I have an old painted wooden bench that I want to refinish. The existing paint, dark blue with some toll-work flowers, is firmly on (no chipping or flaking) but faded and rubbed through in many places.

bench old finish

I want to change the color overall to a dark green, but let some of the under-paint (and maybe even a little bare wood) show through. How can I do this?

I am not talking about a glaze that gives a slight tint and then collects in the seams and cracks, but an overall color change with hints of the earlier paint.

What comes to mind is cleaning with mineral spirits, maybe a very light sanding, followed by an application of a satin water-based enamel which gets lightly rubbed off as I go. Or would I be better off with a spray shellac followed by milk paint and then a sealer of poly or wax? Or is there some other technique?

I do want it durable enough for regular use. Suggestions?

  • Do you have an example photo which shows the effect you want to achieve?
    – rob
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 14:58
  • @rob Just in my head, although I seem to have seen this before.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 15:12

2 Answers 2


It really depends what type of finish you're looking for. The most common method I've seen is to paint the entire piece, let it dry, then sand through the new paint in a few places for a distressed appearance. You could also paint the whole piece, but wipe off the new paint in some places before it dries. Or, before painting, you could rub wax in a few areas where you don't want the new paint to adhere very well.

  • Milk paint is particularly popular for this "artificial wear", partly because it's an older formula of paint and partly because of how well it responds to this approach. Unfortunately, you'll lose those flowers.... personally I'd be inclined to just varnish it as it s.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 17:07
  • If you're trying to preserve the flowers, you might be able to get away with a genuine stain, which hopefully won't be absorbed by the paint (or not as quickly as as by the wood). Apply dilute stain, let sit briefly to soak in, wipe off excess, let dry. If it seems to work, you can repeat the process to darken the color. Personally, as I said above, I'm not sure I'd risk it, but that depends on your goals.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 17:12
  • @keshlam So would I, but my wife wants a new color and is not especially fond of the flowers.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 15:28

I am not talking about a glaze that gives a slight tint and then collects in the seams and cracks, but an overall color change with hints of the earlier paint.

This is very easily achieved using one or both of these techniques: wiping and abrasion.

The first is simply to selectively wipe at the paint as you apply it, with your brush or roller in one hand and a clean rag or piece of burlap in the other. With enamel or oil paint the cloth can be dampened in spirits or turpentine to increase the working window for this basic method from minutes to an hour or more (wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated place if doing it this way, especially if using turpentine).

The second is to paint, let the paint dry (see note 1 re. drying time) then abrade the paint from the piece where you want some previous colour to show through. Removing the paint can be done in part by scraping with various tools, but is most commonly done using sandpaper, steel wool and Scotch-Brite or an equivalent. Even stainless steel pot scourers can be used if the coarser scratches they leave are acceptable. See also note 2.

Of course there's no reason you have to use one or the other, both techniques can be used if desired.

Note 1, drying time: some guides call for waiting for the paint to fully dry, or cure, before starting abrading work, others suggest that you can start as soon as the paint is dry to the touch. Needless to say both work — the paint comes off either way — just slightly differently. And you can of course start as soon as the paint is touch-dry and then do further work later on when the paint has cured.

In practice I haven't found either to be the best approach and both have their place. With some paints they come off a little too easily when just dry, but this can be used deliberately for edges and around handles where you want to mimic the paint having worn through completely from long use. The effect is sometimes a bit coarse or crude, but this is easily made more subtle later on with finer abrasives and light rubbing.

Note 2, when working with waterbased paints: an additional aid for this technique that's sometimes advised is to rub a candle or piece of wax on edges, around knobs etc. where you want to show particular wear. The paint won't adhere to the wax and it is then much more easily abraded from the surface after being allowed to cure. This tip is particularly useful when using milk paint which is very tough and resilient when cured.

The usual advice with any techniques like this is to practice on a scrap piece first to get a feel for it. That's not really possible here, so if possible practice on the back or at least a less-visible portion of the piece before committing to the most visible areas.

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