To distress or not to distress....

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Forum topic by UncannyValleyWoods posted 04-28-2013 04:38 AM 1882 views 0 times favorited 17 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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542 posts in 2060 days

04-28-2013 04:38 AM

Let me start off by saying that my idea of building furniture has always consisted of crisp lines, smooth smooth surfaces and as few dings and mistakes as possible.

This week, I’ve been working on a dining table made of reclaimed heart pine. I inlaid some butterflies, planed off the old finish and I’ve got it sanded down to near gecko balls smooth.

However, this evening, my neighbor (also a wood worker) asked me how I was going to distress it. I looked at him like he was nuts. He explained to me (a recent transplant to Southern California) that wealthy folks out here are looking for new furniture that looks old and beat up. He explained that most people out here will pay lots of money for furniture that is built well, but looks like absolute crap. This is counter-intuitive to everything I’ve ever practiced as a wood worker.

Then he proceeds to show me a video of a high end cabinet maker in Arizona, explaining the torture tools of his trade. I watched as this mad man beat up perfectly good cabinets with chains and chisels and boards packed with nails….I was in shock.

Now, it may sound like I’ve been living in under a rock, but I have seen distressed furniture, I just assumed it was because the wood worker either had access to poor materials, was lazy / didn’t own a planer or thought he was being creative…So yes, I suppose I have been living under a rock…

So now I’m faced with a strange decision. Do I distress the crap out of this table simply to make it marketable to the rich coots in California? Or do I build the table I envisioned and sit on it for months trying to sell it?

Any thoughts would be welcome. Thanks in advance.

-- “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” ― Lenny Bruce

17 replies so far

View Hammerthumb's profile


2907 posts in 2172 days

#1 posted 04-28-2013 07:18 AM

I my old hardwood flooring days, we would beat up a floor with chains, motorcycle chains, hammers, spill stains of old used motor oil, cranberry juice, and whatnot prior to finishing. People paid a lot of money for it. I have made a few pieces of furniture where I never used sandpaper, just a hand scraper and card scraper. Can make some interesting pieces this way.

-- Paul, Duvall, WA

View Monte Pittman's profile

Monte Pittman

30047 posts in 2535 days

#2 posted 04-28-2013 09:46 AM

Distressed look is definitely “in” in some areas. There is an art to how much to distress it though. They want it rustic but still civilized.

-- Nature created it, I just assemble it.

View bondogaposis's profile


5086 posts in 2548 days

#3 posted 04-28-2013 12:18 PM

It may be for some folks, but I personally don’t like distressed finishes. I prefer for my furniture to come by it’s distressing honestly over time. I think it is just a fad, next week it will be something else.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View distrbd's profile


2252 posts in 2643 days

#4 posted 04-28-2013 01:43 PM

I love the distressed look on wood furniture,it gives it character,I’m learning how to distress wood ,crackled paint look,it’s an art to make a piece of wood look old but I understand it’s not for every one.

-- Ken from Ontario, Canada

View redSLED's profile


790 posts in 2089 days

#5 posted 04-28-2013 01:54 PM

Distressing is the art of perfecting imperfection. Remember that most customers are finicky, notably DINKs and hordes of ‘metrosexual’ city folk who consume an extraordinary amount of design information and become ‘opinion leaders’ in their social circles. Distressing must be customized for each customer or target niche market should they desire that look. There are no quantifiable rules about how exactly or how much to distress. When in doubt, refer to distressed expensive pieces that sell, or that successful well-seasoned interior designers regard highly – and you will be covered.

-- Perfection is the difference between too much and not enough.

View Fred Hargis's profile

Fred Hargis

5171 posts in 2690 days

#6 posted 04-28-2013 01:55 PM

You have to offer what the market wants….but I think I would try it without the distressed look. At least if it doesn’t sell, you’ll have first hand experience on the need to distress, instead of a random comment.

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

View Gerald Thompson's profile

Gerald Thompson

1117 posts in 2431 days

#7 posted 04-28-2013 02:34 PM

Intentionally distressed furniture looks phoney to me. My finest pieces look distressed enough when I’m done with them anyway.

-- Jerry

View Lee Barker's profile

Lee Barker

2170 posts in 3047 days

#8 posted 04-28-2013 03:05 PM

A woodworker nearby me (for a while) did distressing to pieces he built for decorators. One day he let me watch.

