How to Distress Flat Cabinets

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Distressed wood looks as if it sat out in the sun for years.
Distressed wood looks as if it sat out in the sun for years. (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

The distressed, antique look works well for cabinets in both modern and vintage-style homes. Achieve the distressed feel without purchasing specialty paints and glazes; simply use common household items to distress cabinets and give them an antique finish without a lot of money.

Things You'll Need

  • Dropcloth
  • Painter’s tape
  • Screwdriver
  • TSP (trisodium phosphate)
  • Washcloths
  • Satin finish base coat color
  • Satin finish top coat color
  • Paint roller
  • 2-inch paintbrush
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Keys
  • Hammer

Remove any items from the countertops and inside the cabinets. Take off the cabinet doors and remove the drawers, placing them on a dropcloth in a well-ventilated work area. Remove any hardware such as knobs, handles and hinges and set them aside in a safe place. Cover the area under the base of each cabinet frame with a dropcloth to protect the tile from spills and drips.

Wash the surface of the cabinets using a solution of TSP and warm water. Mix the solution according to manufacturer’s instructions. Wipe the cabinets clean using a dry washcloth and allow them to dry for at least two hours.

Apply a thin coat of the base color to the cabinet frames, doors and drawers using a paint roller. Use a paintbrush for hard-to-reach or narrow areas. The paint should be in a satin or flat finish, since these will show scratches and imperfections as an aged, distressed cabinet would. Avoid gloss finishes, which are resistant to scratches and dents. Let the base coat color dry overnight.

Apply the top coat color to the cabinets. The top coat color should be different from the base color, as the base coat will show through when imperfections are added by distressing the cabinets. Use two colors that match the overall theme of the kitchen. Let the top coat color dry overnight.

Sand the surface of the cabinet doors, drawers and frames using 220-grit sandpaper. Sand areas such as the corners of the doors, random patches on the cabinet frames and edges of drawers. Do not sand the entire surface of the cabinet, since the point is to create an aged look and make the cabinets look old and worn. Sand with a light pressure, both with and against the natural grain of the wood to create a more distressed look. Sand only until the base coat color begins to show through; avoid sanding down to the surface of the wood.

Lightly tap areas of the cabinets with a hammer and to create dings and dents. Use only a light tapping motion as you work on the cabinets to be sure not to crack the wood.

Create some deep scratches on the front of the doors and drawers and sides of the cabinet frames using old keys. Scratch the surface only until the base coat color of paint starts to show through. Wipe the cabinets clean with a tack cloth.

Reassemble the cabinet doors and drawers and reinstall for use.

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