Canadian Woodworking

Adding years of patina…overnight

Author: Marty Schlosser
Photos: Marty Schlosser
Published: October November 2010
Adding Patina
Adding Patina

There’s something about a gracefully aged antique that catches your eye. Then again, maybe it only looks like an antique. Learn how to add decades of character in just a few hours.

furnitureIf you’re like me and are willing to apply a bit of elbow grease and common sense, it’s possible to turn a new piece of furniture you’ve recently made, or perhaps one you recently purchased, into a faux antique. As long as you’re honest and fess up to the fact, there’s nothing wrong or unscrupulous about it. Come along with me as I add years of patina to a rocking chair I recently came across. Using the techniques I’ll share with you, you’ll be able to give any piece that “aged graceful” look. It’s easier than you’d think.

Machine Marks May Date a Piece
 If milling marks are visible, you may want to get rid of them. A belt sander makes fast work of marks on the bottom of these curved rails.

A Few Years Old
 Before you add patina, a high-wear area may only have a few scratches and scuff marks.

A Century Old
 After hitting the area with sandpaper and applying stain, you’ve started to reverse the hands of time. Using some tools to add some wear marks will only add to the look.

Remove a Layer
Sometimes when you remove a layer of finish, you uncover a colour that’s different but complimentary. This helps add to the aging process.

Seeing Is Believing
 Adding certain high-wear spots is crucial. Whether it’s feet, hands or objects that would have come into contact with the piece over the years, seeing a certain amount of wear is necessary for the overall look to be believable.

Step 1: Assessment.

I started by setting the rocking chair on a plastic tarp, in a well let area of my workshop. After giving the chair a thorough cleaning with a turpentine-dampened rag, I assessed its current condition and made a few notes as I went along about how far back I could realistically have the piece appear and what work that would entail. The near-perfect spindles told me it had been machine-made but I knew I could ‘fix’ that with a bit of judicious chisel work and sanding. The split-wedged tenon joinery it sported was as common a century ago as it is today, so I felt comfortable leaving that well enough alone. However, there was very little of the natural wear and tear one would expect to see in a 100-plus-year-old chair. No where the heel of a boot or shoe would have rubbed the front legs and rockers. No evidence of wear in the arms where rings or rough hands had been. No signs of finish being rubbed off where a person’s back or head had rested against the chair. And, last, there was no significant wear marks on the bottom of the runners, nor the back of the crest rail where such a chair could have encountered the floor or wall over the years. In undertaking my assessment, I was also looking for areas where repairs would be needed; broken spindles, legs or rockers, etc. that needed attention. Fortunately for me it was in good condition. My assessment told me that without too much work, I could turn my rocking chair into a century-old piece. That, therefore, was my target.

If your furniture piece is a cupboard, you’ll want to round the front edges and corners and make some wear marks on the bottom of the drawer framing. The same goes for tables and desks; corners will be rounded, feet may show water marks and there will be damage where chairs had been banged against their front edges. In other words, you’re looking for natural, day-to-day wear and tear. If it’s not there, then your efforts will need to add it or your faux antique will look like anything but.

Step 2: Upgrading ...Backwards

At this stage, I looked at the chair to see if there were any upgrades needed to have the chair appear 100 years old. For instance, if the crest rail (the top of the chair back) or the seat had been made of laminated materials, because that particular technology wasn’t used for such sections of chairs in the era I was targeting, I’d have had to make solid wood replacement parts.

Fortunately for me, solid wood had been used throughout the chair. The joinery, as mentioned above, was more or less that which would have been used long ago. Keep your eye out for knife marks too. As a general rule, the older an antique is the less likely it was made with machinery. If knife marks are obvious, you can remove them by sanding or scraping, then use stain to fine-tune the area. Just be careful with this technique. You may not want to sand large areas and have them stick out like a sore thumb. In the case of other furniture pieces you have and wish to faux antique (a shelving unit with particleboard core veneered shelves), you should swap them out for solid wood shelves. Particleboard wasn’t around a century ago and anyone will be able to tell at a glance that it’s a fake. The same goes for drawer bottoms and backs of cabinets and such pieces; replace those sections using solid wood parts. If your target era is further back than 100 years, you may wish to go to greater efforts. I recall a dresser mirror whose back was made of what appeared to be ¼” thick boards that had been shaped with a hand axe instead of being run through a thickness planer. Do you need to go to such efforts? I guess it depends on how authentic you wish your faux antiquing to be, doesn’t it? Don’t just ignore any hardware on the piece, including screws. Robertson head screws, round-headed finishing nails and euro-style hinges weren’t around 100 years ago, so if they’re found in your piece, replace them with the matching era hardware. Pegs were sometimes used in lieu of nails years ago, so again, you may wish to drill holes and tap some into place.

