The key to any good distressed finish is to create a plausible ‘history’ for the furniture or cabinet. We’ve all had hand-me-down furniture that has been scuffed, scratched, painted…and painted again over decades of use. With a little imagination, you can easily create a back story for your newly-built MDF or wood furniture that can guide you to making it look like it’s been in your family for generations.

This particular project was inspired by leftover pieces of MDF sheets and beadboard paneling from our porch renovation and the need for ‘something’ to suit the available space in said porch. Once He Who Hogs the Power Tools was done with construction, it was time for me to step up and make it look like it I inherited it from Grammie.

The Imagined History

Distressed MDF bookcase looks old and well worn

In my mind, this piece began it’s life about the time my grandmother was married as a modest but sturdy, solid wood bookcase with a lovely dark stained and lacquered finish. As she raised her family over the years, the bookcase suffered the kind of abuse that only toddlers and teenagers can inflict. The damage was covered with a neat coat of sensible white paint by Grammie herself.

Shortly after that, my uncle, being the only kid still living at home dragged it into his room and painted it that blue for some reason I can’t begin to imagine. It eventually landed at my parents house when I was in grade 3. I remember mom grumbling about the colour because it didn’t ‘match’ anything else we had.

Her solution was a coat of a nice boring beige that would go with everything. It spent the next 26 years in mom’s dining room – host to well-used set of World Book Encyclopedias, an ever-changing collection of cook books, Hummel figurines and Dad’s enormous key chain.

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I retrieved the bookcase off the trailer destined for the landfill when we were clearing out my parents house a few years ago. While my siblings thought it was worthless, I was drawn back to my childhood and the memories invoked by every bump and scratch, still visible through all those well-worn layers of time.


In reality, that 60 year ‘history’ came to life over a couple of days. I used a combination of latex paint, white primer, chalk paint and clear wax to seal the chalk paint. My imagined history will make more sense as you read this description and look at the pictures.

You can see captioned pictures of the process here.

I started with dark brown latex paint to replicate the original stained wood finish. I knew I’d be exposing very little of this so I only applied it to areas where sharp edges might be exposed through natural wear. I also wanted to replicate the kind of scratches that happen near the floor from getting hit by mops, the vacuum cleaner, shoes, and toys. A coffee stir stick and a quarter worked perfectly for this.

After that was dry, I gave the entire bookcase a coat of white primer, not worrying too much about complete coverage over the dark brown.

The bright blue chalk paint was inspired by a furniture stripping project years ago when I uncovered a layer of lime green paint on an old pine dresser (currently serving as our downstairs vanity). It’s not unusual for an old piece of furniture to succomb to an embarrassing colour choice at some point in its life. I gave the blue layer the stir stik and quarter treatment as well.

The final colour is a neutral beige chalk paint. I did two full coats brushing in random directions for maximum brush stroke texture.

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The beaded back was painted and distressed separately before attaching it to the bookcase. That made it easier to work on both without any obstruction.

I started with a 220 grit sandpaper and ended up using 150 grit on very heavily distressed areas on the lower legs. I finished these with a light 220 sanding to have as much control as possible over which layers I wanted to reveal for each area.

Top of MDF bookcase with distressed paint finish lighter

For the shelves, the obvious wear would be on the edges and the shelves themselves. Imagining decades of books sliding in and out, I mostly used a front to back sanding pattern for these. The sides of the shelf section got the same treatment.

The sides of the bookcase are just lightly distressed as they would be mostly out of the line of fire rather than the direct assault from the front and top.

The top is heavily distressed in spots with an overall well worn patina. I wanted the top to tell a story – revealing the phases of a long useful life with a typical busy family. I started with 150 grit to reveal the large spots of blue and white and fine tuned the finish with 220 grit.

I used the same techniques on the MDF beadboard back.

Sealing the Deal

Once I was happy with the overall look, I applied the clear wax made for sealing chalk paint with a soft cloth. Once it was dry, I buffed it out to a smooth, glossy finish.

I pass this bookcase every day and it still evokes a sense of nostalgia for me – it feels like its been around as long as I can remember.

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