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Faux Heirlooming/Antiquing Wood


To me, uniformly painted wood is boring. Antiquing is a way to bring out character in a painted object. There's another benefit to antiquing, too. The object has already had "damage" (so to speak) done to it, so anything else just adds to the character it already has. An object that has been distressed won't be one you need to be as careful with as an object that has a pristine paint (or stain/varnish) finish.

Antiquing is all about giving a piece a history that doesn't really exist. It takes creativity to think of what past lives a piece may have gone through.

I have a really fun beginner project you can do--a button box. The project will take you step-by-step through one sort of antiquing process. I'm going to use that item as an example for a minute, simply so we can follow the process with a specific item.

Who owned that button box before you did? Maybe a farming family. Maybe the little kids in the family regularly took that box outside and left it up in the hay loft. They also dinged the box by hitting it against the wood ladder as they climbed it.

That backstory will provide you with clues on how to antique the box. It should be dirty. It should have fly specks. And it should have some dings.

Once you have that story, you can begin to create your project. That's not a story that would lead to the appearance of the button box I tell you how to create in the button box project . . . I'll share that story in a moment. And, do I really come up with a story? No, not really in the way it's being done here. But you do have to think through what types of events a faux antique piece would have gone through in its life getting to you. That life is fictional--so you have to be creative about it. But each piece will be unique. For example, I have a two-step stool. The steps are highly antiqued (down to the bare wood), because if it were a real antique, that would show it got a lot of use. A piece's purpose--what it would have been used for--will help dictate what areas of it would have received the most "wear" over the years you are creating.

I do all sorts of different techniques. These are all my own, and you'll find that you may come up with your favorites. For example, some people bang on projects with chainlinks. I prefer a meat cleaver. Some people make faux nail or screw holes. It's all up to you.

These ideas are in order of what you would likely do first. Come up with your backstory first. Then think of what processes you would have to do to replicate the fictional life of your object.

The button box as seen in the online project had a pretty easy life. It supposedly was:

  • Repainted. It first started off as a black box. A later owner painted it red and added the "Buttons" label and Marcella's picture.
  • Played with. A lot. It's very dirty--all over. Perhaps children very lovingly and carefully played with Mama's buttons, since it doesn't contain any dings. It also stayed within a home since it doesn't have insect damage. But it was likely very well used, carefully.

    Past Coats

    Story: Uncle Howard loved his little storage box. He built it out of wood, painted it green, and kept tools in it. One day, his wife--Aunt Mabel--decided it was just the right size to keep receipts (recipes) in. She painted it mustard yellow and took off with it.
    The look: Applying former coats of paint provides depth in a couple of ways. First, sanded areas will show just a hint of the color on the edges where the paint has been sanded down. Second, the color will potentially show through in areas.
    How to do it: Completely paint the entire piece in a first coat. This first coat will soak into the wood. You can do one coat, or multiple coats, and many colors. It will be tougher to paint a final uniform, solid color, since paint tends to show through. You can choose colors that go together--or ones that completely clash! Remember that the supposed owners would not have expected it to wear over time, revealing the hidden colors beneath.

    Words or Pictures

    Story: It has always been a neat story in the family about how artsy cousin Cecily was. She loved to personalize items and make them her own, depicting exactly what they were being used for.
    The look: A one-of-a-kind original with whatever you would like--such as a word telling what the object is, your name, or perhaps a painting.
    How to do it: Use a computer printer to print out words or pictures in the exact size you want to use. Color the back, creating a carbon paper. Tape it to the object once the painting process is done. Trace. Use a permanent marker and paints to duplicate your print-outs as closely as possible. One thing to keep in mind is to ask whether this personalization was added early in the wood object's life, or more recently. If it was added recently, then this step should appear between "Aged Wood" and "Grunge."

    Fly Specks

    Story: Cousin Louis was a farmer, and kept his milk stool out in the barn. Flies ended up getting all over it, and left behind little reminders of their presence!
    The look: Little black dots (or, they can be larger, since they're random) appear all over a surface, or in strategically placed areas.
    How to do it: Go outside! Use an old toothbrush or paintbrush and toothpick. Dab the brush in a bit of black paint--just a bit--and flick it against newspaper with the toothpick to gauge how close you want to be to get the look you're going for. I often use my finger, but will caution you that it makes a horrible mess and typically ends up on a lot of your hand! Once you're happy with the results of your experiment, replicate the distance and efforts on the wood. Be really careful and let the flecks dry completely before turning the wood, or they can burst into black fingerprints. This adds so much character to a piece! I do this prior to "Wear and Tear," figuring someone rescued an object from a barn and then used it inside. But this is a distressing step that you can place where you would like, depending on your wood piece's story.

    Utilitarian Use

    Story: The old kitchen table eventually got moved out to Grandpa's workshop, and he really made a mess of it as he used it to build little Anna's dollhouse.
    The look: A colored ring from a paint can sits on the top of a flat surface.
    How to do it: Dip a paint can (or emptied canned food can) bottom in paint, so that only the rim receives color--or paint only the rim. Quickly stamp it on the wood piece. Think through what types of items would have this type of dripped-paint damage to them. I have only done this technique on a desk; it should be a surface--such as a table or desk--that could have been used for utilitarian purposes.

