Most home painting is undertaken for both maintenance and aesthetic purposes, but there’s one painting project that is done purely for pleasure: furniture distressing. Yes, the project involves paint and brushes, but so too does fine art. And adding an aged look to obsolete objects is a creative undertaking of which any artist would be proud.
Authentically distressed furniture – the kind that got that way from years of use and abuse – is a valuable commodity today. High-end antique stores charge thousands of dollars for these pieces. But you can get the same chic look for a song if you do your own distressing.
Start by searching your attic and basement for furnishings that have served your own family in the past. Many of us put old items into storage, where they can sit for years, even decades. Look for wood pieces that have interesting shapes and details, the more unusual, the better.
If your search comes up empty, hit the road. . .literally. You can always pick up hidden gems at second-hand stores or consignment shops, but it’s thriftier yet, and more fun, to go on a trash day treasure hunt. When you do, concentrate on older, upscale neighborhoods, and get there early, preferably before dawn (you’ll be in competition with professional antique dealers and collectors who make much of their living this way). Look not just for furniture, but also for cabinets, vanities, ornate molding and other architectural elements, clocks, and picture frames. They all look great when distressed.
With your newfound items in hand, it’s time to create your paint palette. Consider where in your home you’ll use the finished piece and take cues from the room’s color scheme. Distressing typically involves at least two or three paint colors, sometimes even more. That provides plenty of opportunity to pick up not just the color of the walls, but also the accent colors. Sometimes, a multi-colored distressed piece is what ties together an entire color scheme.
Before you run out to the paint store, see if you have any paint leftovers in storage, especially if you plan to use the same colors that appear on your walls and trim. Why spend more for a new can of paint if you don’t have to? Other tools and supplies you’ll need for your project: a palette knife or painting spatula, paint brushes (and a roller if the item you’re working on is large), liquid paint stripper (optional), 100 grit sandpaper, a latex clear coating if you are working with latex paint, or an alkyd varnish if you are working with oil-based paint.
As with many artistic activities, distressing can be done in countless ways. But here are some general tips to get you started:
First, remove any hardware that is on the piece, such as handles, clasps, or hinges. Then clean the item thoroughly using warm soap and water. Wipe it down and allow it to dry.
Apply a thick base coat of paint to the entire piece, using a “highlight” color, not the one you want to be predominant when you complete the distressing. For example, if you want the finished piece to be generally blue, with smudges of green paint showing through, then apply the green paint first. You can apply the paint with a brush or, to get a thicker coat of paint, a spatula or palette knife. Allow the paint to dry completely, about 24 hours for latex paint.
If you are planning to use more than two colors, apply all the highlight colors first in thick coats of paint. Allow each one to dry thoroughly before applying the next color. Complete the painting by applying the predominant color last and allow it to dry.
Next comes the artistic part. Patiently use the sandpaper to lightly sand off patches of paint where you want the highlights to show through. Assuming that you applied several coats of paint, you can apply more pressure to get to the lower layers of paint, or even down to the bare wood in spots. Work with the piece until you love the way it looks.
When you are happy with the color treatment on your piece, dust off it off thoroughly. If you want to make it look even more distressed, hit it with a hammer, a chain, or a sock filled with nuts and bolts. You can even use a wire brush to make the piece appear more aged.
If you used latex paint, complete the project by sealing your distressed item with a coat of latex clear finish; if you used and an oil-based paint, seal it with a coat of alkyd varnish.
In the course of distressing furniture, you’ll likely discover your own tricks and techniques. For example, before applying any paint, some do-it-yourselfers rub a wax crayon along the edges of furniture where it would normally get wear and tear; then, after the paint dries, they wipe off the wax with a damp cloth – voila! Instant aging!
Remember that furniture distressing is an art form that can take a while to master. But that’s what makes it fun and relaxing. Enjoy yourself. . .and enjoy your new objets d’art!