Step 3: Repair

My initial assessment showed that no repairs were needed. However, if the furniture piece you’re wishing to faux antique needs any, now is the time to tackle them. If pieces need to be glued and you elect to use yellow instead of the hide glue, which most likely would have been employed long ago, ensure you remove all evidence as you go along. Nothing will give your efforts away faster than hardened goops of modern glue about the joints.

Step 4: Focus on the Finish

My initial assessment showed me that my rocking chair had been stained and then varnished. That finish was close enough to that which would have been used 100 years ago, so I simply left well enough alone. However, if you’re trying to truly emulate a particular era, you may need to use paint, shellac or an oil finish. If the piece would originally have been stained, stay away from using only one tone of stain. Judiciously using a somewhat darker-toned stain in areas where it would not be rubbed off will look much more realistic than if it is all the same tone. A bit of artistry will go a long way when doing such effects.

Step 5: Distressing

This is the area where the pros stand out from the amateurs. Not only does a little go a long way but before you start whacking your piece of furniture with a chain in one hand and a hammer in the other, ask yourself what sort of wear and tear your piece would most likely have been subjected to over its lifetime, then go ahead and emulate it. In the case of my rocking chair, I used mostly sandpaper and steel wool on select parts of the arms, crest rail and spindles of the arms and chair back. I also took a chisel and misshaped some of those spindles so they’d appear less factory-made and modern. I then took a rasp to the lower inside area of the front legs where they met the rockers and added years of wear and tear before resorting to sandpaper to smooth things out a bit. An awl to add scratches and small holes and a rolling pin covered with epoxy then rolled in stones or broken glass are also common ways to add age to a newer piece.

Again, don’t go overboard or it will look fake. You can even apply stain to the raw wood so it will not look fresh and new. Years of wear will usually result in dirt and stains being left behind and standard wood stain may do the trick. Once I was happy with my distressing efforts, I applied a coat of wax to the entire piece, then polished it with a rag once the wax had hardened. I looked back upon my work and was satisfied that I’d gone far enough to make it a convincing faux antique, but not overboard.

Step 6: Telling the Tale

I burned my mark and affixed a signed and dated label to the underside of the rocking chair, thus clearly identifying the piece as a faux antique. Anyone from that point onward would be able to tell that it was I, and not Father Time, who had placed a hundred years of wear and tear on the rocking chair. It is highly recommended that you do the same thing yourself to any furniture pieces you elect to faux antique.

I hope that you’ll try your hand at faux antiquing. It’s easy and relatively fast to do. And, hey, it’s a lot of fun.

Adding Age with Specialized Finishes

There are a number of finishing products on the market today that will help you age a piece of furniture. You can add cracked, dry looking surfaces, colour with obvious high-wear areas or stains that help replicate older colours. Waxine, a Canadian company, carries a wide selection of products that will help turn a new piece of furniture into a faux antique in a few hours.

Their cracked varnish develops a series of cracks when it dries. Crazing paint is another product that might be of interest when antiquing furniture. The crazing paint is applied after applying the primer coats and it can be tinted to obtain pastel colours. The crazing effect will start 30 minutes after the application of the paint and will continue for several hours. With these two products you can’t control the way in which the effect develops. A product that you have some control over is Waxine’s fish glue. Apply it to certain areas of your project before paint and you can control where and how much the cracked effect will occur. In addition to these products they have some paints that can be layered and, when lightly sanded, will produce a worn, aged look. To learn about the different products and how they are applied, go to

−Rob Brown

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