The plan: the first step is to determine what you'd like the finished piece to look like. If below the distressed areas you'd like to see an old paint color, as if the piece has been painted many times over, you'll need to paint two colors. If you want the rubbed-off areas to reveal bare wood, the technique requires only a topcoat.
1. Begin by lightly sanding the object you want to distress. If the object already has a finish (previously painted or varnished), sand all surfaces well. After the sanding, tack the piece off with a tack cloth.
2. If you've decided to have bare wood exposed in the distressed areas, select a paint color that will look appropriate in your room. Then, decide if you would like to add a stain to it afterwards, which will mute or age the color you've selected. Or to keep the integrity of your color choice, you may just want to paint clear polyurethane over the finished project. In any case, your first step is to paint the entire piece in the color you've selected. For those of you who want color exposed in the distressed areas, consider a brighter color for the basecoat so it shows up as it peeks through the topcoat of paint.
3. Distressing -- For bare-wood folks, when the basecoat is dry, start sanding off areas that would naturally end up distressed. You know, places where hands would have held it, or corners that could easily get nicked.
For those wanting color to show, start rubbing candle wax on the areas you'd like to see color show through. Don't forget to do the sides and back; you want the entire piece finished.
4. Finish it off or topcoat
5. Bare-wood folks, be sure to stop before you go too crazy with the sanding, then tack off the entire piece. Now decide if you want to add that aged look with a stain (you could even use one of those stain and polyurethane combination products and finish the piece in one coat) or just use a polyurethane stain in a finish of your choice to protect all your hard work.
6. If you've chosen the color route, now it's time to paint over the basecoat and the wax. Cover everything well, and wait until the paint dries.
7. For the colorful people only: Now is the time to reveal the color underneath using your steel wool. Just rub it over the areas you've waxed. (The steel wool won't harm the rest of the paint enough to worry about; remember, the piece is meant to be distressed, so use it to find the waxed areas) You'll want to dust or tack off the piece once you're through, then we do recommend protecting your project with a water-based polyurethane that won't yellow over time.