If you want to make something look older, just add some worm holes. Sounds simple enough, but there is a major difference between just poking holes in the wood and making the holes look authentic. Now that the all natural, rustic wood look is in style, even new, or at least not very old wood often benefits from more character, and I am here to show you how to really do it.
First off, let me assure you that I have a lot of experience in this field. I often build pieces that need to be “wormed up” in some regard, either to make new wood look old or to make old wood look even older. Especially on projects like beams and mantels, worm holes help add a lot of age to a piece.
Much of the wood that I use already has worm holes in it because I let the logs sit awhile outside before I mill them into lumber (sometimes even on purpose), so I have a head start, but there will still often be spots without bug holes where the wood needs a little extra love, like in the following video:
To get things started, it helps to first look at truly worm-eaten wood. There are consistencies even in what looks to be very inconsistent patterns. Here are a few principles that hold up in most wormy wood:
1.) Hole sizes vary: Even similar-sized holes are not the same. Your method for creating holes should easily produce random results.
2.) Worms tend to focus their efforts: Holes will usually have an area of focus, with more holes in the center of an infected area fading out to fewer holes.
3.) Not all holes are perpendicular to the surface: While most holes are just that – holes, many are oblong and some are more like trails.
4.) The bugs that make the worm holes often enter around defects in the wood: Soft or punky wood, spalted wood, cracks, and sapwood are all areas that will focus worm activity. Good, strong, solid heartwood is the last area to be bug infested.
5.) Small holes outnumber the big ones: Older wood that has been attacked by multiple insects will have lots of tiny holes (1/16′ diameter), some medium-sized holes (1/8″ diameter), and just a few big holes (up to 1/4″ diameter).
Here are some photos of authentic worm holes. If you can copy any these patterns you will be off to a good start.
Here are some of my tricks for achieving realistic results:
Small holes. You’ll be tempted to use a drill bit for the smallest holes, but it isn’t the best choice. Tiny drill bits break easy and the size is too consistent. Plus, they pull out wood fibers that make the edge of the holes fuzzy. Instead use a nail or a scratch awl sharpened to a long fine point. A scratch awl is the best choice because it can be used without a hammer and produces speedy results. The long point will make different sized holes depending on how deep it is pushed into the wood. Push the scratch awl in the wood at different angles and different depths.
- Large holes. Use a twist drill bit for the larger holes. Be sure to drill deep enough that you can’t see the bottom of the holes and to vary the drill angle. Put the bigger holes in the softer wood. Sapwood, punky wood and areas around defects are a good place to start. Mix up the sizes in the 1/8-3/16″ range for a more natural look.
- Oblong holes. Some of the larger holes tend look like small jelly beans. Drill in fairly deep and then use the side of the drill bit to cut a short trail. The result is similar to two holes drilled right next to each other.
- Trails. Trails are often left just under the bark in bug infested logs and sometimes inside the log. Use a twist drill bit about 1/8-3/16″ in diameter and drag the bit in different lengths of crooked lines. Be sure to make some of the areas have more depth. Think of the trail as a river with shallow areas and deeper pools. Trails can have one, both or none of the ends finishing in a hole. Mix it up and have a few ends disappear into holes made with the same drill bit.
One of the most important things to remember when making worm holes or using any other techniques to age wood is to really go for it. You won’t destroy a piece of furniture by adding a few more holes or dents, and you can only miss by doing too little to the surface.
I often see furniture, especially mass-produced furniture, that will have some sort of distressing that looks like it was just phoned in. Usually, someone quickly takes a chain to the surface or pokes a few holes and calls it a day. Don’t do that. Pay attention to Mother Nature’s work and try to duplicate it. And, most importantly, have fun doing it.
I am a man. I like to build things and I like to burn things. Heck, I have even been known to build something just to burn it down or blow it up (especially around the Fourth of July).
Fire mesmerizes and bewilders me. I find it amazing that it can come from virtually nowhere, you can’t really touch it even though you can feel it, and it makes things disappear into thin air. Heavy things, really, really heavy things, like a whole stack of wood, can be gone in no time.