There were two distinct techniques.

Paint: Usually white first, slopped on (latex). When it was dry, another coat of light green, light blue, that sort of thing. Pastelly stuff. A little sanding, scritchscritchscritch, thorugh to the white on the areas that were obviously available to friction from the outside world. This additional colorprocess could go on maybe twice more, maybe not.

Abuse: A 6d nail through a small length of 1×2, drawn across the grain, leaves a skittered pattern of indentations. He might pound with other objects a little bit, but mostly it was subtler than that.

Corners (of, say, the top on a breakfront) were definitely rounded with coarse sandpaper and then, skipping grits, smoothed where time would have accomplished a similar look.

The most important takeaway was his mental state as he did this. In a zone. He wasn’t bashing on stuff like a simian, he would take a swipe and step back for a nanosecond, squinting, and then do another act on a different area of the piece. It was a highly kinesthetic process; he was almost always in motion during this.

I was enthralled and tucked the experience back in my memory where it remained for 15 or 18 years, to be exhumed this very day.



-- " his brain, which is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage, he hath strange places cramm'd with observation, the which he vents in mangled forms." --Shakespeare, "As You Like It"

View lwllms's profile


555 posts in 3478 days

#9 posted 04-28-2013 03:09 PM

Distressing is back??? Things do go in cycles, don’t they.

View UncannyValleyWoods's profile


542 posts in 2060 days

#10 posted 04-28-2013 03:11 PM

Very interesting…I’m going to have to let all this brew…

-- “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” ― Lenny Bruce

View oldnovice's profile


7316 posts in 3564 days

#11 posted 04-28-2013 04:32 PM

This is a very distressing forum ... I don’t like deliberate distressing … it should happen by use!

-- "I never met a board I didn't like!"

View sprucegum's profile


324 posts in 2194 days

#12 posted 04-28-2013 04:50 PM

My wife loves the distressed look me not so much. I have played around with it some it breaks the boredom.

-- A tube of calk and a gallon of paint will make a carpenter what he ain't

View redSLED's profile


790 posts in 2089 days

#13 posted 04-28-2013 04:52 PM

“Properly done” distressing can give a newly made piece more “character” – more so with painted pieces. This is easier to achieve with hand-made solid wood furniture.

Like noted above by Lee Barker, I have my own set of ‘special distressing tools and processes’ to use whenever a customer or designer wants something ‘new but old-looking’ with nice patina, weathered look, etc., blablabla. Hint: I have an authentic 20-year old standard ball pein hammer in my ‘distressing arsenal’.

Some of my most satisfying laughter comes when I see really badly done distressed sprayed-on-finish MDF factory pieces at big box stores. The air-pettet gun fake worm holes and flicked-on black paint fake insect poop are my favourites. I just hope they keep doing it for years to come.

-- Perfection is the difference between too much and not enough.

View Cosmicsniper's profile


2202 posts in 3355 days

#14 posted 04-28-2013 04:53 PM

“Perfecting imperfection.” I like that, redSLED.

To me, I like it for country-style pieces with soft woods. My thought is that by pre-stressing the piece, you don’t have to worry when the normal dents and dings happen…which inevitably happens with regularity with things like pine and fir. Plus, it’s just part of the rustic look. It doesn’t require and paint or finish to achieve the look, and in fact is likely done with a natural finish topped with wax.

Similar for shaker-like pieces, which an be distressed in a fashion like Lee described…though I like milk paint instead of latex.

Other methods, which look really phony to me, use artificial wormholes and other stresses in combination with a hard film finish of some kind. These often include artificial looking glazes as well. It’s an okay look, but looks too mass-produced and off-the-shelf for my tastes…too manufactured looking.

In short, I think it has its place depending on the goal. But it also allows you to use less-quality lumber in a project, especially for a rustic look.

-- jay,

View Dusty56's profile


11822 posts in 3884 days

#15 posted 04-28-2013 06:07 PM

If it gets done properly , it can look good , but properly done pieces are few and far between. Most of the stuff I’ve seen has been drastically overdone , often times with “wear” marks in places that barely if ever get touched.
JMHO : )

You can always try to sell your immaculate piece first , and then if it doesn’t sell , let it fall off your truck going down the highway to start the “distressing” process : ) JK

-- I'm absolutely positive that I couldn't be more uncertain!

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