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How to Paint Distressed Furniture

It's easy to distress furniture pieces with some simple decorative painting techniques using chalk paint, petroleum jelly and wax.

Distressed furniture has a lovely charm that works beautifully in interiors ranging from shabby chic to industrial to contemporary. If you don't have the luxury of waiting a few decades for your furniture to naturally distress, it's easy to give it the look with some simple decorative painting techniques using chalk paint, petroleum jelly and wax. With its cracked finish revealing underlying layers of paint, the furniture may look like an heirloom. Only you will know its true age.

    Rub petroleum jelly on edges

  1. Petroleum jelly is an excellent paint resist medium; wherever you apply the jelly, paint will not stick to it. Using your fingertip, apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly at a few corners and edges of the furniture piece. The chair in this demonstration already has a white paint finish on it, so we wanted some of this original paint to come through after we add additional layers of paint.

  2. Paint the first layer

  3. Chalk paint is an ideal paint for refinishing furniture because it goes on practically any surface – even glass – without primer. Choose two contrasting paint colors – one for the top layer and one for the bottom. For this example, I chose a sea foam green for the base layer and a deep blue for the top. With a wide paint brush, apply a layer of the base color all over. Cover the areas where you applied the petroleum jelly as well.

  4. Distress first layer

  5. When the paint is dry, rub a 220-grit sanding sponge or sand paper over the areas where you applied petroleum jelly. The paint on those areas will rub off to reveal the furniture's original color. You can also sand off additional paint in other areas if you wish.

  6. Rub candle wax on surface

  7. Whereas petroleum jelly resists large sections of paint, candle wax repels paint in a way creates a pitted, scuffed surface. Both types of resist techniques contribute to a natural-looking distressed finish. Rub a candle on areas of the furniture piece that would normally receive the most wear, e.g., the seat and back on a chair or the top surface of a table. Rub the wax deep into the surface. Don't worry about applying an even coat.

  8. Rub on more petroleum jelly

  9. With your fingertip, rub more petroleum jelly on the edges and corners of the chair. If you want a more distressed finish, add wider applications of the petroleum jelly. Be sure to apply petroleum jelly over the areas that you distressed on the first layer so paint doesn't cover them.

  10. Paint the top coat

  11. Paint the top coat, covering the entire surface including the areas treated with candle wax and petroleum jelly. You may need to wash your paint brush a few times if too much petroleum jelly gets on it. Let the paint dry.

  12. Distress top layer

  13. Rub your sanding sponge or sand paper over the areas that were treated with petroleum jelly. The paint will come right off, leaving the paint layers underneath intact.

  14. Sand waxed areas

  15. Over the areas that were treated with candle wax, rub your sanding sponge or sand paper. The paint will not come off as easily as with the petroleum jelly, so you may need to scrub a bit harder. The resulting surface will appear mottled.

  16. Apply furniture wax

  17. With a cotton rag, apply paste furniture wax over the entire surface of the furniture piece. Wait 15 minutes and buff the wax with a clean rag.

  18. Apply creme wax

  19. Brown creme wax, which is specially formulated for chalk paint, adds an aged patina to the surface so the paint doesn't look so new. Apply the creme wax to the entire surface with a brush. Without the paste furniture wax you already applied, the creme wax would penetrate the paint surface and change its color. But with the furniture wax, you have more control of how much the surface is stained. Make sure the creme wax gets into all the little nooks and crannies.

  20. Wipe off the creme wax

  21. Although it will look like you've painted the surface with brown paint, the creme wax wipes off easily. With a clean cotton rag, remove all the excess creme wax. The brown stain that remains in the crevices gives the furniture an antique patina. To age it even more, leave some of the creme wax on the piece, especially along the corners and edges.

  22. When the piece is done, layers of paint will peek through the distressed top coat, as if it has lived many lives before it got to you.

About the Author

Jonathan Fong is the author of three books: "Walls that Wow," "Flowers that Wow," and "Parties that Wow." He currently hosts the web series "Style With A Smile."