How to easily get a distressed furniture, farmhouse or shabby chic look on your furniture. Distressing furniture brings out the details on painted furniture, gives your furniture a old worn or antique look, and is super easy to do! Plus if you have kids like me, you know they’re already going to distress the furniture for you while playing. Let’s dive into how to distress furniture!
Before we jump into all the different ways you can make distressed furniture, let’s take a quick step back to talk about the steps to take before actually distressing.
Distressing is just one step in a painted furniture makeover, and if the foundation of a good paint job isn’t there, you could end up with a mess on your hands.
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Step One: Prep
Prepping furniture is suuuuuper important if you want all of your hard work to last without peeling and scratching really easily.
There are a lot of DIY furniture paints that say you don’t need to paint, like chalk paint, but in all reality, not prepping can leave you with peeling paint (I don’t think that’s the type of distressing you’re after, right??), and a piece of furniture that has to be sanded all the way down because the paint didn’t stick.
Prepping furniture for paint is really simple and shouldn’t take longer than a half an hour to cover the basics.
First wipe off any grease, grime or wax from the surface.
Paint resists all of these, so you don’t want them on your furniture before you paint. I like to use Krud Kutter because it cuts through grease and grime easily, and I like to use it around the house!
Simply spray it all over your furniture and then use an old damp rag to wipe it down. Then let your furniture dry.
The next step is to lightly scuff sand.
Now don’t worry, you don’t have to sand it down to bare wood! Just a light scuff sanding, where you go back and forth with the sandpaper only a few times, will do!
Grab a small piece of 220 grit sandpaper, fold it in half, and then rub the sandpaper over everything.
Scuff sanding gives glossy or smooth surfaces something for the paint to grab onto. It’s much easier for it to hold onto a rough surface than a shiny and smooth surface.
Then vacuum and wipe off the dust.
A vacuum with a hose and a brush attachment are perfect for removing dust in any detail. Once the dust is mostly gone, a damp rag or a tack cloth can get the rest of the dust off.
Step Two: Paint
The kind of paint that you use is a huge part of getting the perfect distressed furniture look.
The best paint to use for distressed furniture is chalk style paint. You can also use clay based (they’re basically the same thing) or milk paint
Chalk paint and milk paint (both the powdered and acrylic kinds work, but the powdered form especially) are really good for distressing.
But regular latex paint (aka wall paint) can gum up and won’t create a distressed look as easily.
If you’re looking for a really old / chippy paint finish, I completely suggest Shackteau Interiors Milk Paint. More on milk paint below.
Step Three: Distress
I’ll go in depth about the different ways to create distressed furniture below. But distressing usually happens in between painting and topcoating your furniture.
No matter the method, the idea is always the same.
Distressed furniture is made to look old, and worn. Like the paint on the edges naturally wore off over time. Orrr if you have kids, that the paint got beaten up while they played. ha!
When you distress furniture, hit the raised edges, the corners, and the details that stick out a little bit. These are the places that would naturally get worn down.
You can also distress any areas that have detail, just to make that detail stand out a little more.
Sometimes you might want to even distress random flat surfaces like the top, sides or right under the hardware!
Step Four: Topcoat
Chalk paint and milk paint requires a topcoat for extra durability, and wipe-ability. It also makes your furniture feel super smooth and you can choose any sheen that you want!
The best topcoat for painted furniture is waterbased polyurethane. This is my favorite topcoat!
I know a lot of chalk paint companies tell you to seal their paint with their wax. But here’s why I use just 3 coats of water-based poly for chalk painted pieces.
Waterbased polyurethane is more durable than wax, it dries faster, is less maintenance, comes in multiple sheens and is way less time consuming to apply.
It also doesn’t yellow like oil based polyurethane does (leave oil based poly for your wood finishes, not paint).
Distressed Furniture – The Techniques
There are a few different ways to distress furniture, even on painted furniture. They all have their pros and cons, and they create different looks.
Distressed Furniture with Sandpaper
This is my favorite method to create distressed furniture and the one I use allllll time.
It’s really simple, but it does make a little bit of a mess.
Simply fold a small piece (about 3″ x 4″) of 220 grit sandpaper in half (use 100 grit if you really want a roughed up look), and lightly rub the sandpaper across the edges and raised details of your dry paint.
Wrap it around an old sanding block for more control over larger areas.
In tighter areas or curved details, remove the sanding block and fold the sandpaper up just a little smaller.
Tip: Like I mentioned before, distressing usually happens before you topcoat or seal the chalk paint. BUT I’ve learned a little trick to speed up the process, and create the distressed look we all love.
