May 4, 2014

Amish Whitewash

Series continued from here.

If you've read Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, then you are familiar with whitewash. I always thought of it as simply old-fashioned homemade paint, until I read Randy James's Why Cows Learn Dutch: and Other Secrets of the Amish Farm.
"The stone walls and wood ceiling are chalky from a thick coat of whitewash that is required by the milk inspector. The whitewash is a limestone based paste that's sprayed or painted on. It helps keep the barn clean, and it is too alkaline for insects to nest or lay eggs in."  pg. 20

That last sentence started a research project because I immediately decided that I would whitewash the inside of the new chicken coop rather than paint it. I found lots of information with lots of recipes, but you know me; simplest is best, so I used the recipe from Randy James's book. I call it "Amish Whitewash" because it's what the Amish dairy farmers of Geauga County, Ohio used.

Amish Whitewash

1 gallon water
2 pounds salt
7 pounds hydrated lime.

No preparation instructions were given. 
What follows are notes from my research. 

Use warm water, dissolve salt. Stir in lime until dissolved. Apply with sprayer or paint brush.

Mixing whitewash to paint the inside of the chicken coop.
Consistency is about like lumpy pancake batter, but it thickens over time.

Safety precautions: The lime is fine so wear a respirator while mixing. I read on one site that it's caustic so I wore gloves. I got it all over me however and had no problem, so the gloves aren't necessary (but do see the notes below on different types of lime).

  • This is a wash, not a paint. It won't go on or dry like paint. 
  • Doesn't stain clothing and washes right out.
  • Not waterproof so this recipe is for indoor application only.
  • Dries to a chalky finish which will rub off
  • Needs to be reapplied every year or two
  • Not toxic to animals
  • See notes below on different kinds of lime

The salt makes it stick to the surface during application. Some recipes call for the addition of glue or paste to keep it from rubbing off after it dries. I didn't do that this first time but I might in the future.

The solution thickens as you go, and with experimentation I found it best to keep adding water to keep it the original consistency. It goes on thin and watery looking, but whitens up considerably as it dries.

Bare wood on left, wet whitewash in middle, dried on right

I gleaned more details from Housewifery: A Manual and Text Book of Practical Housekeeping by Lydia Ray Balderston (1919).
"Whitewash is much used on fences, outhouses, cellars, and chicken coops, to kill bacteria and vermin, to deodorize, and to improve appearance."
 "Lime water may be used to rinse milk pans and bottles, and chambers. A 3 percent. solution is known to kill typhoid bacteria and a 20 per cent . solution will disinfect excreta. This requires from one-half to one hour."

It is important to note that there are different kinds of lime. Hydrated lime is not the same as the lime put on gardens or sprinkled on the barn floor.
  • Hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide) - also called slaked lime, builders lime, masonry lime, pickling lime (food grade). Due to its alkalinity it is no longer recommended for pickle making, but it is used for industrial waste water treatment. 
  • Agricultural lime (calcium carbonate) - also called barn lime, garden lime, lawn lime. This is the stuff that's used to mark the lines on sports fields.
  • Burnt lime (calcium oxide) - also known as quicklime. This is the lime that is caustic. It's common use is industrial: manufacture of pulp, paper, glass, steel, insecticides, and fungicides. 
  • Dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) - used as a soil amendment, also fed to goats as a source of calcium.
  • Limestone - as a soil amendment to correct pH, supply calcium and possibly magnesium
    • Calcitic - contains about 40% calcium and 0.2% magnesium
    • Dolomitic - contains about 21% calcium and 11% magnesium

How did it turn out? Not bad, I'd say.

Two views of the freshly whitewashed chicken coop. I even did the nest
boxes! Once it dried I used bagged lawn clippings for litter on the floor.

Brightens it up quite a bit don't you think? (Photos of unpainted here). Because it whitens as it dries it was hard to tell if I was applying evenly. It didn't turn out like a good paint job, but hopefully that will improve with practice. I learned to keep it fairly liquidy (like pancake batter); also, that a second coat can be applied once the first is thoroughly dried. Even so, as a non-toxic, no poison method of insect control, I'm well satisfied. I plan to treat the goat shed the same way.

