My cousin's fiancee is interested in making a bench similar to this picture: enter image description here

This appears to be reclaimed lumber with years of weathering, but it's very smooth, which seems like it would be hard to accomplish with reclaimed lumber without milling the pieces to be even. Is it possible to get this look by artificially distressing lumber and if so how would this be accomplished?

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    Looks like charring, and then a finish to seal it in. – ratchet freak May 12 '15 at 22:15
  • I doubt you'll get enough strength with either biscuits or dowels. A secret miter will be a lot stronger (see sawdustmaking.com/woodjoints/dovetails.htm#secretmitre for an example). Quite tricky, though. – Pascal Belloncle May 12 '15 at 23:52
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    I know, so unfair! Regarding the wood, it may just have been left outside unfinished to weather. It looks a bit dark for teak, but redwood will turn sort of to that color after a few years of sun, and some rain. – Pascal Belloncle May 13 '15 at 0:30
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    @DanielB. I think there are several potentially good questions here but as it currently stands, I'm not sure which one you're asking. Are you asking whether the wood is actually reclaimed (which probably could not be answered subjectively and would attract opinion-based answers), how to distress the wood, how to construct the joints using reclaimed wood, or how to construct the joints using virgin wood? – rob May 13 '15 at 5:12
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    I agree with @rob. There's at least two questions here and the post should be separated accordingly. – drs May 13 '15 at 13:48

Is it possible to get this look by artificially distressing lumber and if so how would this be accomplished?

Yes, and depending on exactly the character you're after it can actually be quite straightforward, although involved. What I mean is the techniques are individually very simple but there may be quite a number of them used in sequence (and the sequence is very important — changing it can dramatically change the effect, and this is something you may want to do deliberately for variety).


Starting with wood that is not smoothly milled already can be very advantageous here, but it's possible to add certain textures to wood that is completely smooth, e.g. by sanding, brushing with a wire brush, tapping with wire brushes and generally bashing the wood to make it look old.

Species of wood matters here. Softwoods, which their notable hardness difference between earlywood and latewood, respond in a specific way to some abrasion techniques and that look is not really replicable using a smooth-grained hardwood. So to a degree the species you can use may be dictated by the exact look you're aiming to replicate.

Marks from a mill's circular saw blade can also be mimicked using the tablesaw or a circular saw but there is great potential for personal injury, anyone taking that on does so at their own risk. Careful sanding with coarse paper (60 grit or lower) is a much more advisable method to simulate this texture.


On to the colouring, just focussing on the overall look it's obviously fairly grey. So getting the wood grey by some means is the first thing to aim for. This can be done using nothing more sophisticated than a wash of heavily thinned paint, either oil-based (including artists' oil paints) or waterbase (including craft acrylics). The colouring possible with both types of paint is very similar, but because of their differences certain specific variations are easier or faster in one or the other, e.g. taking advantage of the paint being wet for a long time for easy blending or feathering, or relying on a paint's fast drying to overlay effects quickly.

There are also a number of commercial stains specifically intended to give these sorts of colours.

In addition to introducing a colour to the wood the wood can itself be coloured, for example using the vinegar + steel technique very commonly seen online for artificially ageing wood (see Note bottom for more on this).

After a base grey colour is achieved a second slightly different colour can be applied in more than one way to introduce some variation (note: because wood is inherently variable some variation will occur naturally anyway). Examples of how you might apply this 'character' paint layer, using paint that has been heavily thinned to a creamy or milky consistency:

  • Brushed liberally over the wood, allowed to soak in for a short while then a damp cloth is wiped over the surface in the direction of the grain.
  • Same as the above except that the wiping is done at an angle. This can simulate saw marks to a degree.
  • Either of the above except that a dry cloth is used. This will give a subtly different effect, usually more hard-edged.
  • The dilute paint is applied by a foam roller or by dabbing with a sponge and is allowed to dry, then worn down selectively with either a nylon mesh adhesive (e.g. Scotchbrite), steel wool or fine abrasive paper.

