Distressing Wood

Learning how to give new furniture that well-worn look. January 6, 2005

Can anyone suggest some books that deal with the art of distressing wood?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
The best thing you can do is go to antique stores and flea markets and look at the old furniture. Find marks you like and learn to duplicate them. Observe where the distressing occurs and just as important, where there is no distressing. Pick up a couple of small pieces, take them to your shop and try to duplicate them. I also save pieces of scrap wood with real wormholes in them and try to duplicate them in my pieces. The most important thing to remember is that there are no rules. Use whatever works to make the mark you are after. And finally, the best way to age antique pieces is to use many layers of glaze. The more thin layers you add, the more authentic it will look.

From contributor T:
Great advice. I don't know if they do this in your area, but in ours, twice yearly the city has neighborhood cleanups. You can find great stuff for free. I've also made a good chunk of change by restoring some of the things I've found. Incidentally, I had a nice old painted chair that had all the distress anyone would want, and used it as a model for duplicating crackle distress finishes. This is a great way of learning to hone your style.

From the original questioner:
Today at a used book store, I found some first editions of George Frank's "Wood Finishing" published by Sterling Company, Isabel O'Neil's "The Art of the Painted Finish" published by William and Morrow Company, and Robert Scharff's "Book of Wood Finishing" published by McGraw-Hill.

I want to put a few feathers in my cap. One designer in particular flies in a crew from Italy to do high-end distressed finishes on kitchen cabinets. All I've seen so far are some samples, and they knock the snot out of anything I've ever seen. I won't have any trouble with the colors, but the distressing itself is phenomenal.

I doubt I'd be able to bribe the crew with some brews, but I'd work until the cows came home to know how the distressing is done.

From contributor J:
Isabel O'Neil is the one I have. Opened my eyes to a lot of ideas of my own. I use a rounded scraper to scrape the wood to look old and worn. I use a gouging tool to make small gouges in the wood. I have a board with screws through it to hit the wood. Then I stain over that with an old looking stain I formulated from Sherwin-Williams wiping stain concentrates. That look seems to be very popular right now.

From contributor D:
There is a line between making new wood surfaces look aged and making new wood surfaces look damaged. Distressing has to be tasteful or else you get the damaged look.

Go to a furniture retailer which sells mid- to high-end new furniture and see what the big guys are doing to create furniture which sells.

The mindset of the decorating and designing crowd is filled with what's available from furniture stores and so-called design stores. Follow the lead of the big manufacturers and go from there.

From contributor D:
I want to add to what I had written. There is a difference in goals between faking age on an item and creating these designer looks. In most cases, when we are asked to produce these looks for designers, they are looking for charm and not damage. They do not want grime, they want raw umber.

From contributor T:
In your search engine, simply type "faux," or "faux finishes." I have done this on numerous occasions and have found some rather unique finishes, not all painted. I love doing this type of work and like yourself, am on the constant lookout. I was once commissioned to finish a hand carved wash stand in what was described to me as a scraffito turquoise finish, using metallics. The odd thing about this is I had just come off a site (Italian) that had the perfect description of what they needed. They gave me a chip and $2800.00 later they had their finish. I have since looked around, as there is a finish I am completely obsessed with wanting to duplicate. I can't find the darn thing, but part of the description for the finish referred to a burn in. Are you familiar with this term?

From contributor J:
Not sure about a burn in, but I do a finish I call burn through. I first stain it with a wash mix. White, raw umber, and lacquer thinner. Then seal it. Then spray it with a color called Casa Blanca way thinned out, 4:1. Then after it dries, I burn through it by sanding it with 220 sandpaper. The corners and a little bit everywhere else. So you can almost see the taupe color through the white pigmented lacquer. Then I spray a coat of clear lacquer over that. It makes the burn-through pop out at you. Very dramatic. Looks old, but freshly new.

From the original questioner:
I suspect the burn in finish is the type that contributor J describes. Any variety of colors will work and the effect looks nice. Rubbing through the finish in areas that are prone to natural wear and tear is the key to success. Mostly, I have heard the term "burn in" used to describe melting a wax or shellac stick into a void in the wood, a knot hole or an open joint or split.

Another conclusion would be to use a soldering iron or a wood burning tool to add scratches or dents and gouges to the wood surface either prior or after staining.

From contributor T:
I'm halfway suspecting this is what it means. Scraffito is mainly the same thing as what you guys are describing. Rub through. The finish I was looking at resembled something akin to finish having been in a fire. I guess I was trying to read something into it. I had something come through the shop that looked exactly like what I'm trying to describe - the darn thing looked as if it had been charred in a fire. It was done really well. The lady who owned it did not want to tell me where she had it done. Somewhere in Los Angeles is all she would give me. The one I saw on the internet was unique in the way the finish was layered, cracked and textured. The colors are what I really liked - bronze, verdigris, and dark finished wood, with this charred effect over the entire piece, and of course highlights.