For a more permanent homemade paint, see Eric Sloane's The Seasons of America Past.On pages 145 and 146 are several recipes including one for an outdoor red paint. His collection of old recipes use linseed oil instead of water, which would make them better for exterior use.

For a very interesting article about how whitewash is used in Ireland (including how natural dye plants are used to color it), check out Restoring Mayberry (with thanks to rabidlittlehippy for first sharing the link with me).


How To Make Amish Whitewash: Make your own whitewash, paint and wood stain is now available as an eBook. Includes What's Up with Whitewash?, All About Lime, Safety, Basic Whitewash Recipe, How To Make Your Whitewash More Durable, How To Make Your Whitewash More Waterproof, How To Color Your Whitewash, Care And Maintenance Of Whitewash, Glossary, Resources, and A Collection Of Recipes for Whitewash, Homemade Paint, and Homemade Wood Stains. List price $2.49. Available in epub, mobi (Kindle), pdf, rtf, lrf, pdb, txt, and html formats. Visit for where to buy.

Next post - "A Barn Door for the Chicken Coop."

Amish Whitewash © May 2014 by Leigh 


Ngo Family Farm said...

Wow, that is NEAT! Had no idea about the history of using whitewash. Very smart.

Dawn said...

Wow that looks really good, I now know what white wash is I do like the effect.
That is a great idea doing the inside of the chook house, what kind of sprayer do you think would cope with white wash just an ordinary paint sprayer or would it clog up.

Dani said...

Excellent info - thanks Leigh

Leigh said...

Jaime, it pays to read!

Dawn, I know absolutely nothing about sprayers, but it was mentioned in Why Cows Learn Dutch, so it can be done!

Dani, thanks!

Chris said...

It definitely brightens the space and the bonus being, it helps deter pests too. Well worth the effort I'm sure.

I've read about whitewash in a few Australian books about poultry keeping. I've been thinking about doing it myself, but some of my walls are tin - so not sure if whitewash would stick to it.

Anyway, job well done. :)

nihal said...

they used to paint the houses with lime.. outdoor and indoor. it would rub on your cloths when you lean on it. They also use it on trees to protect it from insects. so i am sure it is pretty durable outdoors.. i like lime paint.

Woolly Bits said...

we're planning to use it on the rough stone/cement walls in the new studio as well. I don't want to cover those walls with paint, which would look artificial and wouldn't suit the open stall walls. might add glue though, to keep it from rubbing off. they used it everywhere over here, until "chemical" paints took over, but we found bits of it in the old cowshed, which is now the studio to be:) it'll make the room much brighter I think! looking forward to pix with happy chicks sitting on the "tree" in their new home:)

Farmer Barb said...

The photos took my breath away! Just magnificent! So bright and airy. Very Sunset Magazine.

Leigh said...

Chris, well, insects won't damage the tin anyway. :) Whitewashing it would be something to experiment with. If you do, let me know how it works!

Nihal, thank you for that! It does rub off easliy, although I read that adding glue helps with that. Interesting about applying it to trees. That's something I will definitely research and experiment with.

Bettina, I agree about the look. And you can see how it brightens! Next time I'll try adding the glue to see if it makes a difference with the rubbing off.

Barb, aw shucks. :)

Renee Nefe said...

wondering if I can talk hubby into that for our basement...he hates spiders. ;)

Michelle said...

I'm SOLD. You're an excellent teacher, Leigh; great visuals and everything!

DFW said...

Just beautiful Leigh. And informative as always!

Barb_in_GA said...

My grandfather would paint his dairy barn interior with lime wash every year or so. And excellent technique for controlling insects, and brightening the interior. Well done, you!

Leigh said...

Renee, it's worth a try!

Michelle and DFW, thank you so much!

Barb, it's a relief that these excellent techniques aren't being lost. So much better than poisoning everything!

I tried to do a return blog visit but I see both your blogs have no posts yet.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

I am reposting this as I had it on the wrong day! This was interesting. I had heard of whitewashing but didn't know much about it. It looks very clean, fresh and cheery looking! Nancy

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing. I have to admit, I really didn't know what whitewash was. The chicken coop turned out really nice!!


Mark said...

Great info, Leigh. Now you've got me thinking about my coop. I was going to leave the inside unpainted, but now I don't know. I had no idea whitewash was more than an early white paint! There seems to be a real health benefit for the flock here.

