. In our house we had wanted to use mostly natural or hand-finished products (avoiding plastics and other synthetic materials) with wood being a central focus. Our old house, although full of grand and beautiful woodwork, had been very dark with mostly mahogany, ebony or cherry stained wood. We wanted our new house to be altogether lighter – more windows, light woods, white walls. We had spent a considerable amount of time researching which woods we liked best (and were also available locally). In the end we chose three main woods for our house: Douglas fir, white pine, and white oak.

In designing the house, one feature we continued to come back to was a wood ceiling. As we were having concrete floors, wood on the ceiling, we felt, would warm the space nicely (drywalled ceilings and walls with a concrete floor seemed far too cold). And honestly, who doesn’t love a great wood ceiling?

The one major downside of pine, although it looks pink and white when it is freshly cut and milled, is that it yellows terribly with exposure to sunlight and over time. Indeed, all light woods will yellow to some degree, but pine is one of the worst for this (even white pine vs. yellow pine). Sure some people like that look, but not me. I prefer the fresh “untreated” look of the wood – but how does one preserve this appearance?

Being a bit of a Pinterest junkie while planning the house, we had found a lot of inspiration from Scandinavian cottages and cabins (leave it to them to have the coolest stuff). Many of which had beautiful light woods running through the house – woods that were white, pink or creamy browns – but not yellow. How do these Scandinavians do it?! Tell me your secrets!

But try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to find any information about it.

I briefly read a bit about the North American (read: ugly) way of “white-washing” wood. Which involves basically watering down white paint and then painting it on. It really looks as good as you might expect, which is really not good at all.

Mjolk Douglas Fir floors
Mjolk Douglas Fir floors
However one house that we have come back to time and time again for inspiration is the Mjolk House in Toronto (they had inspired our choice for Cloud White walls as well). I had taken special note of their insanely beautiful 10″ Douglas fir plank floors that were light and clean and not yellow in the least (Douglas fir is another wood that turns very yellow with time). I assumed these Mjolk people must have received special access to the Scandinavian secrets given that their design store sells Scandinavian and Japanese decor.

One day, though, as I was looking through articles about this house, I came across a tutorial they had written for Remodelista on called “101: Easy Whitewashed Scandi Floors” (admittedly the terrible title was less than appealing and I almost skipped past it).

“First, we applied a coat of Woca Wood Lye to bleach the boards”

Eureka! That was the secret I’d been waiting for!!

Where to find this magical product and how to get my hands on it was the next question.

After much searching, I eventually came across Woca Direct, who supplied Woca Wood products from Denmark to us lowly North Americans. And there it was: Woca Wood Lye (Picture: the heavens opening and the angel singing)…

WOCA Wood Lye is a mild, non-corrosive form of bleach, which may be used whenever a whitewashed or driftwood appearance is desired… Wood lye bleaches the wood and prevents the yellowing process of the wood.

I immediately ordered a tonne of this stuff, as well as the natural soap in white (which is used to clean the wood after treatment to reinforce it or as the Mjolk folks did, as your actual finish), the wood cleaner, and the master oil in white, which is what we intended to use as our finish coat.

I made up a test piece of white pine using the Lye, Lye with White Oil, and No treatment and left it out in the sun for a couple weeks to see how the colour changed.

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I was as impressed as I had hoped I’d be with the change that the Lye made. Within moments of applying it the wood lightened, highlighting the pinks, whites, and browns of the wood. After leaving it for two weeks, you could already see the untreated pine (to the far right to the photo) turning yellow. The Lye and Lye with oil (on the left and middle) did not fade or yellow at all. I found that the White Oil really didn’t change the colour of the wood further, but simply helped to smooth out the grain and give a nice hand to the wood.

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During the summer, while the house was still at the framing stage, we and our amazingly awesome neighbour spent the weekend treating the tongue and groove pine (by the way, we ended up choosing 1×6″ tongue and groove over the narrower 1×4″. Less lines with the wide planks looked more modern and attractive then the narrower stuff, in my opinion).

As was recommended, we first cleaned each board, as they were pretty dirty from the drive out on our gravel road, with the Wood Cleaner.

After drying for a couple days, we began the Wood Lye application (photo) with a simple nylon brush. It is pretty watery stuff so it goes on fairly easily, but you have to make sure you cover the boards fully as any areas that you miss would yellow in time. The wood lye dries quickly within an hour so we were able to get a good system going with two of us applying the Lye and my wife oiling the boards after a minimum hour of drying.

The oiling process was quite lovely. We simply used a cotton rag and hand rubbed each board. The finish it gave was beautiful. The process was lengthy though from start to finish, probably in the range of 30 hours for the 900 sq. ft. of pine.

It would still be a couple months before we would eventually be able to install this stuff (this is the beauty of having a big shop to store all of this stuff in – highly recommended). But after the nightmare of the concrete floor finishing, we were excited to finally be able to have some pleasure in seeing the ceiling installed.

Both myself and my good friend (who will be doing our cabinetry, stairs, window sills and doors, and runs Rhine Artisans) highly underestimated the time it would take to install the ceiling though… we naively thought, a day, maybe. Well it would be four full days total to complete the work, largely due to the precise cutting required around the light boxes (our fixtures had less than 1/8″ of clearance around the 4″ round boxes) and the hand planing required at the ends of the walls and hallways (apparently drywall isn’t straight, who knew).