I know this, of course, because I have burnt a lot of things in my lifetime, including my last shop (a complete accident, by the way). What was amazing about it was the fact that just the day before, I had a shop filled with tools, and the next day I had a shallow pile of charcoal mixed with rusty metal. I remember going there the morning after the fire and looking for anything to salvage and being amazed at how rusty the metal was. It looked like it had set out in the rain for years and it was only hours since the fire department was there.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was just cleaning up the debris and throwing the chunks of rusty steel into the scrap pile. But it didn’t take long for things to click. You see, rusty metal is a very desirable finish in these days of worn, industrial, antique, distressed furniture – a style that I find myself doing on a regular basis. Even if it’s not officially a rusty finish that I am looking for, it is usually something that looks not new in some way. And, I have to tell you that burnt, rusty metal does not look new. It looks very, very old.
All of this was a welcomed revelation because I have spent lots of hours in the past trying to get the “not new” look. I had used paint stripper to remove the protective clear finish from new hardware. I soaked steel directly in salt water and in salt water towels so it would get more air, and hopefully, rust faster. I’ve tried a lot of things on brass too, like ammonia and vinegar. But, I never considered heat until the shop burned down.
Heat makes sense. Heat is what they use to make the metal, so it seems like it could work to “unmake” it a bit. And after I saw the magic that happened to all of the metal in my former shop, I gave it a go. The first batch worked great. I was doing a cabinet with very small hinges, so even if I destroyed them it would only cost me a few dollars. I made a little fire and threw them in. I put the fire out with a lot of water and just let it sit in the water-logged charcoal mix for a day and it looked just like the rusty metal from my shop.
The second attempt was as amusing as it was informative. Now that I had one burning under my belt, I confidently came home, started a fire in the fireplace (it was winter time), and nonchalantly threw them in like I had done it a thousand times. Chris (my lovely wife), of course, questioned my actions and I, of course, acted like she was the idiot this time. Turns out, I was the idiot again. Why do I always have to be the idiot? Mostly, because in this case, I threw what appears to have been aluminum or some other metal that easily melts into the fire. It burned in a beautiful rainbow of colors, which told me that the metal was actually being consumed by the fire. After the fire died down, I dug around and found only the screws. Everything else vanished. I made myself feel better by saying that they were cheap and I didn’t want them anyway.
Because of that, I now make sure that my victims are made of steel or something like steel, something that can take the heat. I would recommend testing one piece before you throw them all in the fire if you aren’t sure about their metal content. Besides that one bit of caution, all you have to do is build a fire and throw your hardware in. Make sure that you act like you have done it before and don’t even bother to take it out of the packaging (it all disappears).
Let the fire burn until all of the wood is charcoal and the metal looks discolored. While everything is still hot, put out the fire with plenty of water, just like the firefighters would do it. At that point, you can immediately dig out the hardware if you don’t need the metal to rust, or you can let it sit in the wet charcoal for a day or two and get rusty. The amount of time will depend on the metal. Better steel, hardened steel with more carbon, will rust quickly.
When the hardware comes out of the fire it looks very different. If you like the look you are done, but for me it looks a little rugged on most pieces. I usually put a thin coat of lacquer on the hardware to make it look more like an old piece, but one that has spent more time indoors than out. Depending on how it looks when it comes out of the fire, it may only take a little bit of cleaning to have the right look.
The beauty of the burning process is that each piece comes out different and looks authentically aged. Compared to “antiqued” hardware from many large hardware makers, which often look like a lackluster attempt at aging, the difference is night and day. And, the best part is I have a reason to burn things. Now, I need to find a reason to blow things up.
If you are looking for a way to work out your frustrations, boy do I have a job for you. It also helps if you are looking for a backache and blisters as a bonus. This job involves the simplest of tools and the weakest of minds. It’s simple. Take some wood and whack away at it. Then whack some more. Then a little more. That’s all there is to it (at least to the first part).
The fun part for me starts after the grunt work is done. That’s when I get to stop complaining about the backache and blisters and let my softer, more artsy side come out. I get to play with my paint brushes and spray gun and try to make my recent work look like it has been there for a long, long time.
