Finishing, Special Effects Glazing and Distressing

Looks at the "art" of aging wood and explains some of the techniques.

Special Effects – Aging and Distressing

Anyone who knows the basics of finishing can recreate most of the distressed finishes out there. It is kind of like playing the piano. There are only 88 keys. The technique of pushing down the key is not hard. The art is in knowing what key to push and in what order; that is what wins you a Grammy. When distressing, if you do not have a vision of where you are going before you start, you will never get there. People can teach you the techniques – only you can develop the vision of how to use them.

The first step in gaining the vision is to simply use your eyes. Look not only at old pieces of furniture, but also at sculpture, pottery, and art. Some of the techniques with fancy names would never take place naturally on wood. You have to go outside your medium to find examples of these techniques.

The second step is to use your head. Look very, very closely and, most importantly, analyze what you see. Simplistically, we have only three elements that we use in getting to the desired color: the background color of the wood, pigments, and dyes. That’s it. Just like a musical chord, every color element that we use is a note. How we layer them on the wood’s surface will determine the color “chord” that we see. We use glazes, stain bases, toners, etc. as the vehicles to build these layers. Each vehicle imparts a unique signature to the appearance of the color.

For instance, a dye used on bare wood will look different than a dye mixed in some lacquer and used as a toner. When you look at color, imagine the layers and the vehicles that were used to achieve it. When specifically looking at distressed finishes, remember you are going to try to recreate finish failure. What would have caused it to look like that in the first place? There are tell-tale clues everywhere, but all you have to do is see. Once you figure that out, you can usually come up with some simple ways to recreate them.

The third step is practice, practice, practice or should I say sample, sample, sample. Like riding a bike or being a parent, people can explain it to you all day long, but you won’t understand until you physically do it.

  • Manipulating color, texture, and sheen are often more effective in creating the illusion of age than beating the heck out of the piece.
  • Use at least three colors on the piece. This does not necessarily mean using three colors on top of each other, but rather variations of color in different areas of the piece.
  • Everyone tries to beat a texture into the wood – when in reality, there is usually more texture coming out of the wood caused by wrinkled finishes and the accumulation of crud. Use acrylic pastes, wood glue, or even thickened vinyl sealer to build up the surface texture.
  • Less is more.

Aging Wood and Finishes

Think about what makes things look old. Learn to see.

Today we strive for deep rich, even color. Our woods and our finishes are designed to be smooth, flat, and have a nice uniform sheen. By definition, aging requires finish failure.

You are recreating elements from a different time. Things were built using different materials and methods of work. The world was also a very different place in the old days. The indoor environment was harsher, and overall air quality was poorer. Not too long ago, wood and coal were the major sources of heat, while candles and oil lamps provided light. All of this influenced how a piece would age and the color changes that took place.

The Basic Principles of Aging

Mother Nature always wins

When looking at old work, remember that the early materials and finishes were not as technically sophisticated as they are today. Remember also, that even though natural and environmental changes might be microscopic, they are relentless and unforgiving.

Finishes are not perfectly flat

The spray gun has not been invented. Finishes were mostly brushed or rubbed on, and then rubbed out.

Finishes are not perfectly smooth

The addition of modern-day central heating results in dryer indoor air. This not only stresses the wood but the finish as well. Finishes would often wrinkle and crack.

Colors are not vibrant

Most early finishes were either varnish or shellac and by now have taken on an amber color, however, while wood and finishes typically darken with age, stains, and paints will fade in color over time.

Finishes do not have an even color

Most of the early finishes softened with heat, so if soot, dust, and dirt were allowed to accumulate on the piece, they would eventually become embedded in the finish and darken it. Nooks, cracks, and crannies would become dark. Areas that got rubbed or worn would tend to be lighter.

Finishes do not have an even sheen

Wherever a surface is handled often or gets worn it will also get burnished to a warm gloss. All other areas turn rather dull.

Distressing is organized chaos.

There are two different types of wear that a piece goes through in its lifetime of use. There is the normal wear around handles and openings, and then there is the random wear that occurs from the occasional bumps and kicks. Wood split and cracked, parts got broken, and sometimes repairs were made.

Old work had a different personality

The piece itself might physically look different. Old-growth trees produced boards that were wider and with more grain lines per inch. Pieces were constructed with wood that was of a thicker nominal dimension that we currently use today. Woodworking involved a lot of labor using hand tools. Surfaces and joinery were prone to irregularities and tool marks. Doors and drawers were typically inset and butt hinges were the rule. Carvings, in-lays, and fancy veneer work were common.