Kev Alviti said...

Good bit of info there! Do you think it will stop red mites? if it does then I'll be doing this to the inside of my coops! Great post!

The Stay @ Home-Gardener said...

Very interesting. You are essentially creating a limestone fence when whitewashing.

I love this idea. Especially as it pertains to plastering Cob buildings. :)

Sandy Livesay said...


It does pay to read, great information!!!! This is something I need to keep in the back of my head for later when we have our chicken coop.

Thanks Leigh :-)


Leigh said...

Nancy, I do that too, LOL. If it hadn't been for Randy James' book, I never would have researched whitewash and learned all this. It pays to read!

Matt, thanks!

Mark, I agree. I painted the inside of the old coop because it was so dark in there. That brightened it up to make a benefit there, so I thought I'd do the same for the new coop. So glad I found that book on the library shelves! (It's my kind of reading. I learn learn more from the experiences of others than I do from how-to books).

Kev, I have no idea what sorts of insects it deters. I did have mites in a nest box once and doused it with a cedar based insect repellent. That worked! The mites disappeared and never came back.

Cloud, exactly. Now you've got me interested in cob again. Another research project?

Sandy, I'll have to include it in my new book. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh this looks fabulous Leigh! Great job, and thanks for sharing what you learned!

Doug Pitcher said...

I would have been truly impressed if you could have gotten your neighbors to pay you to come apply it for you. There's courses all around where people teach special skills like this (I paid $250 to attend a clay plaster workshop). I think it would be a hoot for you to offer whitewashing (ala Tom Sawyer) as a course and make people pay $40 to come and learn how to apply it to your goat barn.

Izzy said...

That is fantastic! I learned something new today, thank you! We don't have a totally enclosed chicken coop here, but we are about to build a farrowing pen for what we hope is a pregnant sow, and I think I'll give this a try!

Quinn said...

Great info, Leigh! I'm familiar with whitewashing but associate it mostly with Ireland (those lovely white cottages in pictures) and greenhouses - a traditional method to reduce the amount of direct light. I didn't know about the different kinds of lime, though, or how must of a difference it would make to the inside of a farm building - wow! Thanks :)

The Stay @ Home-Gardener said...

Another research project sounds fantastic. By the way. I probably would disappear and never come back as well if I was doused !

Susan said...

This might be just the ticket for my late summer coop cleaning - the inside needs some sprucing up and I like the idea of non-toxic pest control. Thank you - as always - for doing all the hard work for us! :)

Debby Riddle said...

Leigh, thanks so much for this well researched post, and practical example. Very worthwhile. I would feel so happy gathering eggs in that pretty new chicken coop:)

Anonymous said...

It's also great for lightening up buildings for dark winter evenings. I think our chook shed and goat shed might get an application of lime inside for sterilising and brightening. :)

Here's another post I came across the other week on whitewash. I love how the old technologies are coming back because the modern ones just don't match up in all ways (cheaper, sterilising, far more natural, etc)

Leigh said...

Stephanie, thanks!

Doug, great to hear from you! And I love your idea, LOL

Izzy, I would definitely use it for pigs too. It's lovely how light and bright it makes things.

Quinn, thanks! I was the same way about whitewash, but it's amazing where we pick up information. That's why I love farming and homesteading books about folks' own experiences.

Cloud, LOL. It's amazing how magical a dousing can be. :)

Susan, it was the non-toxic insect part that sold me!

Debby, yesterday I started cleaning out the old coop. We're going to use it to expand the goats' quarters. I was amazed at how filthy it was and especially that I didn't seem to notice until I had the new coop to compare it too!

rabidlittlehippy, I agree the brightening is amazing. Hopefully it will help with egg laying (?). And thank you for the link! What a great article, both from a historical as well as informational view. Really great info about coloring it as well. I noticed that mine got a little pinkish after I painted the walls near the floor. My brush picked up some of our red clay! Colored whitewash would be something fun to experiment with.

Bag End Gardener said...

Leigh, that looks outstanding. Hope the chooks appreciate all your hard work :}

Tombstone Livestock said...

Good job both on using the whitewash and the new barn door. Looks great. Farmers years ago would whitewash the base of trees in their orchards, not something I see any more.

Fiona from Arbordale Farm said...

What a great post. Really informative.

Shawn said...