I may not enjoy it as much as the finishing, but the work that leads up to the finishing is really just as important. I usually start with White Pine because it is easy to work, takes a nice dent, and if the log isn’t new, it can have a lot of character. From a lumber processing standpoint, I like that it is easy to mill, the boards stay flat, and it is quick to dry. I also use White Pine because I can get long logs and the wood is lightweight, which is good for big beams that need to be installed inside without a crane. In instances where I can use a hollow beam it is especially lightweight.
For the job that I specifically reference for this post, I used solid wood for the mantelpiece and made up hollow beams to be applied on the bottom side of an already-finished vaulted ceiling. The solid wood looks slightly more authentic because it benefits from deep cracks that occur during drying. After all the pieces are done, the cracks, or lack of them, are the only way to differentiate between the hollow and solid pieces.
The first step in making new wood look old is adding texture to the surface. From tool marks, to bug holes and cracks, old wood has texture. The more texture that you add, the more authentic the piece will look. It is easy to identify a piece that is not legitimately old because it doesn’t have enough texture. We have all seen cabinets that are distressed by adding a couple of bug holes and a few dents and then sent on their merry way. They might have the right overall feel, but no one will believe that they are old. In this case, don’t hold back and don’t get lazy.
For this project the surface was finished with an adze, but I often hand plane or use rough cut lumber with band saw or circular saw marks. After the pieces were worked with my new-to-me antique adze (that I got for $27 on ebay), I sanded the surface until it was smooth overall, but still had pronounced tool marks. Bigger pieces like these are usually viewed from a distance. Don’t be afraid to make obvious tool marks. If using a hand plane, set it deeper and stop at the end of the cut to tear off the chip.
In old pieces of wood like these the corners are usually rounded, dented or busted of. My favorite tool to use for the corners is a drawknife. It quickly removes material and you can change the depth of cut by adjusting the angle of attack. Be sure to pay attention to the grain of the wood. If the drawknife wants to dig in turn around and work from the opposite direction. The same holds true for the adze, especially around knots, where the direction of attack can make the difference between producing a chip and removing a giant chunk.
After the hand tools, I like to hit the surface with a sander to make the surface look slightly worn instead of freshly cut. Sand more where a piece would have been worn from hundreds of years of use. Tabletops are worn where people sit, posts are worn where people grab them, and furniture bases are worn where people kick them. In this case, all of the work was up high except for the mantelpiece, which was the only one that would have any wear from use.
Once the surface is prepped, it is time to start the staining. A truly old piece of wood has many different colors, and if you try to stain a new piece of wood with just one coat of stain, it will look flat. Even subtle differences in the colors can add a lot to the final effect. I like to use several colors of dye stains, on the surface of the wood and added to my finish, to build up to my final color. In this case the final color was fairly dark, so I had a lot of room to work before things got too dark.
The first coat of stain was TransTint Dark Mission Brown mixed with a little water and applied with a brush to the dry wood. I worked the corners along the length of the beams to simulate the sapwood, which is naturally darker in the older pine. The extra effort on the corners also helps camouflage the seam on the hollow beams. The next coat was a very diluted mixture of Honey Amber and Medium Brown TransTint that I quickly sprayed with my hvlp gun to make the new pine color similar to antique pine. This is where the water-based stains shine. The lighter color and darker color bleed into each other and start to blend. If the color is too dark it can be lightened with more water, if it is too light just add more stain.
The next step was to seal the surface with two coats of tinted sanding sealer. For these coats, I added a little Medium Brown TransTint to the sanding sealer. This darkens the color overall, helping me sneak up on the final color. It also seals the surface for the next step.
After the sealer dried, I used a Walnut Minwax gel stain. The gel stain (glazing) over the sealer only slightly darkens the surface, but it will get into, and highlight, the cracks and crevices. This is a good spot to add even more contrast by varying the amount that you leave on the surface.
The gel stain officially takes a day to dry, but I spray lacquer over it almost immediately with no problems. This last coat can be clear if the color looks good already or TransTint can be added to darken it. In my case, all of the coats of lacquer, sealer and topcoats, were lightly tinted.
This entire process takes a little more effort than just applying one coat of stain, but I think the results are more than worthwhile, and now I can’t do it any other way. Once you see how authentic this process looks, especially in person, you won’t want to do it any other way either.
