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Distressing a Piece of Furniture - a How to Guide.

Distressing a piece of furniture might be easier than you think


I don't know about where you live but I know in my part of the world distressed furniture (furniture that looks old even though it might not be) is all the rage. On a recent trip to St.Simons Island, my girlfriend and I were knocking around in some of the shops downtown when we stumbled onto a chest of drawers that had been painted a golden/yellow color but looked as if it was really old and had set out on an open porch subject to the elements for some time to give it the look that it had.

Don't get me wrong, this wasn't the first piece I had seen that looked this way, in fact over the last several years I have seen more and more of it in the boutique shops and antique shops and even more creeping into some of the more mainstream furniture stores as the style has begun to take hold. Speaking of the style, it is one that seems to be very popular in the coastal areas that we have visited. I assume the premise being that a beach cottage should have furniture to go along with the perception of that life style, sort of like flip flops or sunglasses perched atop ones head.

I have to confess the concept took a little getting used to for me. I remember the first time my girlfriend showed me a piece (she was in love with the look from the very start), I couldn't help but think that it looked like something that someone had left in the basement or garage for years allowing it to get banged up and the paint to peel and then just pulled it out and plopped it in their family room or kitchen. Frankly, I think that is the idea and since the style has become so popular, I have seen everything from tables to chests, and beds, even an old window, painted in that manner and hung from a kitchen ceiling to be used as a pot rack, which was a pretty good idea I thought.

At any rate, the craze has taken hold whether you like the style or not, if you have chanced to price any of the stuff you will already know that it commands some pretty stiff prices especially the genuine article, and even the reproductions aren't what I would consider inexpensive. obviously there is a market for the stuff and it appears to be one that is growing.

Given that, and realizing that everyone out there might not been of a mind to go out and pay $599 for a "beat up" coffee table, I began to think in terms of how one would redo an existing piece to give it that look. Its not easy to paint something and leave gaps in the finish and make that look as if it was exposed to the elements. It ends up looking like what it is, an attempt at a painted on "weathered" finish and frankly it just misses the mark by a long shot.

No, my opinion is that the piece should be painted completely just as if you were painting something in the traditional manner and then the process of distressing it should be done after the fact. I thought that plan made the most sense, so I decided to try my hand at it.

My girlfriend had a little pine end table that was probably 25 years old and finished with a dark wood stain and varnish. She had become dissatisfied with its appearance and had been looking in some "Crate and Barrel" type magazines and on line to decide how she wanted it redone. Naturally she chose, you guessed it , the distressed look. This seemed like a good opportunity for me to test my theory so I loaded it into the back of my car and took it home to my workshop. This was on a Tuesday night.

The first step was to pick out a color and she had pretty much decided on a sage green color, that, along with deep red and a dark mustard color, appear to be among the most popular. We bought two cans of spray paint at Ace Hardware at $3.97 per can I think and when she headed to work the next day I set out to make the old new buy making it look old again if that makes any sense at all.

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Employing the first part of my plan, after lightly sanding the entire piece, I sprayed it until it was completely cover in green (be careful not to coat it too heavily or the paint will run which is not something that you want it to do. Use several light coats, as many as it takes allowing each to dry for 10 to 15 minutes before applying another. When the piece has been completely covered allow it to dry for at least an hour before beginning the process of distressing it.

When the piece is completely take a piece of medium to fine grade sandpaper and fold it into quarters. The reason for this is that the smaller piece is easier to maneuver and can be applied directly to the area you want without damaging an area that you don't. The idea is to lightly knock the paint off the straight edges of the piece, i.e. the corners, the outside edges along the top, and down the sides of the legs basically everywhere there is a right angle. If you look at a truly old piece you will notice that this is where it begins to wear first, probably from being brushed literally thousand of times in passing, or being bumped against a door post as it was moved from one place to another, or even by years of a wife or mother wiping it down with damp towel or dust rag,

The idea here is not to completely strip the paint from along each edge. That would be too obvious. The effect you are looking for is an intermittent or random area where the paint is worn just so. To accomplish this, hit the edges lightly lifting the paper up and down as it glides along the edge of the piece, Never let the paper lie solidly on the edge. Again you don't want to completely sand the edge clean in any one area.

Next, you want to look for areas that might normally get more wear and tear than others, the edge of a drawer that slides in and out is a great example of this, also where the edge of the piece might sit near other furniture like the arm of a sofa. Pay these areas a little extra attention, they can be sanded a little more heavily but again, don't overdo that either.

Finally, with the sanding done it is time to place a scar here and there. A word of caution, this should be done with great care as it is very easy to over do this step and ruin the entire process. The idea here is to locate an item with some weight to it, I use a square metal rod but it could really be anything. You do not want to use a hammer but the angled side of a heavy screwdriver would do. It really doesn't matter, just an item of you choice. You will want to think about were you want to ding the piece because it needs to be visible without being blatantly obvious, When you have decided on an area or areas just pull and give it a good whack the heavy object will sink into the would and you have your dent or ding. On this piece, I placed a mark in the the left side of the top 2/3 of the way toward the back and the right front leg mid way to the floor. There is no hard rule as to how many dings or scars you want to place on the piece. It is really a matter of personal taste.

Finally, we had acquired two new square bronze pulls and after removing the old pulls and securely attaching the new ones the piece was finished. It looked very good if I do say so myself and all for a bout $10 in total material and about two hours of my time by Wednesday afternoon the table was ready to be taken back home.

My girlfriend was extremely pleased with the look and couldn't wait to get it back in its place. Honestly, it gave a completely new look to the entire area. Later that evening, I was flipping through a sales catalog and stumbled onto a picture of a piece that was almost identical priced at $399.00. I have to tell you I was pretty pleased with myself and the whopping $10 we spent for the very same look.

I plan to purchase a piece or two when I find the right ones and redo them just to see how the process works on various shapes and sizes. I'm not really concerned about that though. I believe it will work well to change the look of any piece and certainly at a price far less than the purchase of a new one.


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 29, 2013:

Great work. You gave some good instructions and I would mind trying it, since I like the distressed look. Thank you very much.

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