This gorgeous old green cabinet gets more comments than anything I ever post on social media. I bought it at a local antique store when my precious Mom was quite sick, and I knew I would need a special place to store some of her treasures. The antique shop owner told me that the cabinet was made in about 1900, and the coin I found in a drawer is Romanian. To me its original Eastern European finish is a perfect example to show how to distress realistically when painting furniture.

As a 20-year professional decorative finishing veteran, I have been painting furniture using many of my favorite brands of water-based paint, glazes, stains, topcoats, and waxes. The pleasure of working with lots of paint brands has taught me several things:

You must clean, and possibly sand and prime.

No matter what the marketing says for any brand, prep is mandatory on a used furniture item. Especially if you sell your pieces. Clients expect at the very minimum that the finish won’t peel off.

A distressed finish must appear authentic.

One of my favorite Saturday activities is attending flea markets, barn sales, and consignment shops. There is nothing worse to see in booth after booth than a horrible, too perfect and unrealistic distressed finish. I would share photos, but I bet you know what I mean.

Our green cabinet features many fabulous examples of distressing. In this photo you can see distinct, very random areas of true daily use. Look closely and you will notice two slightly different colors of green. (In this photo the lighter color is around the glass.) What appears as dirt has been scrubbed, I promise. But you can see how it adds to the aged appearance.

Study the surface, where I can just imagine a lot of activity happening 100 years ago – cooling pies from the oven, big platters sliding across the paint, and folding napkins. I would add stain to get the effect.

Check out the old newspapers that remain permanently adhered to the surface. I doubt they were intentionally stuck on, but adhered over time. Maybe you don’t want to go to this aging extreme, but who knows!

I lightened up this photo so you can see the wonderful variation of natural “dirt” created from probable decades of family use and the two different colors. The color in the panels is slightly yellower than the cabinet body. Years of pulling the doors open created a dark burnishing. This look can easily be created using glazes or stains.

Here you can get out the heavy tools to carve off random areas where a piece was moved and likely dropped off a truck. Paint or stain fly-specking is perfect to add interest.

And, if you have a super-energetic kitty in a play frenzy like our ginger Rusty Boy, some claw marks are an added bonus.


  1. No matter what brand of paint you prefer, use a satin sheen, which allows you to brush on a glaze or stain to add dirty natural wear areas. Satin paint has a slippery sheen and distresses well. Gloss paint is really difficult to distress.
  2. Forget all those pictures with oddly-contrived distressing areas that look oh-so fake. Study distressing and aging in person on real antiques.
  3. Use areas of fly-specing, sanding, varied color, colored wax, and even get out the heavy-duty tools to do some serious realistic damage.
  4. Use an old cabinet door or large piece of molding to practice before you go crazy on a piece. Experiment with color, brushes, and techniques. If you are selling your piece, a sample is a good idea to provide to the buyer.
  5. My absolute favorite final finish is a good quality clear wax. There are also lots of topcoat products and sheens. For old finishes, I don’t mind using flat topcoats. They aren’t as durable as satin or gloss, but I do like the piece to continue to distress and age.


Feel free to leave your questions in the comments. I would love to see your heavily distressed painted furniture!

Visit my Free Project Tutorials page for more furniture painting ideas.

4 thoughts on “How To Distress Realistically When Painting Furniture

  1. I like so many others love this piece. Years ago I had a cupboard similar to this. Here in PA. Dutch Country we call them step back cupboards. Made right here in America years ago. They tend to be of a simpler design then the European ones.

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