How to Distress Wood

A generation or two ago, people went to rummage sales and antique stores, looking for antiques to decorate their homes. But times have changed, and people are much more aware of the value of those antiques today, than they were back then. That has raised the price of antiques to the point where most people can’t afford them. In fact, we now differentiate between antiques and vintage items, in that the antique ones are valuable, whereas vintage items are just old.

This increase in the price of old stuff hasn’t lessened the desire of people to have it. Rather, it has led people to look for period reproductions. Whether those are factory-made furniture reproductions or something made in smaller shops, there is a fascination with the look of that old stuff. Take a look in any furniture store today, and you’ll find a number of examples of these reproductions.

One way of coming up with period pieces is repurposing old wood. The problem here is finding enough aged wood to make a project from. Forty years or so ago barnwood became so popular that people were literally tearing down old barns to get it. That became expensive, as part of the cost of getting that barnwood was replacing the barn for the farmer. Today there are few barns available to tear down, so the most common source of used wood to repurpose comes from cedar fences. But that isn’t necessarily the best wood to work with, as it can literally fall apart.

Today, most reproductions are artificially aged to make them look more authentic. How the aging process is accomplished depends largely upon the material that’s being aged. When we’re talking about wood objects, whether furniture, picture frames or other decorative items, the process is referred to as “distressing the wood.” While a seemingly complicated process that takes time to learn, it is actually quite simple and can yield amazing results from the very first try.

There are several different methods used in distressing, which we will discuss in this article. But the best pieces are those which use a combination of different methods. If you think about an old door on an abandoned house, the image you will probably see in your mind’s eye will be of a door with peeling paint, showing different colors in different spots and even having bare spots in places. Chances are the wood will be cracked, the edges will be chipped and worn and there will be small holes or dents in the surface, either from things hitting the door or insects boring into the wood. That’s the look that we want to reproduce by distressing wood.

To get those different colors obviously requires applying different colors of paint. But the coats of paint don’t necessarily need to be applied well. In fact, it is best if they are not, using a combination of washes, dry brush techniques and washes. Each additional layer adds to the artificial aging process, adding character and beauty to the finished piece.

Start with a Base Coat

Any distressed piece starts out with a base coat on the wood. Generally, two coats of finish are applied. This can be normal latex paint or what is known as “chalk paint,” which differs in that it is designed to dry with a chalk surface appearance, as if the paint has oxidized. If regular latex paint is used, only use a flat sheen, as one of the things that aging does is destroy the sheen on any paint.

If existing furniture is to be distressed, there is no need to paint it, unless there is a desire to change the base color of the piece. Stained and varnished furniture can also be distressed in the same way, although it is not as common. The armour below was distressed with a wash over the original stained and varnished finish.

wash over stain
Wash over stain

Generally speaking, the base coat needs to completely cover the wood, even if it is going to be sanded later. While wood can be left exposed, it will not look as if it has worn, but rather like it has never been fully finished. To get the wood exposed through the base coat, it’s best to sand off the edges.

Using Washes, Stains and Dry Brush

The most common method of distressing any wood is with paint. This can either be done in one of two methods; using a wash or using a dry brush. While similar, the basic difference is that the wash doesn’t leave distinct brushstrokes, as can be seen in the picture below.

wash over paint
Wash over paint

This is of a table I made, which was distressed right from the beginning. One of the giveaways that I used to wash on it is the paint buildup around the dome headed dowel pins that I used to hold the table together. The same sort of buildup shows in the inside corner of the armoire above.

To use a paint wash for distressing a piece of furniture, start by watering down the paint which will be used for the distressed coat. pretty much everyone uses a light color, even white, over a darker basecoat. For this, I watered down the paint about 1:2, with more water than pint. A little experimentation is usually in order. I supposed it would be possible to do the opposite, but if it was done, the wash should be watered down ever farther, as dark colored paint covers light colored paint much more easily than light colored paint covers dark.

Apply the paint sloppily with a nylon bristled paintbrush. Work in sections, covering that entire section with the wash. Allow the wash to sit on the piece for a couple of minutes, and then lightly wipe off the excess wash with rags or paper towels. It will take a lot of them, so unless the rag box is overflowing, it might be best to use paper towels. A scratchy paper towel is better than a soft one.

If the wash hasn’t covered the base coat as much as desired, an additional coat can be applied and wiped off, just like the first. As I said, a little experimentation is always in order.

