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How to Distress Unfinished Furniture

Try some of these tips to give unfinished furniture a distressed look.

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sand arm edges of furniture to create rounded look

Here are some tips and suggestions on how to distress furniture:

Start by studying the antique you want to duplicate. We used an old child's chair to detect some signs of how antique furniture becomes distressed. On this chair, for example, at the point of each arm there was some loss of color and rounding of the edges. That is a great clue for something to do to the new chair or piece of furniture. Also consider duplicating any chips and marks that can come with age -- a child's heels on the slats of a chair, for example.

Be sure to check the legs of furniture. Wear and tear can create nicks and rounded edges. These are great to duplicate as well.

The first step for distressing the new wooden furniture is to apply a clear coat of satin sealer. Remember that all antiques start out as new furniture with a new coat of finish.

Start the distressing process by sanding the arm edges of the furniture to create a rounded look.
Note: Don't use a power sander for distressing furniture.

  • Repeat the sanding process for any foot rung that may exist. Do only the front portion because feet can't reach the back.

  • Use a coarse file to round off and scruff up the feet or runner of the chair.

  • Create some slight dents in the arms of the furniture with a hammer.

  • Use a 1/16" drill bit to place "worm holes" in the legs of the furniture. Four or five holes clustered together should do the job.

  • Another great distressing technique is to take a fine-point black marker and create a few specks on the legs and arms.

  • A special technique for creating black rings is done by spraying black paint on the bottom of a tin can, then pressing the can on the wood to create a black ring. Note: This works best on tabletops, not chairs. This works better than placing a water glass on the surface and waiting forever for a ring to set in.

  • The last thing to do for distressing furniture is to apply a coat of paste wax. It's best to use a dark paste wax to create an antique look. The wax brings out those worn areas created by the distressing process.

Be Smart: Don't go overboard with distressing furniture. Too much can be detrimental to the process.

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