For a super smooth finish, it’s best to sand in between coats of paint and poly with 400 grit sandpaper. But it can be pretty tedious to sand and clean off the dust before each new coat of paint.
Instead of distressing after the last coat of paint, wait until the first coat of poly is dry before distressing.
This removes one extra step of sanding the paint smooth and removing the dust, but it makes the final finish smooth, and gives you a chance to distress the edges.
Distressed Furniture with a Power Sander
This one is eaaasy! And super fast!
If you want to go heavier on the distressing, or you just want to power through it, try using a power sander.
The power sander will take the paint off it a hurry, so be prepared to go light, and use a finer grit sandpaper like 220 or 400.
Lightly touch the edges of your painted furniture with the tip of the sander and quickly move back and forth over the edge.
Wet Distressing Furniture
Wet distressing works really well with chalk paint and milk paint. And the name says it all.
Simply grab an old lint free damp rag, and rub the paint off of the edges and raised details.
Wet distressing works best right after the last coat of paint has dried, and before it has had any chance to start curing. The sooner the better!
If you let the paint dry too much, you’ll have to apply a lot more pressure to get the paint to come off.
Milk Paint Distressed Furniture
This method of distressing has more to do with the type of paint you use, than an actual method of distressing the paint.
Milk paint is known for creating an old looking finish, and it’s super easy to create a finish with a lot of chipping and distressing.
It comes in a powdered form and you just mix it with water. Then you brush it onto your furniture and wait for it to dry. Once it’s dry, it may start chipping in random places.
There is a method to the madness with milk paint though, and sometimes it just does what it wants, even if you do everything you can to make it do what you want.
To create a really chippy finish with milk paint, follow this tutorial on how to create a chippy finish with milk paint.
Naturally Distressing while Painting
While painting with a paint brush, paint thin coats with only a small amount of paint on your paint brush at a time.
This will leave areas of naturally looking distressing without any extra steps of sanding or wiping down.
Dry brushing is just a fancy term for painting with a tiny tiny bit of paint on the end of your paint brush.
Just dip your paint brush into a small amount of paint, then use the edge of the paint container to wipe off the excess paint. If there is still too much paint on the brush, dab the end of the paint brush onto a clean and dry paper towel.
Now you have a dry brush, ready to paint!
At first you’ll want to apply the lightest bit of pressure when painting, but as the paint brush get’s even more dry, you can apply more pressure to the paint brush.
This will result in a super light layer of paint, and you’ll be able to clearly see the direction that the paint was applied.
After the paint dries completely, grab 220 grit sandpaper and to create even more of a worn look!
Distressed Furniture with a Wash
You can also thin the chalk paint out with water, until it is super thin and almost the consistency of water.
You can really play around with it to make it as opaque as you want!
Once the paint is dry, you can sand it down with 220 grit to create extra character!
Distressed Furniture with Wax
This one takes a little bit of thought before you put any paint on. But it makes distressing easier!
Remember how paint resists grease, grime and wax? Well, you can use it to your advantage when distressing!
You can use candle wax, lip balm or a bar of soap!
Simply rub it onto the areas that you want to resist the paint, and then paint! Once your paint is dry, the paint can easily be sanded off with 400 grit sandpaper in those areas!
Of course you can also create your own special distressing by combining two or more of these distressing techniques.
How to Distress Wood
Another way to create distressed furniture is beat it up. No, I’m not talking about throwing punches. But I’m sure it will help get some stress or frustration out!
This works best for non painted furniture, but there isn’t a distressing police that says you can’t use it on painted furniture either!
Gather up a metal chain, a hammer, some screws, rope, a flat head screw driver and some nails. You could even grab your kids’ toys that seem to create a lot of damage around the home. 😉
Each of these tools will create a different type of distressing!
Drop the chain on the wood to create indents, turn a screw on it’s side and pound the threads into the wood, hammer the nail into the wood to create holes, create scratches with the screwdriver, or tie a rope around the wood and drag it over the dirty / rocky ground.
Use multiple methods to create a really worn finish, or one method to create simple low key distressed furniture.
Just have fun!
If you’re nervous about messing up your distressed furniture, grab a scrap piece of wood to see how each item creates a different type of distressing before you start on your big project.
Just remember to have fun! It’s only paint, and if you feel like you distressed your paint too much, you can paint again!
Let me know what your favorite method is to create distressed furniture, what technique you want to try, or if there is another one I didn’t mention! Leave a quick comment below!
And don’t forget to pin this for later!