How to Lighten Up & Distress Darker Wood

If your newer night table looks out of place in the company of your favorite old bed, the night table may feel more at home if you age it.

Age turns wood lighter, and so does bleach.

A strategy for aging a piece of wooden furniture recognizes two facts: Wood tends to lighten as it gets older, and it's bound to suffer a certain amount of wear and tear through the years. You can simulate both of these effects in your home workshop. Wood bleach will do the same job as years of exposure to light and heat, and there are both mechanical and chemical ways to distress.

  1. Strip the finish from the wood, if there is one. Spread chemical stripper with a paintbrush, scrape it off with a putty knife and steel wool, then wash off the stripper with water and let the wood dry.

  2. Sand the wood with 100-grit sandpaper to remove stripper residue. If the wood didn't have a finish, it's still a good idea to sand to open the grain and make bleaching more effective.

  3. Use a two-part wood bleach. Part A consists of sodium hydroxide, which opens the wood grain, while part B consists of hydrogen peroxide, which reacts with the sodium hydroxide to bleach the wood.

  4. Paint part A liberally on the wood, which will darken as you spread it. Immediately after you've covered all the wood, paint it with the part B solution. The secret is to get the part B on the wood while part A is wet. Let the bleach work overnight.

  5. Mix a 15 percent solution of white vinegar and water in a bucket and wash the wood thoroughly to neutralize the bleach. Let it dry for three days, then sand it and spread a coat of sanding sealer or clear finish diluted with 50 percent thinner. Let the sealer dry, then sand it by hand with 220-grit sandpaper.

  6. Mechanically distress the wood by denting it with a hammer, hitting it with a chain, or burning it with a blowtorch. Cut the head off of an 6d finish nail and use it as a drill bit to simulate worm holes. Make the holes in the soft part of the grain, the way worms would.

  7. Add a small amount of white pigment to a clear finish to make a glaze and apply the mixture to the surface with a paintbrush or by spraying it. Let the glaze dry until it's tacky, then wipe it away from edges and corners with steel wool to make those areas darker.

  8. Spread a final coat of clear finish to seal the glaze. Use a matte or semigloss finish to dull the wood and make it look older.

  9. Tip

    If you want to keep the wood as natural as possible, omit the glaze and finish with a clear penetrating oil after distressing. Avoid regular patterns when it comes to dents, holes or burn marks.They make the distressing look artificial.


    Wear rubber gloves and a respirator when working with wood stripper or wood bleach.