Distressed wood makes it look like it’s old and weathered, and it gives it a homey, rustic apparel with texture. In some lumber stores, you can purchase salvaged wood that is called barn wood, and it gets salvaged from old barns that have been through many years of weathering. However, if you were to go out and buy aged barn wood, you’d pay a premium price for it. However, learning how to distress wood and making your own allows you to get all of the wood you need in the look you want for a fraction of the price.
We’re going to touch on 17 ways how to distress wood. You can easily modify the techniques and tools to fit what you have on hand and combine a few different treatments to get the finished look you want.
Distressed wood has a very shabby chic and comforting style that many people love to have dotted around the house.
How to Start a Foundation to Distress Wood
Before you learn a few ways how to distress wood, you have to start with a solid foundation. Doing so will ensure that you get a more authentic look that you’re satisfied with without breaking the bank.
Prepare the Space
You want to start your project with the correct preparation, just like you would anything else. To start, cover your working space with drop cloths or old sheets to avoid splashing paint or stain and making a mess everywhere. If you usually deal with wood furniture for this project, remove any hardware like handles or knobs and store them in a safe space until you finish.
Sand Down and Clean the Wood
Next, clean whatever piece of wood you want to use. For the end result, you’re aiming for that used, old distressed wood look, so you need a clean surface to start with. If the surface has a finish, sand it lightly and wipe the dust off using a damp rag. For wood pallets, you’ll do the same process. To distress or age new wood, you’ll want to sand the corners and edges to soften them up as older wood doesn’t have sharp edges.
17 Ways How to Distress Wood
Once you have a clean and dry slate to work with, you can experiment and see which technique on how to distress wood works for you. Some may work much better than others.
1. Baking Soda And Vinegar
This is a very simple way on how to distress wood to take a new piece of wood and make it look old. If you want to try this method, you’ll need a darker wood that has more tannin in it, and this includes red oak, pine, cedar, mahogany, and redwood.
If you want pallets to look aged, this works nice for unused pallets. This way, you’ll get all of the imperfections that pallets offer with an aged patina. There are two ways of going about this, and one is time-consuming. The second one is much less time-consuming. You’ll put your piece of wood on a sawhorse or something similar that exposes all of the sides. You can always flip the piece of wood to repeat the distressing process.
Mix one part water and one part baking soda to start. The amount depends on how big your project is. You’ll apply your mixture very generously using a paintbrush, and the goal is to get a very thick layer. The longer method is allowing the coated wood to sit in the sun for six hours. The short way is to spray it with vinegar after you apply the paste and allow it to sit for 10 minutes.
Once you finish all of these steps, you’ll want to brush your piece of wood with a wire brush. The tannin can come off with the wire brush at this time. Rinse the board with water and allow it to dry using a cloth. Repeat this process again the next day if the wood is too dark. Finish by applying your sealant.
2. Candle Wax Technique
You can use this technique on how to distress wood using painted or raw pieces of wood. It allows you to create a multilayered distressed wood look. All you have to do is paint the piece in random places and allow the wood to show through, or you can cover it all and allow the paint to peek through. Apply your candle wax to any places you want the paint or wood to show. Paint another layer of different colors and allow it to dry. Finally, sand or rub off the wax.
You can easily use candle wax to create a nice distressed look, and it allows you to personalize the look to suit your tastes.
3. Dry Brush Technique
If you’re someone who routinely paints on canvas, you’re probably familiar with this technique. It allows you to add more layering without a heavy amount of paint. As a result, you’ll get a piece that looks more unfinished or sketchy. All you have to do is grab any old brush you have laying around with hard bristles.
Dip it in whatever paint you want to use. You’ll only need a little as you’ll skim off as much excess as you can. Paint the piece in a very quick motion with strokes that go in a different direction. Make sure that you don’t cover the entire surface, and the goal is to allow some of the base color or wood to show through. You can use different colors in several layers and sand it lightly to get a worn look.
The outcome of this method on how to distress wood looks like weather-aged or bard wood, and all you need is a glaze. You mix four parts of a clear mixing glaze with two parts of a translucent color glaze and one part antiquing asphaltum glaze. Stir everything and adjust the color to where you like it. Next, you’ll get a brush and brush the glaze over your wood piece and tap the brush on a stick to give it freckles for you to rub in.
