The Unofficial Authority on How to Distress Furniture Shares His Secrets
Plus the rookie mistakes to watch out for.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:05 AM
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For creative Anthony D’Argenzio, distressed furniture has become an unofficial calling card—he has a soft spot for reviving forgotten pieces for his own house and those of his design clients. While distressed tends to bring to mind the bad shabby-chic furniture of the early aughts, the Zio and Sons and This Old Hudson founder has a broader interpretation, relying on each item to tell him exactly what it needs—or doesn’t—to shine. And according to D’Argenzio, learning how to distress furniture is actually much easier than people think.
Though he’s tried his hand at many different applications, his favorite methods are reviving bare wood with beeswax oil and playing around with a whitewash to freshen up an already stained piece. “My mantra is all about trying to keep waste down,” explains D’Argenzio. “I try not to follow trends, and antiques have been around for hundreds of years. I think if you find a good, quality piece of furniture that has a really beautiful shape and look, you can make it something that will be in your home for years to come. A new life with a new finish—that’s a win in my book.”
Itching to revive that table you inherited from Grandma? You’re in luck—below, D’Argenzio shares his step-by-step instructions for how to distress furniture, plus some of his favorite hacks. We promise you this: You’ll be a pro in no time.
What Furniture Is Worth Distressing?
When it comes to most DIY projects, starting with the right piece is half the battle. D’Argenzio recommends combing flea markets, garage sales, and Facebook Marketplace (which he dubs “a treasure trove”) for discoveries worthy of an aesthetic upgrade. The most important factor you should look out for? The material. Skip metal if distressing is your goal—there’s not much to do beyond applying a top coat to the finish that’s already there. “Finding real, high-quality wood items is key,” urges D’Argenzio. “Refinishing an IKEA cabinet—or any veneer piece—is going to be much harder than a real antique wood item, to which the paint or stain you’re adding will adhere properly.” If it’s heavy, that’s a good sign, as are carvings (veneer can’t be handled that way).
D’Argenzio recommends vintage hunters also consider nonnegotiable features that can’t easily be fixed, such as the size, shape, and style of an item. “You really have to like the bare bones of the piece,” he says. “The finish can always be swapped, but the scale or shape can’t.”
Rookie Furniture-Distressing Mistakes to Avoid
Don’t Consider One Technique the Only Way to Distress Something
“The word distressing is a really broad term,” explains D’Argenzio. “The process could result in a lot of different looks and go with a lot of different styles. Ultimately you should treat each piece of furniture as a unique project. Your strategy has to be catered to that item.”
Don’t Rush Into It
Before getting started, take some time to observe what you like and don’t like about the furnishing, even going as far as putting it in its intended spot in your house to see if that changes your mind at all. Sometimes what seems dark and dingy in your garage can actually look right at home among the other furniture in your living room or dining room.
Don’t Distress a Piece at Random
For furniture that looks realistic and high-end, concentrate on areas where a finish would naturally rub away—like the back of a chair or the handle on a dresser—especially if you’re trying to make a newer piece look old. “If there’s a little distressing on your piece already, you can use that as inspiration and follow that lead,” adds D’Argenzio.
Don’t Skimp on Quality Tools
Cheaping out on your paint and stain or using the wrong sandpaper (D’Argenzio recommends sticking to between 80 and 100 grit for that perfect wear) could mean the difference between reviving and ruining a piece. A few of the tools that he turns to time and time again: Purdy’s paintbrushes (“A 2-inch size is perfect for small pieces of furniture,” he says), quality latex paint for whitewashing (“Simply White by Benjamin Moore goes with everything”), and Annie Sloan Chalk Paint for a matte allover finish.
How to Distress Furniture
We asked D’Argenzio to detail the ins and outs of two of his favorite distressing techniques: whitewashing and waxing. We’re using a table as an example, but keep in mind that some of these steps may differ slightly depending on the age, wear, and finish of your find.
- A bucket of room-temperature water
- White latex paint
- Dawn dish soap
- Several lint-free cloths
- 80- to 100-grit sandpaper
- A mask
- 2-inch paintbrush
- Beeswax oil
Step 1: Make Any Furniture Repairs
Check to ensure the legs and other joints are sturdy and tighten any screws that have come loose. If there are large holes, you can fill them in with wood filler, but D’Argenzio recommends leaving small nicks and dents—they add character.
Step 2: Give It a Good Clean
You want the surface to be clean and free of grime or dust so that whatever finish you choose adheres to it properly. D’Argenzio swears by a foolproof combo of water and a squirt of dish soap, along with some lint-free cloths for scrubbing and drying. Let the piece air out for at least 24 hours post-rinse.
Step 3: Sand a Little (or a Lot)
Sanding your piece is a logical next step, but how much you do so is up to you. This is the stage in the process where you’ll have to trust your gut a bit. You can sand the piece back completely to reveal the raw wood, sand only to remove any flaking paint, or sand in a way that creates intentional wear (in the case of a newer item). Doing this step by hand will give you the most control, rather than going fast and furious with a power tool. As D’Argenzio points out, it’s also a good idea to wear a mask—when working with old furniture you may not know exactly what you’re sanding off the piece, be it lead paint or some other toxic finish. Afterward wipe the surface down with a clean, lint-free rag to remove any leftover dust.
Step 4, Option 1: Apply Beeswax Oil
If you’ll be leaving a natural wood piece as is, apply beeswax oil onto the whole thing using another clean rag. Unlike polyurethane, which can sometimes leave pieces too shiny or change the tone of the wood, beeswax oil provides a matte finish and subtly enhances the grain. (D’Argenzio likens it to “freezing a piece at a moment in time.”)
Step 4, Option 2: Apply a Whitewash
Into the finish, do you just want it to be a little lighter or less flat? Create a whitewash mixture that is 20 percent paint, 80 percent water. Using a dry paintbrush, apply the mixture to the surface with light strokes, wiping it off gently with a dry rag after each section so it’s not totally opaque. This strategy will allow you to “build” your finish gradually, ensuring that you don’t end up covering up too much of any segment.
Allow the furnishing to dry completely in between coats, returning to apply a second coat or sand spots as you see fit. “It’s all about trial and error. If you don’t like the way it looks at first, you can always add more or take away,” says D’Argenzio. Once the furniture has cured for 48 hours, you’re ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor for years to come.