Distressed and Rub-Through Finishing Techniques

Finishers suggest an assortment of methods for achieving a worn look in finished cabinets and furniture. March 28, 2015

I have questions about the steps you take to achieve distressed and rub-through finishing techniques. I need to try to simulate some existing cabinet finish in a customerís house. If you rub through to bare wood, or scratch the color coat do you then top coat everything? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
Here is my method for colored topcoat. Spray clear coat sealer and sand smooth. Spray colored topcoat and sand through areas that you want to show. Repeat this step again. Spray clear coat again. If you don't spray first coat of sealer, the rub through areas tend to feel rough after final topcoat. I failed to mention that I sand all surfaces between coats for better adhesion.

From Contributor G:
Depends on the look you are trying to achieve. If you want bare wood then you spray a primer on the project and sand through where necessary - then you clearcoat. Or if you need color below you would first stain the areas or entire project and then spray tinted primer and sand where necessary, then topcoat. You can do the same with pigmented paints, but generally they are much tougher to sand because they are meant to be durable. Sometimes you have to because primers can be tinted only so dark.

From contributor X:
I do my rub-throughs with solvents. If the exposed wood is natural I seal it with a clear post cat and after it cures I spray it with the pigmented color. Before the pigmented color fully cures I take a block of wood wrapped with a cloth dampened with lacquer thinner and rub off the finish where I want it burned off. You can do this with any paint/stain combo just seal the underneath color with a post-cat so the thinner wonít wear it off. I prefer this method over sand-throughs because I find it to be easier and youíre not sanding down to bare wood. I would use a pigmented vinyl for the main color because it will rub off easier than a post-cat, and you will still have the option of clear coating on top with a post-cat if you want to.

From the original questioner
To contributor X: Do you spray just twice? Sealer, color and then rub through with thinner and done?

From contributor F:
All good methods shared here and really it depends on the look you are trying to achieve. I came up with a quick and dirty method for doing a more distressed rub though look when incorporating a glaze. First stain and seal or vinyl prime depending on whether itís a stained or painted finish. Then distress with a rasp file, intentionally scoring the edges where a worn through look is desired. Next glaze with a van dyke brown or other dark color, letting the glaze act like a stain on the scored areas of bare wood and then clear coat. Put on two coats of clear taking care to scuff the worn-through areas carefully between coats of clear so they aren't rougher than other areas with no distressing.

From contributor M:
Without knowing what type of finish you're using and without a picture of the look you're going after it is pretty difficult to tell you how to do it.

From contributor A:
I do the same as Contributor B. I also learn not to use a white primer with a color paint (the white shows when you sand/stress edges).

From contributor U:
I'm doing a lot of this these days. On my first one I dyed the door and then primed with a tinted primer and done the sand through showing the brown dye, pretty time consuming. The one I'm on now I'm priming white then painting antique white and doing the sand through and just barely wiping a little glaze over the sand through to turn it brown and it is faster. My sand paper seems to clog very fast whether sanding primer or paint, this makes me want to try Contributor X's method. I'll give that a try for sure. Good luck.

From the original questioner
I spent the last 30 something years trying to be so careful not to bump, nick, or scratch finished cabinetry. Now many people want cabinets that look 50 years old, and full of bumps, nicks, and scratches - go figure.

From Contributor K:
I've had good results with the following method:

1. Start with cherry. It doesn't have to be a particularly nice grade, since color isn't important.

2. Primer (tinted to final color).

3. Color coat.

4. Rub through edges and corners.

5. Two coats clear (I think they only use one).

Using cherry eliminates the need for stain or glaze on the edges. It starts out a little light but darkens nicely with time. I've tried all the above methods and this has worked best for me, especially on jobs that aren't getting glaze.