If you want to add a touch of rustic charm to your home, there’s no better way to do it than by upcycling or refinishing a piece of furniture with milk paint.

To us, rustic style encompasses a laid-back look with warm, natural materials, weathered or distressed wood and a creative, do-it-yourself attitude. Learning how to distress furniture is a fantastic way to give secondhand pieces new life and turn generic finds — like those you might score on sale at a big box store — into one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

Rustic painting may look artistic once finished, but the process itself is easy enough for complete beginners. Success depends on just three things: the right equipment, the right process and the right attitude.

What You’ll Need Before Getting Started

Here’s your project wish list:

  • Milk paint in two different colors. Choose an underlying color and a top color. The underlying color will be exposed slightly on “worn out” areas. For an eye-catching, vibrant look, choose contrasting colors (for example, salmon and moss green for a touch of country chic or fuchsia and turquoise for a bohemian-meets-modern effect), or opt for two colors in the same family (like Blue Spruce and Beachgrass) for a subtler result.
  • Brush (any natural bristle brush works well)
  • Lint-free rag and bucket of water
  • Burnishing paste (low-sheen)
  • Sandpaper (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  1. clean and prep surfaces, then mix the Persimmon base coat of Real Milk Paint. 
  2. blend equal parts of paint and water by hand or with a hand or shake mixer. If you plan to use the paint you mix right away, add a few drops of anti-foam, which also reduces spatter from hard water. If you mix the paint the night before your project, the foam and chunks naturally dissipate.
  3. grab a natural bristle brush and apply the paint. Coat the recessed and beveled areas first, brushing Real Milk Paint along the wood grain, then extend the color out to the edges. 
  4. add another coat, then allow it to dry for a few hours. This process sometimes raises the grain, requiring sanding afterward to remove it for a smoother finish. 
  5. let the Persimmon undercoat dry overnight.
  6. the next day, add the Willow Real Milk Paint. Apply it just like you applied the Persimmon layer, working on inner surfaces first, then moving to the outer edges. 
  7. once applied, let it set 20 – 30 minutes. Then use a damp cloth to start wet distressing.  Real Milk Paint has a long open working time, so you can make changes and remove it from surfaces as needed, though that gets harder when it’s drier.
  8. add distressing with a damp cloth you’ve wrung to the point that no more moisture comes out of it. Simply rub away the top layer and reveal the Persimmon paint beneath. To achieve a realistic effect, focus distressing around areas where people normally touch kitchen cabinets or rub them during cleaning, like the outer edges and around hardware.
  9. once you get the look you want, seal over the top with Low Sheen Finishing Cream. This forgiving acrylic formulation offers a consistent finish without halos, rings or chalkiness, and it also makes the item more washable. Work this paste into the paint to the point that it no longer spreads, let it dry overnight. This provides you with a nice color without too much shine or a built-up look. Another option for sealing Real Milk Paint is our Hemp Oil or Clear Soft Wax.

Distressing Furniture Tips

To achieve the most authentic rustic paint look, read our professional tips:

  • Work in natural light. Too little light and you can easily end up over-distressing your piece, and it’ll look beat up and unsightly. Too much light and you won’t have an accurate picture of what the piece would look like in a normal indoor setting.
  • Go slowly. The best distressing is done in layers. Add a scuff here, rub a bit of paint off there, and then reevaluate. You can always distress your project further, but undoing your efforts requires repainting, and that’s not a cycle you want to get into.
  • Focus on the big picture. As you distress, keep stepping back to look at your project piece as a whole. You want to see how all the marks work together to create a cohesive whole. Balance is important; vintage furniture doesn’t get worn down on one side and stay nearly pristine on the other, but don’t get bogged down in symmetry either.
  • Use a combination of the wet rag method and sanding, or at least play around with both. Sanding can be harder to control, but you’ll strip the paint quicker and be able to go deeper. On the other hand, using the rag allows for greater finesse.
  • Find the beauty in the imperfections. There’s no better time to embrace mistakes than when you’re playing with paint and distressing. If you have an oops moment, roll with it. You may end up loving the results.

Voila! A few key tools, a bit of advice and a decent amount of elbow grease and you’ve created a one-of-a-kind piece of distressed furniture that adds character and charm to your home. Now, what will your next project be?

For a step-by-step visual guide on how to make furniture look rustic, check out our video tutorial below on how to distress furniture using Real Milk Paint.

Distressing Techniques with Real Milk Paint®

Video Instruction:

Part 1
Part 2