Distressing…not worth stressing over!

I received a panicked email the other day from a friend who had “over distressed” a piece she said. Now, to me, you can never over distress…that is like having hair that is too big…just not possible in Oklahoma!  Once she sent me a picture though, I fully understood why she felt this way as she used multiple methods and it had ended up looking as though she had “tried too hard” instead of that natural, aged look we want our pieces to have.  This gave me the idea for my next post as I think we forget to mention this aspect of refinishing. Here are my simple tips for distressing. Again, please note these are just my opinions and what I find works for me!

First, pick your method.  There are as many ways to distress a piece as there are brands of paint. There is not necessarily a right or wrong here, it is just your preference.  You can use sand paper and sand by hand, you can use an electric sander, you can use a razor, wax method, paint remover, or with some paint, you can simply use a rag and water! Each method requires a bit of work and some planning!!!

1. Sanding by hand:  I often prefer this method as I feel it gives me more control on where and how much I am sanding.  I normally use 220 grit sand paper and I hit all the edges and corners first. Then I’ll move to the “heart” of the piece-the top and drawers or doors.  I honestly do not draw out a plan of where and how much I am sanding….I just start on edges and go from there.  I like to hit any flaws a little heavier so that it really draws out that aged look.  If I want the bare wood to stand out in a spot, I sand that spot with a heavier hand. If I have a color underneath the top coat I want to show through, I sand with a delicate hand and do not over press.

2. Sanding with Electric Sander: First, let me say that electric sanders are expensive. So only consider this method if you a. already have an electric sander or b. you plan on going into the furniture refinishing business and will get your use out of it ( or c. if you just have a whole lot of money sitting around and are looking for ways to spend it….in this case, CALL ME!!)  I do use my sander quite often…at the beginning of a piece if using Latex paint, and at the end of a piece if I want it to look HEAVILY distressed.  Now, I do not at all claim to be a pro at this…this is just what I have learned from experience.  I have almost NO control over my sander….it tends to lead me around, so this is why I say I prefer to hand sand 🙂 Please see picture below of a heavily sanded piece. I wanted it to look really worn, aged, and wanted the raw dark wood to have a presence on the dresser.

This can also be accomplished by hand, it just takes more muscle and patience.

3. Razor Method: Honestly, I have never been a big fan of this method. You have to have a very steady hand for this method as a razor will actually cut through the wood you are distressing and leave permanent cut marks and scratches in the wood.  If you choose to use this method, I only recommend doing so on edges and corners; doing so only with light pressure. I normally have 2 small kiddos with me while I work, so having a razor blade lying around is not an option for me 🙂

4.  Wax:  Here is another method I tend to steer away from.  I just never could get it to work how I had planned and the finish never worked out.  The basic idea is that you apply the wax UNDER the paint and then when paint is dry, wipe it off over the spots you applied the wax, giving it a distressed look. However, this takes major planning and sketching as you need to know exactly where you applied the wax.  It will bubble a bit or look streaky where you applied the wax, but it is easy to miss a few and then you lacquer over a place that you missed and you have a mess.

5.  Paint Remover:  Third method I stay away from.  Fist off, there is nothing worse than the smell of paint remover. YUCK! It is such potent stuff and you need to wear gloves, etc.  Chemicals are not my thing, so I stay away as much as possible.  Secondly, this actually wipes the paint off, so if you aren’t careful,you get a spot that screams “hey, I just wiped some paint off this spot” versus a jagged, rubbed, worn spot that sanding leaves.  I can tell when remover has been used 99.9% of the time, it just looks obvious and like you took a cloth and wiped it off. This is definitely not the ideal method if you have glazed a piece. It just wipes the glaze off and ruins the look of a glazed piece.

6.  For Chalk Paint, you can simply use a rag and water!!! This is another reason I love the Chalk Paint so much. You can simply wet a rag (not dripping wet, just damp) and rub it across the areas you want to distress.  Using your hands allows you get into the corners, cracks, etc and still looks worn and rubbed through versus just wiped off as mentioned in the above post.  Once you apply the wax over your piece, it really brings out that area that you distressed.  No sanding saves a lot of time, dust, and muscle power.  For me, the biggest plus is no dust.  Here is a piece that I simply used the rag/water method.  Please note, this ONLY WORKS WITH CHALK PAINT!! I use CeCe Caldwell’s Chalk Paint and love how it finishes out after I distress it.

Hope this is helpful! Happy Distressing!



  1. Great insight into distressing. I also would not use paint remover or a razor. I don’t like the wax under paint method either. The water/rag wipe down is so easy and so is sanding chalk paint. I find the chalk dust just falls right to the floor rather than flying all over. I am an authorized CeCe Caldwell retailer – I love love love it.

  2. I do the same….love the rub method it’s my favorite. So happy having switched over to CeCe Caldwells Paints I find them much easier to work with and just love the way the finished product looks. I did a dresser for my shop (which carries CeCe) very similar to your finished piece….great job!

  3. Love this post Heather!

  4. So after you rub with a rag then how do you finish the piece? Is there a wax you rub or a finish coat of something?

  5. Terri Barger says:

    Great post, Heather! Thanks for the awesome information!

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