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Distressed Finishes

Listed under Blog, faux, Lee Simone Posted May 13 2013

This article about distressed finishes is from specialist furniture painter Lee Simone, who covers Yorkshire enquiries for Traditional Painter.

I thought I’d talk about distressing, a wonderful paint finish that gives furniture and kitchens that aged, ‘shabby chic’ look.

Distressing continues to be an extremely popular finish, and as it can only be achieved by hand, the variety of different finishes are almost limitless. Below are a couple of examples of how different distressed furniture can be – from the stylistically aged…

…to the seriously rustic!

Upcycled furniture

Take a look around your home, I’m sure you have some old wooden furniture that’s looking a bit dated and could benefit from a make-over. Why buy a piece of mass produced distressed furniture when you can have something unique and tailored to suit your room exactly.

Distressing process

A distressed finish is essentially achieved by painting a wooden kitchen or piece of furniture in a block colour and then sanding certain areas back to reveal the original wood beneath. Personally I think the best and most natural looking distressing is achieved when a wax barrier is applied prior to painting. This barrier means that when the paint is sanded back it comes off in clumps and chips rather than just looking sanded. This creates a more authentic look, as if the piece has been naturally battered and bruised over time.

The process I use is a tried and tested method and one that I have used dozens of times on all types of wood.

Preparation –

The first stage is to remove any existing grease and dirt from the piece and then give it a good sand to create a suitable key for painting.

Wax Barrier –

The next stage is the wax barrier – what you’re essentially doing here is creating a barrier between the wood and paint so that the paint won’t bond to the wood and can be easily sanded back at the end.

Take a look at the piece you are painting and think about the areas where it would have naturally worn or been knocked over the years – the edges, the base, around the handles etc. – these are the areas to apply the wax. Tea light candles are great for this, as they are soft and easy to hold. Just rub the chosen areas with the candle until a waxy residue has been left and don’t worry about bumps of wax as these are helpful indicators of where you’ve put the wax when it comes to the sanding back stage.

Priming –

Once you’ve applied the wax barrier and removed any excess ‘flaked’ off wax you need to prime the whole piece using a good water based primer, Zinsser 123 works brilliantly.

Painting –

The only paints suitable for distressing in this technique are water based paints like emulsion or chalk paints, not acrylic, oil eggshells etc. I personally favour a good quality matt emulsion. Always do a test piece first to make sure it’s going to work how you want it to.

Once you’ve chosen your colour you need to apply three-four coats of the matt emulsion using either a brush or mini foam roller depending on how ‘smooth’ you want the finish to look. When this stage is complete your piece should be block colour with the odd bump where the wax barrier is.

Creating the Distressed Finish –

This is the stage where everything comes together, it’s taken a while to reach, but now’s the really fun bit. Using a 120 or 180 grit sand paper gently sand back the areas where you have previously applied the wax. The paint and primer won’t have adhered to these areas, so it will easily come off, revealing the original wood beneath, thus creating your beautiful and unique distressed finish.

One thing to remember is that the lighter the wood, the less noticeable the distressing will be, because the contrast between the paint and the wood will be less noticeable.

Adding Hand Painted Designs –

If you want to add any stenciling or hand painted designs then this is the stage to do it. Hand painted designs or motifs can be a lovely addition and can really personalise a piece. You could have flowers, birds, children’s characters,  quotations, symbols – whatever you fancy, the possibilities are nearly endless.

Top Coat-

The final stage is to seal everything, making it durable and wipeable. I find that acrylic varnishes work best here – matt Clearcoat from Dulux or the Polyvine varnishes are great. Apply two-three coats using either a brush or mini foam roller. Alternatively waxes work equally well, though the final finish will have a sheen.

Distressing & Antiquing –

 As I mentioned in a previous article, combining a distressed finish with antiquing gives a brilliant finish that will make your furniture or kitchen even more unique.

Antiquing adds a further ‘aged’ dimension to the finish, adding depth of colour and the illusion of natural discolouration or patination.

For details on how to achieve an antique finish please see my other article https://traditionalpainter.com/antique-paint-effect-on-kitchens-and-furniture

Lee Simone hand painted kitchens yorkshireBased nr. Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Lee Simone began Imaginative Interiors in 1999 and now travels throughout Yorkshire transforming and rejuvenating furniture and kitchens to the highest level.

Lee is also an exceptional faux effectsdecorative artist


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6 comments to “Distressed Finishes”

  1. Sophie

    Just a quick question – in this article (https://traditionalpainter.com/distressed-finishes) it says you can’t use acrylic eggshell paint for a distressed finish, but in this one (https://traditionalpainter.com/how-do-you-paint-pine-furniture) it says it works very well – which one is it?

  2. Avatar photo Andy Crichton

    Hi, to clarify, Lee explains a paint distressing process using wax, where he creates the worn areas in advance of painting. And for choice of topcoat paint, he prefers the results applying standard emulsion paints over the waterborne Zinsser primer.

    In the pine furniture painting article, I have said that you could prepare the surface appropriately and apply any paint (acrylic, oil or otherwise) conventionally, and then rub back with sandpaper to create areas of wear and tear.

    hope that helps.

  3. Patricia

    Can I paint my old pine furniture which is 34 years old solid pine not been varnished without it looking distressed and without having to prep it first

  4. Avatar photo Andy Crichton

    Hi dust off and chalk paint would seem to happily stick. Once painted, it doesn’t have to be distressed, it sands down super smooth in fact, and if you do remove any paint back to the bare on the edges just touch it up prior to waxing. It does create a lot of dust, so dust extraction sander. If you do it the Annie Sloan way, where the aim is being creative and quick, you could paint, wax and then sand the wax when it is dry. But that may not give you the “conventional” smooth paint finish, if the lumps are in the paint under the wax.

  5. sarah

    I have seen a piece of painted furniture that is distressed teal colour, with gold underneath. How would this two tone colour have been achieved? I was guessing I might paint the item in gold and then cover it in teal, then lightly distress it after that? If I did, I wonder how to avoid rubbing off the gold underneath?

  6. Avatar photo Andy Crichton

    Sanding dried distressed paint to reveal the gold base would have to be done very delicately. If it were done that way you would see some scratch marks?

    I would consider distressing when wet ie when the base coat is dry, dab on two different colours, then distress with a form of sponging or ragging to blend the two colours and let the base show through.

    Sample boards are in your future.

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