Thanks for sharing this! Definitely going to give this a try! I'm curious to see if this will have an effect on wasps, bees and hornets that are colonizing our sheds!

Robynne said...

I love the look of whitewash, but never knew what it was. I thought it was just watered-down paint! I'll be doing my coop now, and also the inside of my horse barn.
Any idea if it deters rodents as well as insects? The little buggers are eating the bait right off the traps, and I can't use poison because of our pets. The chickens let the vermin in the coop to eat their food! Gosh, that would make whitewashing perfect!

Robynne said...

I love the look of whitewash, but never knew what it was. I thought it was watered-down paint! Not only am I going to whitewash my coop now, I'm also going to do the inside of my horse barn!
I wonder if it would deter rodents as well as insects?

Leigh said...

Jayne, as long as there's chicken feed, they don't care. :)

TL, thanks! Whitewash is something I will consider for my fruit trees in the future.

Fiona, thanks!

Shawn, we get those on occasion too. Also carpenter bees! We'll see how well this deters them.

Robynne, good question, but I've not read anything about deterring rodents. We don't like to use poisons either, but our cats do a fairly good job of rodent catching.

LeAnn said...

Hi, My chicks will be moving into their brand new hen house this weekend, so Im hoping you can answer soon! I want to try this, but am interested in the glue type you were saying you might try. Do you have a link for a recipe with that? I have been googling like crazy and cant find anything. Thanks :) Great post!

Leigh said...

LeAnn, I honestly am not sure of the kind of glue recommended in these old recipes. In Eric Sloane's book he speaks of "neatsfoot hoof-glue". The recipe in the book Housewifery called for "clear glue dissolved in warm water," which makes me wonder if it was powdered(?). Another recipe on the internet (can't recall where now, sorry) talked about using flour and water paste. Also, check out the whitewash page at Fiasco Farm; specifically the notes at the bottom. She speaks of glue flakes, although I don't know where to get these, of goat milk. Eric Sloane's old recipes call for skimmed milk.

I would definitely add some sort of adhesive! My whitewash began to flake off within about a month! I would try whatever I could get my hands on, even homemade flour and water paste. I always figure it's better to try something and learn from it than to try nothing at all!

I hope you'll let me know how it goes for you and your chicken coop. I'd be interested in what you tried and how it works out.

SkillCult said...

Hey, cool article and research. I"m late to the game, but a few comments. The clear glue or "neatsfoot hoof glue" are essentially the same and would be animal glue, aka collagen glue, aka hide glue. It is still available, usually as hide glue. I also have articles on my site and youtube videos on making it. Lime by itself is very flaky as you noticed. When used on stone, it is used very thin, like a milk consistency and it dries fairly white. On wood it doesn't work nearly as well. That is called just lime wash. Another addition is Casein, or milk protein. That makes a durable paint called milk paint. If limewash is applied thinnly over time, maybe it would build up slowly and not flake off. I've always wanted to test that. Otherwise, you just can't mix it up thick and expect it to stay put without some kind of additive. I also make lime from limestone and seashells. It's really fun and not all that hard. Here is a video I did on it. Also, the lime you get if you slake with a lot of water is supperior to bagged hydrated lime and hard to get or expensive if you buy it.

Leigh said...

SkillCult, hello and welcome! It's never too late to join the conversation, and I'm always glad for another voice of experience. Thank you for the YouTube link. It looks like you've got lots of good videos there.

For this project I stuck with the simplest formula (obviously) without glue. I used it on the insides of two buildings. One was the chicken coop, newly built with new materials, the other was one of the old outbuildings we figure to be close to the same age as our house, about 90 years old. The white wash in the chicken coop flaked, like you said. The white wash in the old outbuilding, did not flake! I could only surmise that it had to do with how the wood was treated, or not treated. What do you think?

MayBeeMary said...

No flour if you want to deter bugs! I would avoid animal made glue for the same reason.

Leigh said...

That is very true. It was an interesting observation. We're in the first stages of building a new barn with our own homegrown, homesawn lumber. It won't be pressure treated so I'm thinking the white wash will work just fine on it!

Unknown said...

I'm just starting out with chickens, building the coop, and want to do the whitewash. I'm having trouble though finding a non-pelletized product. Where/What do/did you buy what you used?

