How To Create Hand Rubbed Paint Finish

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Martha asked a question (several questions) about “refinishing her bedroom furniture. She wants to know how to create a style like Pottery Barn hand rubbed paint finish.


I have a four poster bed (w/matching vanity and night stands) they are either maple or maybe mahogany. Anyway…I want to do something totally different with them.

For the four poster bed, I think I’m going to paint it white and then use this stuff (I’ve used it before on a hutch that was already painted white and it turned out awesome) Its Winston Oil Artist paint burnt umber I think is the color). Its real thick, almost like a wax or stain. You put just a really small amount on a staining pad and then spray the pad w/a little mineral spirits and rub on furniture. A decorator told a friend of mine about this and my friend has done cabinets and even her fireplace mantel (all started white). I even did it on my walls where I did the brick breakout that I got from your video.

My problem/question is….since the bed is stained….what is the best way to strip it. I bought some liquid stripper and tried that a little last night…..still takes a lot of “elbow grease” and then I’m left with a sticky residue I’m going to have to sand off anyway. My problem is I always hate the “prep” work.

Do I have to completely strip it? Or can I just use an oil base primer before painting it.

Now, with the night stands, I don’t know what I want to do. I was thinking about doing something different than what I’m doing with the bed but have no idea what. So any suggestions you can make will be greatly appreciated. I really like Pottery Barn’s “rubbed paint” they have on some of their furniture …..they have different colors….red, sage, blue etc BUT I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO DO THAT? HELP?

Do you have any paint techniques or anything you can suggest? Thank you so much for your input, looking forward to hearing back from you.



Great Question Martha!

The idea that you got from the decorator to use the oil paint and mineral spirits is great! I use Dark Brown Briwax Original Formula for a similar result. I love this stuff!

It’s soft and easy to apply and rub in. It leaves a beautiful soft hand rubbed looking finish.

I also have used it on some furniture that I wanted to “darken” to match with other furniture in the room. I have a lot of rustic pine furniture that I want to look more like walnut… so I slap on this rubbed finish.

I like it because it wears off eventually in “high use” places. This leaves an antique “used” look to my furniture – which is exactly the look I want. :0)

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The question about the prep work… we all hate that prep stage don’t we?

I admit that I usually save stripping as a last resort. The idea of just priming is a better option. There is a product called Bulls Eye SealCoat Sanding Sealer.

This works great and saves us all a ton of aggravation.

Universal sanding sealer seals all types of wood surfaces including hardwoods such as mahogany, walnut, birch, poplar, cherry, etc.

Also recommended for interior woodwork, including paneling, molding, trim, windows, doors, cabinets, furniture, and wood toys.

Now that we have all that sorted out… what about that rubbed paint finish you want to try?

pottery-barn-blue-armoireThis is a Pottery Barn Armoire with a blue hand rubbed (look) paint finish. This is the type of distressed paint finish that Martha can’t figure out how to replicate.

The process I’m going to describe can be used on stained wood or painted wood.

If you want a second paint color to show through the “rubbed” areas then the wood must be painted that color.

For instance: If you wanted a bit of red paint peeking out here and there than you have to get the red paint color on first.

The trick is – You Don’t have to paint the entire piece red first. Really!

It’s a step that isn’t necessary… and I’ll tell you how to do it all.

  • Step 1 – Prepare the furniture for paint! If it has a sealer on it already – use the sanding primer as shown above.
  • Step 2 – Paint the “show through colors” on to the furniture. If you just want a “stain” color showing through (the blue cabinet would be an example) skip this step.
  • All the “edges” and areas that would get normal wear and tear on an antique need the “show through” color painted on. Don’t glob the paint on… you do not want globs of paint to sand down. A nice thin coat of contrasting color is enough.
  • Paint this color on with a slap/dash feel.
  • Let this paint dry.
  • If the paint feels raised to the touch – sand lightly.
  • Step 3 – Apply Candle Wax and/or Vaseline to the painted edges.

