Distressed finish

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Techniques for making new furniture look old and beat up. February 19, 2002

We are about to produce a line of furniture for a retailer who wants a distressed finish. On the prototypes we used a piece of wood with nails driven through it and a chain. What other types of tools can be used?

Forum Responses
Make sure you concentrate the distressing to "obvious wear areas", for example: corners, bottom of legs. Look at the piece and think of the areas most touched and prone to damage. Other tools: wire brush (brass), awl, burning torch, draw knife, spokeshave... use your imagination.

You can get an antique effect by burning the furniture before painting it. The strip lines of wood will appear after you wash it using a wire brush. Then paint with acrylic and sand it softly to make touched areas. Last, polish with doff melamine.

You can also use a chisel with a jabbing and twisting motion across the grain. Other tools: rock, rasp, chain.

I put a variety of screws and nails, nuts and bolts in a piece of cloth and sort of flog the piece. The sack of hardware makes for inconsistent marks. Ideally, you should not be able to tell what you used to make distress marks when the project is finished. Also, think of where a sloppy maid might bang up the feet with a vacuum.

I build reproduction furniture for a living and have found that a bag of assorted nuts and bolts makes a good tool for distressing. I have even driven my truck over large pieces, before assembly, in my asphalt driveway - actually a good effect. Make sure there is no oil, first. Use a drop cloth on the topside. Works well on oak and painted pieces.

You can make convincing wormholes by using a Dremel tool with the bit that has a little round ball at the tip. Remember that worms almost always travel with the grain and not across it. This is nifty because you can give depth to the holes and trails, unlike with a bag-o-bolts, which leaves only surface marks.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
Some distressing techniques I have seen:

1. A piece of chain, 8" to 10" long, attached to a wood handle and used to knock dents into the wood. You can also weld a few hex nuts, square nuts, etc. to the chain.

2. One major manufacturer utilizes specially made steel outfeed rolls on a Weinig moulder. The rolls have a pattern of arcs deposited onto the surface with an electric welder. The resulting output looks enough like sawmill saw marks to have fooled the buying public for some 30 years or more.

3. I've also seen a planer with random deposits of weld on the outfeed roll.

Comment from contributor M:
There are three things I like to do:

1. Take a 2" piece of stock, attach chains around the top, and carefully tap the stock with a hammer to make inconsistent patterns.

2. Take a 1 1/2 - 2" piece of stock and put drywall screws in a cluster on the top end, and carefully tap the wood inconsistently but with the grain feathering it to make it look like natural worm holes.

3. Wipe the worm holes with a dark brown stain, preferably on just the holes in step 2, then sand or clean with thinner or minineral spirits.