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Distressed Wood and Metal Finishes

Soften the look of new projects by giving them the weather-worn look of a favorite rustic antique.

Distressed metal bucket and wooden star decoration.

Project Overview

Skill Level


Estimated Time

1 weekend

Estimated Cost


Tools & Materials

Wood finish:

  • 1-quart jar and lid
  • 2-in foam brush
  • Paper coffee filters
  • Extra-fine sanding sponge

Metal finish:

  • Rubber gloves
  • 220-grit sandpaper or coarse steel wool
  • Plastic tray

Wood finish:

  • #0000 steel wool
  • White vinegar

Metal finish:

  • Acidic toilet bowl cleaner, #369824

Items may be Special Order in some stores. Product costs, availability, and item numbers may vary online or by market. Paint colors may vary slightly from those shown. Availability varies by market for lumber species and sizes.

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Unlike common wood stains that dye the wood cells or leave a pigment on the surface, this wood finish acts on substances, called tannins, in the wood itself. The chemical reaction turns the wood soft gray to black, depending on the wood species. Woods with lots of tannins, such as walnut, will turn darker than pine. These tannins exist in different amounts even within boards of the same wood species.

Distressed Wood Finish

Step 1

Wash three pads of #0000 steel wool in a grease-cutting detergent to remove the protective oil and shake them dry. Immediately tear the steel wool pads into smaller pieces and add them to a 1-quart jar. Fill the jar with white vinegar and cover the jar loosely to let gas from the iron acetate mixture escape. Set it aside at least overnight and preferably for two days.

Good to Know

The more the steel wool breaks down in the vinegar, the stronger the mixture you’ll create. If necessary, you can dilute it with water before applying. Rust from the steel wool will add a brown stain to the solution.

Step 2

To remove the loose bits of remaining steel wool, pour the solution through a coffee filter. Repeat as needed with fresh filters to capture all of the debris. Then store the mixture in a closed container away from sunlight. The longer the solution is stored beyond a few weeks, the more it will turn wood brown instead of gray.

Step 3

Sand the wood surface to the highest grit you want. Then wipe and vacuum the surface clean.

Good to Know

Before applying the finish to a woodworking project, test a piece of scrap wood left over from the project. This will give you an idea of the finished shade, although results will vary from board to board within the same wood species.

Step 4

Brush on wood finish.

Apply the solution generously to bare wood with a wide foam brush (or one that has no metal parts). Wipe off any that pools on the surface and let dry. For open-pore woods such as oak, add one drop of dish-washing liquid to the mix to help it penetrate the surface and apply with a soft-bristle scrub brush. (You won’t have to press hard, though.)

Step 5

The solution will tend to raise the grain of the wood slightly, so lightly sand with an extra-fine sanding sponge just enough to knock off the tiny whiskers of wood. Wipe the surface clean and apply the protective clear finish of your choice.

Weathered Metal Finish

Step 1

Sand the metal surfaces.

Use 220-grit sandpaper or coarse steel wool to scratch the inside and outside surfaces of the galvanized metal tub or bucket. Fold over the sandpaper to reach into any recesses or grooves.

Step 2

Coat the tub with bowl cleaner.

Wearing rubber gloves and working over a drip pan, pour acidic toilet bowl cleaner on the metal, covering it entirely. Then set it aside to let the acid react with the protective zinc finish. If possible, let the coated metal sit in the sun to speed up the aging and drying process. Recoat any spots you missed. A second coat of cleaner may be needed to break down the galvanized finish.

Step 3

Partially aged metal bucket

After the surface develops a white patina, rinse it thoroughly with water and let dry. The example here shows the difference between the treated surface on the right side of the bucket and untreated metal on the left.

Step 4

Distressed hardware.

In addition to working on galvanized metal, this technique also works on zinc-plated hardware to accelerate the weathered and distressed look.

Step 5

Distressed metal and weathered wood create the look of a time-worn object that survived years of use. --Lowe’s Creative Ideas

Distressed metal creates the look of a time-worn object that’s survived years of use.