    • This is what will make it easy to sand down the distressed areas!
    • I actually use both. Some candle wax (use a white candle) and some areas get Vaseline rubbed on.
    • I like the candle wax for “edges” and Vaseline if I want to have a “wider” area showing through – like around the handles or at the toe kick area (base of the cabinet where it sits on the floor).
    • I have also used a “crackle” product on areas that I want to have a bit of “chippy paint” look.
    • The candle wax should be rubbed on “thick” or “heavy”. You should see the candle leaving a wax residue or shavings on your project (wipe these off before moving on to the next step).
  • Step 4 – Apply the paint color. Remember to choose a color that is a “bit” brighter than you want your resulting color to be. The staining wax that will be applied over the top will cut the brightness.
    • The paint has to be dabbed a bit over the Vaseline or you take a chance of “painting” it off. You will see a slight raised area where the candle wax or Vaseline is located.
    • The paint color should have more than one coat to ensure a long lasting paint finish. Allow paint to dry at least 2 hours between coats.
    • Allow the entire painted cabinet to dry overnight.
  • Step 5 – Getting the rubbed painted look. Now it’s time for the magic!
    • Using an old dish cloth or other rough cloth start rubbing the edges of the cabinet and the areas you put the candle wax or Vaseline.
    • I use a cloth and “extra” elbow grease instead of sandpaper for most of the project. Once all the edges have been exposed (painted or stained) you can finish off with a light sanding to blend the exposed edges.
    • If you used “crackle products” don’t sand these areas… You should see the paint cracked here.
  • Step 6 – Apply the Stain or BriWax to age your cabinets.
    • The Bri-Wax is easier to work with – but stain gives a nice finished top coat.
    • The product is wiped on and wiped off until you get the distressed look you want.
    • The dark color will collect on the exposed areas that the candle wax left behind.
    • If you applied some “crackling product” to various areas… the stain/BriWax will collect and accent the cracks on the furniture.
  • Step 7 – Seal The Deal!
    • I don’t always seal the surface of distressed furniture. I like the way it continues to distress…
    • If you want to seal the surface a light coat of spray satin sealer will be the best choice.

rubbed-distressed-paintingClose up of sanding off corners and edges.

Good Luck Martha! And Have Fun….

Debra ~ THAT Painter Lady

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  1. Ann VanOsdol says

    The ‘hand-rubbed’ article is excellent. The paint the lady mentioned is actually Winsor & Newton Winton (not Winston) Oil Paint, which is an artists oil color – student grade. You can also mix some of the paint with artists odorless paint thinner, until it is a thin creamy texture, and then wipe it on over the base paint. Let it sit for a few minutes, then begin wiping it out. Start in the center somewhere and work out, leaving it heavier on the edges, and as light as you wish in the middle areas. It will also leave a very nice aged look on any decorative edges or scrollwork, and will nicely antique any dents, scratches, etc. This is a little scary, because the Burnt Umber is a very dark brown, but it wipes out to a warm medium to light tone. Keep working at it until it is the color you want, then walk away and let it sit for at least 48 hours. You can then re-apply if you wish, or spray lightly with a satin spray varnish. You can also use a good coat of Carnauba wax to finish the piece, which will protect it and give a lovely finish, or several more coats of the spray varnish. I have used this many times on wood pieces, finished and unfinished, and it is very good

  2. gayle jolluck says

    You will really be in trouble if you spray varnish over a wax finish. They are not compatible, so if you varnish use the oil paint/spirit method. Dark wax can be used over varnish but it won’t antique your paint color as much as using the dark wax directly over paint. Gayle

  3. THAT Painter Lady says

    Thanks Gayle for the great information. Always enjoy it when others chime in with lot’s of helpful tips and help.