There Is No Real Right, but There Can Be Many Wrongs

We often sense when things just don’t look right, even though we may not be able to put our finger on exactly what the problem is.

The art of aging lies in knowing which technique to use, where to use them, and most importantly when to stop.

If you are asked to match a sample, your job is half done. Ideally, you just need to reverse engineer the sample to figure out what techniques were used/match colors, then recreate the effect. I did not say that the job was easy, only that it was half done. I’ve always found that matching a sample is a little less stressful as I was not responsible for the creation of the effect – only the execution.

The real fun begins when you or a client wants to make something look old. The best results are obtained when this decision is reached in the early design stage; then we have the best opportunity to look at the big picture.

Acknowledge the fact that you are going to be creating an illusion. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How perfect does that illusion have to be?
  • Is it supposed to look like the real deal, or is “kind of old” ok?
  • How much does the budget allow?

Often this will make you rethink question one. If the budget is small, sometimes something as simple as a couple of well-placed knots and a glaze are all that you might need.

Consider the object's style, function, and size when selecting your options for aging techniques (especially distressing). You will probably distress a Chippendale piece differently than a Shaker piece. You also might not use the same techniques on a set of kitchen cabinets that you would an entertainment center. Large objects can be easily overwhelmed with detail so use special effects sparingly. The smaller an object is, the more intensely we look for and study the detail. Think about how an item is used and what areas are most subject to wear to help you put the distressing where it belongs. Burn throughs on an outside corner are common; all over the face of a panel is usually not. Base and chair rail moldings take heavy abuse, crown moldings do not.

How Much Is Too Much?

In the words of architect Mies van der Rohe, “less is more”. Most furniture sustains minimal physical damage over time. By far the single biggest misconception people have about distressing furniture is that you beat it up with chains or a bag of doorknobs. This may be the case if you are recreating a primitive or furniture from the Wild West, but for the most part, these techniques are used sparingly, if at all.

Make a field trip to a museum or a good antique store. You will see that the basic characteristics of aging are changes in color, texture, and sheen.


Wear burnishes and polishes surfaces. A chair is a perfect example. Parts of the arms, back, and seat that comes in contact with the body are usually shinier than the parts that do not. You can deal with the issues of sheen in a couple of different ways.

  • Use gloss lacquer and then rub out the last coat with steel wool and wax, rubbing compound or even pumice and rubbing oil. Most of the old-time finishes came in only one sheen and that was gloss. They got a satin sheen the hard way… by rubbing. This way is authentic and is okay for a special piece, but it is a lot of work. Today we adjust the sheen by adding flattening paste, which includes a lot of powders like talc. The powders float to the surface when the finish dries and reduce the amount of light reflected off the surface. Sheen is a measure of the reflected light.
  • If you rub out your finish and you find that your cracks and crevices are shiny because you can’t get in there to rub them enough, simply apply a light coat of paste wax to these areas with a brush and just leave it there. Problem solved.
  • Make your topcoat a satin or a dull sheen. For best clarity, your previous coats should be gloss, but for simplicity, they can be the same sheen as your topcoat. Rub only the high wear surfaces with some steel wool and wax or a just soft cloth. The more you rub them, the shinier they will get.
  • Shoot the entire surface with dull lacquer and forget about it.

Physical Distressing

Normal Wear

I like to use files and rasps to wear in areas and break edges. It is easier to get slightly irregular results, which look more natural. Sometimes you can just rub an edge with a block of wood to get a good effect.

Random Acts

These are the bumps, dings, and rubs that a piece will encounter. Ball peen hammers, keys, or even a cloth bag full of screws will work. Just make sure that it is random and don’t overdo it. Most of this type of distressing will be applied before staining or glazing so that the color can catch in the crevice. I also like to do a little after the finish is applied. These are usually the rub-type of marks. Use the rounded corner of a block of wood or something similar to give the piece a scrape or two, without breaking through the finish.

Marks of the Maker

A couple of well-placed hand saw or chisel marks can do the trick. Use a knife or scratch awl to imitate the cross-grain lines a hand plane would leave. Drag an old handsaw blade across an edge.

The trick is to put the distressing where it most naturally would occur. Make it a little bit random and once again; don’t overdo it.

Fly Specking

Fly speck is basically the recreation of fly poop. They are little dark specks and are usually found near corners or along edges.

