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Interior Design

Distressing Design

The world of design is an odd place. Ugly is beautiful if it is kitsch. Every year a new colour becomes the “new black”. Brass curtain poles currently represent the cutting edge. And sometimes, the best way to update old furniture is to make it look even older. Distressing furniture is the art of adding an aged look to a furniture piece. Whilst you’re probably right in thinking that your kids or pets could distress your furniture for you in under an hour, there is actually quite an art to doing it well. If you want a distressed piece that looks like an expensive antique instead of kid casualty, just follow these simple steps.

  1. Start small and build up the necessary skills. Don’t begin your experiment in distressing with your Grandma’s prized rosewood sideboard. Instead try a new unfinished piece in solid wood or a thrift shop find. These can be found at much cheaper prices than comparable finished pieces.
  2. Even though you may think the piece is smooth, start by sanding it with fine sandpaper anyway. Be sure to sand in the direction of the wood grain as this will greatly improve the look of your finished piece. The only times you should sand across the grain is if you are removing a particularly stubborn imperfection such as paint or a deep scratch.
  3. After sanding, clean with a tack cloth (available at any home improvement centre). This removes all the dust from sanding so the finished piece will be really smooth and ready for the next stage.
  4. Apply a coat of primer using a brush and painting in the direction of the grain again.
  5. After the primer is dry, lightly sand with a fine sandpaper again. Repeat cleaning with a tack cloth.
  6. Apply your final coat of primer.
  7. Various distressing techniques (be sure to wear safety goggles when working with these tools):
    • Sand the edges of the piece to remove any sharp corners and simulate wear
    • Use an ice pick or nail to simulate wormholes or insect damage.
    • Want to simulate fly specks? Use a toothbrush dipped into black ink and rub a toothpick along the top of the brush. Use this technique after you stain the piece.
    • Take a hammer and lightly add depressions to the piece.
    • A screwdriver can add holes in random areas
    • Use other tools around the house including a pizza cutter or chisel
  8. Now you want to emphasize the marks you made. Start by again cleaning the surface using a tack cloth. Then apply a wood stain using a damp cloth or a sponge brush. Work on one small area at a time and wiping the stain off with a cloth before moving on. Wiping the stain off leaves behind just enough stain to collect in the holes to emphasize the distressed wood.

9.      After the stain left behind is dry, apply a sealer or polyurethane finish with a sponge brush. Once that is dry, the piece is ready to enjoy.


  1. Always clean after each step with a tack cloth.
  2. If you don’t have a brush, try using old lint-free rags to add stain.
  3. There’s a difference between distressing and destroying. Use a light hand with the hammer and other tools.

What You Need:

  • Furniture!
  • Fine sandpaper
  • Tack cloth
  • Quality stain
  • Safety Goggles
  • Quality Primer
  • Distressing Tools like hammer, ice pick, nails, toothbrush, chisel
  • Permanent Ink

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