Here is the before photo of the nightstand I refinished. It was a little banged up in spots, and needed some cleaning up, but since this was one of three nightstands I purchased for a total of $85 - I'm not complaining (Yay Craigslist!).
I started by sanding it. First 80 grit to rough up the varnish and then a final sanding with 120 grit. This was the first piece I refinished and I was paranoid about durability, so I spray primed it. I'm not 100% sure primer is necessary, but I did it here. Later pieces I did not prime, but used a paint-and-primer-in-one paint and I think they will be just fine. Keep in mind, lighter paint colors may require a primer base more than darker ones. In addition, consider some of the primer will show through when distressing, so think about the look you want in the end.
I painted the table with two coats of Vaslpar satin latex paint sample customized to Sherwin Williams #6688 Solaria. The resulting color was a little bright - but I was going for fun and whimsical. It works out quite well next to the blue quilt that has an aged "tea-stained" look.
A note on the paint I use... I have had a number of people ask if I use the popular chalk paints out there, and my answer is that I have never tried them. I can tell you that I'm happy with the satin latex paint that I used on all my furniture projects for a few reasons (1) It's quite a bit cheaper (2) I can get an exact custom color I want (3) I like the satin finish with the satin polyurethane as a topcoat.
Once the paint was dry I used sandpaper to distress the edges and a few select surfaces. As I mentioned earlier - when distressing with just sandpaper (especially with a primer base) it takes some elbow grease to distress down to the wood. I learned later - candle wax on the edges prior to priming and painting would have limited the work this would require.
This particular piece I just did some light distressing. Since the distressing took more effort to do this with only the sandpaper - it prevented me from doing too much - which is a good thing. As I got braver with a later piece, I overdid the distressing and it looked way too contrived. The result of that project was a complete re-do (a real bummer when you are talking about re-sanding and re-applying multiple layers of paint). In summary - light distressing might be your best option - less is more.
My advice on distressing if you are doing a similar type of piece:
- Distress the edges - that's easy.
- As for additional areas - play up existing scratches, chips or flaws by distressing those areas as well.
- Beyond that, focus on areas that would make sense to be warn away over time (around knobs or handles, worn areas on the base of the legs, etc...). The big thing to avoid is evenly spaced, similar sized distressed areas all over the piece - it just looks silly and fake.
- If you want a heavier distressed look, check out this post of mine. You can see the mistakes I made and hopefully help you avoid the same. END TABLE - CANDLEWAX & VASELINE PAINT DISTRESSED.