How to Distress Unfinished Wood

Unfinished furniture is a good candidate for distressing. You can build age into the piece from the beginning by choosing to stain or paint it for the final finish. Damaging the wood can be therapeutic, but try to proceed cautiously — you can add to the distressed effect gradually, but it’s hard to restore a damaged area once you’ve worked on it. The ultimate finish — paint or stain — should be as seemingly aged as the distress marks on the furniture.

The finish on old wooden furniture is damaged and worn away by repeated use.

Step 1

Bang on the piece of wood with heavy objects to make it look distressed from wear and tear. The round end of a ball-peen hammer works well for whacking and denting a flat surface. A large, smooth rock will have a similar effect when smashed into the wood, but watch your fingers. Don’t batter the piece beyond recognition. Randomly create damage, just as it would have accrued over time.

Step 2

Beat the piece with lengths of chain. Use the chain on flat surfaces as well as edges, and experiment to see how much force to use for realistic scoring and denting. Be especially careful on the edges so you don’t remove a rough chunk of the wood by striking it with too much force.

Step 3

Round edges as if they have worn down from the friction of contact. Use sandpaper to flatten the round rungs of chair foot rails. A sandpaper block makes this easier, and medium grade is good for quick flattening. Finish up with a finer grade so there are no rough spots. Sand the edges of seats, drawers and chest overhangs. Flatten out the wooden arms of dining chairs. Imagine how this wear would have happened and then rub away heavy-use areas. Barely touch edges that would not be subject to daily wear. The wear will be uneven and never gouged.

Step 4

Reproduce wormholes by driving an ice pick into the wood in just a few places and varying the depths for each hole. The holes should be slanted and might naturally occur near furniture legs, although they can be anywhere. Staining the wormholes slightly with ink or watered stain will highlight them, but be subtle. Wormholes look best on unpainted wood pieces.

Step 5

Stain or paint your piece after gently sanding all the distress marks to eliminate any roughness. Keep the antique appearance going by painting several different colors on the piece and then sanding layers off the paint to reveal the color below — just as an older piece would show off its years of paint at the worn-away edges.

Step 6

Pickle a piece that won’t be painted by bleaching the unfinished wood with wood bleach. Let the bleach soak in and dry, and then apply regular paint on the wood and rub off some of it in places with cheesecloth. The paint will stain the wood, and the rubbed-away spots will reveal the natural, bleached wood. Leave the piece as is or finish it with a clear, protective coat once you achieve the look you like.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .