Sunday, May 8, 2011

Furniture Distressing

About a year and a half ago I decided to trade my well paid advertising job, for, what until then, was just a hobby. For the longest time I have been subscribed to Etsy newsletter and kept reading about people who decided to leave their 9-5 world behind and embrace a completely different lifestyle, and all for the sake of doing something they loved. In the beginning I admired them from afar and thought how I could never share their destiny, but after a while I realized that I really didn't have a lot to lose yet had so much to gain. So I took the plunge and became a self-employed furniture restyler.

As a part of this furniture restyling series that Lia Fagan from Mod Nest put together, my task is to focus on different distressing techniques I apply in my work, but if outside of this scope, there is anything else you would like to know when it comes to furniture painting, I would be happy to share my knowledge with you.
So here it goes….

Distressing is the technique used to give a piece of furniture weathered and worn look. It can't be argued that time in its passing does the best job, but for us with less patience and a desire for quick gratification, there are techniques we can use to attain the look much faster. Below I will discuss four of these techniques.

Distressing using sand paper:
The most discussed distressing technique is the one using sand paper, but there are also other ways of giving furniture that worn look. problem I have encountered with sand paper distressing is that it often leaves deep and unsightly scratch marks and the wear can look very intentional and fake. I use this technique only when I want to weather the edges of the piece (outlines of the drawers, corners, legs). When working with sand paper, you can either use a mechanical sander or do the job manually. I prefer the manual option as it gives me more control. In the end, it really comes down to your personal preference.
If you choose sanding as your technique of choice, make sure that the paint has dried thoroughly (give it a day or so). What can happen if the paint hasn't fully cured is that the sand paper will start pulling on it and larger chunks of paint may peel off. Sand paper comes in different grit designations – the lower the designation the coarser the paper. For most jobs using 120 grit paper will do, but for surfaces that were covered with several coats of paint I would resort to 100 or 80 grit.
For distressing you can use 120 or higher, depending on the look you wish to achieve.

Distressing using steel wool:
Using steel wool in your distressing project will leave a lot softer finish than using sand paper. I usually use a really fine grade (000 or 00) as I don't want to leave any heavy scratch marks in the fresh paint. I find that the best results come if you apply this technique before the paint has had the chance to dry completely and I typically do it as soon as the paint appears to be dry to the touch. The way to go about it is to just rub the surface with the steel wool pad and monitor the results. Make sure that you don't use the steel wool techniques on light colors as it will leave a grey residue that won't be easy to cover. Trust me, I learned this the hard way.

Distressing using turpentine:
I discovered this technique by accident. I was painting a dresser and wanted to finish it off with a coat of dark varnish to add some more depth to the finished product. I dipped the brush too deep into the varnish and too much of the product landed on my drawers. To remove the access varnish I rubbed it with soft cloth soaked in turpentine and after a while, the bottom coat of paint started wearing off leaving very subtle distress marks. This technique leaves best results if the paint hasn’t had the chance to cure completely.You will have to apply some force with rubbing until you start seeing results, but once you start noticing the wear, it will be really easy to manipulate. If you choose to try it out, please make sure that you use gloves and work in a well ventilated area, as the turpentine has a very strong smell.

Distressing using crackling medium:
Using crackling medium as a distressing agent was also one of the accidental discoveries and it will result in the most natural weathered look especially if you are going for a dramatic effect. When working with the crackling medium I like the wood to be either really dark or work with two contrasting colors. The key is preparing the surface well, remove all the dust and free the surface of any kind of residue. Use a foam brush to apply the crackling medium (you can get it in any craft store and some hardware stores (RONA)) and let it dry for about 30-40 minutes. The thicker the coat, the chunkier the finish will be. After the drying time has elapsed, you will be able to apply the top coat of paint. Make sure that you don't overbrush and apply it in one steady stroke. This can be a bit messy, but well worth the effort. Let it sit for a while (10-15 minutes) and brush the surface off with a turpentine soaked rag. The access color will wear away and the spots where the crackling medium was applied will reveal the bottom color.

Whichever of the described techniques you decide to pursue, make sure you give yourself enough time and be patient. Think about the fact that you can always repaint the piece and start from scratch if you don't end up being satisfied with the first attempt. Most importantly, have fun.


  1. Great tips Jelena! Thanks for leading the series for us!

  2. Thanks for the tips, Jelena! I'm especially excited to try the turpentine technique on an upcoming project.

  3. amazing! You are seriously talented! -k

  4. This is fun! Thanks for sharing your secrets!

  5. Charlene StevensonMay 13, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    Thanks so much for the info and inspiration! I have a piece I want to try this on and was just wandering what I need to do to prep the piece and what type of paint you like to use?

  6. Hi Charlene, thanks so much for the comment. If you send me your email address I will be delighted to send you my painting tutorial. You can email me directly at

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hello Asis, thanks for the note.
      please send me the picture of your piece so I can have an idea of where you are starting at and I will be happy to give you some pointers. You can email it to me at If you can't send a picture, please describe the present finish on the piece as best as you can. Cheers

  8. Very nice blog.I have a piece I want to try this on and was just wandering what I need to do to prep the piece and what type of paint you like to use?
    chair glides

  9. i like your post thanks for all this information and tips
    wicker furniture