Distress Done Right

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This article is from Issue 75 of Woodcraft Magazine.

3 great ways to add years of character  (in about a day) with Black Dog paints

Not too many years ago, if an old piece of furniture started to show its age—a few too many scrapes, scars, or some patches of peeling paint—it was dunked in a dip tank, stripped bare, and completely refinished; or tossed to the back of the barn. Times have certainly changed. Today, designers seek out furniture and accessories that have stories to tell. Homeowners appreciate how these so-called “distressed” pieces add a fresh sense of style to almost any décor.

Having exhausted the reserves of most barns, basements, and garages, many enterprising finishers have found ways to replicate the effects of time. As the finishing expert at Black Dog Salvage, I’ve devised my own techniques for distressing that, contrary to what the name suggests, add appeal by color coordinating (and sometimes, cleaning up) found pieces and brand-new creations.

In the next few pages, I’ll show you three easy ways that you can add color and a little “history” to your next project in about a weekend. You don’t need many materials (see photo, right). In addition to the paints and topcoat, you’ll need a few brushes and some rags.

Making history. With 16 intermixable colors to choose from, you can match your project to any room in the house. Finish things off with Topcoat.

Wet or Dry: same base, 2 different looks

Start with a solid base

These three techniques start with a solid color base coat. Priming isn’t necessary since the Black Dog Furniture Paint is formulated to stick to all types of clean surfaces. Oils, waxes, and silicone-based polishes are another story. If you’re working with a flea market find, clean it with a mild solution of TSP (Tri-Sodium Phosphate), and let dry.

First coat. Using a stiff bristle paint brush, apply the base color to the project. Brushing with the grain, lightly scrub the paint onto the surface.

Paper plate palette. Pour a little paint on a plate to keep contaminants from getting in the can. Dipping the bristle tips puts just the right amount of paint on the brush, controlling drips.

Working Wet

Wet distressing is the fastest and easiest distressing technique to master: simply brush on the second color, and then wipe it off. If you make a mistake, wipe it off completely and try again. Working quickly is the main challenge. Furniture paint dries fast, so it’s best to focus on one section at a time. I typically start with a project’s front face, and then finish with its ends.

As shown in the photos, start by brushing your second color onto a section. Next, wet a clean, lint-free rag (I like to use old t-shirts), wring out any excess water so that it’s damp, not drippy, and bunch it into a ball. Tuck the rag’s “tail” into your palm so that it doesn’t drag across your work. Now wipe the rag across the surface in the same direction as you applied the paint. The top color will blend in with the base color of the flat sections and build up in the crevices, highlighting any decorative profiles. If you remove too much, just brush on more paint and rewipe. Continue the brushing and wiping two-step process until you achieve the desired effect.

After giving the piece time to dry (about 24 hours), I’ll apply a coat of Guard Dog Topcoat to protect the finish and to add depth to the color. If the piece will be subjected to heavy use (chair seats, tabletops, etc.) I’ll apply a second or third coat. Give each coat about a day to dry, and then scuff-sand the surface with 320-grit sandpaper before applying the next.

Lay it on, and then wipe it off. Brush the second color onto a section, and then wipe off the paint. Flip the rag so that you’re wiping with a clean face.
Corners come last. After finishing the front, finish up with the ends. Use the rag to blend in any drips.

Try Dry

Dry distressing isn’t much more difficult than wet distressing, but it is a bit tricker because attempting to wipe off the second color (even a drip) will create a noticeable smear. If the second color gets too heavy, let the paint dry, then brush the base color over the area to cover up the trouble spot. Let the base paint dry, and then continue with the second/top color.

For this technique, two things are important that sound contrary to “good” painting. First, for the best effect, you want a ratty brush. (If you can’t find one, you can make one. See the sidebar below.)

The second tip is to remember that less is always more. You can apply a second or third coat, but if you go overboard at the get-go, you’ll need to reapply the base color, and start from scratch. To charge your brush, dip the tip in the top color and then blot out the excess on a clean rag (see photos, right).

To lay the paint, lay the brush on its side, and pull the brush across the piece, parallel to its surface. Use the tips of the brush only after applying paint on to the piece. When the brush starts to skip, do not be tempted to press it against the workpiece. Lift the handle and let the bristles streak for a few additional inches, and then dip, blot, and continue brushing. (One more tip: If you think that you’re close to the desired level of distress, walk away and let it dry. This way, you won’t risk blurring your initial success.) When you achieve your desired level of distress, seal the piece under a coat or two of Guard Dog, matte or satin.

Less than a dab will do ya’. Too much paint will spread instead of streak. To load your brush, dip only 1⁄4 of the brush in the puddle of paint, and then dab it into a rag.
Touch and go. Hold the brush parallel to the surface and drag the head across the work. For long passes, use your free hand to help steady your brush.

Make a good brush bad

Ratty old brushes are my secret weapons for distressing. In a pinch, you can wear out a brand-new chip brush with a pair of scissors. Trim the bristle tips at an angle, as shown in the photo left, then flip the brush and cut from the other side. (Think “awful haircut”…the more uneven it is, the better it will work.) After trimming, slap the brush against your bench to shake out any loose bristles. To prep it for paint, rinse it and then blot it on a clean rag to remove excess water.

Try glazing for more age and depth

Give glaze a go

Glazing takes more time than the other distressing techniques (most of the time is spent waiting for the paint to dry), but the multiple layers of color create a richness and depth that make it worth the extra effort. Another advantage is that this technique is a little more forgiving than a single-color topcoat, since any uneven spots can be concealed under subsequent coats of paint.

The first step is to apply your base color (for this example, I used “I Need a Bandage,” which is our version of red). After allowing time for the base to dry completely, apply the glaze with a dry brush, then gently wipe it with a rag to blend it in (see photos, right). Continue adding the glaze in stages until it looks good to you. (In this case, I liked the look of a 50/50 base and glaze ratio.) Now give your project time to dry. Depending on the weather, you might be able to continue painting in a few hours, but to be safe, I recommend 12 to 24 hours.

For the next layer, you’ll reapply the base color. In this photo, I’m using a dry brush technique (see photo, right), but if you wish, you can soften the topcoats with a rag. You

can continue layering the base and top colors, but be sure to apply less paint with each successive coat. The goal is not to hide underlying layers, but to allow them to shine through.

A multi-step finish deserves a little protection (Guard Dog matte or satin). I find that the clear coat helps tie the colors together. Give the piece a day to dry, and then show off your new “old” piece.

Build up the glaze. Apply the glaze in stages until you achieve the desired color balance. To imitate a weather-worn finish, apply the glaze with a brush, and then use a rag to soften the streaks.

Layer it on. Top off the glaze with a few streaks of the base color. You can continue adding alternating layers of base and top color for more depth and complexity.

Quick Tip

For added character, try scuff-sanding a few spots with 220-grit sandpaper. To replicate a well-worn surface, sand through both colors to uncover the underlying wood.


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