This technique on how to distress wood involves five steps, but they’re very easy and straightforward to follow with a terrific final effect. The first thing you have to do is sand the wood, and how much you sand depends on how rough it is. The final result doesn’t have to be completely smooth, and you’ll most likely only need a light sanding. Using a random orbital sander or a finishing sander is a good idea.
Paint the wood with a thin coat of paint, any color you like. Any latex or wood paint will work for this step as long as it’s not glossy. If you’re going to use this piece of wood outdoors a lot, we recommend using enamel paint. This helps make it more durable even though you’ll seal it in the end. If you’re trying to get a more in-depth distressed look, you can use two colors on top of each other. The paint layers have to dry 100% before you apply the second layer.
Sand your painted wood using a coarser sandpaper grit up to P-80 or steel wool. The effect you want is some of the wood grain or base paint color visible through the layers of paint. You can get a more antique look using wood stains. Get some dark brown wood stain and a cloth and rub it all over the piece of wood. Wipe any excess stain off, and you’ll notice that the visible wood grains that are left after the second sanding pick up the color wonderfully. White paint will turn a grayish weathered color.
Laying paint in different colors and strategically sanding it off allows you to create a weathered look like you find on beach chairs.
6. Paint and Glue
If you like how old cracked paint looks, this was on how to distress wood is a great way of getting this look without worrying about a professional-grade crackle medium. All you’ll need to pull it off is two contrasting color paints and school or all-purpose glue. The first step is to paint the wood with your base color and allow it to dry.
Then, you’ll smear the paint with a generous amount of glue. The glue should be sticky when you paint the contrasting top coating using contrasting strokes going in one direction. The cracks will start to form relatively quickly. You can experiment with thinning out the top coat, glue, or both mediums. This will allow you to get more detailed and smaller cracks.
8. Paint and Sand
To use the additive methods on how to distress wood, like staining or making divots, you can also distress your wood by subtractive methods, including sanding. Maybe there is already paint on your salvaged wood, if not, you’ll add a quick coat of whichever color you want and then sand it off using a rough grit piece of sandpaper.
A powered sander with 80-grit sandpaper works very well to remove some of the paint from the surface of your wood. If you work quickly and don’t spend a lot of time on one spot, you’ll end up with texture from the sandpaper and do a hit and miss job of sanding.
9. Pouring Paint Technique
This is one nice way to whitewash wood, and it’s perfect for any wood that already has a lot of texture to it. Pour the paint onto your wood’s surface and scrape it along the grain with a scraper before allowing it to dry.
10. Rinsing Technique
Another fun way to add a lot of character to your wood piece is and create a distressed look is to add the rinsing technique. This option on how to distress wood is perfect for an old wood or soft aged wood effect, and it works best using raw wood. Paint the wood and allow it to dry for a bit, and then rinse it with water and wipe the surface gently with a cloth to finish.
11. Sanding Technique
This is arguably one of the easiest ways on how to distress wood we have, and it doesn’t matter if you’re using furniture or wood pieces. All you have to do is sand random spots of your painted wood or furniture. You can do this with several layers of paint if you want to get a more aged look. Each coat should dry thoroughly before you sand between the layers. Don’t forget to seal it at the end, and it’s a better idea to use a power tool than a manual one.
Sanding random areas of your wood piece of furniture around where they naturally wear out quicker can help age the piece nicely.
12. Scraper Technique
This method on how to distress wood works just like sanding but it removes only paint and not any wood. To start, paint the wood and allow it to dry until the paint is tacky. Get a scraper and scrape the paint off the wood in places it usually chips away. This includes the corners and arms. You can work with several colors or layers of paint to give it an even more distressed look.
13. Stain, Wax, Paint, And Blowtorch
This is a very fun method on how to distress wood that’s great for people who want a more used, rustic look. It is slightly more complex than most items on the list and it involves more tools. However, it gives you more distress, so you’ll get a more barn wood or reclaimed wood look. It works nicely on inexpensive wood, and you’ll need:
- Brown shoe polish and brush or any brown stain
- Candle wax, paste wax or petroleum jelly
- Fine-grit sandpaper
- Latex paint
- Metal chain
- Mineral spirits
- Paper towels
- Protective face or dust mask
- Wire brush
The first thing you have to do is cover the new piece of wood with a shoe polish or brown stain. You want to put the stain onto the piece of wood using an old cloth and get rid of the excess by wiping it off. If you use shoe polish, use a shoe polish brush. You really want the pigment to set into the wood in both instances before allowing it to dry. The next step is to decide where the natural wear and tear is, like on edges and corners. Take a piece of paper towel and rub paste wax, candle wax, or petroleum jelly onto these areas.