In addition to these sorts of techniques the wood prepared with the base colouring can be used both as-is or sealed, with a dilute coating of waterbase poly, blonde shellac or even thinned PVA glue. In all cases the seal coat should be allowed to dry thoroughly (overnight ideally) before progressing to the next step.

Note: the vinegar + steel wool technique is often poorly described in online guides. To begin with steel wool is not the only thing that can be used, old rusty nails or really any small pieces of iron or steel will work here as long as enough time is given for the vinegar to react with the metal. What this is doing is creating iron acetate, which is what then reacts chemically in the surface wood fibres to produce colour.

This reaction is with tannins in the wood, which some species (notably oak) are high in and give the most pronounced effect usually. This creates iron tannate which is black so the more tannic acid present in the wood the darker the colour. Obviously testing is important with this to gauge effect! If the colour achieved is a little darker than desired a portion of the vinegar solution can be diluted with water and tried again.

Where you're using a species that does not naturally contain much or any tannic acid (particularly softwoods) it can be introduced to the surface of the wood. While tannic acid can be bought online to make a very concentrated tannic acid solution, a strongly brewed tea can work quite well. And for the true DIY devotees a 'tannin tea' can be made using oak leaves, bark and particularly oak galls if you can find any

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  • Another great answer. I noticed that the steel wool effect was lacking on some woods. It's good to know the reason why. – Matt May 13 '15 at 18:47

Super Basic Distressing

I know you can distress wood. Beating it with a chain, scratching will tools etc. Then lazily applying a dark uneven stain and then a finish. That is easy and and very stress relieving (the chain part). You, on the other hand, are trying to get that reclaimed lumber look. If you didn't show the picture I would have expanded on my first couple of sentences but I feel that you have an uphill battle duplicating what you have for that bench.

My Amateur Analysis

Wherever those boards came from they were not in that original orientation obviously. The aging/distress pattern looks different on each of the boards. Trying to replicate that where each board would have its individual look would need to be done before assembly. The white patches are from where the boards use to be joined together so those gaps did not see much of the elements. That is easier to duplicate but it is more than just not staining a section.

For it to be as smooth as it is I suspect that it did not have direct contact with rain. Most of the really good/sought after reclaimed wood like barn board is incredibly weather with numerous deep recesses.

enter image description here

I don't think the wood in the picture was subjected to that. Following that though, without seeing a close up, I would guess that the wood is fairly smooth. If it was relativity uniform to begin with joining the boards for the actual bench might have been a cinch.

If the board were not of the exact same width you could hide the imperfections on the underside. however looking at the left inside "leg" that does not appear to be the case.

Either way a simple finish would have sealed in potential splinters. There looks to be a little sheen in that photo.

My Point

Not trying to be pessimistic, because I hope someone has a better answer, but there is a reason why large pieces of reclaimed wood, like in the picture, are a pricey commodity. It's hard to replicate what mother nature takes years to do. Try getting actual barn board with paying a fortune for it. There is nothing like the real thing.

Again, like I mentioned in the first paragraph, I am not saying distressing is a waste of effort. Just suggesting replicating what you have in the photo with new wood seems implausible.

Cheating to get the look

If you are willing to entertain a simpler solution then there is always the vinegar and steel trick. One of many instructions can come from this video

Mix an amount of steel wool or rusty nails into a measured amount of vinegar. Different vinegars (white, apple etc.) will have different results. I have also seen some people use coffee grounds. Leave this mixture in a container for several days. The longer you leave it the more concentrated solution you will get. This is a matter of experimentation. After that time you can mix in some water that is about the same amount as the added vinegar.

You now have a solution that can give wood an aged look. If the wood is already cleaned and joined then you get the aged look with smooth wood.


If you do this then you need to watch for inconsistencies between coats and applications. Making this mixture will give slightly different results every time so the colour might not match between concoctions. It might be important to make as much as you can the first time to give your project an single overall look. Assuming that is desired.

This will also react differently across different woods. Again... EXPERIMENT!

