How to Distress Furniture like a Pro

After years of trial and lots of error I recently published an article tilted, “How to Paint Furniture like a Pro” and the response from readers was huge. One of my favorite things about blogging is that I can share the many lessons I have learned working as an interior designer with everyone and these are techniques that I have fine tuned over the past twenty years. Several readers wanted to know if I had tips for distressing furniture and the answer is absolutely, slightly more technique involved but doable for sure.

1. Access Your Piece:-The first step in any furniture painting project is to look over the piece for possible repairs and type of finish/color of the piece. Decide the look you want for the piece; will natural wood show through the distressing or a base coat of paint.

2. Sand Your Piece- Lightly sand the piece using 220 sand paper, use a coarser paper for a more rustic look. After sanding wipe the piece clean with a tack-cloth.


3. Prime Your Piece- This step is optional when distressing but I typically prime all of my painted pieces to be sure that the paint adheres properly to the piece and is durable.

4. Paint Your Piece- If you are not happy with the base color of the piece (wood finish or existing paint), choose a base coat for the entire piece. If your overall look is distressed white or a color, paint a darker brown as a base. If your piece will be black go for a lighter base or sand down to the natural wood when possible. Then add your final color of paint. Designer tip- Paint a few layers of paint that were reminiscent of the period the furniture is from to add vintage character.

5. Wax Your Piece (Optional)- Use candle wax and rub it onto the surfaces where you are looking to achieve the distressed look. I recommend the natural places where distressing will occur; corners, edges, curves and legs (same tip when sanding). Be sure to rub off the wax residue that accumulates. With this technique I like to paint a top coat and then once dry use a scrapper for distressing the spots where wax was applied. I use this technique most with my rustic cottage pieces.

6. Sand Your Piece Again- I love this part, let your inner artist come out. Sand layers using a power palm sander, try using different grits of sandpaper for various effects.

7. Glaze for an Antique Look (Optional)- Once you are satisfied with the amount of distressing it’s time to apply a glaze. I recommend Minwax Express Colors, just remember that the glaze will stain the wood if this is the look you are after. Wipe off the piece with a damp cloth.

8. Protect- Apply a clear coat of poly to keep your piece looking like the day you created it. Sit back and admire.

These techniques can be applied to furniture, kitchen cabinets, mill-work and doors. Don’t be intimidated you can do this my friends and you will be so proud of the results!



  Image {1,2}

  • Kate

    Had some Hurricane Sandy damage to wood furniture that I could salvage; so I am happy I read this article. I’ll be doing some wooden dressers.

    • Cathy from Adore Your Place

      Send pictures and happy painting :)

  • Angela

    Excellent advice! I find I’m not patient enough with refinishing! I need to work on that!! Have a great day!~~Angela

    • Cathy Wolfram

      You could do it Angela I can tell you have so much style :)

  • Elisa Smith

    Great tips! I always wondered what waxing was for ;)

    • Cathy Wolfram

      Elisa I just started the waxing step this week and it looks awesome on those rustic cottage pieces. For less distressing I don’t use the wax, Happy Summer!

  • Colleen

    What kind of paint do you use? Same as wall paint?

    • Cathy from Adore Your Place

      Hi Colleen yes I use wall paint, any brand :) Thanks for visiting today.