How to Paint & Distress Furniture: Table Makeover

To distress furniture, all you need are a few common tools and a water-based paint such as my preferred choice, milk paint. Milk paint is a low VOC water-based paint that requires no sanding, stripping or priming prep work, allowing for you to immediately start painting! I had a small entry table waiting in the wings to be made over and chose to go with the “distressed” look for this particular piece, a look that is super easy to attain with milk paint. Let’s get started!

This is the second of two tables my mom gave me to paint for her (see the Driftwood Gray bedside table here), and I love how it turned out!

It started as a piece that showed no style; it came originally painted a dark brown and a bearing a few chips on the tabletop, this table needed a major face-lift.

general finishes milk paint linen distressed before

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We chose a creamy off-white color from General Finishes milk paint in the color Linen. Mom also pictured roughing the piece up to give it a chic, worn antique appearance. I’ve done distressing on costumes for historical films, but this was a first for furniture, so I was intrigued to try it.

As milk paint requires no sanding or priming prep work, I was able to immediately start painting. However, because it was previously painted I started with a small test strip on the back of the piece before going further. I’m so glad I did, for as soon as the paint dried it showed lots of streaks and some bubbling.

This told me one important fact: that brown paint was oil-based.

Milk paint is water-based…

…oil and water don’t mix.

A scenario like this doesn’t happen very often for me when dealing with other previously oil-based painted furniture – most of the time you can still paint right over such a piece with no problem. I’d say needing to actually sand happens on 5% of pieces I’ve ever done – very rare.

Thus…a little fyi gold nugget for y’all, and a ton of sanding for me. (silver lining: arm muscles?)

A few hours and a pair of arthritic hands later, I had worked a majority of the paint off and down to the original wood.

general finishes milk paint linen distressed

At last able to get to the fun part of painting, in a short while later it looked like this:

general finishes milk paint linen distressed

Letting it dry completely overnight, the next day I took a sponge sanding block and went over the edges of the table to give it more detail and “history”. The process is to simply find the areas that you imagine getting worn or bumped most over the years, and go over them with the sander. Edges, feet, and small leg scuffs are good places. The key is to not overdo it – you don’t want to end up with it looking like the scuffing was purposely done such as a big and random surface area being scuffed out. Little strokes here and there does the trick.

Once I got it looking how I wanted, I used several coats of General Finishes Top Coat in Satin to seal and protect the finish.

Here’s the finished look! My favorite part is how the darker bits of the wood shows through around the border of the top edge on the tabletop:

general finishes milk paint linen distress
general finishes milk paint linen distressed
general finishes milk paint linen distressed
general finishes milk paint linen distress

general finishes milk paint linen distress

Amazing difference from its humble beginnings! The power of paint, y’all. Now that you know how to distress furniture, I’d love to see your completed projects! Tag me on Instagram at dravenlivinginafixerupper and I’ll be sure to see it and possibly share it!

Follow these links for additional easy paint instructions: gold-dipping furniture, bronzing antique effects, or the basics of mixing milk paint.

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    1. Thanks! It does seem so much more crisp and bright in white! I'll probably be experimenting more with it in the future to bring back some cheer to certain pieces. :)

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