The Art of Distressing


Many of you have probably been inside a primitive craft shop at one point or another, and have spotted furniture that was made to look worn and distressed. The fact is, the distressed “used” look is becoming quite popular. The dings and scratches add character and age to things that were new and perfect before. It’s the antiquated look that is catching people’s eye. So if you generally like to fix furniture up, you may want to drop it down the stairs a few times for good measure, because distressed wood furniture is on the rise.

I believe this love of “distressing” comes from the desire to have something unique. Something that has a story to tell. When we come across true antiques, we wonder at all the people who may have used such items. I have an old wooden school desk from the 40’s that still has gum stuck to the underside. If I really look I can spot some names etched in the wood from students who apparently didn’t find their class very interesting. Some items though, tell a more serious story, such as the Army tools and gear that carry the damage of war. Regardless of the item, every antique has seen a world many of us have not. For those who remember such times, these items are nostalgic, for those who haven’t, these items are a reminder of a legacy that shouldn’t be forgotten. A different America, and world that we live in today.

So, to the art of distressing, how do we successfully add age to items that are more modern or even somebody else’s trash? The method I use is very simple.


First wash or dust off the item you intend to use. Here is the “before” picture of the chairs listed above. I found these at a flea market, however, I encourage you to find your items for free whenever possible, even if the items are slightly broken. After cleaning we repair any damage that affects the functionality of the chairs. I had to use wood glue on these and let them dry overnight. Once repaired make sure everything is how you want it. Test the chairs and make sure nothing was left out.

Now it’s time to paint, this step is important! Make sure to get a paint that sticks to the wood nicely and doesn’t peel. This can make the distressing step difficult as you simply want to wear down the paint, not make it peel back. Semi-gloss should be fine. You can spray or hand paint your furniture, I brushed mine on because it adds to the antique feel of the chair. Once your paint has dried it’s time to distress.

Have sanding blocks/paper ready, medium grit and look at your furniture piece. Where would distressing occur? Are there any corners or edges that would get banged up after much use? Once you have decided where to distress your item and how much you want it to look distressed, you can begin sanding. Sand till varying degrees of wood show, make your marks random and different.

When finished dust your work off and spray sealer on it. I use Rust-Oleum semi-gloss clear. This will make the wood appear darker and will hide any scuffs that occur from sanding paint. For example, I noticed when sanding black paint, white spots can appear where you wore the color away, sealer has always worked to get rid of those spots for me. After that, you’re finished! Every item will be different and present different challenges, but distressing wood should be the same, it’s always easier to damage something than it is to fix it. Also, there are many ways to distress than just using sanders, I’ve heard of people dragging things behind their car, or beating them with chains. If you distress things a lot you will discover what way works best and looks best! Good luck and have fun!


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