Shabby Chic Furniture: Distressing New Furniture

The question of whether or not you can take a new item, apply artificial distressing techniques, and create something that is truly shabby chic is highly personal and subjective. For some, transforming and repurposing found items, especially those that might end up in a landfill if they weren’t given new life, is the main point. For others, the end result is what matters, and it’s all about achieving the shabby chic design aesthetic by any means necessary.

We’ll let you make the call, of course. But if you are interested in distressing new furniture items, read on.

Distressing new items presents some unique challenges, but it also has some advantages.

The most obvious advantage is that the supply of new items is relatively predictable and consistent. This can be especially useful for someone who is operating a retail business. The challenge of continually sourcing secondhand items to work with can be an ongoing issue that requires a lot of time and resources. The process can be streamlined by finding a steady supplier (or suppliers) for new items. The relative ease of working with a steady supply chain is especially relevant for business owners who aspire to grow their operation into something greater than a “lifestyle business,” or a secondary stream of income that is more of a hobby, than a means for paying all the bills.

That’s not to say that you can’t grow a real business out of using real found items. You surely can! But it will really help if you have a passion for the pursuit of items to work with. It will also likely take you longer to grow the business, as this isn’t an approach that is very easy to scale. But if you put the time and effort in, and are persistent, it should get easier to find the things you are looking for, because you’ll begin to develop a network. Eventually, the items will start to find you! That is, people will get to know who you are and what you do, and when they see something that fits your style, they will let you know. The more “enterprising” folks in your network may even begin to buy items with you in mind, knowing that if they can find something and resell it to you, they can make a modest profit for themselves. This requires relationship building on your part, of course.

Another option is to build your network by hiring others to work for you. If you can find an employee who shares your passion, and has a sharp eye for true finds, that person will be a real asset to your growing business.

“Authenticity” isn’t the only issue when working with new furniture. New furniture can be problematic due to modern manufacturing processes. Much of today’s furniture is made of particle board, with a thin veneer glued over the top. If you try to sand down the veneer, you’ll soon hit particle board. There just isn’t real wood to work with like there is with an older furniture item.


One technique for getting around this challenge is to add layers of paint to the surface. Sure, you were probably planning to paint anyway. But the layering is especially important if you’re working with a new piece of furniture. The layers of paint are key, because there has to be a foundation for you to work with. Now, we are assuming you are working with a less expensive, wood fiber-based piece of furniture. This is less than ideal, of course, but it’s not impossible. However, you won’t be able to sand down to expose real wood. So the key is to provide sufficient depth of paint in order to be able to create the shabby chic distressed look, in which some of the paint is worn away to expose a bit of what is underneath. You really have to build the layers of paint up, so that you have room to remove paint from areas where natural wear is likely to take place, such as corners.

The initial surface that you are working with may require some prep, such as roughening, and adding a base layer that the subsequent layers will be able to adhere to. Depending on the look that you are going for, you may want to use a relatively course brush, as opposed to fine one, so that it will produce that hand-painted look. With sufficient layering, you really can turn something new into something that looks like it has been around for years, and has been painted many a time.

However, there is one characteristic of older, real wood furniture that you simply won’t be able to reproduce with this technique: the heft. IKEA Furniture is certainly convenient if you’re moving in or out of an apartment on the 4th floor of a walk-up building. But if you’re trying to turn it into something more vintage, the lack of weight will give it away.

Sure, you can start with new furniture made of real wood. But this is likely to be expensive. It certainly takes some courage to deliberately distress a new, higher end furniture piece. If you have access to a craftsman, or are a skilled carpenter yourself, you could make the whole piece from scratch. But it seems unlikely that very many people will be willing to walk into an upscale furniture store, pay the retail price, and get right to work making it look like it has been used for years.

We’ll talk more about the art of the distressing shabby chic furniture in another post. For now, we wish you all the best finding pieces to work with!