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Putting Authenticity in Your Distressing

This past weekend my sister-in-law and I went to an antiques sale and naturally, as is the trend these days, there was a lot of faux distressed furniture there. Now I realize with the popularity of painted, distressed furniture these days, a lot of people are picking up cans of chalk paint and going to town on every piece of furniture they can get their hands on, both new and old. In some cases, I say knock yourself out. What bothers me, however, as I discussed in an earlier post, Listen to Your Furniture Before Painting, is when people not only paint good wood furniture, but do a really poor job of it.

As anyone who has ever painstakingly refinished fine wood furniture can tell you (and I've done my share), good wood SHOULD NEVER BE PAINTED. It's a crime against art, and make no mistake, fine wood furniture is art. There, I've said my piece on that.

Like anything else, unless you want the finished product to look like an amateur did it, study the real thing. Artists have known this for years. True faux artists can make a plaster wall look like real marble, or a piece of metal look like burled wood. They're good at it because they've studied what the real thing looks like, and then they've practiced reproducing the effect. For example, this is what real distressed wood looks like:

Real distressed wood. Notice the natural fading and curled peeling of the paint.
Slapping some chalk paint on a dresser and hitting it with the electric sander (and believe me, it is obvious) is not producing a realistically distressed piece of furniture. Take a look at these two examples (I pulled all these images from what's trending on Pinterest):

Faux distressed chest - too much work with the electric sander produces a contrived look. Paint does not naturally wear like this.

This is how the paint on a real aged chest would look
Notice how most of the aging does not come at the corners (as you see on most faux distressed furniture), but at the bottom, where moisture and wear would have aged the wood and chipped away the paint. The wear also darkens the wood there, something to keep in mind when you're distressing.

Here's another example:

Faux distressed tables. Obvious sanding. No aging, fading, or cracking of paint.

Naturally distressed table. Notice the chipping and fading of the paint and the wear of the wood.
Short of leaving a piece of painted wood furniture out in the elements for years, there's no way to absolutely reproduce this look, but you can come closer than hitting a newly painted table with a sander. Preparation is the key factor here. If you want your wood to look aged, you have to age it, and that means taking it down to bare wood first. Every true craftsman knows this. Painting over a factory finish and sanding it back is never going to get you the look you want. If you want aged wood, you have to start with bare wood.

Years ago, the only furniture that was painted was made from lower grade/grained wood. Much of it was pine or ash. The wood wasn't primed before painting, so the paint (often milk paint) sat on top of the grain without a bonding agent. Over the years, as the paint became worn and/or chipped, the piece was painted again, often without sanding or preparation. Depending on the age of the piece, this might happen several times with several different colors over the life of the piece. Oils and dirt often collected in and clung to indentations, cracks, and scars in the piece, causing them to darken and be less receptive to paint.

Real distressed cabinet
 Reproducing this look takes time, skill, and patience. The wood you expose won't look like this unless you age it. Take a look at this piece and compare:

Faux distressed cabinet
Big difference, right? If you want authentic, you have to use the same process. Strip the old finish down to the wood. Then start adding age. You might want to pound a few nail holes here and there (if it's a table top), hit it with a chain or a ballpeen hammer, sand down the corners, etc. (and by the way, this is the ONLY time you should use a sander). When you're done, sand it as smooth as possible. Naturally worn wood is like worn stone--it's as smooth as glass.

Now you're ready to age the wood. Use an aging solution -- the easiest is to soak a piece of steel wool or rusty nails in vinegar for a week. If you want to darken the wood, add some tea bags to the solution. Use the solution to paint the wood with as many coats as it takes (letting it dry between coats) to get the old, weathered wood look you want. Once you do, let the wood rest for a couple of days to allow it to dry out, then you're ready to start adding paint.

Old paint chips due to a combination of factors--climate (heat and cold, moisture and dryness), wear and tear, and oil from use (such as in your hands). Climatic factors cause the paint to pull away from the wood, expanding and contracting to create cracks and peels. To recreate chipping from oils, dab a little Vasoline or better yet, wax (such as in dark shoe polish) across the wood, paying particular attention to those indentations or wear spots you created. Don't overdo it, and please, don't just hit the corners. Furniture doesn't naturally wear that way. You can also use a heat gun after the coat of paint has dried to cause it to bubble and pull away. Use your fingers or a paint scraper to remove some of the chipped paint (no sandpaper). Study pictures of real distressed wood furniture to see where the paint would have chipped naturally. Like this:

Naturally distressed paint
In this example on a door, the wear occurs in the areas of the handle, where the oil from people's hands have penetrated the wood, as well as at the bottom where moisture would have run down the piece and pooled. Milk paint will give you the most authentic look, as that is what most furniture would have been painted with, but chalk paint will do almost as well. You can spring for the Annie Sloan stuff, or better yet, make your own. Here's a good place to start:  Best Homemade Chalk Paint Recipes. I wouldn't recommend latex or acrylic if you're going for a true distressed look. Giving some thought to what causes the distressing will help guide you on how to reproduce it, The following piece comes close, but it's still obvious it's been sanded in places, as opposed to worn by time. And again, only on the edges on the drawers. In a naturally distressed piece, the bottom drawer would have been the most distressed, almost completely worn of paint, as would the legs.

Faux distressed chest. It's getting closer, but  you can still tell the paint was sanded as opposed to worn away.
Real dimension comes from layering different colors of paint. To do this takes time, because you want each layer to cure before adding the next, which means allowing several days between coats. Otherwise, the layers tend to bond together. Treat each layer as carefully as the first, applying paint aging and wear effects to build up a finish. With the second and subsequent layers of paint, you might want to consider adding a crackle effect to your Vasoline and/or shoe polish arsenal, though be aware that any paint (meaning subsequent layers) applied over a crackle finish will also crack, so, as with the Vasoline, use it sparingly. For a great post on making your own crackle finish, check out Make the Best of Things: Crackle Finish with Elmer's Glue.

You can either use different shades of the same color (such as a lighter turquoise over a darker one, to simulate fading), or different, related colors, such as those in the image below, taking into account the fading effect that time and weather would have produced. Notice how the orange on the door is fading to a creamy gold in places? Watering down your paint to create a wash can be helpful in creating this effect.

Naturally chipped paint revealing other colors

Whatever you do, try to stick with colors that would have been authentic to the time period. The following piece misses on this mark completely.

Bad job of layering colors. Both the yellow and the turquoise are too bold for this effect.
Another example of authentic and faux paint layering:

Real aged paint
Faux aged paint. The chipping is random, though not at all where it would have naturally occurred

And while we're on the subject of painting, a word about technique. Distressing is not the same thing as sloppy. I can't tell you how many faux distressed pieces I've seen with rough, careless brushstrokes. Worn paint, as with worn wood, is smooth. Even when it's chipping, there's a smoothness to it. Take care with your painting. Like the craftsmen of old, you are attempting to produce a work of art.

A final word on finishing. Never, ever, ever apply polyurethane to a distressed piece of furniture. It wasn't around then. Likewise, the use of shellac or varnish was confined to fine, unpainted wood furniture. Wax is a good choice, as it provide protection without shine. For a nice aged look, use dark wax, taking the time to rub it into the crevices and buff it out to a fine, aged patina. There are a lot of commercially available furniture waxes out there, but for my money, I've always used brown shoe polish. It's cheap and does just as good a job as that $30 a can stuff. Depends on how you want to spend your money.

Mastering a distressing technique takes time and experience. Practice on boards or small, cheap pieces of furniture before tackling that prized hutch or dresser. Remember, the word faux means being an imitation of the genuine article.

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