How to Distress Furniture

By on February 10, 2014
Distressing Furniture

You may think that old piece of furniture you have is without hope of ever being beautiful again. Maybe it’s been scratched, the paint has been worn off, the kids have colored on it or it was nicked during a family move one too many times.

Before you toss that piece into the trash consider giving that beat up furniture a new look through a distressed painting technique. Distressing furniture is an easy process and can add character and color to any area of your home.

If you aren’t sure how to distress furniture yourself, we’ve provided you with step-by-step instructions that make it super simple. What are you waiting for? Let’s get started!

What Do You Need:

The furniture piece you will be distressing
Sandpaper of various grits
Tack Cloth
Paint Brush
Primer Paint
Candle or Other Wax Product


1. One of the characteristics of distressed furniture is it’s imperfections. However, if your furniture piece has old chipping paint or crayon build up, you still want to ensure you are starting off with a good foundation for the paint to stick to. We’re going to start off by lightly sanding the entire piece with a fine grit sandpaper. If you aren’t thrilled with the idea of hand sanding, you can pick up an electric power sander and make the job much quicker and easier. When you’re finished sanding be sure to wipe the piece with a tack cloth removing all dust particles.

2. (Optional) When it comes to distressing furniture, I’m a huge fan of nicks, chips and imperfections. However, you may want to keep those to a minimum on the base coat by starting your piece off with a coat of primer. Primer gives your paint something to grip onto and keeps whatever is under your paint from showing through such as dark stains. This is especially important if your base coat of paint is light in tint.

For most of my projects, I prefer to use spray primer as it seems to go on more evenly and thinner than brush on primer paint. I recommend Painter’s Touch brand for spray primer and suggest using the white if you are going to be painting with a light color. If you plan on painting a darker color, than you should try the gray primer. Coat your furniture piece with thin even passes of the spray paint until the piece is lightly coated in primer.

For projects that I use a brush on primer for, I like to use Zinsser’s Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer. This primer will work for practically any type of furniture and any material you can think of. Start by dipping your brush into the primer and brushing the primer on in the direction of the wood grain. Keep your strokes short and even until all the surfaces of the furniture have been covered.

Be sure your primer is completely dry before moving onto the next step.

3. Next we need to decide on the base color that we want to use for our furniture and apply it. This is the color that is going to show through all of the nicks and cracks that will appear once we’ve distressed the piece. Using extremely dark or extremely bright colors as your base, will show up the best once you apply the second coat.

For my paint, I use a variety of brands but lately I’ve been working with Rust-Oleam’s Painter’s Touch brand paint. It’s an easy to work with latex paint that goes on smooth and cleans up easily when I’m finished with my project. You can apply the paint in the same manner as you applied the primer with short, even strokes in the direction of the grain.

4. Now comes the fun part. We’re going to take our candle wax and rub it in places on the furniture that you would normally expect to see worn areas, or just wherever you want the base color to show through. The candle wax is going to keep the top color coat from covering up the base coat so those areas will have the base coat show through.

Be sure to go over corners, edges, trim areas and don’t forget to do the sides and back areas as well.

5. Now we’re ready to apply the top coat of color. Be sure to select a color that will give a nice contrast between it and the base coat. You will apply the paint in the same way you applied the base coat. Cover everything including the areas where you used the candle wax.

6. Now that the top coat of paint is dry it’s time to distress it. We’re going to use a heavier grit sand paper in this step and start working our way around the furniture sanding areas were we applied the candle wax, focusing especially on edges and corners but don’t leave out the top and sides as well. As you begin sanding you will see the color begin to show through the top coat. Start off with a lighter sand and increase the depth of it based on the affect you are after.

Don’t worry about being exact in this process. It’s supposed to be distressed and imperfect. Once you are finished, grab your tack cloth once again and wipe down the entire piece to remove all dust particles.

7. The last step we will do is to apply a sealant to the furniture. Not everyone applies a sealant to their finished furniture pieces, but I prefer it so that my pieces last longer and are more durable.

There are a few different finishing sealants that I am using right now. I really like the Minwax Polycrylic protective finish. It comes in a brush on as well as a spray option.

Another great sealer and one that is pretty all purpose and good for about any type of painted furniture is the Minwax Lacquer. It’s just a basic clear lacquer and goes on easily with a brush. It also comes in various finishes like satin, semi-gloss and clear gloss. Like the Polycrylic, you can also get this in the spray can version as well.

About Misty Spears

I absolutely love all things DIY, especially when it comes to decorating my own home. I’m a thrift store junkie and my head just explodes with ideas to repurpose old junk into something practical and beautiful when I come across that perfect treasure. I’m a wood furniture rebel and try to paint every surface I can to bring color into my life. My life revolves around my family and enjoying every moment that life serves up to me. You can connect with me on Twitter @diyhomeinterior, Instagram @mistyspears and see my pins on Pinterest for a sneak peak into all the DIY projects I am working on and crazy life happenings.

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