From dry distressing to antiquing, here's how to give that heirloom a gorgeous patina.

By Caroline Biggs
April 24, 2020
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distressed painted side table and doorway
Credit: Mike Krautter

If you're looking for an affordable way to give a piece of wood furniture a beautiful patina, you might want to consider distressing its finish. "Distressing is the process of manipulating furniture to appear older or to have been more heavily used," says Jane Henry of Jane Henry Studios, a full-service antique conservation and restoration shop based in New York City. "It can add a level of depth to an otherwise basic, or perhaps inexpensive item, that you might otherwise toss. If done well, it can mimic an antique that may be difficult to come by or be out of your budget."

So, how do you go about doing this? "I like to imagine all the hands that have touched an object over time, and all the ways it has been abused and mishandled or loved, to help create a natural patina," Henry says. "If you think about how often something that has been around for a century or so has been cleaned and made dirty and cleaned again, it will give you a guideline to how much dirt you need to put on and take off, and how many times in order to arrive at authentic grunge."

Ready to distress a piece of furniture at home? We asked Henry for advice on how to give wood a beautiful patina, and here's what she had to share.

Try a dry distressing technique.

If you're using a single color on a piece of furniture and want to expose the original wood layer, Henry says dry distressing is the way to go. "For a dry distressed look, you can use tools such as wire brushes, sandpaper, files, or even chains and hammers to mimic the appearance of years of rubbing and impact damage," she says.

Go for wet distressed look.

Searching for a foolproof way to give a piece of furniture a naturally worn effect? Henry says to consider the wet distressing method. "This can mean applying several coats of varying shades of paint and then breaking through the layers to expose the under-layers by either scrubbing with a scouring pad, or for a more subtle effect, using wet sanding paper to lightly break through," she says.

Consider the resist method.

If you prefer a chipped paint look, you'll be pleased to know there's a way to recreate it at home. "The resist method involves applying something under or between layers of paint or finish in selected areas, so that the successive coats are resisted, or do not properly adhere, to mimic chips and impact damage," she says. "These include wax or glue under paint or, sometimes, blobs of stripper spattered before applying paint."

Forge a faux antiqued finish.

Nothing makes a piece of furniture appear more naturally distressed than surface imperfections and discolorations. Luckily, Henry says you can create a similar look on new furniture with the right tools. "Various sizes and textures of brushes, as well as rags and newspaper, can be handy for patina," she says. "This would involve splattering, smearing, spilling, or wiping various pastes or liquids on the surface, and then rubbing them off. I often use diluted paint, either oil- or water-based, or tinted wax, which you can make yourself by mixing oil paint or dry pigments directly into paste wax."

Be cautious of over-distressing a piece.

In order to keep your distressing from looking too heavy-handed, Henry says to not repeat the same motion or direction in too many places when applying your finish. "Keep in mind that some areas of a piece might be more naturally distressed than others," she says. "Knobs would be heavily used, as would the edges of tables and baseboards. Less likely to be distressed would be the recesses of moldings, which might have more patina or antiquing, because the dirt would naturally collect there."

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