From contributor I:
Anyone who knows the basics of finishing can recreate most distressed finishes out there. It is kind of like playing the piano. There are only 88 keys. The technique of pushing down the key is not hard. The art is in knowing what key to push and in what order - thatís what wins you a Grammy. When distressing, if you donít have a vision of where you are going before you start, you will never get there. People can teach you the techniques, but only you can develop the vision of how to use them.

The first step in gaining the vision is to simply use your eyes. Look not only at old pieces of furniture, but also at sculpture, pottery and art. Some of the techniques with fancy names would never take place naturally on wood. You have to go outside your medium to find examples of these techniques.

The second step is to use your head. Look very, very closely and, most importantly, analyze what you see. Simplistically, we have only 3 elements that we use in getting to a desired color: the background color of the wood, pigments and dyes. Thatís it. Just like a musical chord, every color element that we use is a note. How we layer them on the wood's surface will determine the color "chordĒ that we see. We use glazes, stain bases, toners, etc as the vehicles to build these layers. Each vehicle imparts a unique signature to the appearance of the color. For instance, a dye used on bare wood will look different than a dye mixed in some lacquer and used as a toner. When you look at color, imagine the layers and the vehicles that were used to achieve it. When specifically looking at distressed finishes, remember you are going to try to recreate finish failure. What would have caused it to look like that in the first place? There are telltale clues everywhere, but all you have to do is see. Once you figure that out, you can usually come up with some simple ways to recreate them.

The third step is practice, practice, practice, or should I say sample, sample, sample. Like riding a bike or being a parent, people can explain it to you all day long; you donít really understand until you actually do it.

A couple of insights I have discovered along the wayÖ Manipulating color, texture and sheen are often more effective in creating the illusion of age than beating the snot out of the piece. Use at least three colors on the piece. Mother Nature doesnít stop at a stain and a glaze.

Everyone tries to beat a texture into the wood. In reality there is usually more texture coming out of the wood. Wrinkled finishes, accumulation of crud in the corners, etc. Use gesso, acrylic pastes or even thickened vinyl sealer to build up the surface texture. 3D is the key.

Certain fantasy finishes can only be recreated by using silver leaf or a metallic paint as a base coat. Tortoise shell comes to mind.

Less is more.

From contributor Y:
I work with antique lumber and have done a few nice distressed pieces. I use old wood with lots of character and then distress and finish it for an authentic look.

I do a lot of hand scraping and planing, along with multiple glazes and finishes. I have found a combination of texture and color have to work hand and hand. I use a lot of deep garnet shellac sealer and wash coats over glazes with a conversion varnish sealer or dull flat top for durability. I then hand wax and buff the piece for a dull and glossy spot effect. Real antiques usually have a nice worn effect that makes the wood glossy only in spots.

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

Comment from contributor F:
I have done some set construction for movies and music videos and distressed wood has come up a number of times. I was able to get some really great looks on shipping crates that called for a really aged look.

I built the props and then sanded down the areas that would have been handled a lot so that the edges were rounded and some surfaces had dips in them. Next, I used a drill with a light (nylon) sanding wheel (like a metal brush wheel only less aggressive). This brought out the grain very well by taking away the softer layers first and leaving raised grain. It also took a little practice as well.

Once the surface texture was right I painted the wood a light brown color. Once that has dried, I painted it with a darker brown (+30%) and then rubbed the entire surface with a rag, so the darker pains stayed in the cracks. Finally, I rubbed on some wax and buffed it with a car polisher or buffer. This gives you a very realistic and very old wood look.

Comment from contributor E:
I have been doing restorations and conservation for thirty years and can contribute some info that may help in your endeavor to recreate patina. First of all, and most importantly, is whether or not the piece has any historical significance, which we all are hopefully trying to preserve. I make limited repro pieces for customers who appreciate accurate duplication. I don't make a lot of money, and if I really sat down and ciphered it all out, I probably don't make any money at all. I do it as a labor of love. A very good site to start with is the AIC site. The American Institute for Conservation. You can join as a member at any skill level.

Recreating age can best be described as placing your piece in the center of a spider web. The warp that goes out are the resources, processes and situational conditions including time and environments that affected the piece. You have to think and plan this "history" out even before you build your piece. Some, you must include in your shop drawings such as cracks in boards that would have occurred at cross grained restraints. Tops with breadboard ends are a good example of this cracking. Notice how the breadboard end no longer matches the width of the table boards proper. Wood was not kiln dried then and the moisture content was higher. The cells were not killed by heat, or the wood cells or anything still living within it. Try working a piece of air dried riven or quarter sawn piece of lumber with hand tools to experience what the builder did.