There are several techniques for recreating this effect. Most often stain or thinned-out glaze is used to recreate the flyspeck. I should note that it is best to perform fly specking over sealed wood, that way the glaze or stain can be wiped off with some naphtha if you don’t like the effect. One very simple technique is to use a stiff bristle brush, a toothbrush works well. Start by dipping the bristles of the brush into some thinned-out glaze. The brush bristles are pulled across a fine mesh screen which is held over the object. The screen causes the material to be splattered onto the surface of the object. You can also use your finger to flick the bristles of the brush and make the droplets of material fly off of the bristles. In both cases, the height of the brush and the speed that you move the brush across the screen or your fingers across the bristles will determine the size of the speck that is created. There is even a special brush that was created just for flyspeck.

If you have a large amount of fly specking to do you can use a spray gun to create the effects. With a gravity feed gun, you would turn your material flow way down and your air pressure up to around 60 to 90 Psi. With a pressure feed system, you should adjust your fluid pressure to 5 Psi or less and your air pressure to around 60 Psi. Remove the air cap when you spray. Your gun settings, the distance from the object, and the speed that you wave the gun over the surface will determine the size of the speck.

Be sure to try your technique on some scrap before you do it on the actual piece. Once you are happy with the results perform the technique on the actual piece and after the appropriate dry time you can topcoat with the appropriate finish.


I’m not sure if cowtailing refers to the tool used for creating this technique, or if it looks like the result of a muddy cow tail hitting a wall. In either case, cowtailing is the act of adding dark streaks across a stained surface to give it an old dirty look.

The tool for making cow tails is very simple. They are made with several lengths of string that are bundled together to form a brush or cow tail. The string from a mop is perfect. Some people dip the mop strings in sealer and let them dry before their first use. This keeps the string from absorbing too much material. Make sure that you separate the strings before they dry. The cow tail is dipped into some stain or thin glaze. After the excess is removed the cow tail is lightly flicked across the surface of the object. As with fly specking this technique should be performed on sealed wood so that you can wipe any unwanted tails off or the sur- face with naphtha.


Blistering is another aging effect that is very simple to do. After you spray on your second to last coat, let the finish flash off and dry for a bit. Next blow warm air from a hairdryer, not a heat gun over the surface area that you want to blister. The heat from the dryer will cause the finish to bubble and pop. Let the wood cool completely and then scuff sand and recoat.

Caution: Be very careful – you are heating a flammable material. Perform this technique away from all flammables. Use only a low-temperature hair dryer, never a high-temperature heat gun. Only perform this operation after the solvents have flashed off from the finish and the coating has had some time to dry.

Sand Blasting

Sandblasting can produce a nice effect on wood. The abrasive media wears away the softer earlywood faster than the harder latewood. When done properly, sandblasting will result in a very textured surface that mimics naturally weathered wood. Sandblasting can also be used on carvings to quickly soften edges and give them a very old and primitive look

There are many types of abrasive media available. Sand is commonly used, but not beach sand which is too irregular in size and is not sharp enough. Walnut shells, aluminum oxide, and ceramics are also used. Most media comes in different sizes and they all will produce different results. There are various sandblasters available and some are inexpensive enough to buy to just experiment. Be advised that most sandblasters consume a large volume of compressed air.

If you are going to experiment with this process, may I make a couple of suggestions:

  • Unless you have a totally enclosed sandblasting cabinet do not even attempt to sandblast in your shop. No matter how you try to contain it, the grit will get everywhere. It can scratch surfaces, dull tools and ruin motors. I found it handy to sandblast outside over our open dumpster.
  • Wear a Tyvek suit and tape your sleeves, collar and pant leg openings. At best you will reduce the amount if grit that will infiltrate into your body’s cracks and crevices. You will probably still find it in your belly button and between your toes.
  • Wear protective goggles or even better they make an inexpensive hood for this purpose. Most of the media used scratches glass so if you wear glasses leave them off and don’t touch them until you are clean.

The Illusion of Age


Use dyes to tint topcoats and pre-stain wood because they are semi-transparent and will not overly mask the grain. Glazes work best to re-create dirt and grime. The most convincing illusions usually show three different colors on the piece.

Clear finishes turn amber.

Add orange / yellow dye to sealer or topcoat.

Ebonized finishes – beyond dirty.

Add black dye to topcoat.

Paints get faded by the sunlight.