Leigh said...

What you are looking for is hydrated lime which is calcium hydroxide. It's also called slaked lime, builders lime, type S, or masonry lime. It will be in powder form. I bought mine at a local feed store, but also check for it at home improvement stores that carry masonry products for DIY cement projects.

I hope that helps.

nanny said...

I tried using a paint sprayer to apply this. Did not work, even watered down. Guess I will do it the old fashioned paint brush way!

Leigh said...

Thank you for that feedback! I'm a pretty messy person so I wouldn't likely try a sprayer anyway, but at least with a brush you can keep adding more water to keep it thin and spreadable.

Anonymous said...

Sounds awesome, can't wait to try it! Can I use calcium carbonate for making whitewash as well?

Leigh said...

All historical recipes use either slaked or hydrated lime, but if that's all you have you could certainly give it a try. Calcium carbonate is made by adding carbon dioxide to hydrated lime, so I have no idea if or how that would change the properties of whitewash. My guess is that there might be some solubility issues, but you won't know unless you experiment. If you do, let me know how it goes; I'd be interested in your results. :)

tanya said...

I live in CA and it is extremely hard to find pure calcium hydroxide. I found it on line only we cant get it shipped here from other states and I dont know why. The closest Hydrated Lime product i found was at a hardware store with a mixture of Calcium, Magnesium, Calcium Oxide (the bad stuff apparently), Magnesium Oxide, Calcium Carbonate, Effective Neutralizing Value. At the end of the ingredients list it states”derived from calcium hydroxide”. I wonder if i can still use this to paint inside my coop?

Leigh said...

Tanya, I can't find it here anymore either, except in small packages as pickling lime (in the grocery store canning supplies department). The feed store has gone to some other (more expensive) product for barn floors, and the home improvement store now only cells pre-mixed ready-mix kinks of concrete.

What is the stated purpose of the product you've found at the hardware store? Yes, Calcium Oxide is caustic and a skin irritant, but on the other hand, it's in a mix of other products, which would make it less annoying. I'd be tempted to give it a try and make a small batch just to see how it worked. Wearing gloves of course!

The effectiveness of whitewash is because it is so alkaline. So ultimately it would be the pH of this product that would make it effective too.

Unknown said...

I'm getting ready to whitewash my new chicken coop and I heard about it from the First Saturday Lime website, so I ordered a bag. They also give you the recipe which is great and a list of everything you can use it for. FYI

Leigh said...

Looks like a good resource. Thanks for the heads-up.

CasualThinker said...

If you can’t find it in your local hardware or big box store, you may need to search locally for places that supply people doing stucco or plaster work. Thats harder on the west coast as plaster work is less common. I also noticed you can buy it online either in the overpriced boutique, small container form or the 90lb bag from the quarry type. Haven’t tried either but maybe a last option for some.

Leigh said...

CasualThinker, thanks for that! Much appreciated.

Maja said...

Hi Leigh, thank you for the read!
Perhaps some of the other commenters have mentioned it, but here in Denmark where I come from and where we have a long tradition of using lime wash, it’s not uncommon to use this method to keep the lime from smearing: mix the lime with water, let it sit for a day untouched, and the lime will have sunk to the bottom, leaving what we call lime-water. This is water with immensely fine lime, that you can tip out of the bucket without disturbing the bottom lime, and then mix the lime-water into a sprayer/mister that you spray on your whitewashed wall, or simply apply with a brush. This fine binder will eliminate or greatly minimize the smearing/rubbing off. Handy for interior use.
Kind regards

Leigh said...

David, thank you for that very helpful and interesting tip! Very useful to know.

Unknown said...

My name is Bill. I plan on spraying the joists in my wife’s 100 plus year old grainery. Now her she shed. I plan on using a drywall texture sprayer. It is a simple, inexpensive device that I’ve used in my 45 year drywall and plaster career. I’m wondering if adding a small amount of white Portland cement will help with durability.

Daniel said...

Can you use this on brick?

Leigh said...

Bill, I have no idea. I know nothing about drywall and plaster! At the very least, experiment. Who knows?

Daniel, this recipe isn't waterproof, so I'm not sure about using it on brick. Exterior brick anyway. On an interior wall it will likely flake off, so where the brick is will determine how well it works. Maybe experiment(?)