Breathing New Life into an Old Cabinet: How To Create a Distressed Paint Finish

Hutch Top FinalAt our last house, storage was at a premium.  We made a significant downsize to take advantage of a rare, gorgeous wooded lot with a creek and waterfall (in Texas!), and it was taking a lot of creativity to sort out where and how to put things in our new home.   We also wanted to ensure that our nice collection of heirloom dishes wasn’t just stashed in a box in the garage… which is where it was until we could squeeze some more space out of our place.  So I trolled craigslist for a couple weeks, in search of a large, solid wood hutch to place in the dining room.

I finally tracked down a very big, very solid, dark wood cabinet in excellent condition that had tons of potential.  It smelled good, too – the old owner must have stored her scented candles in it…. mmm vanilla!  The finish was quite beautiful, though I wanted a more casual, updated look.  We were already in the process of transitioning through a lot of contemporary, more formal furniture into an easy living cottage style, so this seemed like a good way to move things in that direction.
We already had very dark wood floors and lots of wood cabinetry and trim in this house, so I was also on a mission to lighten things up and add more airiness since things were feeling very “heavy” inside.  We had lots of shade from the woods around us on top of all that dark wood. The original owner who built the house was a bachelor… so everything had a dusky”library,” masculine style. Time to bring in a woman’s touch!Hutch Cabinet Original

I decided that painting the cabinet in a distressed light sage green would be just the ticket.  This color seems to be the “new neutral” in furniture that goes with just about everything, and can be moved from room to room pretty easily, or even house to house.  I couldn’t bring myself to erase all of the beautiful wood finish, though, so decided to leave the gorgeous top surface of the cabinet unpainted, for a two-tone French country feel.  I taped off the top with plastic sheeting and masking tape, and taped over the hardware.  There was a lot of it, so it just seemed easier to clean it up if I needed to than take it all off and reattach it.

To prep the room, I taped plastic to the walls behind and around the cabinet, and spread some more on the floor, pushing it under the edges of the cabinet.

Since this is such a large piece, I began with a base coat of flat white spray paint to get a nice even canvas for the color and distressing.  It may seem a little wild to go at it with spray paint in the middle of your dining room, though it saved me a lot of time and hassle of having to move the cabinet to a more paint-safe area (and waiting for a helper to get it there) – or having to hand-paint the whole thing.

You can use canned spray paint, which is readily available at any home improvement store.  For a more eco-friendly and less toxic option (especially if you do a lot of projects), investing in an electric paint sprayer is well worth it.  Either way, opening the windows for ventilation is a must.Hutch Cabinet Primed  Paint dust will definitely spread around even beyond the plastic, though it will easily wipe away (like dust – not as “paint”), so as long as you generously cover the immediate area, it’s all good.

Once the base coat was dry,  I poured some leftover sage green latex wall paint from the garage into a paint tray, and diluted it with about 25% decorative glaze to create a consistency just between a paint and a wash.   Old paint is great for projects like this where you can play a bit and layer multiple colors.

Many people use chalk paint for these types of projects, which I love – though I often prefer the finish of a usual latex in anything from flat to satin finish instead of the “ultra matte” of chalk paint, unless it’s a very antique looking item with lots of detail.  That level of matte can deaden some of the texture from your piece (and in some cases, may cheapen the look, depending on the style of the furniture).  It just depends on the project – though I always check the garage first to see what I have to work with before purchasing a new paint, chalk type or otherwise.   Glossier finishes are great on more modern and mid-century pieces since they really bring out the sleek shapes of these styles.  At any rate,  a great resource is the “Oops” shelf at your local paint or hardware store for rejected paint.  I’ve found tons of great colors this way – and usually only spend $1 – 5 per gallon.Hutch Cabinet Light Green

Use a dry brush for this kind of look, since the brushstrokes give a more textured feel and – bonus – quick drying time.  Chip brushes are great for this, since as one gets saturated, you can just grab another one and keep painting.  The dry brush method also brings out the wood grain very nicely, since it will pick up the grain and create a nice contrast with your base coat.  Don’t worry about coating everything evenly.  Wash them out well when you’re done, and they can even be re-used a couple of times.

Once satisfied with the level of coverage and saturation of the color coat, you can add another color for added texture and interest, or just move to the next step.  For this cabinet, I wanted it pretty simple, so from here, it was on to distressing.

For distressing, antiquing waxes are often used, and work well.  If you have latex or craft paint on hand, you can actually dilute with glaze or water  to create a distressing solution.  Typically, either dark brown “antiquing” or white for “highlighting” is used, though I like to experiment with other colors as well to keep things interesting.

Hutch Chicken Wire Close UpFor this project, I used a dark brown craft acrylic, diluted 50/50 with decorative glaze.   With a clean rag, I wiped the solution on to small sections at a time of the cabinet.  After about a minute, once the distressing medium has a chance to settle into the grooves and set just a bit, wipe off with a clean rag.  You can also employ a sander at the edges for extra “shabby chic” appeal, if you’re feeling ambitious once it dries. ;)

The hutch actually had very cool, vintage diamond glass panels in the doors, though these were broken en route – so I also had to figure out how to replace them.  For country cottage flavor, wire was the first thing that came to mind.  I debated between chicken wire and other types, and eventually chose this mesh-style wire, spray painting it gold for a little subtle shimmer.  (What can I say, I love decor bling.)  I used thumb tacks to affix them to the back of the cabinet doors – super easy.

Hutch New FinalThe final look was perfect for what I intended, and I was able to immediately unpack several boxes of china into it to create a homey display that doubled as a great bar for entertaining.  When we moved again, the color scheme of our new home was slightly different, so I simply distressed a bit more with white to complement the new space for a quick refresh – and then again with aqua and brown when we had our floors refinished from a golden natural oak to a Scandinavian raw/weathered pine look.

Once upon a time, I was wary of “destroying” wood pieces by painting them, though now I view it as a way to give a wonderful and well-loved piece of furniture a new lease on life… sometimes even a new home.   Eco-chic points apply –  reduce, reuse, recycle!  The beauty of painted wood is that it’s so transmutable as seasons and styles change, so instead of shopping for a brand new ‘nother thing, just break out a jar of paint and you’re in business.  It’s so easy to get a new look once the initial job is done, just by brushing on a fresh color anytime you have a few minutes!

Let your creativity run wild and have fun!  Whats your next project?

Love and light,

Samadhi  ✷