Add a tiny amount of white to a thin clear topcoat or use a white glaze over the paint.

Stain colors are usually lightest where they are most subject to wear.

After staining, highlight area by rubbing with a ScotchBrite or Mirlon pad.

Dust and dirt get caught in corners, cracks and crevices.

Apply a dark glaze, then remove while leaving more in the required areas.

Woods darken.

Use a dye on the bare wood or under a wiping stain.

Dirt collects in pores get darker.

Raw Umber / black glaze is a good replica of dirt.

Finishes darken from touch.

Apply a dark glaze, then remove while leaving more in the required areas.

Uneven stain color.

Apply water to certain areas before staining to raise the grain so that the stain will take darker in these areas.


Stain colors are usually lightest where they are most subject to wear.

After staining, highlight area by rubbing with a ScotchBrite or Mirlon pad.

Dust and dirt get caught in corners, cracks and crevices.

Apply a dark glaze, then remove while leaving more in the required areas.

Cracked finish usually with a darker color in the cracks. Use crackle lacquer and wipe glaze in to the cracks. You can crackle in spots or over the whole piece.


Hard to duplicate; simply include a few when you build.

Finishes darken from touch.

Apply a dark glaze, then remove while leaving more in the required areas.

Uneven stain color.

Apply water to certain areas before staining to raise the grain so that the stain will take darker in these areas.


A. Stain, seal, then paint.

B. Prime, paint color #1, clear coat (optional), paint color #2.

The clear coat makes it a little easier to control the depth of the burn-through.

Use a ScotchBrite to burn through the layers. You can also apply some crayon or wax in spots between layers to make it easier to rub thru.

Worm holes

Use thin sharp awl, or boards with brads pounded through. Occasionally flick your awl to the side to give a little tail. Worm holes are usually in clusters with a few trailing down the grain.

Lights, Camera, Action

In real life, few items are found that have only one type of finish or physical damage, so you will usually need to incorporate a few different distressing techniques into your projects.

I approach distressing as if the finished piece will be telling people a story. This story will give the viewer clues about how the piece was made, and the struggles it encountered in its journey through time. This is show biz and you are the director of this show! You choose the story and how many of the details you care to reveal along the way. Show enough to be convincing, but not so much as to make it overwhelming.

As stated earlier, “less is more”. You may make a sample panel with all kinds of effects on it and it looks really great; however, if you were to reproduce those effects on every pan- el in the project, it would probably ruin the job. A great piece of advice once given to me was: Stop before you think you’re done – you can always add more later.

Look at the project as a whole. Envision which areas would get the most wear, and which the least. Remember that beyond the functional wear – such as the wear found around features like handles, there is a randomness to distressing. If every door has the same effect in the same general area, you will not present a convincing story.

Breaking edges with a rasp or file is faster and gives a less “rounded” look than sandpaper.

Use a chisel or knife to cut in “cracks”.

Use a chisel or knife and a straight edge to cut in cross grain plane marks.

An awl will make good worm holes. To be convincing, group your holes together and have a few follow the grain. Occasionally flick the awl sideways to re-create a hole that has been cut into.

Apply a dye stain.

Apply a light coat of vinyl sealer, then glaze.

Wipe off excess glaze.

Spot crackle, then topcoat.

I like using files and rasps for wearing in edges as they produce a more natural random effect. Using a block of wood or the side of a screwdriver to dent and crush an edge, is also a great effect.

Don’t forget to save some distressing for after the finish is applied. These represent the real life dents and dings a piece gets in everyday use.

Hand plane some surfaces and edges.

Hand plane on wood and move sideways to create pane marks.

Rasp edges. Hold at different angles to create irregularities.

A knife is used to create cracks on the ends of the board.

Use the smooth side of a file or side of a screwdriver to bend over and wear-in edges.

Hammer edges and corners. Hammers and rasps give the edges little irregularities. Sandpaper tends to make everything uniformly smooth.

Apply paste wood filler.

Use a cabinet scraper to remove excess. Do not let the filler dry too long before removing.

After filling, rub the edges with smooth steel or even a block of hardwood.

Stain and seal.

Dab on some black vinyl paste.

After topcoating, add a few surface dings and edge burnishes. In real life, most damage gets done after a piece is finished – not before.


There are a number of ways to do burn-through’s, this is but one.

Distress, stain, and seal the wood. The sealer acts as a barrier when you do your burn-through’s.

