Antique cabinets acquire the distressed look through attrition or even abuse. It means that the cabinets have seen better days, with dark patches, streaks, dents, or discolored areas. Singled out, this type of defect is typically termed ugly, but when the look is evenly distributed throughout the cabinets, it evokes an atmosphere of country farms, cottages or just simpler times. Imitate the distressed look with a few tricks.
If your cabinets are already painted white, you're in luck. Just leave them as-is and move on to other distress-related techniques. If your cabinets are not white, sand them with 100-grit sandpaper to smooth and prepare the old finish. You don't need to strip them; just rough up the surface so it will accept the new look. Instead of paint, use white lacquer to get the base color down. It dries faster and covers better than paint. Use aerosol cans of white lacquer to paint everything. Don't use bright white, but choose an off-white or ivory color. Spray everything. If it's not perfect, don't worry about it -- it's distressed already. After the first coat of lacquer is dry, sand everything again with 180-grit sandpaper and spray on another coat. If desired, you can also brush latex paint on the cabinets instead of lacquer. It takes longer but yields similar results. Just drag a brush parallel with the grain. It's OK if you get some lines. One coat is usually sufficient, since the look is distressed and light spots fit right in. If the paint feels rough after the first coat, rub it lightly with fine-grit steel wool.
Distress means that some of the paint or stain is gone from the edges, routing or along the bottoms of the cabinets where the finish has been rubbed off over the years. Routing or routing designs are 1/4-inch decorative lines or patterns cut on the face of some doors for aesthetics. Imitate the look by dragging a stain marker along inside routed designs to make it appear as if the routing were losing paint. Stain markers are just like colored markers. Choose almost any color that's darker than the original paint on the cupboard. The darker color makes it appear if the paint has been scraped or worn off. There are two types, oil and solvent base. Choose solvent base for quicker drying time. Push down on the tip to make the stain flow. Make irregular streaks lightly along the edges of doors, on corners or anywhere paint might have come off through years of use. Use the marker randomly to make delicate small lines or cracks. If it's too much, drag a fingertip or cloth over it to remove some of the stain.
Get serious about distressing your cabinets by using a sander. Put on breathing and eye protection and then run the pad of an orbital sander along the bottom edges of doors and drawer fronts to remove the lacquer or paint. Hold the sander with one hand and roll it back and forth lightly over edges. Blunt the corners by pressing the pad of the sander onto corners as if years of wear had taken their toll. Make random streaks (along the valance or anywhere) to remove some of the white, and expose the edge of the cabinet or doors. Don't focus all the distress in one area; spread it out evenly. Use a rotary tool to sand routing wider, or blunt the edges of the routing. Install a bit on the rotary tool that's just a bit wider than the routing; in most cases, the bit should be at least 5/16-inch wide or cone shaped. Drag it along the routing to make the routing appear worn in places, where years of fingers have blunted the sharp edges of the routing. In essence, make the routing appear less than perfect. Make small squiggly lines along the bottom edges with the rotary tool where time may have removed the finish.
Carpenters sometimes use chains to acquire a weathered look on woodworking projects. Scale down this technique by beating your cabinets lightly with a small chain to create dents and divots. Try a small metal chain like you might hang a fluorescent light with, or a larger metal chain that you might find hanging from exterior drain pipes for bigger dents and divots. Do as many or as few as you like, with almost any type of metal chain but stay consistent, regulating the divots and dents evenly over the surface of the doors, drawer fronts and face frames. Mix it up a bit and use small chisels to carve longer divots on the edges of drawers or doors.