Distress Furniture Like a Pro

Want to give a plain-Jane or damaged piece of furniture a charming new lease on life? A fresh coat of paint followed by just the right amount of distressing will work like a charm. 

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

A New Old Look

When giving an old piece of furniture a fresh coat of paint, it's fitting to distress it a bit, so the new paint feels natural on the vintage or antique piece. The look can be subtle or dramatic, depending on the techniques and paints used. Flat, matte and chalky paints tend to distress better and look more authentic than gloss or semi-gloss finishes.

A Forgiving Finish

A big bonus to distressing is that it's very forgiving.  It smooths out brush strokes and hides painting that might be less than perfect or even sloppy! It's also a livable finish. Any wear and tear that happens will just blend in with the distressed finish.

It's All in the Grit

The end result depends a lot on the grit of sand paper used for distressing. For a scratchy, high-contrast look, use a coarse paper, like 60-80 grit. For a subtle look, use a fine sanding sponge. While electric sanders can be used for distressing, this timeworn technique looks most authentic when achieved by hand.

Simulate Decades of Wear

Furniture gets the most wear where it's touched and bumped the most. In order to simulate authentic wear, knock the paint off the edges of the piece and each of the drawers or cabinet doors. Use a medium- to coarse-grit sandpaper and brush along the edges with a flicking motion.

Focus On Areas That Are Most Often Touched

Another place on a piece of furniture that's most commonly worn is where hands touch often. This would mean wearing paint away from the arms of a chair, drawer pulls or around handles, the edges of cabinet doors, etc. Gently rubbing the paint away will simulate those thousands of touches that eventually wear away the finish.

Tread Lightly on Flat Areas

Distressing is most successful on the edges and raised details of a piece, but what about the large, flat areas like table tops, drawer fronts, cabinet doors and side panels? Gently rub over those areas with a fine-grit sanding sponge to smooth the finish and soften the newness of the paint without actually sanding down to the bare wood. Be careful to not wear the paint too much in a spot where it wouldn't naturally wear because that would look contrived and inauthentic.

Be Prepared for Clean Up

Sanding can create a bit of a mess, even if you're just lightly distressing a piece. Make sure you're working in a well-ventilated area and wearing a dust mask. Clean up by vacuuming the piece and surrounding area before wiping surfaces with a lightly dampened cloth. If you're working on a piece that potentially has a layer of lead-based paint (pre 1978), be sure to follow the EPAs safety guidelines outlined on their website.

Step Back and Enjoy the View

Distressing could be considered an art form. It can take some practice to achieve the look you want. While you’re working, take a step back from the piece to take in the overall effect of your work. It can be hard to see how it's coming together if you're too close to the piece.

The Greatest Compliment

The goal of distressing is to make the paint look like it could be original to a very old piece. If someone asks if your newly painted piece is a treasured family heirloom, take it as a compliment that your distressing technique is top notch!