How to Distress Furniture

We have all been distressed at some point in time.  Our distress usually comes from being overly ambitious and feeling as if we are all but used up.  The same holds true of distressed furniture, in a sense.

Once upon a time distressed furniture — real distressed furniture — was new and shiny, all polished and well presented in its setting.  Over time, and with use it became “distressed” or worn.  This does not mean the furniture construction has to be loose or faltering.  It simply means the finish is starting to show its age from many years of use.  In fact, it may have a wonderful patina that should not be removed, but used to the advantage of the visual appeal.

When I am asked how to distress furniture — and I am asked that quite often — as always, I insist that the individual start with a piece of solid wood furniture.  Buying used furniture from a thrift store or a second hand store is a good place to begin searching.  There is no real distressed furniture in a retail store that sells new furniture.  Even a novice with a good eye can spot new versus the real thing.

Sometimes we get really lucky and find a great piece of naturally distressed furniture in a used furniture store or at auction.  More often, we find a great piece of furniture that is the wrong color or is too distressed, so to speak.  That should not be a real concern.  Distressing furniture is not only a fun project, it will often generate a great looking piece of furniture that is truly unique and quite honestly, the project can relieve stress.

As far as I am concerned — and this is just my opinion — I do not want to see a piece of furniture that I have in my home replicated in another home.  That’s just my opinion.  But, I do not want to go to a party and see another lady wearing the same dress I am wearing.  The same idea applies to my home decor.

So, let’s just get to it….

Shop for a Quality Piece of Used Furniture

At the risk of being redundant — but not caring in this case — shop only for solid wood furniture, whether a dresser, an end table or a chair frame.  With tongue in cheek, but telling only the truth, you will never see a piece of particle board or pressed wood furniture distressed in the real world.  It just will not last long enough to become distressed over time.  I am reminded of the super cheap particle board chest of drawers my husband bought for my son to take to summer school one year.  They loaded the dresser onto the back of a pickup truck.  It was sunny at the time.  As they approached the university town it started to rain.  The chest of drawers got wet (not covered) and when my son began to unload it from the back of the truck, it disintegrated.  No joke!

distressed dresserShop for quality, solid furniture.  And, yes, the best places to find solid wood used furniture are the thrift stores, used furniture stores, and auctions.  Oh!  Don’t forget estate sales!  Who knows?  You could get lucky and find a piece that only needs cleaning up a bit.

One thing to bear in mind:  Take your time.  Do not buy a piece of furniture just to buy it.  Know that it will be the piece you want to use in your home.

Analyze the Finish as It Is

Once the piece is at home in the garage or work shop, spend a couple of days looking at it, not constantly, but take a good look at it today and again tomorrow.  Let it sit for a day or two and check it out again.  Decide if you want to work with the finish it has or if you want to paint it.

Stained furniture that reflects the wood grain has a patina.  Most experienced decorators or collectors of antiques will tell you to never ruin the patina by stripping the furniture.  Generally speaking, I would agree.  However, the truth of the matter is simple.  You do not own a museum quality antique unless you got lucky and found something in a used furniture store that no one else spotted — about as likely as winning the lottery.  Most store owners know what they are purchasing for resale.  Occasionally, a better quality piece of old furniture will find its way to the showroom, but those are rare occasions and even at that, we are not talking high end antiques.

Decide if you want to work with the existing finish or if you want to paint the piece.  If the existing finish suffices, chances are all one needs to do is to clean the piece.

Make the decision!

How to Distress Furniture that Has a Wood Stain Finish

Assuming the piece you selected is just what you wanted, just not distressed enough.  A rubber mallet or a hammer with a good thickness of towels wrapped around it can make a few dents and dings.  Never hit the piece with a metal hammer head.  The dent will be too sharp and too crisp to look real.  Tap around the stronger areas with the rubber mallet to make a gentle dent.

For rounding off the sharp edges or corners have patience and use the finest grade of sand paper you can find.  Sometimes if the wood is a soft wood, I use 0000 steel wool (pronounced “4-ought steel wool”).  Rub gently so as not to make too much of an indention at a time.  Keep the finish smooth.  Using a rougher or coarser grade of sand paper or steel wool will cause the wood to look ragged.

