A color rub adds an extra visual dimension to a piece of furniture, invoking the warmth of layered colors and adding an aged look to the piece. Color rubbing requires that the project piece already has a color or base tone you'd like to show through; when rubbed with a second color, the first color is still evident.
A Glazed Look
A basic color rub, sometimes called a color wash, starts with a piece of furniture that has already been primed and painted in a color you'd like for the base color, for instance, red, indigo or bright yellow. Once that paint dries, brush on a contrasting color in slapdash fashion, using just enough to put some paint on the surface but not coat it completely. While the paint is wet, rub most of it off with a dry, soft cloth. To extend the working time and add a bit of translucency, mix that top paint shade with glaze -- the more glaze, the more translucent the finished effect. Color combinations such as aqua with indigo create a watery effect, or opt for blue atop yellow, yellow atop orange, or gray atop black.
A different type of color rub involves candle wax between paint coats. After the first paint color is dry, rub candle wax over the entire piece, or just areas that would normally receive wear, such as edges and corners of a desktop, or chair legs and edges of the seat and middle of the seat back. Paint on a second shade, such as antique white over robin's egg blue, then rub those waxed areas with a fine-grit sandpaper to remove most of the paint. If sandpaper is too harsh, just rub with a washcloth until some of the top color comes off. The end result looks like an old piece that has been painted a few times, with color rubbed off in key areas from lots of use.
No Stain, No Gain
Regular wood stain can also be used to color rub both painted or varnished furniture. Stain is most visible when the original finished piece is lighter than the stain, such as an oak desk with a mahogany stain or an antique white vanity with a honey-colored stain. Brush the stain on small areas at a time, then rub most of it away with a rag. Another option is to dab the rag into the stain, then rub it over the entire furniture piece. Latex paint that is slightly watered down can be used for a similar effect.
Dark and Handsome
For a designer color-rubbed look on a dark piece of furniture, such as a black console table, sand the paint off on the edges, corners and areas that would typically become worn over time. Once you've wiped away the dust, rub a deep stain color such as cherry over the sanded areas, wiping away the excess after a few minutes. If you're working with flat areas such as the tabletop, stain over the entire area. Rub excess stain away after a few minutes. Several coats of polyurethane seal the look, or leave the piece as-is for a more natural distressed look.