Long ago, respectable ladies referred to makeup as "paint." These days, while women may use makeup to diminish signs of aging, furniture refinishers use paint to enhance the appearance of age. Whether you call it distressed or shabby-chic, a paint finish that includes calculated signs of wear can turn dull- or tired-looking furniture pieces into new treasures. Paint a distressed look on an old dresser to turn weary into wonderful.
Preparing for Refinishing
Allow enough workspace that drawers can be taken out of the dresser, painted and dried separately through the stages of distressing. On an old dresser with drawers all the same size, each drawer may fit slightly differently because of warping and aging wood. Penciling a number at the bottom or back of each drawer lets you put finished drawers back easily. Wash all paintable surfaces with a grease-removing cleaner. As you clean, you can start planning the areas most suitable for distressing. An old piece is likely to show areas of natural wear at the corners, along edges and where there is raised or incised decoration.
Distressing techniques depend on the layering of paint colors and the creation of worn areas that reveal them. When you can see worn areas of wood under a single layer of paint, you are looking at a naturally distressed finish. Planned distressing is far more durable. Customarily, you apply one or two coats of primer paint, to protect the wood and provide a receptive surface for subsequent decorative layers. Over the primer, you can apply one or more coats of contrasting colors. When top paint is dry, hand-scraping or sanding lets you highlight the layers of color, especially along edges or trim details. Painting a coat of blue over white primer, then sanding to reveal streaks of white along the edges of a dresser top and sides, would be a straightforward and simple use of distressing technique.
Sanding is the most frequently-used revealing techniques when you create a distressed finish. Fine-grit sandpaper, usually 220-grit, lets you remove parts of a topcoat without penetrating primer to expose bare wood. Coarser grades of paper can be used to create other aging effects. Some refinishers add chisel gouges or other nicks and scratches using files, pieces of chain or other abrasive tools.
Distressing an Unfinished Dresser
Since a dresser is usually an integral part of a room's furnishings, rather than a less important occasional piece, you will want to give considerable thought to the layers of color being revealed by distressing. If the dresser is unfinished or if the original finish is easily removed, you might consider wood stain as a first coat, a single primer coat in a neutral color, a sparse or partial coat of a color already serving as an accent in your room, and a topcoat in your color of choice. Sanding along edges of the top and sides of the dresser cabinet, along drawer edges and any raised trim or decoration would then reveal touches of the accent color, areas of contrasting primer and the occasional stained-wood hint that your dresser was once fine furniture.
Working with Previous Finishes
A battered darling whose original finish is varnished natural or stained wood needs only a light sanding before priming. Oiled or lacquered finishes should be thoroughly roughened to insure that primer adheres. If the wood is handsome, a single primer coat and single topcoat can be distressed to reveal some original wood. Previous painting or uninteresting finished wood can be covered with two coats of primer to prevent reveal.
For distressing that reveals original wood, some refinishers protect it by giving the completed piece one or two coats of clear polyurethane. Others add a coat of antiquing to finish a distressed piece. Sometimes called tea-staining, this topcoat is creating by painting or rubbing a light coat of contrasting wood-stain over the surface, then wiping it off, leaving light traces in corners, around drawer-pulls or along other surfaces. If the finished piece is subject to lots of natural wear, this final antique coating can also be covered with clear polyurethane for longer life.