4 Step Antique Finish

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This article is from Issue 30 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Some projects, like my wine server, are not unlike a pair of blue jeans. Both look better after a few years of regular use. To create that well-worn look, I have come up with a finishing schedule that can add a century’s worth of character in less time than it would take to stone-wash a new pair of Levis.

At first glance, this four-step finish might appear demanding, but keep reading. As you’ll soon learn, this special finish amounts to little more than a combination of a few basic techniques you’ve probably used before. The “pickling” and “highlighting” I use aren’t much different than whitewashing a fence. Simply brush on the color and then wipe some off until it looks good to you. And after each step you’ll apply a quick-drying seal coat to save your work.

Besides providing an additional decorative element to your work, antiquing has some practical advantages. Adding color to the finish effectively ties a project’s parts together. I find it useful for blending together mismatched boards (like those you might find at a home center or have stashed in your shop). Distressing not only adds visual interest but also helps “break in” a piece so that you don’t weep the first time somebody tosses a set of keys on top of it. As in life, wear happens. So even if you don’t build the server, try the technique on a few sample or “step” boards (see below). In the end, you’ll have one more trick up your finishing sleeve.

Note: For a list of items used in this story, see the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide on page 42.

Steps 1 and 2: Prep and pickle

Pickling (sometimes called liming) results in a light-stained look that lets the grain show through, but may leave extra pigment lodged in the pores, corners, and carvings. Depending on who you listen to, the technique aims to mimic the look of a once-painted piece that was poorly stripped, treated with strong chemicals, or simply bleached out by the sun.

Pickling is just paint done lightly. Proper prepping helps the process go smoothly and ensures consistent-looking results.

Use a brush to lay on the watered down paint. Divide the project in manageable sections so that the paint does not have time to dry.

Wiping across the grain packs pigment into the pores; wiping with the grain lifts paint from the surface. Blend in your rag work with a dry brush.

Getting ready

Like most finishing projects, start with careful sanding. Power- and then hand-sand your way up to 220 grit. Gently soften any sharp edges on the top or case.

Next, apply a thin coat of stain. (I used medium brown water-based dye stain by General Finishes and diluted it to 50/50; then I applied it with a rag and brush.) Although it adds a step, this base coat darkens the bright look of new wood and provides two levels of color control. In addition to blending the boards together, the stain counters the oak’s natural undertones. Without it, your white pickle coat may dry pink.

Give the stain 2-4 hours to dry and then capture it with a coat of sealer. (I used Zinsser’s SealCoat, diluted 1:1 with alcohol.) Wipe on the water-thin solution with a lint-free cloth. Allow an hour or so for the sealer to dry, and then knock off any raised fibers with a worn piece of 320-grit sandpaper or a gray non-woven abrasive pad.

Getting pickled

A few manufacturers sell prepackaged “pickling” stain, but I prefer making my own. The home-brewed approach not only reduces the number of cans on my shelf and saves a little money, but also allows me the flexibility to use an oil-based paint if I need more working time or latex if I want to speed things along.

To make your mix, add one part solvent (mineral spirits, or water) to four parts paint. Now try brushing it on a sample board and wiping it off so that the grain shows through. Add more solvent if the mix seems too thick; the exact proportions aren’t too critical.

When pickling, it’s important to work in manageable sections, especially with faster-drying latex. Brush on too much or wait too long before you wipe, and you’ve got paint. Work from the inside out, not only to keep yourself as clean as possible, but also to get the feel for the stain on the less visible surfaces before tackling the outer “show” faces. As shown above, the pickling process boils down to brushing on the paint and then ragging off the excess. You may want to follow up with a dry brush to erase any streaks left by the rag.

Once you get the look you want, give it time to dry. Use an abrasive pad to make any needed color adjustments and then apply a shellac sealer coat.

The first few hits will hurt, but the scratches, dings, and dents will add texture and depth.

A fist-sized collection of old keys serves as an all-purpose scratch and dent accelerator.

Use a smooth stone to replicate softer dents done by years of bottles. Focus attention on front edges and top faces.

Step 3: Dare to distress

Distressing is the process of accelerating the natural wear of a new piece of furniture. The only trick is to make the wear look legitimate. This can start with a made-up story, combined with a little common sense. Imagining the history of this well-loved piece (not abused nor left to rot in a barn), I directed most of my attention to the tops, shelves, and sides. Legs and feet tend to suffer the most damage. (Applying convincing wear to the hard oak feet required extra muscle.)

My antiquing arsenal consists of a few found objects and a homemade flail as shown above. I chose each tool because it fits comfortably in my hand and can be used to produce a multitude of different marks. For instance, I can toss the keys onto horizontal surfaces or use them like brass knuckles for close-in scratches and dents. I employ the relatively smooth stone to make dents without cutting through the finish. The coarser face can be used to round corners like a very dull rasp.

The only “trick” is to work slowly and take frequent breaks to inspect your work. You can always add more later or wait for the piece to earn a few of its own.

Shop-Tested Arsenal

The best part of the process comes down to choosing your favorite weapons. I’ve seen other woodworkers use screwdrivers, awls, and rasps to do their dirty work, all with convincing results. In keeping with the French theme, I used a “Desade.” I cobbled this tool together years ago using an old tool handle, a scrap of leather, a few key rings, and some swing-set chains. If the chain-made wear marks start to appear too similar, try changing your technique. Try swatting, dropping, even grabbing the free end and using the chain like a rasp, to vary the damage.

Glazing adds color and character. All you need is a thick bodied stain, some rags, brushes, and a little imagination.

Use a rag to rub through stain. Lighten the areas that would receive more wear from regular use.

A short bristle blending brush helps soften the contrast of the glaze in the carving and other tight spots.

Step 4: Brushing in the years

You can stop the antiquing process at Step 3, but I think the glazing is the icing on the cake. This thick-bodied stain is designed to stay where you put it, giving you the ability to create many different effects. Glazes dry slowly, enabling you to experiment with the finish to achieve the desired look.

Because you’re not trying to achieve a no-brush mark finish, glazing is quite easy to do. Like pickling, it’s a brush-on/rag-off process, as shown in the photos above.

For additional color control, use a shorter bristle brush “dry.” To do this, spread some glaze on a piece of scrap cardboard or plywood. Touch the tip of the brush into the glaze, and then jab the bristles into those areas where dirt or grime might naturally accumulate. Lightly brushing high spots can add or remove color, depending on how much glaze you’ve got on your brush.

Oil-based glazes may require a few days to dry. Take advantage of the drying window to inspect your work at different times of day. Now’s the time to add a few extra distress marks or additional color. You can reverse glazing easily with mineral spirits or by scrubbing it with an abrasive pad.

Last but not least, protect your hard work. Knowing that this server is destined to see its fair share of dinner parties, I applied two coats of water-based polyurethane. 

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