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.
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.