How to Distress Furniture With Paint

Kate Carpenter

Painted distressed furniture has always been popular, but right now it is the "in" look for home decor. No need to go hunting through antique shops and old garages to find a piece of furniture that has that wonderful vintage worn look of peeled and missing paint that exposes the underlying paint color.

How to Distress Furniture With Paint

With a few simple steps, you can transform a new, old, painted or unfinished piece of furniture into a striking painted distressed furniture piece.

    How to Distress Furniture With Paint
  1. Find an area to work on the furniture piece that has good ventilation and room to move around the piece. Place a drop cloth or newspapers under and around the furniture to catch any drips or spills. You may wish to paint a coat of latex primer first on an unfinished wood piece or, if the piece has been painted with an oil based paint, as many older pieces are, you should paint a coat of oil based primer on the piece first to ensure the following latex paint coats will adhere properly. Let the primer coat thoroughly dry.

  2. How to Distress Furniture With Paint
  3. Paint the furniture piece with a coat of the underlying latex flat paint color you wish to have show through when the distressed piece is finished. Usually, the under paint color is a lighter color than the top coat of paint, but it is your preference. Apply the paint by brushing it on in the same direction of the wood grain of the furniture. This coat of paint should dry for 24 hours.

  4. How to Distress Furniture With Paint
  5. Apply a thin, even coat of paste wax, using a rag only to the areas you wish to look distressed, such as corners, edges, high points, around knobs and random areas. Allow the wax coat to dry for an hour. The idea is that wherever the wax has been applied, the top coat will be removed later with sandpaper, which creates the "distressed" look of the piece. To have the distressed look appear "natural", when applying the wax, do so in a loose and uncontrolled manner. If the entire piece of furniture is to have a distressed look, apply a thin, even coat of wax over the entire surface of the piece. Again, allow the wax to dry for about an hour.

  6. How to Distress Furniture With Paint
  7. Apply, with a paint brush, a coat of the main, or darker, colored latex flat paint over the waxed and unwaxed surface of the furniture piece. This is the top coat for the furniture piece. Again, make sure to paint in the same direction as the grain in the wood. Allow this paint coat to dry overnight, but no longer than 24 hours.

  8. How to Distress Furniture With Paint
  9. Start with a coarser grade sandpaper and lightly sand distress areas of the piece that have the underlying wax. Sand in the direction of the wood. Change or alternate the grade of the sandpaper. This will remove the top glaze but leave the flat paint shining through. Sand wherever you have applied the wax underneath the top coat of paint, paying particular attention to areas that would experience natural wear. When you are satisfied with the distressed look of the piece of furniture, be sure to clean off any paint dust that the sanding left on the piece. Allow the paint to further dry completely. If you have applied wax over the entire piece, sand wherever you want the distressed look, including sides, top and panels. Remember you are trying to achieve a worn look. Do not worry about the wax underneath the top coat of paint that remains, it will harden and become permanent as the piece dries.

  10. How to Distress Furniture With Paint
  11. Apply a final coat of protective sealant, varnish or antique furniture wax to the entire surface of the piece to add an additional look of hand-rubbed and aged patina to the surface and to protect the piece.


When considering where to apply the wax on the furniture, consider what old furniture looks like. It may have been first stained, then painted one color, and then another, and another color over the years The corners get bumped, edges get worn, the areas around drawer pulls get rubbed and worn. All of the wear on the piece over the years slowly exposes the wonderful colors underneath. That is the appearance you want to imitate. But instead of waiting 50 years for the process to happen on its own, the wear and tear is created with paint, sandpaper and a little elbow grease.

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