When my shop burned down last November, I went shopping for tools. Most of my big equipment came from one shop that went out of business in South St. Louis. While I was there loading up, I noticed some old lumber carts that the movers were using to clean out the space. I didn’t know much about the carts and never needed them in the past, but my new shop is much bigger and the carts were cool, so I decided to make an offer on them. I didn’t really have any money to spend, so I didn’t feel that I should offer too much, but I dug deep and offered $30 a piece. My timing was impeccable because they really wanted the place cleaned up and the fact that I didn’t offer much was apparently not an issue.
I only came back with eight carts, but those eight carts started a movement, or at least got me involved in one. I started using the carts right away. They are strong, roll easily and fit nicely in the shop. I use them to move lumber from tool to tool and my customers use them to get their wood to their trucks. I line them up like at Home Depot to try to encourage large-scale shopping. So, I have the shop looking nice with lumber on the walls and the carts lined up to move my awesome lumber. But the reverse started to happen. Customers initially come in to look at lumber, but they and especially their wives, are drawn to the carts. I try to direct their attention to the lumber, but they keep asking about the carts. Where did I get them? How many do I have? Are they for sale? NO PEOPLE! They are for moving lumber in the shop. I only have eight and I use them all. Now, focus and let’s look at some lumber.
I didn’t get it until finally someone told me that similar carts are selling at Restoration Hardware for $1,000 and they are selling them as coffee tables – old, dirty, ragged coffee tables. Now, it made sense. Everyone was picturing these carts in front of their couch and assumed that they could make that dream a reality for less than $1,000 by purchasing my carts. I didn’t sell any because I really liked them and just didn’t think selling half of them would greatly change my financial future, so I kept working along and customers kept gawking.
For a couple of months I held out. That was until Crescent Planing Mill in downtown St. Louis went out of business. They had been around forever and had been collecting lumber carts the entire time. When the auction flyer went out the lead items were more than 200 antique Nutting and Lineberry factory carts. I just knew they were going to be mine. I was local and hoped the auction wasn’t well advertised, which would make them sell for a lower price. I knew, if nothing else, that I had an advantage because I didn’t have to ship them.
I showed up to the auction to hang out with 50 of my closest friends, all of whom where there to buy carts. The bidding started out on the best carts and the going price was $150, and if I would have gotten involved it would have gone higher. $150 was a lot more than $30, so I didn’t bid. I was expecting $50-$60, maybe as high as $75, but I wasn’t sure enough about the market on old carts and went to look at the rest of the auction items. I went back for the sale on the final carts and the prices weren’t budging. I didn’t buy even one.
After all of the hubbub of the auction had died down, I went back to purchase from the unsold list (an advantage of being local). To my surprise then (not now) about 30 carts were on the unsold list. I was surprised because literally everyone their would have given at least $25 for the carts, so there was no reason for them to be unsold. I attribute this to the worst auction that the world has ever seen, but that is another in-depth reporting story (probably called “Scott on Your Side” or something like that). I negotiated for the remaining carts and got them for a much more reasonable price of $50 each. Many of them needed a little help, but at that age we will all need a little help.
I started selling those carts on ebay and the average sale has been about $300. That price is good for me, and I think the customers are happy to not spend $1,000. They certainly are still buying. My ads give as much information as possible, and I include my blog address and phone number so people can call and ask questions if they so desire. It turned out that one did desire, and I got a call from Chicago, IL.
Jim called, said he was shutting down a factory and would make me a deal on 221 carts if I could get them out that week. Even at a low price the total was large. I knew that even though I didn’t want to tell my wife, she would find out on something this big. So, I introduced the topic to her and didn’t know how she would take it. I thought there was a chance that she would be encouraged after recent sales, but the overall cost was too big, and she wasn’t. She told me why she didn’t think it was a good idea, that I should focus on the woodworking, that I needed to make money instead of spend it, and otherwise focus on what I was doing. After she told me all the reasons to not go, she asked, “So when are you going to Chicago?” She knows me pretty well.
The funny thing is that now I have so may carts I can’t get to the lumber. But, that doesn’t stop everyone from asking, “Do you have a cart I could put this on?”