A (very) beginner’s guide to distressing furniture

Today I bring you a guest post on shabby chic, distressing furniture written by my friend Laura, I hope you enjoy reading it. Do pop over to her blog to check some more interesting posts: www.lizziesroom.co.uk

Up-cycling. Shabby Chic. Vintage DIY. Whatever you want to call it, with workshops springing up all around the country, antique chalk paint flying off the shelves and the likes of Pinterest flooded with posts depicting old-but-new-but dull-but bright chests of drawers, bedside cabinets and coffee tables; breathing new life in to worn out (and sometimes pretty ugly) furniture is big business at the moment.

I recently visited a friend of mine on maternity leave who seemingly had an excess of time on her hands (this was most certainly not my experience of having a new baby, but that’s a topic for another day…) who enthused about her new found hobby of restoring old furniture ‘in the French style’, as she (haughtily) put it. She waxed lyrical about how it was “a piece of piss” and how she was making hundreds from doing up these tired old pieces of junk she was picking up for a tenner. I was intrigued; if she could do it with a babe in arms and running on two hours of sleep a night, then surely I could do it too.

I went out the very next day and purchased my materials. ‘Start up costs are inevitable, think of it as an investment‘ I told myself, wincing as I handed over my (already badly abused) credit card. I bought several tins of antique chalk paint, and electric sander, countless rollers and brushes, top quality furniture wax, amongst several other (mostly tat) items. Again, an ‘investment’. I then (rather misguidedly) emptied out the tired (but perfectly fit for purpose) bedside tables in my spare bedroom and set to work.

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This is the part where you can learn from my mistakes.

The first lesson here would appear rather obvious. It’s probably best not to experiment on furniture you actually still use. Having said that, I did manage to sell on the bedside tables in the end (at a massive loss, but we’ll get to that later) but I now find my spare bedroom looks rather depressing when people come to stay and haven’t got anywhere to set down their book or morning coffee. In retrospect, hunting down a knackered set of drawers from Gumtree would have been the least expensive part of this project. People who want to get rid of furniture usually want it gone ASAP, and it sells for next to nothing. Failing that, you can get some beautiful old pieces from auctions, car boot sales and the like for under a tenner. So, don’t mess around with stuff in your house, because it’s just silly.

The most valuable lesson I learned is that really, up-cycling/distressing/shabby-chic’ing furniture needn’t cost a fortune. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is big business at the moment, and all sorts of stuff is springing up to convince you these type of projects are simply impossible without you parting with a significant chunk of cash. I wish I had done my homework before I started, because having now done loads of reading and learned first hand, you can make some really beautiful stuff with little more than a couple of tins of bog standard paint, some wax and some sandpaper (plus one of two random—but cheap—little bits which I’ll mention later). Almost everyone who decides to get into ‘shabby chic’ furniture rushes out and buys the most expensive branded chalk-paint (there’s one particular brand-I won’t mention here-that pretty much dominates the whole market). This paint is 3x the price and 1/3 the size of a normal tin. It’s brilliant marketing, but totally unnecessary. You can make your own chalk paint for a fraction of the price; I’ve done loads of tests and I promise the result is exactly the same (recipe at the end of this article).

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There’s a wealth of information on various ways to actually do this by people infinitely more qualified than I, so I won’t get into a step-by-step how-to distress furniture here. The brief gist of it is that you paint your piece in two contrasting colours of chalk paint (usually darker first and finished with the lighter colour) and then lightly ‘distress’ the edges of the unit with sandpaper to create the, ahem, ‘french look’. However, what I will say is that yes, it can be as easy as people say, but it can also be twice as difficult and time consuming. I think the thing people forget about distressing furniture is that it’s meant to be just that: distressed. Imperfections, paint stroke lines, chips in the wood—It’s all good! Don’t do what I did and spend hours sanding the poor thing to within an inch of its life—it’s a waste of time, and if you need it to look perfect, I honestly would suggest a different type of furniture style. The best pieces look a bit knocked about, blotchy, used and abused and hastily painted. There are some folks who say you don’t even need to sand it at all to prime the wood before you start, and having done several more pieces since my initial attempt, I think they’re right.

Painting issues aside, in my opinion the two most effective things you can do to make your masterpieces really pop is to get hold of some different handles to put on; the ones these old drawers come with tend to be beyond all hope. You can go eccentrically vintage or fabulously sparkly, the possibilities are endless. All major DIY stores sell this type of thing, but there’s also loads to be had from eBay, and do give poor old Wilko’s a chance—the bigger shops have a great selection for cheap.

My second top tip is to line the drawers, preferably with a vintage style wallpaper. This is hardly a unique idea, but it really is effective. To do this, all you need is your wallpaper (obviously), some wallpaper paste (cheapest sort will do), a Stanley knife and a steady hand. Learn from my mistakes (again); the first time I did this, I went out and bought a beautiful roll of fabulous wallpaper. Now I take advantage of the wallpaper cutters the big DIY shops have for you to take samples home. I may get barred from B&Q in the near future, but at least I’m saving money.

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My final (and most important) tip for anyone who fancies trying their hand at the shabby chic look is this: just relax and have fun. Having had a good few goes at this now, with varying results, I have come to the conclusion that my friend is either violating several labour laws and running a sweatshop out of her back garden, or is clearly not human. This is not something you are likely to make a lot (or any) money out of, but turns out it is an awful lot of fun. Time consuming, messy and sometimes frustrating sort of fun, but fun all the same. I don’t think I’ll be making my millions at the helm of a Shabby Chic empire after all, but I learned a lot more about what I am capable of, and I gained a hugely satisfying new hobby out of the deal.

2 Tablespoons Plaster of Paris (most crafty shops sell it, but I get it from eBay)
2 Tablespoons Calcium Carbonate (I’m told this is sold in garden shops, but again, eBay)
2 Cups Paint (no need to get fancy here—any brand will do. I like to use silk emulsion)

You may have to tweak the recipe slightly according to what you’re trying to achieve. For example, use more Calcium Carbonate if you are going to sand heavily, because it distresses really well, or you may find you need to add in some water to get the desired consistency. Generally though, as long as you mix it well, any difference between this and the ridiculously overpriced top branded chalk paint is negligible.

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Happy Painting!

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