How To Give Furniture a Distressed Painted Finish

updated Dec 19, 2019
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(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

Distressing is an easy way to add character and depth to furniture both new and old. The process is simple but can take a fair amount time, depending on the complexity of your piece of furniture and the amount of distressing you actually want to achieve.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

If you’re working with a newer piece, a few coats of a dark stain before you paint will provide a deeper richness once you’re ready to distress. The distressing process is achieved by using various tools to rough up the furniture and remove layers of paint in a way that will make the piece look old and weathered.

Before you start the painting process, newer furniture can be literally beat up using heavy chains, hammers, hex nuts, wire brushes, and more. This process isn’t for everyone, but it will add yet another layer of depth and character to your piece.

The painting and distressing process can get pretty messy, so be sure the area in which you are painting is well-prepared. Also, beware of dust! Always work in a well-ventilated area and use dust mask when painting, sanding, and waxing. If you have to work indoors, spray down your piece with water to keep the dust from flying out into the room.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

What You Need


  • Flat latex paint (at least two colors)
  • Finishing wax
  • Dark wax (optional)


  • 150 grit sandpaper
  • Sanding block
  • Medium-fine steel wool
  • Buffing cloth
  • Round wax brush

  • Paintbrush
  • Dry brush
  • Clean rags
  • Dropcloth
  • Spray bottle or bowl of water
  • Hammer (optional)
  • Wire brush (optional)
  • Heavy chain (optional)


1. Depending on your project, you may need to sand your furniture before you begin the painting process so that your paint will adhere to the surface. This step isn’t required with most chalk paints, but I think a quick sand is never a bad idea.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

2. Apply paint to the entire surface. This coat will be an accent color that shows through your final layer, so if you’re going for subtle, choose a shade lighter (or at least a shade that is very similar) than that of your top layer color. If wild and creative is the look you’re trying to achieve, pick out a contrasting color, or something totally different from your top layer.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

3. Build up as many color layers as you like, letting each one dry for a significant amount of time before moving on to the next. I usually allow 2-3 days from start to finish, painting in the later afternoon so it can dry overnight.

Paint your layers as thick or thin as you want- nothing really has to be uniform. Keep in mind that the thicker your layers of paint, the more you’ll have to sand through in the following steps.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

4. To distress: I find it helpful while I’m distressing to think about how the piece (if it were really old!) would have been used. The edges would show wear, the legs would have been kicked and bumped, and the paint left on top would be really rough. In the end, it’s really all up to you- and should you find you don’t like how it’s going, just repaint and start over!

Helpful hints for tabletops and other large, flat surfaces: work your sanding tool across the finish of the paint, going along with the grain to expose one, or many, of the underlying layers. Applying more pressure in one area and less in another will give an uneven, worn look that is desirable when distressing.

For legs and accents: If the legs are short, round, or were “turned”, it might look best to follow that same horizontal direction when distressing, hitting and spot here and there with a heavier grit sandpaper. For tall, or more angular legs, distress along the edges with minimal sanding on the sides.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

If you find the actual distressing process intimidating, just start on the back of the piece, or in an inconspicuous area. I like to start off with a medium-fine sanding block so I can get a feel for how the piece is going to distress. It takes more effort on my part, but allows more control in the end. Once you’re comfortable, move on to a heavier grit sanding block that will take less effort.

5. Fold sandpaper to get into the grooves or other tight areas. For hard to reach areas, use a heavier grit sandpaper and lightly scuff the edges. If you decided to paint over your hardware, be sure to lightly distress it by using medium fine steel wool. Just a quick scratch here and there will dull the finish even further and help it blend in with the rest of the piece.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

7. If once you finish distressing you find there is an area you really don’t like, you can always cover it up with your top layer of paint and lightly distress it again. This can be a slippery slope though- I find it’s best to just decide to be okay with it and move on to waxing. The beauty in distressing is that it’s not going to be perfect!

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)
(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

8. Once you’re finished, go over the piece with a dry brush and get as much dust off as possible. If you have one, follow up with the brush attachment on your vacuum. Finish by wiping the down with a damp cloth.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

9. Once the piece feels completely dry, apply your finishing wax. Clear wax is available, but if you want even more depth and color you can use a basic paste wax like I used. Paste wax leaves behind a yellow/brown color. There is also a dark wax product available that can be used as a second coat of wax after the clear coat to add even more dimension.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

10. Dip your rag (lint-free if possible!) or brush in the wax and wipe off any excess- you want to work with a very small amount. I find it helpful to use the lid of the can of wax to smash up any clumps of wax on my rag if need be. Apply the wax onto the surface of your furniture, working in small circles, pressing it in to the wood so it can be absorbed. Try to work in a well-lit area so you can see where you’ve applied the wax, working around until the entire surface has been covered.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

11. After you’ve covered the entire surface and all nooks and crannies with wax, let it cure overnight. It will feel dry to the touch in just minutes, but don’t be fooled- it needs more time. If you can’t wait overnight, 5 hours should be enough time.

12. If your waxed piece is looking splotchy, you can lightly sand over the waxed surface with #0000 steel wool. Go over the entire surface, working in small circles. This should help to even out the sheen and make the waxed finish look more uniform. Follow up with a clean rag or buffer, going over the entire piece and removing any bits of excess wax. If you’re working with a large piece of furniture, look for a buffing attachment for your power drill- it will save you lots of time and a sore arm!

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

Happy painting- and distressing!

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