Dry Brush

Dry brush may seem like using a wash, but it is applied totally differently. While any latex paint can be used, it’s actually easier to apply a dry brush finish if there is some old paint sitting around, which has become thick.

It doesn’t take a lot of paint to do a dry brush technique. Rather, the idea is to use as little paint as possible to get the desired effect. So, start out by dipping just the tip of the paint brush into the paint, no more than ½” deep. Then wipe the paint off on the edge of the paint can. Finally, dry most of the paint off the brush with a paper towel or rag, leaving just a little paint. It should be possible to see the individual bristles of the brush, with the paint on them.

Use this dry brush to paint streaks of paint onto the base coat, resulting in a look something like the sample below. Because there is so little paint on the brush, only small areas can be done at a time, with short strokes. To make the piece look good, overlap brushstrokes, so that there are no obvious dividing lines between areas. Even though the piece below is only 4”x 6”, there was a need to overlap strokes.

dry brush
Dry brush

The paint used for this  was a light blue-grey, with a white dry brush over it. The dry brush paint is thin enough that the blue from the base paint color affects the color of the white paint applied over it.

Additional layers of different colors of paint could be applied, giving the appearance that the piece has been painted several times through the years.

Using Stain

Wood stains can add another dimension to the distressed finish; not so much adding a wood tone to the underlying wood, as in giving the appearance that the paint has become dirty. In the sample below, I took the above sample piece and brushed on a medium-brown stain, wiping most of it off immediately. It is still possible to see some of the white dry brush paint through the stain, although it is no longer white. I then added more white paint, using the same dry brush technique, over the stain. At this point, it is more or less impossible to tell how many layers of paint have been applied.

dry brush, stain
Dry brush – stain

An effective stain can be made from vinegar, steel wool and tea. This stain naturally provides the appearance of being old, giving it a distinct advantage over most wood stains. Start by soaking clean steel wool for 24 hours in white vinegar. This must be done in a glass jar, as the acid in the vinegar will attack anything metal. A longer soak time can be done and will provide a darker stain.

Once the steel wool has soaked, make tea in hot water, then remove the steel wool and mix the vinegar and tea together. This will allow the tannins in the tea to react with the steel wood in the vinegar, creating a darker finish.

Apply this stain just like any other, wiping off excess. The stain will continue to darken as it dries; so if the first coat doesn’t give the desired color, allow it time to dry well before applying a second coat.

Adding Some Damage

Although the finish above provides an excellent distressed look, making the piece look old, it is still missing something. That’s the damage that a door or piece of furniture would receive through the years. This is hard to reproduce accurately, but there are a few things we can do.

The most common way of adding damage to a distressed piece is by sanding it. In the photo below, the same sample has been sanded with 180 grit sandpaper, paying particular attention to the edges. While not as severely sanded as the picture frame earlier in this article, the sanding provides the same effect.


After sanding, the edges of the board were struck randomly with a hammer, denting them as a normal piece of furniture would become dented over time. There is one larger dent in the upper right-hand corner of the sample (not the edge), which was made by flipping the hammer around and using the claws to strike the wood. Looks like I might have hit it a bit too hard.

Finally, hole from burrowing insects were simulated by use of the special tool shown to the left of the sample. This is a piece of scrap plywood, through which I have randomly driven small ¾” long finishing nails through. The key here is to keep the pattern random, as insects aren’t going to lay out there holes with geometric precision. The special tool was set on top of the piece and struck on the back with a hammer, allowing the points of the nails to penetrate the wood. Some people prefer to hit the piece with their nail-encrusted tool, but I prefer to do it this way.

Making Distressed Beams

Making distressed beams is different from distressing furniture, because beams will have been made differently to start with. Rather than being made of sawn wood that has been planed smooth, beams in olden times are rarely nice and neat. That’s because they are often cut with either an axe or an adze. While the work that a skilled carpenter can do with either of these tools, truing up a log and turning it into a beam is truly amazing, it doesn’t provide a smooth, planed finish. In most cases, that wasn’t necessary.

Few of us have the tools and skill to properly reproduce this finish today and the beams we are usually working with are nothing more than one inch thick dimensional lumber, formed into a box. Nevertheless, we can do a lot to make our S4S lumber appear more like those original beams. We do this by damaging the wood.

There are several different techniques that can be used to damage the beam, in addition to those mentioned above. One good tool for this is a grinder, which will allow scooped indentations on the edges and surface of the beam. The same can be accomplished using chisels; but it is harder to maintain the random appearance when using a chisel, especially for woodworkers who are accustomed to doing accurate work with their bench chisels.

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