The growth in interest in architectural salvage and country antiques over the past several years has brought many benefits. Important pieces of our historic heritage are being preserved, building materials are being diverted from landfills, and items that might once have been considered less-than-perfect are now being enjoyed. One controversial side effect of the interest in these items, however, is the popularization of so-called ?distressing?.
?Distressing? is the act of altering an item in a way that imitates normal aging or wear and tear. I am not going to cast aspersions across the act of distressing. I personally have saved a few items from my own trash heap by giving them an artificial antiquing. The intention of this article is to alert buyers to the signs of distressing so they do not mistake it for the real deal, and pay a price that is not such a deal.
Antiques dealers often use the word ?patina?, which in its broader meaning, is the combination of surface characteristics that an item acquires over time. The development of a patina is simply a result of an item adapting to its surroundings. An item that is exposed to sun will dry out and become lighter. An item that is exposed to moisture might develop mildew stains. An item that is designed for function will show signs of wear and tear. In short, the patina makes an item look like it belongs in its surroundings, or in the surroundings of its reported origin. The experienced antiques buyer can usually sense when an item has been distressed because it just doesn?t look like it belongs to its history.
Less experience buyers can spot distressing by looking at details. The following are a few of the most common distressing effects, and the telltale signs that differentiate them from the results of normal aging:
Crackled finish. Applying chemicals such as oven cleaners to a finish will cause it to crackle and look aged. In this instance, the sign of distressing is the uniformity of the crackling. While normal crackling is usually more pronounced in certain areas, such as the base of table legs that have been exposed to moisture, distressed crackling will be even across an entire surface.
Uneven finish. There are several methods for creating an uneven finish, such as applying wax before painting, or wiping paint off before it has had a chance to dry. When a finish wears naturally, it rubs off in smooth isolated spots. When a finish wears from distressing , it usually has a blotchy or streaky look, showing patters such as long lines or swirls that could be made by hand strokes.
Dents and dings. A common method of distressing is to hit an item with chains or a ball peen hammer. In normal everyday use, an item can be dinged or dented with items of an infinite variety of shapes, sizes and textures. Hitting a piece with a single item simply cannot replicate the effect. Look for the deep dent that was made from a dropped glass, next to the long scratches made by a pocket zipper, for example. Such adjacent and dissimilar features are usually indicative of real aging.
Rubbed edges. Another common method of distressing is to file down edges using a rasp or coarse sandpaper. Take note of where an item might normally be grabbed, or brushed in passing, or where mechanical pieces mesh. Are they consistent with the worn areas? If not, the item has likely been distressed. The outer edges of furniture legs, for example, often show wear from contact with passing shoes. The inner edges, however, rarely show this type of wear naturally.
Worm holes. Driving finishing nails into an item, or striking the item with a pick, are two common methods of creating artificial worm holes. When a worm makes its hole, it creates a very clean opening with perfectly sharp edges. Artificial worm holes usually have at least one dull edge where the nail or pick has been pried out. In addition, authentic worm holes are usually deeper than the imitation.
With a quick inspection and some attention to details, any buyer can easily differentiate the effect of distressing from the effect of age. Steering clear of the former in favor of the latter will direct a buyer to products with lasting value and a true feeling of history.