Distressed Wood

Most people say ihcy want their furniture to look new, but in fact they don't. Furniture manufacturers know this, which is why the greater majority of fine furniture offered in the show rooms today has been "distressed" to one degree or another. Distressing is a fine art that gives new furniture an old, warm look. One salesman, who described this look as "loved and lived with," came close to the truth.

Distressing Techniques Distressing consists of prematurely aging the furniture. One technique is to splatter the finish with "fly specks" of dark coloring. Look closely at furniture sold in the shops and you will see the tiny dots applied in this manner to the surface. You can do this yourself by dipping a toothbrush in dark stain, holding the brush a foot or so away from a furniture surface, and flicking the fly specks on the finish by running your finger over the bristles.

Another technique is chaining. An expert at the factory attacks the furniture with a length of chain, judiciously denting it by just the right amount. Too much denting ruins it; the right amount gives the piece that lived-with look. This is not done as often as splattering, but it is done.

A third technique is shading by means of glazing, to give the appearance of age and wear. During the finishing process, a colored glaze is applied (by hand wiping in expensive furniture, and by spraying in less-expensive pieces). The glaze is applied to edges and outer areas and carefully feathered into the lighter original finish to provide highlights. The general effect is that normal wear has worn away the darker finish — or conversely, that an accumulation of dirt has darkened some areas.

All of this is carefully and expertly done, so that the new piecc takes on a simulated patina of age, but doesn't look old and beat up. This is a carefully made distinction. The furniture maker has to judge how much distressing is too much. The important point is that the maker understands his customers. They want some of the gloss and perfection of the new piece removed. They want the piece to have some of the character that comes with maturing.

The decision is very subjective, and one that is hard to give advice about. Some finishes, of course, will be in such bad condition that the decision is easy. But many will be borderline cases. Our feeling is that you should lean toward saving the finish. Make the necessary finish repairs; apply the final coat of wax or lemon oil; then put the piece into use. After a few weeks, you'll know whether the decision is right or not. You can still strip and refin-ish the furniture if you feel it is necessary.

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