But, in my humblest of opinions, this looks damn sexy…

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17 thoughts on “REAL Scandinavian white-washing and installing the pine ceiling

  1. Hi! I have a question – When you applied the Woca Lye did the boards turn yellow upon application? We used Woca Lye on white pine and upon application the floors turned yellow. After buffing the boards they now have a yellow tinge not a white look at all. Your photos appear to be quite white with some pink and grey hues.

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    1. No they did not turn yellow at all. It was almost immediate that they turned more white. We used white pine wood, mind you. I wonder if you used yellow pine? The woca lye does “enhance” the natural colors of the wood so if you used yellow pine I would not be surprised if this became more distinct. I’d make up test piece on yellow pine and white pine and see the difference.

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    1. Hi Lia, no we simply used the master oil. The natural soap is used to clean the oiled wood when dirty. It can be alternately used as a finishing product itself, after the lye, for a slightly different finish to the wood. Although you do have to use the soap for several passes to protect the wood and prevent tarnishing or staining. The oil is simpler to use with only two coats required.

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  2. Hi.

    I noticed that the Mjolk Douglas Fir image shows the wood to be less white (or more natural in colour) than the image of the two pine boards. Why is that the case? Have they both been given the same treatment? Is the difference attributed to the age difference or the wood variety. Thanks. M

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    1. It’s do to the difference in the wood. We used the wood lye and master white oil on white pine. Mjolk used wood lye and natural soap on Douglas fir. The master white oil does give the wood a little more of a whiter finish- but it is very subtle. We only applied one coat of the oil to the white pine- multiple coats would give a whiter shade.

      That being said, the main difference is the wood variety. The wood lye enhances the natural color of the wood and removes the factors in the wood that cause yellowing over time (although wood will always change slightly overtime).

      Douglas fir’s natural color has a distinct pinkish color with some light brown and white. Whereas, white pine is much more (not surprising) white and cream tones with some very light pink and brown.
      While white oak is much more a creamy brown tone.

      We used all of these woods in our house and treated each with wood lye and master white oil. They are all distinctly different, as I’ve described above, but all look very good together.

      One other thing to consider too is the cut of the wood – Douglas fir “plain sawn” has a bolder more open grain (the white color) then “rift sawn” which has a tighter grain and will be pinker.

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      1. Hi Kent. Thanks for the reply.

        Do you wash the floors weekly with the Woca soap product? I was told that would be necessary, even if the oil has been used to finish.

        Any chance you could supply photos of all three woods installed in your home, to get an accurate comparison. M

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      2. The white pine is on the ceiling so I have yet to walk on it! 😉 But we did put Douglas fir on the stairs and treated it in the same way. We’ve been using it for 4 months and I haven’t done anything except to vacuum dog hair off. We haven’t need to clean them with the soap. The stairs are showing no signs of discoloration or dirtiness. Mind you we are either in bare feet or socks in the house so maybe if you wore shoes on the wood it would get dirty? I’m not sure what kind of space require weekly washing of the floors with soap aside from some commercial space where people are wearing outdoor footwear inside…

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      3. And yes, I’ll write a post and include some pictures of the wood work for comparison in the next couple weeks. Keep your eyes peeled for it!

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  3. Thank you, this is very helpful. Question: how come you didn’t use a water-based finish after the lye? I would be nervous of the oil pulling amber or pink.

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    1. Truthfully I just like an oiled hand to wood. The oil didn’t appear to change the color of the wood but simply gave a protective layer. Some people do you a “soap” finish which is also very nice. The woca website shows their full product range – in not sure that they have water based products aside from the soap.

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  4. Hi! I thought I posted a question earlier, but maybe it didn’t post. I wanted to know why you used the wood oil (white) and not a clear water based finish overtop of the Woca Wood Lye.
    After reading your blog, I ordered the Woca Wood Lye White and the Master Floor Oil White. I spoke to the company over the phone to ask them if I can just omit the oil and use a water-based finish (as the water-based won’t pull amber or red out of the wood–btw, I’m using Northeastern white pine). What they told me over the phone was that I shouldn’t be using the Woca Wood Lye for the effect I’m going for (the effect being the same as what you’ve accomplished). They said I should use Soft Wood Lye. Is that what you used? It doesn’t seem like it from your blog, but you also don’t specify “white” for the type of Wood Lye you used. Please advise!

    And their answer to my question re: water-based vs oil was, use water-based or oil-based for the Wood Lye, but only oil-based for the Soft Wood Lye. The Soft Wood Lye has an actual bleaching component. The Wood Lye has a milder such effect and contains pigment.

    Thanks!! Beautiful ceiling!

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    1. Hi – yes I just replied to your comment today! I just checked back on the Woca website. The “softwood lye” was not a product they carried when we ordered before. We used the “wood lye white” with the “master floor oil white.” For our ceilings, trim and doors. It turned out for us.
      I wonder if you could order a small sample of each the softwood lye and the white wood lye. Treat a board, leave it out for a couple weeks and see how the sun changes it. They sound pretty similar to me. Let me know how it goes!

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      1. Thanks for the responses! I did end up sampling all combinations. The Soft Wood Lye was pretty bad, it somehow gave the pine a greenish color. I liked the Wood Lye (white) the best, both with and without the wood oil. We begin this project in a couple of weeks. I’m excited!

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