Rustic Furniture Finishes Using Chalk Paint®

Listen, if it were up to me, everything would be rustic. I often say I want all of my furniture to look like it’s been left out in a field for a hundred years. And I mean it. That doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the best retail strategy, so I don’t paint everything in that motif.

When it comes to finding your style, it’s important to be true to who you are and in the business of painting furniture, it’s also important to be true to the type of piece you are painting. Look–you can’t make an art deco desk  look like it’s rustic farmhouse style, it just won’t work. Melding my style with my mom’s has been an interesting effort since we closed the Boston store to focus our efforts on our Reading flagship. Hers is a very feminine, elegant and European style and mine, well I’ve already detailed my preferred aesthetic. We’ve definitely found some common ground over here, though from time to time I really like to go heavily rustic (or super distressed) just to get it out of my system. Here are a couple of pieces I’ve worked on recently that display this look pretty nicely. I understand this approach certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s not trying to be everything to everyone. We even had a couple of shoppers give a glare and a “well that’s not finished yet, is it?” That’s fine and I totally get it. But you can kiss my ass when my house looks like Ralph Lauren’s and yours looks like Target. (Too harsh?)

First up was this tiny mahogany side table. It was in great shape, but it was just kind of boring and dated. I went a pretty straightforward route, using Old White Chalk Paint®, heavy distressing, and clear and dark wax. There are different ways to distress (wet distress, before or after waxing, etc) but for this piece I used a 220 grit sandpaper to get it started as I knew I wanted to take off a lot of paint. I then finished it with a 1000 grit sandpaper to round out any scratches or distressing that looked too man-made and unnatural. This is usually my preferred method of distressing, but I caution beginners in this method because sandpaper can very often look half-assed. It can be too harsh and scratchy which to me looks like amateur hour from a mile away. I can’t tell you how much of this stuff I see at Brimfield. Wet distressing is a really good alternative for a more natural look, it just takes twice as much elbow grease. If you aren’t fully confident in your distressing ability just yet, opt for the wet technique. I like to use a face cloth as it has a little bit of bite to it as opposed to a softer, smoother cloth. Anyway, here she is:

Simple but effective

Simple but effective

Heavily distressed with uneven patterns. You want to avoid being too uniform in your distress as mother nature wouldn't work that way, so why would you?

Heavily distressed with uneven patterns. You want to avoid being too uniform in your distress as mother nature wouldn’t work that way, so why would you?

I went pretty heavy with the dark wax to complement the heavy distressing.

I went pretty heavy with the dark wax to complement the heavy distressing.

I kept the original hardware which was dope as hell! I just added a touch of German Silver gilding paste to brighten it up.

My rule of thumb when distressing is this: hit it where it would naturally wear away first. This means the corners, the edges of drawers, and underneath the hardware–places where it would get heavy use from people touching it. Hit those areas and take a step back. If you like it–roll with it. Not everything has to be super distressed, so often times just working the edges is enough for a cool aged look. Totally up to you. Also, the reason why I like to distress before I wax is that if I mess up or distress too much, I can easily touch up my mistakes with some more paint. I understand waxing after distressing cuts down on dust and gives you more control, but I’m willing to forego that in exchange for the forgiveness I gain with an unwaxed piece.

Once again, I don’t have any before pictures of this next piece (I am horrible and I don’t ‘think like a blogger’ as Amy implores me to do) but this picture below is a pretty close representation.

So I really love Empire furniture and this piece was no different. It had a little bit of surface issues and one of the wooden knobs had cracked in half thanks to my brother Colin. Thanks Colin. I decided I wanted to play up the already rustic foundation in place on this big guy. To remedy the cracked knob that Colin created (Thanks Colin) I braided some really nice twine and painted it Old White. Thanks Colin. (Ha) I also dry brushed Old White all over the piece never intending to gain full coverage with the paint. My mom later added a couple of transfer images to each cabinet door for good measure. (There was no stopping her) In fairness it added a really nice decorative touch. You can sort of see them in these pictures, but you may have to squint–they’re very faint. Anyway, here’s another piece that certainly isn’t for everyone, especially people who like newer, more polished stuff. Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” It’s very true. I wasn’t trying to make every darn person who came in the door say “wow,” but I knew someone would appreciate it the way I did. I like a little bit of character to my stuff and so did Mary Ellen, an absolute doll who found the piece just before we closed on a Saturday and came back to buy that Monday when we opened. She absolutely loved it and that stuff makes me happy. It’s just furniture, but it’s awesome when you put your vision and creativity into, you take a chance, and somebody responds to it that way. Priceless stuff you guys.

Anyway, here’s what we (well, Mary Ellen) ended up with:

photo (1) photo


We called it the Prairie Cabinet. I’m sure you can see why.

Anyway, the last thing I wanted to note about the rustic look, is that you can also achieve it using Annie Sloan’s Dark Wax.



Dark wax is a great way to get an antiqued look without having to do any distressing. You can see the difference in the two pieces I posted above, granted, both are distressed. Point is, the first table is dark waxed and the second piece is not. The dark wax takes the same color (Old White) and totally changes it.



Here you can really see what it does to a brighter color like Arles. The top piece (with dark wax, obvs) has such greater depth and age to it while the bottom piece has a much cleaner look. Just throwing it out there if you haven’t had the pleasure of messing with dark wax yet. Don’t be afraid! I will make clear that if you are using dark wax it is imperative that you still use clear wax as you normally would and apply the dark wax immediately after. If dark wax hits a dry piece (whether it be unwaxed dry paint, or waxed furniture where the wax is past the 24 hour drying period) it will get very “grabby” and look like garbage. Don’t do that.

I’m out!


11 thoughts on “Rustic Furniture Finishes Using Chalk Paint®

  1. Hi. I bet you thought I ran away. Love the dresser. You are as talented as they come. Great ideas, and great workmanship. Who wouldn’t want to be you!! It just started to snow in Knoxville. You would think it was the storm of the century.

  2. Ah well just so you know! My friend Patty and myself loved your prairie cabinet too. She was considering it but something a little more pressing in her life took priority. It was a pleasure seeing both of you and visiting Maison decor. Great post. Caroline

  3. Very nice post. And beautiful work. I love the part about not pleasing everyone. I like it distressed and rustic also, but it seems to actually piss people off sometimes! And that is my reply: “You can’t please everyone!”.
    Keep up the great work!

  4. Hi Justin,
    great post. I really love the rustic look. I have a fear of distressing but I really love it if it’s done right. You got that! Love the rope handles. Necessity is the mother of invention. New Items in the store are beautiful.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. I’m a chalk paint noob and your tips have been very helpful. BTW, rustic does it for me too. Love the results of all the pieces here. Beautiful. Now if I can just get this whole wax thing down. First too much, then not enough (apparently). I’m overthinking, ja? Sincerely, “Determined”

  6. Okay , some of the pieces I see are so smoothly painted, no brush strokes. I am really new at this so forgive my ignorance, I need another word 🙂 are the smoothly painted pieces sanded and repainted , or maybe it isn’t painted with chalk paint, or is it possibly they are being painted with a chalk paint brush? Thank you all in advance!

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