Antiquing Tips, Techniques, and Tools

Finishers reveal the trade secrets of furniture abuse. August 17, 2009

For you antiquing/early American/primitive specialists out there, what are your most often used tools or tricks when it comes to aging a piece?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
The most fun I have is distressing. I have a wooden mallet with small nails nailed into it halfway, then bent over. I have a 2 foot thick chain with bolts bolted to the loops and 10" spikes bent through each loop. I just take the handle I made on it and slam it down for a serious distressed look. I sometimes take a circular saw and run the blade across. I have a pick ax I use to make large holes. I have a 6" wide 1/4" thick board with screws screwed into it for the wormhole look, or a flat head or Philips head screwdriver and a rasp. Always followed by some dry brushing and some dirty brushing.

I actually just finished distressing 15000 FT of oak moldings for a customer that wanted an old European looking bar in his house and I used all the tools above. Made life a bit easier, but what a headache I had when the guys started beating the stuff. I do feel more relaxed for some weird reason after a few days of beating the heck out of lumber all day.

From the original questioner:
Yeah, talk about some serious venting! So, describe "dirty brushing"...

From contributor G:
1. A shotgun.

2. The contents of a home vacuum cleaner's dust bag for ground in dirt... may require layer of shellac.
3. Burial in compost/manure pile for general toning and fast rot.
4. Lye based stripper on feet and legs (the furniture, not yours) to emulate being left in a basement, etc. that had been flooded.
5. An ice pick or awl.
6. Break off any part and reattach with a couple of big nails and one or two of those metal mending plates or corner braces.
7. And as contributor J says, a chain, hammer and a rasp. Rasp all the corners, feet, and places where it would have been rubbed (arms of chair) or dragged (feet) or chewed on by the dog... Don't forget the cat scratches (garden weeder).

The above can be applied at any point between several layers of milk paint, cheap varnish, regular oil paint and shellac, at least one layer with runs or alligatoring, and rubbed through with sandpaper, wire wool... but keep it subtle (smile).

From contributor L:
I have nothing to add. I just wanted to use "subtle" and "pickax" in the same sentence.

From contributor G:
It does sort of slide off the tongue in a "hunting flies with a sledge hammer" sort of way...

From contributor R:
Let's see, I like all of the above so far and will add a block plane and a scrub plane, an arsenal of scrapers. I like 2 scrap sticks with screws driven through that I can use like drumsticks to put in some small worm holes. (Just like playing the drums, what fun!) Here are some pictures of a couple more useful home-made tools.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor S:
If you are talking true early American, they more often than not have been well cared for. They paid a pretty penny for them and were planned to be handed down from generation to generation. They have provenance and they show it. There is usually a booboo here and there that may have been repaired well, but the actual beatings described here are more frequently found on the "antiques made daily" reproduction style. The earliest New England pieces rarely show any beetle infestation, old or new (bright holes) - the bug is not fond of the cold weather. That is more often seen on European recent imports.

Early American is more likely to show gentle wear, very pleasant patination of a faded but glowing color, if you're lucky (benign neglect is a wonderful thing). Or a history of multiple campaigns (over the original) of drying oils, colophony/rosin and concoctions applied over the years which have turned dark and alligatored.

So the question is, which one do you want to reproduce, the real look of a highly prized gem, or the look of a faux antique? The former postings will give you the look of the latter. The real looking reinterpretation requires another route.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the useful, and entertaining, strategies. I can see myself already having a good bit of fun making mallets out of 12/4 oak and driving nails and screws in. No one has mentioned heat or maybe even sandblasting... Any takers?

Contributor S, your perspective catches at something in me. My curiosity drives me overboard sometimes, and I would like my work to be authentic and not necessarily trendy. What do you recommend?

From contributor Z:
This article by Ron Bryze might be of interest:

The Illusion of Age

From contributor R:
The best thing you can do is to look at old antique furniture every chance you get. Take some pictures and get the feel of realistic wear and then try and reproduce it. I also have some pieces of wood with real worm holes that help when trying to replicate them. Then there are the designers who really don't care about authentic wear and just want the same look everywhere. Bottom line is to please the client and have some fun while you're at it.

From contributor D:
There's a line between damaged and distressed. Some of the above crosses over it. As stated, look at the real stuff. It's your best clue. I use none of the ones mentioned and mine looks as real as it gets.

From contributor O:
It's so easy to take a distressing step too far and have it end up looking like poop... same goes for the finishing aspect of the distressing step. I think it was one of George Frank's books that suggested using a piece of coral for the distressing. It has numerous size high points and if you use it properly (slight tapping - not too hard or you will break the coral into pieces), it really does leave a random pattern of what really looks like authentic wear and tear.

I hope that Dennis Schmidt happens along, as he has a pretty decent array of tools for such a purpose. I've found that using colors as an antiquing tool is the most authentic.

Another tool that's an absolute in our kit is a wood burning tool - costs a few bucks and well worth it. It not only leaves a scratch in the raw wood, but the gentle burn that surrounds the scratch is beautiful when the piece is finished. Again, too much looks poopy, just enough looks authentic. You can use a soldering iron the same way - gentleness is better than harshness.

Another valuable tool is a trip to a museum. You will see authentic antiques and they will show you just how an antique ages - not only in color, but by natural distressing as well. I think distressing should be taught to a finisher, just as mixing colors and sanding is.

From contributor S:
What are the woods you are most likely to be using? Are you making cabinets? One of a kind or production? Construction contemporary or exact reproduction (mortise/tenon, etc.)? Finish coat materials contemporary (NC lacquer, CV) or early resins/wax? My suggestions will be dependant on your answers.

From the original questioner:
I mainly make cabinets, and some tables. I usually use alder, cherry, maple, and oak for stain grade. Maple or poplar for paint. For finishing I use shellac from flakes, BLO, pre-cat lacquer (clear and pigmented), dyes, oil stains. I am working on a vanity now that will be finished with milk paint. Mainly modern finishes to date, though.

My construction methods are modern, utilizing pocket screws, biscuits, and plywood when appropriate. The pieces I build are sometimes one of a kind, small run, or production. What I am trying to get into now will be small run or one of a kind.