Once there are sufficient dents and dings and “bald” spots on the surface, take note of the color of the wood that is showing.  If it looks too new, use mayonnaise on the spot to darken it.  Just rub in a bit of mayonnaise with the fingertip.  Let it stand over night.  It will begin to darken.  Or, look for Howard’s Refinishing Oil at a local antique or hardware store.  It is available in just about any and every wood grain.  Select the right shade for the piece.  The instructions are on the bottle.  The most important thing to remember is to never pour Howard’s onto the furniture.  Pour it onto a cloth and rub it onto the surface of the furniture.

How to Distress Furniture that Has Been Painted

Lots of good old pieces of furniture have been painted.  If you decide to repaint the piece, it can be fun.

First of all, do not worry about paint remover and paint stripper.  For a piece of furniture that is about to become distressed, stripping the paint is a big waste of time — and energy.  The steps are fairly simple when it comes to how to distress painted furniture or how to distress furniture prior to painting or repainting.

  1. Clean the piece of furniture.
  2. With 0000 steel wool or the finest grade of sand paper smooth out any rough patches, such as where the paint has chipped away.
  3. Do not worry about any dents or dings.  You will want them to remain.
  4. Select a color that is available in a spray paint and paint the exterior of the piece of furniture.  When painting a drawer, be sure to keep any paint or over spray from getting inside the drawer.  (It just won’t look good.)
  5. When the piece is painted and dried, rough up the piece of furniture with a rubber mallet as desired.
  6. Sand the corners and sharp edges to make them look worn.

When using spray paint, make it a weekend project.  Do not try to paint the piece entirely in one go.  Lightly spray the entire surface that is to be painted.  Let it dry completely — several hours.  Then reapply the spray paint until the surface is smooth and fully coated.

A Few Hints on Painting Furniture

  1. Never try to brush paint or spray paint furniture that has been washed and may not be completely dry.  The paint will blister and peel.
  2. Never paint in the direct hot sun or when it is particularly humid or damp.  Mornings are treacherous if painting outdoors.  The dew will have the same effect as if the piece of furniture had been washed.  It will blister and peel.
  3. Spray paint gives a good even finish if done with patience.  Too much too fast will cause runs and take more time than most of us are willing to put into the project.
  4. When painting by brush, use a high quality small bristle brush.  This is not the time to go cheap.  Tools should always be of high quality for the best results.  (Practice before attempting to paint the actual piece of furniture.  It takes a few goes at it to get it right, but after a few tries you will get the feel.)  Again, PATIENCE!

Distressed Furniture with a Crackle Glaze

Many older finishes found on distressed furniture are cracked.  In fact, creating the crackle finish has become big business.  At most hardware stores there are glazes that will crack when applied.  Unfortunately, the colors are usually limited — and the kits can get expensive.

My suggestion is to buy a small sample of the paint you are planning to use and a good size jar of Elmer’s glue.  Again, this takes a little trial and error to get the exact right amount of crackle in the size desired.  Mix some of the Elmer’s into the paint and apply it to a practice piece of wood.  Let it dry.  It will crack.  If it doesn’t, add a little more Elmer’s a give it another try.  The paint will need to be applied a little more thickly, but not thick enough to run.

I have always used Elmer’s glue for creating a crackle glaze because I have never found a kit in the color I wanted. If this is the first try at crackle glazing, have patience and practice until you find the right consistency to create the look you want.

The Hardware is the Finishing Touch that Makes the Difference

Drawer pulls are often the biggest give away.  There is nothing that looks more obvious than a distressed piece of furniture with shiny brass drawer pulls.  Check the used furniture stores or perhaps visit an antique mall for the hardware.  Now is not the time to get lazy.

Do not be fooled by the term “antiqued” this or that in the retail hardware store.  That means they have “burnished” the pull or tried to make it look older in style.  But, you will never find a tarnished drawer pull in a retail hardware store.

Check the handles or pulls that were on the piece when you purchased it.  Re-use them when possible.  Otherwise, take one with you when you shop for replacements.  Try to keep to the style.  There is nothing more glaring to a trained eye than a refinished piece of furniture, distressed or otherwise, that has drawer pulls or handles that are not common to the era of the piece of furniture.

Now that you have completed distressing your favorite “new” piece of furniture, get some tips on decorating with distressed furniture.