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  • That's a pretty thorough answer. Since it's just cheap dimensional lumber I can afford to experiment plenty. You're probably right about the metal brackets. I think failing that I'd just put another 4x4 in each corner as a brace. – Daniel B. May 13 '15 at 5:01
  • The question's just about distressing now, if you want to change it. I'll ask another question about the miter. – Daniel B. May 13 '15 at 22:32

About 50 years ago, my Dad worked for an "antique" dealer on Cape Cod who would take a new, unfinished piece (like a table) and toss it in the ocean for a couple of weeks. Then he'd pull it out, do a half-a**ed job of finishing it and sell it as an antique to idiots coming from Boston or New York. Maybe not the most ethical thing, but it would be you the distressed look you want.

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  • While I wouldn't be trying to pass this off as antique, that's an interesting idea. Unfortunately, I'm no longer anywhere near an ocean ;) – Daniel B. May 14 '15 at 21:31
  • I wouldn't do that either, particularly to sell. However... – CharlieHorse May 15 '15 at 13:35

I'm currently in the process of making a 5 piece crown molding to compliment some old growth long leaf pine that I installed on my walls. I found this link to be helpful to describe a ton of mordants and dyes that can be used to chemically age and alter the color of wood without staining, which never looks authentic to me because it takes the natural depth of color out of the wood. They also sell the stuff, but a lot of them can be conveniently found at the hardware store for less money: http://www.woodfinishingenterprises.com/dyes.html>

The process I am using is not quick, but the results are great so I'll share:

**#1) Create man-made wear marks if you like. beat the heck out of the wood to the degree you want, then beat it a little more because you'll wish you had in the end: I've rolled a manual lawn edger over it, a pick axe, chains with bolts attached to the links, etc. then put the wood face-down onto your driveway and drive over it... it will make many small random impressions.

**#2) Create nature marks. put several screws in a random pattern into the end of a 4' to 5' long 1x2 or 1x4. Beat the wood with it to create worm holes. drag an awl with the grain to create as many cracks you want to the depth that you like. you can also create minor surface checking by whacking it parallel to the grain with a sharp knife or machete. Don't heasitate with the beating, the best looking marks you'll make are the ones that you think you've gone too far.

**#3) Chemically Grey the wood out using one of the techniques described above. I used 3 TBS Copperas from the hardware store dissolved in 1qt of water. Use gloves and do it outside because you want to minimize your exposure to it until the wood is sealed. Let it dry then liberally apply strong tea. As it dries it will turn dark. Once it dries I brush it with a wire brush attached to my drill. Brush it as much as you like, creating grooves and brushing the dark off. If you have brushed to the degree of weathering you are after and the wood is too dark, you can lighten it by wiping the wood with a smooth cloth slightly dampened with a diluted deck cleaner that contains oxalic acid. I use Behr concentrate.

**#4) Set the tone or color of the wood you want by tinting shellac with water- based stain colorant. If you are going to top coat with a polyurethane you must use dewaxed shellac. lightly and sparingly apply the tinted shellac with a flat cloth like a sheet or t-shirt so that the shellac doesnt penetrate into the grooves or marks you've beat into the wood. apply as many coats as you like to achieve the desired tone of the wood, but let it dry between coats. once you are satisfied, let it dry overnight to seal the pores in the wood.

**#5) Apply a water based dye or tinting glaze of your choice as liberally or sparingly as you like. I like to see into the wood (depth of color), so I avoid glazes and simply followed up with strong tea, but you can use a Rit dye from the grocery store or TransTint makes some great wood dyes. liberally brush the dye on the wood, making sure you are getting into the cracks. It won't penetrate into the shellac treated areas. Let it dry overnight.

**#6) apply the topcoat of your choice.

I hope this helps provide someone inspiration to creating a natural-looking weathered wood appearance. I'm a bit of a purest and mighty picky, but I'm very happy with the results this process achieves.**

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There are stains and finishes mean to simulate weathering. A simple method, though, is using a common acid and mineral solution, such as vinegar and steel wool, to wash the board. Here's a video of the process. Of course a stronger acid will deepen the effect, and you can use a paint and wipe method to simulate mineral deposits (what rain leaves behind) you might find in real weathered wood.

This bench doesn't show the deep ridging you'd find in weathered wood, but if you want that, careful use of a pressure washer will wear the softer wood while leaving ridges behind.

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