How to Distress Cabinets

Renovating an historic house can be a challenging and expensive proposition. If you crave the look of an old farmhouse kitchen without having to tackle that large of a project, distressing your existing cabinets may be your solution.

Preparing the Area
Clean off your counters and cover your appliances if you’re sanding inside. Dust is about to get everywhere, so if you don’t want a mess on your hands, it’s best to remove everything from your counters and cover what you can’t. This also simplifies cleanup should you have an unfortunate paint spill.
The more things that can be done outside or in a work area such as a garage, the better. However, since you’re probably not going to be taking the entire cabinet off your walls, doing some prep work, annoying though it may be now, will greatly benefit you in the long run.

Clean the cabinets to remove any surface dirt and oils, then remove all hardware. You can either use an ammonia-based household cleaner or a degreaser such as Krud Kutter® or a purple product if you need to cut grease build-up.[1] Put on rubber gloves and wipe every area with a dampened rag. Be sure to let it dry before you move on to painting.
Remove the knobs, handles, and any other hardware you don’t want to get in the way of your paint. Set those aside in an area where they won’t accrue sanding dust or receive an accidental splatter of paint

Mask the areas you do not want painted with painter’s tape. The edges of the walls around your cabinets need to be masked off with tape so you don’t have to worry so much about how perfect your edges are. Be sure to do above, to the sides, and below the cabinets.
For the record, glaze tends to dry slowly. If you do mess up, as long as you act quickly, it should be okay. However, tape takes away the brunt of the issue should a problem arise.

Sanding and Adding Color
Sand the cabinets to create a rough surface for the paint. Use an 80-grit piece of sandpaper wrapped around a sanding block for best results.[2] Rub until the wood underneath the paint is just starting to peep through. This is easiest to do if the doors are taken off. That way you can do them outside, too, and not get the sanding dust everywhere.

Some people prefer a lightly-distressed look while others prefer a very distressed look. The more you sand, the more distressed your look will be.

If you’d like cabinets with completely different colors, add the stain now. If you’re happy with the current shade of your cabinets, you can easily just add an aging glaze to streamline the distressing process. However, if you want to work with multiple tones that aren’t already on your cabinets, you’ll need to do a little handiwork. This step is completely optional and the process picks right up with the next step whether you do this or not. If you would like to do it, here’s what to do:[3]
Add 2 or 3 layers of your desired stain according to the instructions. This should be your darkest color and it’ll be the one that peeps through.

Apply wax or petroleum jelly to the areas you want to distress. It’s easiest to do this with a bristly paintbrush.

Apply your paint – a few layers is best – and allow each one to dry in between.

Lightly sand again and be sure to remove all dust.

Chip back the corners. Use a steel wool pad to rub at the areas with the wax. This lets the stain show through.

Apply antiquing glaze. On a smooth, clean rag, add a dab of antiquing glaze. You don’t need much – a little goes a long way. If you want a crackly look, use a crackle glaze instead. For large, wide cracks, apply a thick coat; for finer, more spidery cracks, apply a thinner coat. Allow the glaze to dry for the time specified by the manufacturer’s directions. Though it seems counter-intuitive, apply it in a lightly in small circular-motion.[4] This will get it spread evenly over the cabinet. However, don’t expect it to look good (or distressed) right now. You’re merely setting the scene.

Whether you did the above step or not, this is your next step. It’s the same for both processes; it’s just that the above step is a base paint job if you want to change your cabinets’ color.

Creating the Look
Create lines with a clean rag. Once the cabinet is covered in glaze, smooth out the circular marks with a clean rag. Wipe the glaze up and down or side-to-side to give it the look you want.
You’ll also see that the color gets lighter and lighter as you rub up and down or back and forth. You’ll also see the correct pattern start to emerge. This will be how it dries, so pay attention to the details to get it right.

If you’d like, darken the edges. Use a small brush to highlight the areas you want to look especially distressed. Be a little more generous with your glaze as some of it is about to get wiped off.
“Distress” tends to happen most around corners and edges. There is usually less wear and tear in the middle of flat surfaces, though there is some. Think about what an old, worn-out cabinet might look like and reflect that with your highlights.

Remove excess glaze. With a rag wrapped around your finger, wipe away any glaze that’s inadvertently gotten in places you wish it weren’t. After this stage, allow your cabinets to dry before adding a topcoat. It’s best to wait 24 hours, or at the very least overnight. You don’t want to the two coats meshing together and marring your artwork.

All the rags you’ve used should be washed together but separate from your other linens in your washing machine in case the glaze stains.

Spray on a light coat of clear, non-yellowing sealer. Once it’s dry, you’ll need to put on a seal on your hard work, like a polycrylic. However, don’t use regular polyurethane – it’ll turn yellow over time.[5] Check the label to make sure yours is non-yellowing.
Let this layer dry overnight, too. After that your work is done. And the best part about it is that if you don’t like it, you can just do it again. The distressed look can take a lot of heat – and maybe after enough times and enough sanding, you won’t have to even fake the distressed look!

Things You’ll Need
Ammonia-based household cleaner or dish soap and water

Painter’s masking tape


Foam brushes

Small, bristly paintbrushes

Tack cloths or clean rags

Antique or crackle glaze

Latex paint and stain (optional)

Clear sealer

Related wikiHows
How to Glaze Kitchen Cabinets

Sources and Citations
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