The “distressed” look has largely replaced true antiques in home décor. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the high cost of real antiques. Manufacturers caught upon the popularity of antiques at some time and started experimenting with how to make their products look old. What has resulted is an entire genre of furniture and home décor items which come out of the factory mimicking true antiques.
There was probably some point in time, as that little bit of history was unfolding, where there were people of less than sterling repute who attempted to use those same techniques to sell fake antiques as real ones. While that would only work against people who have little to no knowledge about real antiques, they must have made enough sales to make it worth their while. Nevertheless, the idea of distressed home décor caught on, even without manufacturers trying to pawn the artificially aged pieces as true antiques. In fact, much of it can be purchased for very reasonable prices.
But this doesn’t stop with knick-knacks and other items of home décor. One of the more popular colors for hardwood floors over the last several years has been the various shades of grey flooring that have been offered. These floors, like other distressed items, have been artificially made to look older, simply adding grey overtones to the finish. It’s visually about like taking down an old cedar privacy fence and using it for flooring.
Wood that is unfinished and exposed to the sun naturally turns grey, showing its age. This can be seen in the aforementioned privacy fences, as well as in deadfall trees found in the forest. Unless the tree is dark brown from decay, the wood is likely to be grey, especially if the tree fell where it will receive a lot of sunlight.
This natural graying happens because the ultraviolet rays in sunlight break down the lignin in the cellulose of the tree’s cells. This in turn causes what is known as photo-chemical degradation. It pretty much doesn’t matter what type of wood it is or the wood’s original color, the result is the same.
We can accomplish the same thing to new wood through a variety of different methods. One of the best woods to do this with is white oak, as the natural open grain of the wood readily absorbs the color, giving a dramatic finish. However, red oak should be avoided, as the difference in wood color will greatly affect the final outcome of the finish.
Grey Wood Stain
There are a number of different companies who produce wood stain for use in both interior and exterior applications. pretty much all of these provide various shades of grey stain, just as they do for the various wood tone stains that they manufacture. These can be used alone or in conjunction with other stains.
Grey stains should be applied over clean, sanded wood, which doesn’t have any other finish applied. If the grey stain is going to be used with a wood-tone stain, then the darker of the two should go on first. That usually means the grey, as using grey stain with lighter toned stains makes the lighter tone disappear. On the other hand, using a dark wood-tone stain along with grey, helps to give more visual depth and texture to the piece.
In cases where grey stain is going to be applied to furniture that is already finished, it is necessary to remove the existing finish. That means sanding off the existing finish with a medium to coarse sandpaper, and then sanding it again with finer grit sandpaper to get a smooth surface. It can be extremely difficult to sand off the finish from indented parts of the wood, such as on turned legs or carved grooves. That’s okay, as leaving some finish there will help add to the visual texture and depth of the finished piece.
Applying grey wood stain is just like applying any other wood stain. Before starting, be sure to mix the stain thoroughly, as the pigment can settle out and also wipe off all dust from the workpiece, so that the dust doesn’t end up caught in the finish.
The stain can be applied with either a paintbrush or rag. If a rag is used, it must be a clean one, preferably of a soft material, like cotton T-shirt material without any printing on it. If the stain is going to be brushed on, it should be with either a disposable brush or one that is used only for staining. Check to verify that the brush is clean, before using it.
Apply a generous coat of the stain to the wood, but not so generous that it starts dripping off. Allow the stain to sit no more than 30 seconds, and then wipe off the stain with paper towels or clean rags, rubbing the wood dry. On most pieces of furniture it is easier to work in sections, but care must be taken when doing this, as any overlap will create an area where the stain is darker. Carefully divide up the piece, when staining in sections, to reduce the possibility of overlapping stained areas.
Depending on the look desired, a second coating of stain may be applied. This will darken up the finish from the original. For the best results, allow the piece to dry fully, before applying this second coat of stain. All wood stains work by soaking into the wood’s pores; but those pores will be filled with the first coat of stain. Allowing the stain to dry fully opens the pores again, allowing the pigmentation to penetrate into the surface of the wood.
Keep in mind that staining wood is largely an experimental process. Each variation that enters into the process, such as the moisture content of the wood or how long the stain sits on the wood will have an effect on how thoroughly the stain soaks into the wood and the resulting color. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to experiment first on a piece of scrap leftover from the project or a hidden area of the piece to be stained. Keep careful track of everything that is done in this experiment, so that it can be readily and accurately reproduced.
Using Two Stain Colors
While using grey stain does provide the grey we’re looking for in the wood, giving the wood the appearance of aging, it may not provide us with the desired wood tone. Many furniture pieces are made out of pine or other softwoods, which have a naturally light coloration. That’s probably especially true of pieces which will be distressed, as nobody wants to spend the high price for exotic hardwood, when the natural beauty of that wood is going to be largely covered up.