Now you’re ready to paint the wood, including the areas you covered in wax. Once the paint dries, you’ll get a paper towel to wipe the paint off from the waxed areas using a side to side motion. The wood grains will start to show below the paint. You can keep working as long as you need to until you’re happy with the result. Use mineral spirit to strip away the rest of the wax.
Next is the trick to get next-level results, and it involves the blow torch. Carefully burn the wood in some places with it. To give the wood that weathered, old look that is so popular with barn wood with blemishes and dents, give it a beating with a hammer or take wire brush to create scratch marks and nicks. Finally, hit it with the chain and treat it with sandpaper. You can add a finish to the top if needed.
14. Tea, Steel Wool, and Vinegar Solution
This method is one of the most popular results you’ll get if you search for how to distress wood and look at the first few results. All you’ll need to complete this project is:
- Black tea or coffee or red wine
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Steel wool
- Two jars
- Vinegar (white, wine, or apple)
You’ll put the steel wool in a jar and fill it with vinegar. The type of vinegar you use will dictate what the finished product looks like. Darker vinegars tend to stain more with a more intense effect. However, it also depends on the type of wood you’re going to use. You’ll have to leave the mixture for a while, between one and five days.
To speed up this process, heat the vinegar before you add the steel wool. Once the mixture sits for at least overnight, add hydrogen peroxide to the mixture. It should be on the stronger side, at least over 3% to help give you quicker results. Sunlight also helps speed up the process, so you can set the jar outside on your patio to marinate. Also, don’t cover the jar. The end result will be a beautiful gray color.
The stain’s final coloring will come with more rusty undertones if you leave it to sit out in the sun. When it’s ready, you’ll want to brew some black tea in the second jar. Make it very strong, and allow it to sit for two hours. Tea has tannins that can help enhance the wood’s natural tannins to get more color and depth. Once you brew the tea and allow it to sit, you’ll strain it before brushing it on or using a cloth to put it on the wood. You want to wipe the excess off. You can also use a spray bottle to apply it before wiping it off and allowing it to dry.
Next, apply the vinegar and iron mixture to the wood with a paintbrush. The strokes should be even and running with the grain of the wood. You can add a second coat to give you a darker effect. Allow it to dry before lightly sanding it using a very fine or fine grit sandpaper.
Finally, finish with a coat of whichever sealant you like. This process will help new wood look old, but the results vary.
Most people don’t think that tea makes a nice stain agent to help you distress wood, but it’s a natural dark stain that will set nicely.
15. Wet Paper Technique
All you have to do for this process is prepare small and irregular pieces of paper. Dip them in water before placing them on the wood, and paint the piece before the paper dries out. Carefully lift the paper from the surface while the paint is wet. If you allow it to dry, the paper can stick to the surface. Once you remove the paper and the paint dries, sand it a little to get a more distressed look.
16. Wire Brush
Barn wood is very sought after due to the deep weathering that comes from it being exposed to the elements. You can mimic this look in a small amount of time by using wire brushes that fit into your drill. If you’re using a type of softwood or cheaper wood, this is a very easy process. You’ll simply load up a wire brush into the chuck of the drill and move it over the wood along the grain.
The wire brush will dig into the wood fibers and leave some of them in the more dense grains to etch in a texture of the brush as you move. Depending on how much pressure you choose to apply against the wood with the brush, you’ll get different levels of texture in your finished project. It can get a little messy, so wear a dust mask.
17. Wood Stain
The final technique on how to distress wood is very straightforward. To get a weathered look, you’ll need two stains. First, you’ll want to stain the wood pieces with any sun-bleached color stain like Rustoleum wood stain and wipe off the excess. Next, you’ll have to add a light layer of brown stain and wipe it off.
You could use a weathered gray color as well, and it’s a big trial and error method. The type of wood you use will also impact the final look and color. Some woods are harder or softer than others, and this impacts the final look.
These 17 easy techniques on how to stain wood give you options to try and get a weathered look and feel for your wooden furniture or projects. You can try out a few and see which ones work best for your needs and decor style.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.