There is no right or wrong way to distress cupboards. They almost appear as if they have been abused and almost anything you do to them along those lines will work. The distressed look can come from the finish or the wood itself, with dents, gouges and scratches. Distressing cupboards can be a fun way to express yourself or vent your stress on cabinets, for a good cause.
Nothing says distress like blunted or rounded corners. Put a piece of 100-grit sandpaper on a hand-sanding block, or even an orbital sander for a more serious distressed look. Run the block or orbital over the edges of doors, corners, sides or anywhere to blunt or remove stain or paint. Be erratic. Remove paint along one side for a few inches, skip upward and remove more paint in no particular pattern. If your cupboards have a wooden valance, sand the finish off the bottom edge. If the cupboard or doors have a routed pattern on the front, scrape inside the routing with a sharp, narrow object to remove finish from the routing. Another option is to use a marker to color inside the routing, to make it appear as if the finish were removed. If you don't like the way it looks, balance the appearance by applying paint or stain over the edge, wherever it is needed.
Sand blotches onto side jambs, doors or face frames. Use the sanding block to remove paint or stain in irregular-shaped blotches anywhere on the cupboards. When you've got blotches everywhere, use a slightly different color of paint or stain on a brush to create streaks. Dip the end of the brush into the paint and drag it parallel with the grain to create streaks, scratches or highlights. Use stain markers or pencils to make lines or color edges and corners as needed to balance the look. It might take a few minutes, but a pattern or design will begin to emerge that you can follow.
For a serious distress job, try chains. Beat the cupboards lightly -- or not so lightly -- with a small chain to create random dents. Walk around the cabinets adding dents wherever you like -- on the doors, face frames, side jambs, drawer fronts. Try different sizes of chain for a variety of dents. Another option is to use sanders to create gouges. Put a 100-grit belt on a belt sander. Use the nose and edge of the sander to cut short gouges, divots, dents and scratches. Put a 100-grit sanding disc on an orbital sander and use the edge like a knife to cut shallow scratches, lines, swirls, scrapes or bevels. It doesn't matter how you do it as long as the distress is consistent.
Some of the best-looking distressed cabinets come from sandblasting. This tool can do what no other tool can do by removing the soft grain from the wood. Take the necessary precautions for breathing and eye protection, and use a rented sandblaster to distress the cupboards. Also known as weathering, this produces cabinets that look like they've been floating around in the ocean for a few years. It's a fantastic look. Turn the sandblaster on low and run the wand, or spray end, up and down the cabinets. It will create relief between grain lines. Keep the wand moving for consistency until the look is complete. Add oil stain, paint or clear lacquer for a more dramatic effect and you'll have a distressed set of cupboards that are the envy of the neighborhood.