What Grit Sandpaper Should I Use for Distressing Furniture?

Disclaimer: Obsessed Woodworking is reader-supported. I may receive a small commission if you purchase anything through my site.

Antiquing furniture is a popular project for adding to a home’s decor.  The introduction of antique pieces, whether genuine or faux, into a room’s furnishings adds to its ambiance and aesthetic, as well as its warmth.  Finding just that right piece at a yard sale for short dollars and antiquing to fit in your parlor can be a very satisfying DIYer project.

You can keep it very simple and use a base coat of paint and an antiquing glaze to create that distressed effect.  Kits are available for this technique, and you can find them at local hardware stores and the large DIY outlets.  In short order, you have your antique chair or side table ready for use.

But, there are other techniques for creating an antiquing effect on your piece of furniture, and we don’t mean whipping a table with a chain for a distressed look.  A coat of paint or two, perhaps a little wax, maybe a little stain, and sandpaper are also a common way to distress furniture. 

Furniture Distressing Techniques

Short of using an antiquing kit (paint and glaze), as mentioned earlier, you could choose to use chalk paint.  It’s a decorative paint with a chalky appearance (thus its name) and a matte finish that creates a rustic look to wood furniture.

A single coat applied, followed by a chalk paint wax, will give that chair or table that vintage or shabby-chic look that can fit easily into any room’s look.  The chalk paint wax ages the paint’s appearance instantly and gives the piece the desired antique look.

But, for the true DIYer who wants a bit more of an authentic look, a more involved distressing technique is the way to go.  It will take a little more time, but the effect is more accurate to the characterization of distressed.  It is also the most popular way of adding that antique look.

Paint is a part of it, yes, as could be wax and a little stain.  But, the star of the process is sandpaper.  Even if the piece of furniture you are antiquing is already painted, distressing already painted furniture requires simply sanding some of the paint off. 

Shopping For Sandpaper

Assorted Sandpaper

When shopping for sandpaper, you will notice numbers identifying the various choices.  These numbers will be something like 80-grit, 120-grit, 200-grit, and so forth. 

The grit of sandpaper rates the size of the abrasive on it.  The lower the number of grit, the larger the size of the abrasive bits; the higher the number, the smaller the size of the abrasive bits.

220 Grit Sandpaper

Thus, the higher grit number reflects a finer abrasive, which will give a finer and smoother sand on wood; the lower grit number reflects a coarser abrasive, which will provide, as you might expect, coarser sand on wood that removes more material more quickly.

For your antiquing project, you will want to choose a higher grit rating sandpaper grade, something in the 120-grit to 200-grit range.  You want to be removing some of the paint on the wood, but not a lot of the wood.  A lower grit rating sandpaper grade will take too much wood with the paint.

This is also why you would not want to use a paint scraper – you run the risk of taking too much wood with a scraper or creating deeper scratches on the wood than you want.

120 Grit Sandpaper

One other option as an addition to sandpaper rather than as a replacement is steel wool.  If, for instance, you’ve used two colors of paint and applied wax here and there over the first coat, you’d want to use steel wool to remove the painted over wax and finish that area with a light sanding with a high-grit paper.  The first coat will show through and add that appearance of age you want.

How Do You Sand Furniture To Make It Look Distressed?

You’ve painted the furniture piece you want to distress, and it’s time to add that distressed look.  You have your sandpaper, a high grit paper, and you’re ready to begin.  Where do you start, though?

Generally, sanding all over is one way to approach that distressing technique.  It will create that overall weathered look.

But a more strategic sanding will work better for you.  Consider what parts of a chair, for instance, are likely to have been worn down over time.  You want the antiquing of the chair to appear genuine and natural.

The legs are likely to have been kicked, the cross pieces likely stepped on, the backs to have been banged up.  These are the areas, the corners to round, the legs to show use and abuse, where you will want to concentrate on with your sanding.  The sanding should remove enough paint to show the wood beneath it, but don’t overdo it. 

Here’s a video showing the distressing of a chair that will help illustrate these points.  It’s not long, and you’ll find some helpful suggestions.

These are fun projects and don’t take a lot of time.  The result can add a bit of charm and warmth to your home and the satisfaction of having created the effect yourself. 

Please leave a comment to join the discussion