But applying a dark stain, such as walnut, to a piece of furniture made out of pine might very well make it impossible to get the desired grey effect on the wood. To get that, it’s best to apply the grey stain first, and then use the darker wood-tone stain afterwards.
When doing this, it is necessary to hand sand the piece between the two stain colors, distressing it by creating areas where the stained surface of the wood has been thinned, lightening the grey effect or where the sanding goes all the way through the stained surface of the wood, down to the original material the piece is made from. Once sanding is done, be sure to clean up all dust, wiping down the workpiece and the workbench with a tacky rag.
The dark wood-tone stain is then applied to the piece, in the same way that the original grey stain was applied. The only exception is that it is usually a good idea to wipe the stain off more quickly, say after about only five to ten seconds, rather than giving it 30 seconds to soak in. This stain will darken the exposed parts of the wood quickly and it is easy to overdo it.
Making Grey Stain at Home
Another possibility to consider is making stain at home. This is easily done by soaking a small piece of steel wool overnight in white vinegar. The next day, the steel wool should be stained out, preferably through cheesecloth and the resulting liquid can be mixed 1:1 with water, making a very effective stain.
This stain will show up as silvery grey, grey brown or even black, depending on the wood it is applied to. As with any other finish, it’s always a good idea to do a test on scrap wood or a hidden area of the workpiece, in order to see just how the stain will react with the wood, how long it should be given to soak into the wood and just what color will result.
“Grey Washing” Wood
The term “whitewashing” is commonly known as the application of a paint like substance that doesn’t really cover the underlying substrate, but only gives a patina of finish to it. The original whitewash was made of lime or painter’s whiting, which is a white chalk powder, mixed with water. It has been in use longer than paint for architectural finishing and was commonly used in places where paint was either not available or too costly to use.
Today, whitewashing is commonly done as part of the process of distressing the furniture and home décor that I mentioned earlier. Rather than using lime, they’re actually using a watered-down white paint. It provides the desired results, while being more durable than traditional whitewash.
For our purposes, I’d like to introduce the idea of grey washing. This is essentially the same as the whitewashing that is so prevalent in making distressed furniture, with the exception that it uses grey paint, rather than white. This results in a more realistic fake antique finish, as any white paint that has been on something long enough to be naturally distressed is probably not going to look white anymore. At the best, it will look light grey from the effects of dirt. The exact shade of grey to be used is up to the person doing the work and the results that they desire.
To greywash, one must first start out by diluting the paint to be used with water. Most people talk about doing this in a ratio of 1:1, but I’ve found that I get better results with one part paint to two parts water. That gives me a lighter, thinner greywash, which is easier to distress and which will show the underlying color through thin spots in the paint. Of course, a lot will depend on the quality of paint that is being used; quality paint with a high ability to cover and hide what is beneath it will need to be watered down more than low-cost paint that doesn’t cover well.
When using greywash along with stains, it is best to apply the stains to the wood first, allowing them to dry before applying the greywash. Most stains are oil-based, while the grey wash will be water-based, so the two will not mix well, allowing the oil from the stain to affect the ability of the paint to cover the surface, if it is not fully dry.
When applying the greywash, use a fairly dry brush, with long strokes. The idea isn’t to fully cover the surface, as much as it is to apply a wash to the surface. Some bare spots add to the desired result, although there is a point where there can be too much that is left bare.
After allowing the watered-down paint a few minutes to start drying, wipe off the excess grey wash with paper towels or clean rags. The resulting finish provides a mottled patina, which already shows the beginnings of being distressed. The grey washed surface can then be sanded, hit with metal objects and have fake worm hole made in it, as with other distressed finishes.
One thing to keep in mind with any grey staining or distressed finish is that the more layers of finish that are applied to the project, the more realistic an “aging” process that it will provide. Stain can be added over the grey wash, with another lighter coat of grey washing over the stain. Each successive layer of finish gives the impression of the furniture piece having been refinished again, sometime in the past.
Applying Finish Over Grey Wood
It’s not a requirement, but any time a piece is finished, it’s a good idea to apply a clear finish over it. In this case, we’re talking about artificially aged furniture or other projects. Part of the beauty of such projects is the appearance of age, created by multiple layers of finish; none of which fully cover the workpiece. Leaving the finished piece without any clear finish over allows for further wear, adding to the authenticity of the appearance.
On the other hand, once the desired appearance is achieved, applying a clear urethane varnish over the grey or distressed wood will maintain that finish and help prevent damage. things like placing a cold beverage on the tabletop can cause damage to the finish, as condensation forms on the glass and the water reacts with the finish. That can be a positive or a negative, depending on the owner’s point of view.
Another place where applying a clear finish is important is on floors and other areas which will receive a lot of wear and tear. It is easy to wear off all the hard work that was done in making that wood grey, just by walking on it, especially in high-traffic areas. A clear finish, reapplied periodically, will help to ensure a long life for the work that has been done in distressing that wood.