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How to Make Wood Look Old and Distressed

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April 12, 2022
Zoe Hunt

Barnwood and aged wood add so much character to a project, but it can be pricey and more difficult to get your hands on than simply swinging by Home Depot. We had some scrap 2x4s and 2×2 furring strips in our garage and decided to try out a new technique on them. 

Rather than try to make them look newer, what if we distressed the wood and tried to make it look old? We wanted to add some character to the whitewood, but we didn’t want to rely on staining or painting techniques. 

We wanted to add texture. We wanted to distress the wood and add dents and dings so that it looked like it had a story to tell. It turned out better than expected! 

how to make new wood look old text overlay on image of distressed and textured wood

Without further ado, let’s start DIYing and learn how to make new wood look old. 

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What you’ll need:

How to Make New Wood Look Old 

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how to make wood look old overlay on close up of distressed wood

STEP 1: SAND YOUR WOOD 

Before we begin distressing the wood too much, we want to sand it with 120-180 grit sandpaper. We won’t be sanding too much after distressing the wood, so we want to knock out the majority of the sanding first. 

Sanding will help prepare the wood to more evenly accept stain. It also helps knock off some of the yellow if you’re working with pine. 

OPTIONAL STEP 2: DISTRESS THE WOOD USING A CHISEL

This step is one that we didn’t do when making our bathroom stool, but is a technique we did use on this DIY narrow console table. I would highly recommend it if you want it to look more naturally aged. I feel like the cleaner corners around the wooden stool make it look a little less authentically aged.

before and after of cutting edges of 4x4s with a chisel

First, we used a chisel on all of the corners of the wood to remove the typical polished corners of the wood and give the wood some more character. Don’t worry about perfection here.

Run the chisel along the edges of the wood, peeling off some of the wood from the edges. You can go deeper in some areas and peel off less of the wood in other areas for even more variation.

using a chisel to distress edges of wood

Once you’ve run your chisel along the long edges of your wood, repeat the process by the end grains of the wood. It will be a little bit more difficult to remove the wood here since you’re running against the grain instead of with it.

If you want to add even more texture and variation, run the chisel in random spots along the face of the board to create some divots throughout the wood.

using chisel to make wood look old

STEP 3: DISTRESS THE WOOD USING A WIRE BRUSH

This is the secret to making new wood look old and reclaimed. We’re going to weather it by adding a lot of texture. 

Insert a wire brush attachment into your drill and press the drill trigger to get it spinning. 

Run the wire brush along the surface of the wood, moving in the same direction as the wood grain. You can apply more pressure to certain areas if you want to add some deeper grooves and texture. 

Be careful when using the attachment, especially when you get closer to the edges because it’s easy to lose control and slip off the piece of the wood. Also, be prepared for a LOT of dust to be created during this step.

running wire brush along surface of the wood to create texture

If you want to add some more scratches or variation, you can use the cup brush attachment in a few areas as well. You can even lightly run the brush in the direction opposite of your wood grain to give it some scratches across the surface. 

STEP 4: ADD MORE DENTS AND DINGS 

Before you dive into this part, I’d recommend trying out one or all of the methods on a piece of scrap wood to see if you like them and to get a feel for how much texture you want to add.

If you want to add some more dents and dings to your wood to give it even more of a reclaimed look, there are a few main things you can do. 

The first is to hit it with a hammer. You can hit with either the normal hammer end or you can hit it with the side that is used to help pull out nails. When hitting it with the backside of the hammer, I like to angle it so that it’s only leaving one dent at a time instead of two.

hitting wood with hammer to give it distressed look

You can also hit your hammer with some angled force so that it creates a longer dent, or you can drag it along the surface of the wood for a small distance.

The second option is to put a handful of screws or nails into an old sock. Then hold the end of the sock so that it’s closed up and hit the sock onto the wood in various places. 

We’ve tried this method with bags and other materials, but I highly recommend the sock. The sock offers enough support that the nails/screws don’t fly out or break the sock, but it still has enough give where the nails/screws can poke into the wood. 

When making our bath stool, we just used the screws in the sock method to add a little more character. We hit the top of the stool about 5 times. 

Another option is to add the small holes to your wood by using a nail setter. Play around with hitting it straight down on the wood and hitting the wood with it an an angle. The angle will give you less uniform dents.

putting dents in wood using a nail setter

The last thing you can do to really add some reclaimed texture to your wood is to break back out your chisel. Instead of digging it into the wood with an intent to remove some of the wood, we’re going to do a very quick motion to just leave some dents.

Lay your chisel so it’s pretty flat against the wood and just give it a small push and immediate pull back motion. Continue doing this as you work your way down the board. it’s a very small and quick motion.

adding more texture to wood using a chisel
Free download wood sizing cheatsheet

STEP 5: SAND WITH 220-GRIT SANDPAPER 

Now that you’re happy with the amount of distressing that you’ve done to your wood, let’s prep it for stain! Grab a 220-grit sanding block and sand your wood. 

The goal here is not to remove the texture, but to remove the splinters and some of the “fuzzy” spots that the wire brush left behind.

sanding wood using 220 grit sanding block

STEP 6: WIPE OFF YOUR SURFACE 

Using either a clean rag or a shop vac, clean off any lingering dust that might be on your wood. There will be a lot more than a normal, new piece of wood because of all of the texture.

STEP 7: APPLY A FINISH 

Now that you’ve distressed your wood to make it look old, it’s time to add the finish of your choice! For our bath stool, we finished it with Minwax Semi-Transparent Stain in Driftwood. 

close up of distressed wood showing the textured grain

Warning: because of the texture added, your wood will absorb more stain (aka stain darker) than a normal piece of wood. Make sure to distress a piece of scrap wood and test your stain colors on it before finishing your project! 

You can use any finishing option that you would use on a new piece of wood, but you might want to adjust how you apply it. If you usually use a foam brush, I would recommend a different paintbrush or a clean rag. All of the texture might catch and ruin the foam brush. 

If you are staining oak and want an even more weathered, aged look, I would recommend Minwax Wood Effects. They have both a weathered gray and charred black option. 

The reason I specify that this is an option if you’re staining oak is because the Wood Effects reacts with tannins in the wood to create an aged look. It literally changes before your eyes over about an hour. 

However, wood like pine does not have enough tannins in the wood to cause a reaction. If you’re working with pine, traditional stain or another finishing option will be better. 

Speaking of other finishing options, there are several combinations that are known to give an aged wood look. You can try a combination of tea, coffee, and paint to get your desired look. 

Or you can let some steel wool soak overnight in some white vinegar. The next day, you can dilute the vinegar with water using a 1:1 ratio and use that mixture to stain your wood. 

The options are really limitless!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can you dust the wood?

It depends. It depends on what you’re using to dust it and how you ended up sealing it. 

If you’re trying to use a Swiffer duster, it doesn’t work all that well because the duster will eventually get caught on some of the texture. 

But if you want to wipe it with a clean rag, then yes, you can easily dust it and wipe it down! Our dalmatian is constantly shedding and her fur has wiped right off. 

Since we sanded it down before finishing it, I can even wipe it off with my hand. You can feel the texture, but I have yet to get a splinter. 

We haven’t had it long enough to tell you if the texture gathers dust, but I would think that it would take a long time for it to be noticeable. 

Any other questions? Pop them in the comments below this post. 

We can’t wait to see what projects you finish with this technique! Cheers to making new wood look old (and distressed)! 

wood distressing tutorial - make new wood look old!
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  1. Charles Dawes says:

    is it better to use a higher rpm drill than a lower rpm drill?

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