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3 Tips For Authentic Distressed Finishes

Distressing wood is a popular technique used to give new wood a weathered, aged, or rustic appearance. There are quite a few ways to achieve a distressed stained look, so we'll run through the basics to make sure you create the most authentic, aged look on your project.

1. It Starts With Texture

While color is very important, the most unique characteristic of an authentic aged, distressed wood finish is the texture. We will end up glazing later in the process to create the look of decades of dirt, wax, and grime having collected, so we need to first give that gel stain or glaze somewhere to settle into. There are different types of distressed texture, and each has its place depending on the look you're trying to achieve:

Wire Brushed

This is good for a slightly more refined look, easily done with a steel-bristled wire brush, drill attachment, or a handheld polishing machine with a steel-bristle attachment:

Hand Hewn

Hand hewing was the technique used by millworkers to dimension a surface long before planers were around. Often used for framing lumber in post and beam construction, this texture is excellent to use on rustic inspired beams and fireplace mantles. While woodworkers generally try to prevent tear-out, when creating a distressed stain finish, the more tear-out the better! There are several ways to achieve this look:

The scooped head of an adze creates the traditional hand hewn texture:

A draw-knife is great for the edges of the piece you're distressing:

A convex or "rustic" head on a handheld power planer, or grinding a similar profile onto an old handplane's iron (checkout flea markets and Facebook marketplace for these!):

2. Create An Authentic Color Base

Depending on the aesthetic you're trying to replicate, a good rule of thumb is anything we want to look reclaimed from "outside" (think snow fence or barnwood) we want to color grey, and anything that was "inside" (hewn beams, mantles, or furniture) we want to bring more brown.


Aged wood accelerators are great for this look if you're wanting the inconsistent color of a truly distressed stain finish. You can use a product like Varathane's Weathered Wood Accelerator, or make your own with steel wool and vinegar. Let's remember, this is the "base" color, and we're not trying to achieve the final finished look during this step, just creating the starting point. This works especially well on soft woods like pine and cedar:


For a more refined and less found-this-laying-in-a-field-somewhere look, brown is a great choice. Any medium, warm tone like Spiced Walnut or Mocha from General Finishes is excellent:

Glaze To Enhance The Texture

This is my favorite part of the process and where the magic really happens. Once the stain or accelerator has completely dried, we want to first seal the surface. You can use any number of products from shellac to polyurethane, we just want to make sure that the gel stain doesn't soak into the wood's pores, rather sits on top. Once sealed, lightly sand with a sanding sponge. and with a brush push black or coffee-colored gel stain into all the texture we created in step 1.

Lightly wipe away any excess, leaving all of the dark, rich pigment in the cracks, nooks, and crannies and voila! Seal with whatever product you used to seal after staining, and you're all done (just be sure to wait for the gel stain to completely dry, so no shiny spots at all!).

Do-It-Yourself, Not By Yourself

We know just how frustrating it can be embarking on a finishing project and running into roadblocks. That, in fact, should be expected! Rather than searching YouTube for hours, get an immediate answer and support throughout your entire project with our DIY Coaching. We've got several options available for projects big and small, our Experts are ready to help with whatever you're wanting to create!

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