It's important to look at the top and visualize where wear and tear would likely have been the heaviest during the imaginary previous years in the life of your countertop. If it's a small surface the wear pattern may well be fairly even across the top. Larger countertops typically show more "character," near the edges where people would have dropped heavy things or caused nicks and dings down through the years. Maybe a careless toss of a heavy key ring or the slip of a paring knife. Possibly a crate with a bent nail was scooted across the top in a bygone era. It's not an exact science, but a little forethought imagining possible real-world scenarios will give your distressed top an authentic feel rather than just a hodgepodge of random marks.
On virtually all tops there will be damage to the edges and corners as they are the most vulnerable. At J. Aaron we like to see a few significant areas where actual hunks have been taken out of the wood. We hit the corners pretty hard with distressing as they would naturally be subject to a lot of wear and tear.
Ok, you've got a idea of how you want to distribute the damage you're about to do to your beautiful top. How do you actually inflict the scarring and what tools work best? First, let's talk about the top surface and then deal with the edges and corners. Lots of people use a heavy length of chain as a go to tool. At J. Aaron we don't do that. Instead, we have a more random approach using a variety of tools. Among them are several that make a series of puncture type marks of different sizes. Some are about the size of a large nail and others are more like the head of a pin. We've made up some custom tools to use for this as we do a lot of counters, but for a DIY project you can improvise by driving some nails of different sizes through a small piece of wood. Don't arrange them in orderly rows. Remember we're after a random look. Just hit the top here and there with these using a glancing or partial blow so there is never a repeating pattern. Not too many! You can go back and add more later if you want but it's not possible to remove them if you overdo it. That goes for all of the steps you'll be doing here.
The next thing do is add a FEW nicks and gouges. Think of someone dropping a carving knife or a heavy sharp cornered metal box like an antique tea caddy. Don't get too enthusiastic here. We don't want it to look like the top was used to chop firewood. Less is more in this case. Do make the marks in random sizes and differing depths. You can use an actual carving knife but the better tool would be a small pry bar or a large screwdriver. Use at least a couple of different items to add variety.
The last thing we do on the top surface is create some scratches or slide marks. We're not looking for deep scratches so take it easy with sharp objects. The better way is to simply toss down a big nail down or an end wrench and then scoot it across the top with a little pressure. It won't look like much at this point but you'll see the results in the next step. Again, think random. Not many of these are needed and they should be varying in length and direction. It can be convincing to do two or three similar marks close to one another as in something like a heavy fork being drug beneath a carton or crate. Be creative but in small doses.
So now the top is appropriately scarred with the years of imaginary use. We'll move on to the edges and corners. My favorite part. At J. Aaron we get aggressive here but keep to a few significant marks rather than just totally beating up the edges. For this we are trying to actually take some "hunks," out of the wood in order to leave dramatic distress. Again, we have built some custom tools but there are lots of things you can use. A small dull hatchet or heavy cleaver will work. You want a glancing blow to remove a little wood from the profile of the countertop. Avoid doing your damage at the exact center of the piece or in any sort of pattern. Just be as random as you can. If you haven't done this before, it's a good idea to practice on a piece of scrap wood to get the feel of it. Use the tool to take a little of the sharpness out of the corners and make at least one significant marking on all sides.
Now take a tool, maybe the same you used on the edges, to make some vertical nicks along the edge of the top. This is probably the area where randomness is the most important. You're aiming for the natural checking that would show over time as well as a few trauma marks left by hard use.
All right. The marks are made. Now to highlight them you'll want to add a color. We use a product similar to Minwax wood stain. This is available at any home center or hardware store. Choose a darker color than the wood you're using as you're adding an antiqued effect in which the dark tone will show up in the scarring. Most of the stain comes off in the next stage so don't worry about the overall color of your wood countertop. Simply apply a generous coat of the stain to the entire piece, being careful to get into all the nooks and crannies. We use a cloth and rub it in well. Now, using and square or flat bottom orbit sander and 120 grit paper you'll eliminate any splinters or chips and add another layer of aging as you round off sharp edges. It will take a bit of elbow grease but the original color will reappear accented by the marks of age. You can roll up some sand paper to get into any grooves you may have on the profile. Take off as much or as little as you like to achieve to look you want. This is the point where you can really see the results of your work. You may want to make additional markings if you feel it's warranted. Just go back through the steps of marking, staining and sanding in the area you want to add to.
It's finally finished and ready for the sealer coat. Be sure the surface is free of dust before you apply the sealer of your choice. Follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding the sealer. It's taken a little time, but I think you'll agree that it really is fun to beat up on the wood countertop you've been sanding so carefully and create a totally unique look.
Now you can think about an imaginary pedigree for your top. Was it in service in a bustling Victorian kitchen or an Italian bakery. Or maybe it was once a bar in a grand old hotel. Just get your story straight and enjoy telling friends about your great distressed wood countertop.