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How to Make New Furniture Look Like Antique Furniture

How to Make New Furniture Look Like Antique Furniture
May 18, 2012 Peter Hemerlein

One of the key features of our handmade reproduction furniture is hand-distressing, a method for simulating age and wear. In a sense, distressing is an art form: if poorly executed, it will completely ruin a piece of furniture, while properly hand-distressed furniture benefits from a remarkable level of character and charm that is very uncommon for new and fully functional pieces.

The simplest means of building new furniture with the appearance of uniqueness and genuine history is to use reclaimed wood, which is salvaged from old furniture or buildings. The old wood, which bears the visible signs of a long life, is cut down to planks that are then used to build something new. In particular, many farm tables and rustic bookcases are crafted using reclaimed wood; owing to the use of such wood, their appearance is so genuine that they are often difficult to distinguish from genuine antiques.

Painted furniture, which is currently in style, is remarkably easy to distress. The techniques for distressing painted furniture, however, are vastly different than the techniques for distressing stained or finished wood furniture. The most common method of distressing painted furniture is to sand down the edges to simulate wear. Multiple coats of paint can also be applied to the piece and then sanded through in various depths, giving the furniture a worn-through look. Less commonly used is a glaze on top of the paint, which settles into the crevices and gives the painted furniture a “dirty” look. Obviously, we would not recommend painting genuine antique furniture, but doing so can certainly add color to a room if you choose to exercise your artistic talents on a newer piece of furniture.

Traditional stained furniture requires the most artistic and skilled hand to properly distress. The level of distressing can vary from light marks to extremely heavy distressing caused by different sizes of chains. Spokeshaving and cosmetic cracks or splits are also sometimes used to imitate old-fashioned cabinetry techniques and aging. There are very few furniture makers left who have truly mastered this art, and luckily we work with one of them!

Light Distressing

Most of our reproduction chests of drawers feature light distressing to give the chests a little bit of an aged look without detracting from formal style. This close-up shows a few minor marks that were caused by a chain and then finished over. The result is so subtle that you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it:

Heavy Distressing

The close-up of this oak table lies at the opposite end of the distressing spectrum, as it has clearly been heavily distressed. The top has knots, marks, cosmetic splits, faux nail covers, and has been heavily shaved down in spots to simulate years and years of wear:


Spokeshaving is the process of lightly shaving the top surface of a piece of furniture, which results in a hand-hewn look:

As you can see, an artistic hand can duplicate an aged look with spectacular results. Some of the simpler forms of distressing like painting and glazing can be done by almost anyone, but the most complex techniques require practice and talent. We would love to hear your comments and see some pictures of your favorite distressed pieces!