How to Age Wood for a Sophisticated Furniture Upgrade

Sunroom with antique wooden bench.

Katie Martinez

Much like a fine Parmigiano-Reggiano or Clive Owen, wood furniture can become exponentially more attractive with age— and, just like all the other things that get better over time, stunning, high-quality vintage furniture isn’t cheap.

Antique dressers and reclaimed wooden tables have a practically supernatural ability to instantly transform stark, empty spaces into cozy, lived-in nests, making them well worth every single penny, but what if your budget doesn’t agree with what your heart and home want? You can take the very concept of time into your own hands and make new wood furniture “old"—and you don’t need a time machine.

Here’s an easy, nearly-natural way to make wood look older than it is—from “recently retro” to “salvaged from a shipwreck”—using items you may already have in your kitchen.

Wooden antique door

Jessica Nelson Design

Things You'll Need:

  • White distilled vinegar
  • Boiling water
  • Small steel wool pads
  • Two large glass jars or plastic containers
  • Paintbrushes
  • Black tea
  • Sandpaper
  • Sealer, like wax or polyurathane
  • Gloves
  • Dropcloth
  • Rags

Step 1: Soak Your Steel Wool

Rip a piece of steel wool up a bit and put it in the bottom of one large jar or container, then fill it up halfway with vinegar and let sit for 24 hours; the acid in the vinegar will make the iron in the steel wool pad oxidize and turn into rust pigments. Letting the jar sit longer will result in a darker stain, but note that if it sits too long, its hue will change from brown to orange.

Step 2: Brew Tea and Mix Solution

Fill the second jar or container halfway with boiling water, add a few tea bags, and let sit for at least ten minutes to brew. Remove the bags, tightly squeezing out any excess tea, then pour into the jar with the steel wool/vinegar solution.

Step 3: Sand Your Furniture

Unless you are working with unfinished wood, you’ll need to sand your furniture so it can absorb the stain. Use coarse grit sandpaper to remove any traces of paint, varnish, or sealants, then go over it with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out the surface. Pay close attention to sanding the edges and insides of drawers, doors, and fine details.

Antique wooden chest in reading nook.

Kaelyn Guerin

Step 4: Distress Your Wood

If your new furniture doesn’t look like it has enough “character," use blunt tools and objects to distress the wood. A hallmark of vintage furniture is well-worn corners and edges, which can be easily faked with a hammer. Nails, chisels, and corkscrews can be used to create pockmarks, scratches, and divots that can add years to your furniture’s fake lifespan.

Step 5: Apply Tea Mixture to Wood

Wearing gloves, begin applying the tea mixture to the wood using a large, soft paintbrush and long, even strokes, being careful not to oversaturate it. Use smaller paintbrushes to work the stain into cracks, crevices, and detail work. The stain will get darker as it dries, so after one light coat, allow it to dry completely before you decide on adding additional coats.

Step 6: Seal and Coat

Once you’ve achieved the color you want and the piece is completely dry it’s time to protect it. For a natural finish, use a sealing wax, applying according to the manufacturer's direction. If you want something more shiny or durable, bring the piece outside and coat it with a commercial wood sealer like polyurethane.