How to Layer Paint Colors on Furniture – Four Techniques for a Distressed Finish

How to Layer Paint Colors on Furniture – Four Techniques for a Distressed Finish

Is there anything better than the look of a piece of furniture that’s been painted repeatedly and weathered over time? It’s one of my favorite distressed looks. Here’s how to layer paint colors on furniture for a distressed look!

Layered paint is so beautiful and it gives you an opportunity to add colors to your furniture and accessories that you normally might not have tried. Using contrasting or bright colors for your base layers can add excitement to an otherwise boring paint finish.

Layers of paint are a fast and easy way to get a distressed vintage type look on your furniture and home accessories. Here are a few tricks that can help you get the distressed look your want.

How Do You Paint Furniture In Layers?

First start by deciding on your colors and what order you want them to appear. For my project I knew the color that was on this little tote was going to be the base layer.

The first layer of paint

The next step is deciding what kind of distressing you want on your project. This will determine the order in which you want to apply the distressing techniques.

Wax Distressing for the Deepest Distress

Wax distressing

Using candle wax to coat the edges works to distress any type of paint including spray paint. On my YouTube channel I did a full wax distressing tutorial if you want the full procedure.

Essentially, you coat with wax in places that you would normally see wear like the handles and edges. The wax will resist the paint (for that reason some people call this technique “resist distressing”) and in the places where the wax was you can easily flake the paint away. This gives a chipped paint look that will go all the way to the base paint.

When you’re finished painting you use a straight edge and scrape away the wax.

scrape away the paint

Paint Your Second Coat

Once you’ve waxed the projects (if that’s the effect you’re going for you can add your next layer of color.

full contrast layer

I went with a yellow chalk paint which if you look at a color wheel is a mid range contrast from the red base coat. You can read more about contrasting colors here.

Once the piece was completely covered in the yellow I let it dry overnight before adding my next distressing technique and layer of paint.

Crackling Your Paint

Whenever I say crackle paint someone in the group I’m talking to will have a visceral reaction. That’s because crackle paint was WAAAYYYYYY overdone in the late 80′,s early 90’s and unfortunately it wasn’t done well. It didn’t feel authentic to have a piece completely covered in crackle.


I’m not suggesting you cover the whole piece with a crackle finish. I am suggesting a more natural crackle that come in from the sides but doesn’t go across the whole project.

To do this you need a highly specialized craft tool . . . Elmers School Glue.

crackle paint finish

I know! Who would have thought your could use school glue to make really cool distressed finishes.

All you need to do is brush it on in an uneven way. I used the phrase intentionally random. You want the glue to be thicker in some areas and thinner in others. Where the glue is thick the cracks will be wider and where it’s thinner the cracks will be thinner.

Let the glue partially dry. You want it to still be tacky. Then brush on your next color of paint. I decided on a turquoise blue because it falls the same distance from the red as it does from the yellow on the contrast scale, so they should work well together.

brush the third layer of paint on

Cracks will begin to form as the top layer of paint dries.

cracks form as drying

Distressing with Sandpaper

Distressing with sandpaper should be done with a LIGHT touch. I see so many “distressed” pieces of furniture where it looks like the person used a palm sander and went after it like a hyperactive beaver gnawing wood.

Don’t do that.

If you use a light touch when sanding you can feather the edges of chips and take the paint back layer by layer. You can go all the way down to the wood if you want but do so slowly and intentionally.

If it’s done right it can be a natural looking way to distress paint.

Use sandpaper to distress

Water Distressing for Chalk Paint

All of the distressing techniques above can be used on any kind of paint including latex, spray paint and chalk paint.

Water distressing, however can only be done with chalk and clay type paints.

Water distressing is similar to sanding where you can rub away layers of chalk paint but instead of the scratch “sanded” look you get a rubbed finish that looks like paint that’s been worn away after years of being handled.

Water distressing for Chalk Paint

To water distress all you need is a piece of cloth and some water. You don’t want the cloth to be soaked just a little damp and then wipe away the layers of paint.

Bonus Layering Paint Technique for a Distressed Look

The last layer I used on this piece to give it an aged look was a glaze. I have an aversion to glazes. I feel like I just spent hours painting and loving up a piece only to put glaze on and it looks dirty.

For this tote though I wanted it to have a dirty look. Because I envision this piece as a flower tote it makes sense to me for it to look a little grungy.

