How to Distress Wainscoting

Kathy Adams

Wainscoting, that wooden paneling used typically on the lower half of walls, adds a bit of a rustic, country or casual vibe to a room. If the wainscoting is new or freshly painted, however, it may look a bit too pristine for the room's decor.

Beating wainscoting with a hammer is one way to distress the surface.

Distressing the wood gives it the look of added years and a little abuse that might be typical over time from chair backs and various objects bumping against the walls. It's a means of causing wear quickly rather than waiting decades for it to happen naturally.

  1. Remove dust and cobwebs from the wainscoting using a duster.

  2. Whack the wainscoting in several areas that would naturally receive wear over time, such as at the height of a chair back or the trim at the top of the wainscoting, using a claw hammer. Hit the paneling with various parts of the hammer, such as the claw or side of the hammer, to vary the look. If the wainscoting covers a corner, hit the corner several times with the hammer as well.

  3. Remove small chunks of wainscoting, such as on raised borders, using a chisel and rubber mallet. Use this technique in an area that would receive wear naturally, such as where a doorknob may hit the wall, or at the entry to a stairwell. (Skip this step if you don't want the paneling to look quite so distressed.)

  4. Sand away the paint or finish on parts of the wainscoting using a fine-grit sanding block, focusing on sharp edges, trim, and areas that would receive the most wear over time. Remove dust with a tack cloth.

  5. Drill clusters of several tiny holes using a 1/16-inch drill bit in random areas of the wainscoting to emulate the look of worm damage.


A sack or sock full of nuts and bolts, or a heavy chain, can also be used to whack the wainscoting, for a more varied look. Make the wainscoting's finish look older by mixing water and a dark paint color, such as dark brown or dark gray, in a 50-50 solution. Brush the liquid into crevices and around cracks and details, or paint the entire wainscoting. Rub excess watery paint off with a dry rag. Emulate the look of many paint colors over the years by rubbing candle wax over painted wainscoting, painting the surface another color, then repeating the process. Sand through the layers with a fine-grit sanding block to reveal other colors underneath.