How to Distress Painted Furniture

How do you achieve that beautiful weathered/aged look that we all know and love?  Great news! Distressing painted furniture is easier than you may think!  


Let’s start with what kind of painted surfaces are good for distressing…wood (or wood with a finish on it – such as a varnish, top coat, etc…), glass, wicker and even metal are surfaces that are commonly distressed.  These surfaces tend to look more natural when distressed, giving a natural aged look.


Surfaces that are more difficult to distress and/or may not look quite as natural include (some) laminate or plastic-like surfaces - think Ikea furniture….not their natural wood pieces, but the cubbies and other pieces that have layer of plasticy (whatever it is) on the surface.   While its not impossible to distress these types of painted surfaces, it may just take a bit more patience and practice your first time around.


Now, for the techniques…


Distressing Painted Furniture with Sand Paper

The most common way to distress painted furniture is to rub sand paper (or a sanding block) on the edges and corners of the dried paint.  Best part is It is an easy and straight forward process.  The key here is to keep the distressing to areas of the piece that would naturally wear overtime.  This keeps the final look more natural rather than forced or replicated.


Simply wait for your final coat of paint to dry then grab your sand paper and lightly rub off the paint, focusing on the corners and edges.   Many also rub off the paint where there is defined detail. 


 Distress Painted Furniture Using a Piece of Sand Paper 

As you rub off the paint, there will be paint dust that falls of the piece.   For darker paint colors, you may notice the paint “fading” around the distressed areas.  Have no fear! Both are normal and are not a reason for concern.  If you prefer, simply lay down a drop cloth to catch the dust.  


Additionally, once you apply Furniture Wax or Protective Finish, the fading will blend.   If you won’t be protecting the piece (ie: it’s going on the wall or is another kind of low traffic surface), lightly wiping the surface down with a damp cloth will blend away fading.


 Final Result of Sand Paper Distressing with Furniture Wax 

If you want to keep the distressing subtle and focus on only taking off the paint, grab a higher grit sand paper, like 220 or higher.   For a distressed look that is more dramatic and will go through the paint and various layers underneath (this works best on real wood pieces, not laminate), use a lower grit sand paper, like 120 or lower.


Wet Distressing

Wet distressing is a technique that is used by rubbing a damp cloth, dish cleaning sponge, or any other kind of damp medium.   The main advantage to wet distressing is there is no dust.  You can still achieve a beautiful distressed look without the mess that traditional sand paper distressing causes.


A few tips when using the wet distressing technique:


The best time to do the wet distressing technique is 30 minutes after dry time and within 2 hours of dry time.


Use a damp (verses actually “wet”) cloth, sponge, etc… too much water may cause the paint to come off in globs rather than a natural distressed look.


When wet distressing a surface that was glossy, the paint will glide off quickly and with ease – use minimal pressure to gauge how the paint will distress.


Like the sand paper distressing, you may notice fading around the areas you distressed.  Applying wax or Protective Finish will help blend everything back to perfection.


wet distress painted furniture

 Rub a Damp Cloth With Light Pressure 

Wet Distressing Using a Damp Cloth


Using a piece of sand paper or wet distressing are the two most common ways of distressing, but they are certainly not the only ways! 
Some have used Vaseline to distress.  This method can be a bit messy (in my humble opinion), but essentially all you do is apply the Vaseline to the unpainted surface, paint the entire area, let the paint dry, then rub off the areas with Vaseline. 


Others may use steel wool (like using sand paper), vinegar and water spray (mix equal parts of vinegar and water, spray the areas you want to distress, then rub it off), or other various methods.


 Using Steel Wool to Distress Painted Furniture 

Regardless of the technique you choose, if it is your first-time distressing, I recommend grabbing a practice piece and trying various techniques using different mediums.  Playing around will help gain confidence when it comes time to distress your “real-deal” piece of furniture.


There you have it!  Achieving a beautiful distressed look is easier than you thought, right?!


Until next time,


P.S. – Do you have a favorite way of distressing?  Leave it in comments below!

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