Decorating With Distressed Furniture

Distressed furniture is any piece that has a few nicks and bruises. Often the finish is cracked or crackled. New furniture that has the appearance of being distressed is not really distressed from my point of view. Again, and I cannot say it enough, furniture should be made of solid wood, not particle board or plywood. Many newer pieces are not solid woods. And, once again, I will reiterate that we should buy the best we can afford when it comes to home furniture. That does not always mean buying new furniture.

For those going for the distressed look, most common in cottage style or shabby chic or the more primitive looking farmhouse style, start with the real thing. We need to separate the idea of antiques from vintage furniture. Most of us will never own a museum quality antique (and most of us have no use for one in our homes). Vintage furniture, on the other hand, is older furniture and is usually made of solid wood or a veneer. Veneers do not provide a good distressed look. Always start with a solid wood piece of furniture if you want it to look distressed.

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New or Vintage for the Distressed Furniture Look?

Certainly, there is plenty of new furniture made of solid wood that has the distressed appearance. It was intentionally distressed at the factory. It will cost a pretty penny. All solid furniture costs more than its particle board counterparts.

I am a firm believer in used furniture. I have said it a hundred times, maybe more. After all, it makes sense that most used furniture will have a nick or two and that is the character we are looking for when we decide to decorate with distressed furniture. Once you get the hang of it, your friends and neighbors will think you have spent a fortune on the decor.

Looking at the chest above, think of how many times a similar piece can be found in a thrift store or at an auction. The only problem with it is how we perceive it when we see it in the second hand shop. Be honest! Seeing this piece of furniture in a thrift store makes one think it is old and in need of a little TLC. See the same piece in a high end retail furniture store and chances are the credit card will be easily presented to buy this “unique” piece.

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Here’s the thing about creating a decor that includes a couple of distressed pieces. People see what they want to see. If you put the chest above in a well kept home decorated in a shabby chic or country cottage style, everyone would rave about it. Let those same people see it in a thrift store and it will be passed by as an old piece of furniture that needs to be painted or cleaned up. It’s all in the presentation.

The bathroom vanity to the left is new, made to look distressed. How can I tell? And, more importantly, how can you tell? Just look at it. The “worn” places are too uniform, too symmetrical, and the wood that is showing looks too fresh like it is new.

Of course, if there is no way around buying a new piece of “distressed” furniture, a little mayonnaise on the light wood will darken it.

Just remember that every drawer will not be worn the same as every other drawer. No one — and I mean NO ONE — uses all the drawers equally often. It stands to reason that some areas will be more worn than others. Think about the appearance of the vanity. There is no wear under the handles on the drawers. Most of us would expect the drawer to be opened by the handle. If that were the case, there would be wear where the hand had rubbed the finish as the drawer was pulled open. The purpose of this discussion is not to criticize furniture makers. However, it is worth noting that while someone (a novice to distressed looks) was looking at the vanity, there are marks of distress. To the trained eye, it is obvious that the distress is not necessarily where one would expect it to be.

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When looking for distressed furniture, use a little common sense. The center door would have more wear on the side that opens than the hinged side. More wear would be noticed around the drawer pulls than symmetrically around the edges of the raised panel on the drawers. In all probability the top drawers would show more wear than the middle or bottom ones as most of us keep the necessities in the top drawers, rather than the bottom ones.

How Many Distressed Pieces Should Be Used in a Room?

There is no set answer to this question. However, as a rule of thumb, not all the pieces in the room should be distressed — at least, not equally so. At the same time, a very distressed piece of furniture will not look right in a room of new Queen Anne furniture. It’s as much about style as distress. If you love Queen Anne furniture as much as I do, and if you love distressed furniture there is always the option of going shabby chic. In other words, select the Queen Anne style table from a thrift store. Buy a piece that needs to be refinished or painted. Paint the table in a color that will complement the decor, not blend with it. Add the distressed piece, maybe two, depending on the size of the room.

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When using more than one piece of distressed furniture in a single room, be sure they are not equally distressed. Again, use common sense. Back in the day, most families purchased pieces of furniture separately as they could afford them. (They did not have credit cards.) If one piece is extremely distressed, the other should only have a few indications of wear. Otherwise, the room can look like a thrift barn.

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