Apply a coat of black vinyl sealer over the seal coat. I like to use black vinyl because it works well with crackle lacquer.

Scuff surface and sand through edges using ScotchBrite or Mirlon pads. Only burn through to the clear sealer coat. Clear coat in a dull sheen.

Country Rustic

Distress with cracks and worm holes, etc..

Prime, paint, and vinyl seal.

Wire brush areas of the vinyl sealer. Scrub in direction of the grain on parts like stiles and rails. You can protect intersecting parts with an index card or a ruler to avoid cross grain scratches.

Apply glaze. Notice how the glaze sticks in your wire brush scratches.

Artistic Effects

This is the fun stuff. Experiment with different materials and techniques. Sometimes a change in solvent or dry time can create a dramatic new effect.

As you try different techniques, don’t forget to take notes so that you can re-create the effect at a later time.

Frottage Faux

Frottage is a glazing technique that can re-create a variety of looks ranging from leather to stone.You can use a variety of “tools” to get these effects including crumpled rags, plastic wrap, or natural and artificial sponges, to name a few. The key to this effect is to mist some Mineral Spirits onto the wet glaze or the tool before working it. The glaze wants to crawl away from the Mineral Spirits at the point of contact. This is what gives the effect such a natural look. You can layer more than one color glaze, and even use different techniques for each layer. Just remember to use a light coat of vinyl sealer between each layer of glaze. The surface is misted with mineral Spirits and the plastic wrap is applied in two directions.

Frottage Faux II

Prime, paint, and then apply a coat of vinyl before glazing.

When wiping the glaze, leave some areas a little darker than others.

Mist some Mineral Spirits onto the painted surface and onto a crumpled rag.

Dab the rag onto the glaze. Re-wet with Mineral Spirits as necessary.

Frottage Faux III

Prime, paint, and then apply a coat of vinyl seal- er. Next, apply the glaze in streaks and swirls.

Mist on a coat of Mineral Spirits.

Apply plastic wrap to the surface.

Smooth the glaze and move the plastic around before pulling off in one quick movement.

Frottage Faux IV

Apply a dye stain and then a coat of vinyl.

Make a dauber by rolling up a paper towel (or wiper) and then cut the end into strips. Fan out the strips to make fingers.

Dip the tips of the fingers lightly into the glaze. I use the top of the glaze can. Dab the glaze randomly on to the surface of the board.

Mist some Mineral Spirits onto a piece of crumpled up plastic wrap and dab the glaze.

Using a small piece of synthetic sponge (that has been softened in water and wrung out), gently wipe some of the glazed areas to create streaks.

Frottage Faux V

After priming, painting, and a coat of vinyl, apply the glaze.

Brush it out.

Dip tips of a natural sea sponge into some Mineral Spirits and gently dab onto glaze.

Notice how the glaze pulls away from the Mineral Spirits.

Apply sealer and glaze with a second color.

Again, dab on some Mineral Spirits from a sea sponge.


Traditionally Ceruse finishes were defined as an open pore wood with a black background, and a white pore. Today, they can be any combination of colors with the only requirement being that the background and pore are in contrast.

  • The color in the pore can be obtained by using glaze or paste wood filler
  • The key to Ceruse is to insure that there are no gaps in the coloring of the pores, and that the background color is not hazy from the glaze
  • The way to achieve a full fill pore is to wire brush the pores before sanding. This opens the pores up so that they will readily accept color
  • Ceruse works best on solid wood. Veneers are usually too thin to allow good color retention in the pore
  • When wire brushing, watch out for cross grain scratches
  • The background is a black dye. A washcoat of sealer is sprayed over the dye before glazing
  • Try different strength washcoats to find the one that will allow the glaze to fill the pore while minimizing the penetration of color into the background
  • After wiping most of the glaze off, you can clean up the background by gently wiping with a soft rag dampened with mineral spirits
  • Sometimes it helps to wait a couple of minutes to let the color in the pore setup before wiping with the damp rag

Striated Finish – 1

Striated is just a fancy word for brush strokes. The glaze can be applied full strength or thinned out with Mineral Spirits or glaze base, depend- ing on how intense you want the effect to be.

  • When applying the glaze uniformly is key
  • Strike out the glaze with a soft brush
  • Spraying on the glaze is a good way to get the glaze on evenly
  • Thin out the glaze for lighter lines
  • Here the glaze is stroked with a sponge that has been dampened in water and wrung out