    Debra :0)

  4. Liz King says

    Hi Debra, I have oak wood floor stained walnut. It hasn’t been taken care of for years it looks like. In some areas by kitchen it’s sticky to walk on ( grease etc..) They don’t want to sand down and restain all of it ( which they need to do,but don’t want to take time or money to do it). I cleaned it( Neutral floor cleaner) in small area . In some areas varnish is gone leaving it exposed wood. Is there a way I can clean it real good, touch up the stain and give it back it’s shine in those areas? thx Liz

  5. THAT Painter Lady says

    Oh boy… Liz I don’t know the answer to your question. I don’t have any idea how to work with damaged wood floors. I’m sorry I can’t help.. good luck. debra

  6. James Lewis says

    Been doing this since 1980′s, when the fashion for this first came in after stripped pine went out.
    Here’s how I’ve found gets best results:

    1. Use casein (milk protein) based paints. this is what they used to make paint from in places like 18th & 19th C scandinavia where this look originates. Learn about it here or Make your own here
    The paint is really soft and powdery and lovely and rubs away beautifully and authentically.

    2. Apply a red colour first- primers were mostly red because they were lead based and this was an easy colour to form from lead.
    3. Apply another colour of your choice.
    4. Rub away areas with 0000 grade wire wool which would have been worn, handles, corners, etc. Don’t do too much as this makes it obvious, and the following procedures will distress more anyway.
    5. Apply some shellac sealer, (don’t use any synthetic sealers) fast and thin as drips will form easily.
    When dry rub down with 0000 wire wool until matt all over.
    6. Apply dark brown wax , Briwax and liberon are good but I think best is fiddes

    Buff with a nice soft cloth and there you have it!

  7. tanya jones says

    i want to paint a dining table black with a bit of rusty red peeking through the distressed areas. do i use an oil based paint or latex for the red color? and what do i use for the black color? i want to use the right type of paint to get that pottery barn “satin rubbed” look. I understand the wax/vaseline part. thanks so much!!

  8. THAT Painter Lady says

    The “satin rubbed” look is going to be a result of the “sealer” not the paint. The last layer is always the layer
    that gives you the “finish”. So… look for satin finish sealer and you should be good.

    :0) debra

  9. Amanda says

    I want to do a rubbed “barn red” finish on a chest/dresser I just picked up at a yard sale for $10. It is very basic design, solid wood (pine, I think), with great construction, however it has at least 5 heavy coats of paint on it, thick enough to impede use of the drawers. I plan to use this piece in a nursery. Oh, and I’m 6 1/2 months pregnant and I’d like to do as much of the project myself as possible. (My husband, father, and a friend are available to do some steps, but I am not a “hands-off” kinda girl)

    What is the best method to strip this piece? I’d like the “peek-through” color to be the wood color (which I usually darken a bit with Walnut Howard’s Restore-a-Finish).

    Since it will be in a nursery, should an additional sealant be used?

    Any suggestions for a red paint that’s not too obnoxious, but true enough to be “red” and not a “burgandy”?

    Thanks for any help!!

  10. THAT Painter Lady says

    Hi Amanda –

    Stripping paint when you are pregnant is better left to your “helpers”… Please don’t take any chances.

    The barn wood red color I love is actually a “craft paint” from
    Deco Art Americana Acrylic Paint
    It’s a brown red and it looks “old” even before distressing. I love it.

    I use Bri Wax instead of the Howards to get an old stained look. Bri Wax

    Seal the entire project with something that is “flat” finished or you will loose the “old” look. I found acrylic sealers in “flat” at the hardware stores.

  11. wanda says

    I have a question about the BriWax. If I want to go over a off white painted cabinet what color would I use? Would dark brown make it too brown? I want it to look antique but not real..real dark. Could you help me?

  12. Sally Sierra says

    I want to stain a 40 year old cedar hope chest that was stained brown. I want to stain it black. Would I sand it all the way to the bare wood or is it easier to strip it somehow.

  13. Nikki says

    Hi! I also like the barn red finished look. The color that is already on my side table is what i want showing through. Im trying to duplicate a side table from Pottery Barn as well. So my question is do i skip everything and go straight to just sanding then paintin the barn red color on? It has a gloss over it so can i just go straight to sanding it down some? Sorry if i sound confusing. :/

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