refinished cabinet with a distressed stain

How to distress a cabinet using paint and stain.

A cabinet distressed with paint and stain so as to be rustic and vintage-like.

Photo by: Emily Fazio ©2015

Emily Fazio, 2015

Give a not-so-pretty piece of furniture an antique look by painting, distressing and staining. Distressing is ideal for creating an aged look that works well with rustic and cottage decor.

Step 1

Clean Furniture, Remove Doors and Hardware

Clean the surface of the furniture with a rag to remove residue on the surface (Image 2). Use a screwdriver to carefully remove all components (Image 3). If there’s a wide assortment of hinges and screws tape them together or put them in a baggie to keep track of them.

Step 2

Sand the Surface

A sander will help you break through the top-most finished layer of polyurethane and a sheet of sandpaper to get into detailed corners that the sander can’t easily access. Roughening the top layer helps the primer and paint to adhere and is also an opportunity to distress sharp edges and corners for the distressed effect.

Step 3

Prime and Paint

Apply a thin coat of primer to the furniture using a brush and roller (Images 1 and 2). When it’s dry, follow-up with a coat of white paint. High-adhesion primer is preferable if the furniture has a laminate veneer, which tends to be harder to paint with long-lasting results. If the piece is solid wood, traditional primer should adhere well to a sanded surface.

While the top coat of paint is still wet, eliminate roller stipple by smoothing over the paint lightly with the brush (Image 3). This leaves the paint with a brushed-on look, which is a more traditional effect for a rustic or painted piece of furniture.

Step 4

Re-sand the Furniture

To distress the finish (and make the painted surface look more naturally weathered), take the sander back to the surface of the furniture when the paint has dried. With emphasis on the edges of the furniture, use the sander to gently remove some of the paint and primer allowing the underlying wood to show through. The effect can be subtle or dramatic, depending how much of the existing wood you allow to show through the topcoats.

Step 5

Apply Stain

Applying a stain over the painted surface allows for a distressed, vintage-like finish. Through a variety of stain colors, apply one coat with a cloth and wipe excess away in even, straight motions (avoid swirling the cloth). When one coat dries, add additional coats to achieve a deeper, more striated effect, or overlay a different color of stain for a layered look.

With the right color stain, you can even create a light wood effect, making it appear like maple or oak. 

Step 6

Apply Polyurethane

A finishing coat of polyurethane will seal the dried stain making your new distressed furniture durable for the long haul. If the stain is oil-based use an oil-based polyurethane. Regardless of what clear top coat you select, be it matte or high-gloss, a foam brush will make application easy and even.

Step 7

Reinstall Doors and Hardware

Use the same hinges and screws to attach the doors easily. To change the look of your finished piece, consider adding new knobs to match its style.