    Wear and Tear

    Story: Everyone really kept bumping into the corners of the table that Grandma Smith kept far too close to her entry door.
    The look: Edges and corners will be rounded, with the painted finish missing. This pop of alternate color is typically coupled with using an antiquing medium to depict wood aging (see step directly following). This would also be common on items that received heavy use.
    How to do it: Use a light or rough sandpaper (it depends on how much elbow grease you want to use) to sand edges at an angle, rounding and dulling them. As you round and dull them, the paint will come off, too, accomplishing two things that will depict wear and tear on the item. Corners are also a very good area to distress. You can also add "Wear and Tear" to flat surfaces that would be touched often. For example, if the wood item has any knobs or latches, these are also areas where the finish would rub away, due to hands touching them.

    Aged Wood

    Story: Grandma Smith refused to paint her worn table, saying it reminded her of having visitors. The "Wear and Tear" was one thing, but time took its toll on the unsealed wood.
    The look: Where the paint has been worn away, a brownish color appears. This goes hand-in-hand with "Wear and Tear." Doing the "Wear and Tear" step without doing this step will lead to the wood looking light and new, and it won't create the illusion of age.
    How to do it: Apply antiquing medium with a smaller brush, specifically to the areas where the paint has been sanded off. Immediately wipe it off. If you do not have antiquing medium, don't despair! I have used both it and watered-down brown craft paint, and I honestly don't have a preference.


    Story: Little sisters Eliza and Beatrice loved their mother's button box. But Mother would only let them look in it if they promised to be very good and careful with it. Despite their best efforts, and despite doing their best, over time the oils and dirt on their hands built up on the button box.
    The look: The wood looks muddied, as if dirt has accumulated on it slowly over time.
    How to do it: This step can be used with or without "Wear and Tear." If used with "Wear and Tear," it's easy to do this at the same time you apply the "Aged Wood" technique. Apply antiquing medium to the entire surface of the wood with the grain, and wipe it off quickly. You can add antiquing medium over the entire surface of the wood, or in strategic areas. Be sure to blend it in on the edges if not placing it over the entire surface. I use paper towels to wipe this off.

    Color Wash

    Story: The paint on brother Samuel's chair discolored with use over time, so that now it no longer matches the table.
    The look: Though this antiquing process seems similar to "Grunge," it has a much more subtle effect, and you don't have to use brown. For example, I used a black craft paint over a white paint finish in order to make it less bright than other similarly-painted pieces. Though it also gives a bit of a feeling of a piece being dirty in some way, it's lighter, less uniform, and gives you an option of any color.
    How to do it: Mix a paint color with a significant amount of water--far more than is used when doing the "Grunge" step. Think of it as being a wash, not a paint. Paint over the paint going with the grain, and then immediately wipe it off. The trick is to keep it watery so that the pigment mostly settles in cracks and rougher areas of the wood.

    Worm Holes/Dings

    Story: Grandpa's ladder was left outside in the dirt a lot, and it started to look cratered. (This technique can also be used to depict dings or bangs from rough handling.)
    The look: Little partial holes appear in the surface of the wood, generally in some random areas.
    How to do it: Use a mallet-style meat cleaver to bang randomly on the wood. You can make it highly distressed in certain areas, subtle all over, whatever you would like. A meat cleaver with fine and thick sides is ideal; flip sides every once in a while so that the dings are of varying sizes. Try not to be exact with how you hold it (i.e., not flat meat cleaver to flat wood), or the resulting dents will mirror the square design of the meat cleaver.


    No matter what steps you choose for your project, I recommend a rather odd step that kind of defeats the purpose of making something look worn out and old. That is to protect it! While your piece may take on more character as time goes on, you'll probably want to protect all of your hard work for at least a little while. Craft paint isn't super-strong, and especially if you have done some of these techniques (like "Wear and Tear"), the wood will no longer be completely sealed.

    For an authentic old-fashioned look, oil-based varnish will take on warm, golden hues as it ages over time. Water-based varnish is less caustic, though. Pay attention to any precautions on the finishing product's label.

    A low-luster finish will help maintain the "old" look; while a glossy finish will remove some of the look of old, it offers higher protection against stains. A glossy finish can also seem to make an antiqued piece "pop" and the finish look almost three-dimensional. So it really depends on what look you're going for.

    You can do as little as one coat, making sure not to miss any areas of bare wood.

    Even though this seems to go against the whole antiquing process, there is just something about a clear coat that really seems to add depth to a finished piece, without detracting from the "old" look.

    Have fun!

  • Providing crafts since October 2011. Copyright 2011- and all contents by Melissa. Antiquing article written in December 2012. Resulting products can only be kept or given away as gifts. Always keep safety in mind.