How to distress furniture
Distressing can give furniture an aged, antique look bursting with character and period charm, whatever its real age. Sophie Tarrant shares her favourite distressing techniques
Antique and vintage painted furniture has a character and charm of its own, with their beautiful faded patina having developed over decades, if not centuries - with hints of a time forgotten - yet buying these pieces can be pricy.
However you can easily add a little extra depth and pizazz to any piece of furniture through distressing the edges with wax, sheer colour washes, texture or something completely different. Here’s a quick rundown of some of our favourite distressing techniques:
Four best techniques for distressing furniture
Layering: There are lots of ways that painted furniture can be distressed, especially when using chalk paint - a type of paint made famous by Annie Sloan. One popular method involves applying two coats of chalk paint to your project in one colour, then layering another, slightly different colour on top.
Once dry, furniture wax is carefully buffed across the surface of the entire project to set the paint and add a layer of protection. Specific areas are then targeted by carefully rubbing away the top layer of paint with the wax and cloth to reveal the hidden colour beneath. This method works particularly well on pieces of furniture with raised details and 3D mouldings, such as wardrobe doors and table legs.
Rubbing: In a similar method to the layering described above, some upcyclers will achieve a distressed finish by using furniture wax and a cloth (or a stiff brush, or even sandpaper) to rub away parts of the paint completely, revealing the bare wood beneath.
If you do this, make sure to allow the wax to soak into the exposed wood, to give it extra protection against wear and tear.
Gold leaf: Sheets of delicate metal leaf can be applied to the surface of painted wooden projects using a sticky glue called gold size, which is brushed onto to the piece and left to go tacky before the leaf is applied to it using a soft brush.
Once dry, the surface of the leaf can be worked over with wax and a soft cloth to carefully tarnish and age the finished piece, giving it a decadent, worn look.
Colour wash: If you love the look of natural woodgrain but still want to give your furniture a new finish, you can combine the two with a sheer colour wash. In this technique, water-based paint is diluted and applied to the natural surface of the wood with a brush, which gives the furniture a hint of colour whilst still allowing the pattern of the grain to shine through. Once dry it can be protected with a wax, lacquer or varnish. We also have a guide to using colourwash on your walls!
Here is a more detailed guide on how to paint furniture, which includes preparation and finishing tips
- How to upcycle a dresser with Annie Sloan chalk paint
- How to upcycle a kitchen chair with chalk paint
- How to use Frenchic paint around your home
- The best eco, non-toxic and planet-friendly paints on the market
- 10 of the best painting tools
- Annie Sloane: tips for quick refurbishing and mid-century modern decor
Sophie Tarrant is a freelance writer, project designer and embroidery artist based in Nottingham, UK. She's spent over 15 years in the craft and home interiors sectors and has worked across a wide variety of magazines to create easy-to-follow, eye-catching projects that captivate and inspire readers at a wide variety of skill levels.