I’m no expert of glazing so follow the directions on the glaze you purchase. For my piece I brushed the copper glaze on and wiped it away.

Glaze for a distressed look

The glaze darkened all the colors which gives the piece an aged look right away.


Finished layered paint tote

You can always use coordinating colors for a subtle look but I love bright colors. I might paint another piece is more muted tones for the shop. We’ll see.

If you want to see how the whole process came together step by step click the video below!

For more paint techniques check out my other painting posts HERE!

If you’ve made it this far in the post do me a favor and save this post to Pinterest using the pin-able image below. I would be so grateful if you did!

How to Layer Paint Colors on Furniture

3 thoughts on “How to Layer Paint Colors on Furniture – Four Techniques for a Distressed Finish

  1. Hi Stacy. I’m so glad I stumbled onto your site! I was just getting ready to order a couple tests cans of simply spray, while waiting for 2 bottles of Rit dye more to arrive. So I’m new to refinishing furniture. Just moved into last home ever. So I found fantastic deal in 4 chairs. 2 big Baker Bergeres covered in white/cream linen type fabric and in great shape (totally unacceptable for my twin 11 year olds, but mostly their 6’5” 210# marmaduke of a dad who spills coffee often. I also got an absolute steal on 2 Aero Saarinen executive arm chairs ($1750 off each chair!) from a lawyer shutting down his new office to work from home full time! So I cannot ruin any of these chairs. Luckily there’s fabric underneath each to test. I’ve seen people mix 2 bottles of rit in a bucket of boiling water stir and paint the mix onto dry velvet and chenillle. Let it dry repeat then hit it with a blast from a garden hose followed by 2-3 days drying then dye fixative followed by scotchguard. Of course, Rit says you can’t dye anything that you can’t boil in a bucket then put in washer on hot to set the dye-but pp are proving them wrong. What’s your take? My lawyer chairs are all polyester supposedly bulletproof Knoll commercial fabric designed to repel everything, buts it’s an ugly pale moss green in an ugly hospital waiting room like pattern-luckily pale. Anyway, appreciate your honesty. I watched one other video where the gal said her chairs ended up feeling weird like they were “oily” and it was unpleasant to sit on them. So simply spray is out for me. Thanks for any advice you can offer. Like you, I hatebuying throw away furniture-I’ll get good quality vintage anytime. Unfortunately here in California l, I just found out after getting 4 estimates…it’s $1000+ per chair for the big Bakers and $450+ for the dining chairs-that’s with me providing the fabric!!! Of course I insisted on Crypton fabric-amazing revolution in fabric, way better than sunbrella! But expensive. You can find it at resellers who get ahold of the furniture manufacturer leftovers for 50-70% off a yard. It repels coffee, soy sauce, blood, wine! Amazing and most importantly my family proof 🙂 Hope to heat from you soon, any and all advice appreciated! Dye vs chalk painting vs acrylic painting upholstery?!?! Paddy Peters

    1. Hi Paddy,

      I like chalk paint to paint fabric. I have painted a couple fabric piece with it in the past and it turns out like leather. The best part is the chalk paint will work on any type of fabric. Also, it covers patterned fabric completely. You can see the results here

      I would not wax the fabric though. I used Bungalow 47’s matte clear coat over the top to get the leather feel. I kept that chair. I was going to sell it but I loved it. It’s holding up really well without any issues.

      I have stenciled canvas using chalk paint as well without any clear coat and made a pillow out of it. The paint once it was cured (approximately 2 weeks) didn’t transfer and was relatively soft. I don’t know how it would hold up long term.

      The Simply Spray I tested still feel like rubber. I don’t recommend it at all. Unfortunately, I can’t advise you on acrylic on fabric because I haven’t tried it. I just ordered some acrylic fabric paint so I will try it and let you know how it compares. I did use spray paint on a lamp shade – it worked but it was stiff and if it was something other than a lampshade probably would have cracked.

      I will be doing an experiment with Rust-oleum’s outdoor fabric spray to see if it’s any good. I’ve heard positive things but I haven’t tried it yet so I cant speak to that (yet).

      I have only ever dyed small pieces. It honestly never occurred to me do dye cushions. Now you have me thinking though and I’m probably going to!

      Thanks for being here Paddy!


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