Distress a Picture Frame to Shabby Chic Perfection

Written by Mark Rogers

Shabby chic isn’t going anywhere. The design trend has shown staying power ever since it took hold in Great Britain in the 1980s, where it allegedly earned its name from The World of Interiors magazine. While shabby chic celebrates charmingly worn-down furniture and items, anything can be altered to match the style.

You can transform a regular picture frame into a decorative "shabby chic" accent for your home in just a few easy steps. But before we get started turning the frame itself into a piece of art, let’s identify what "shabby chic" really looks like by eliminating what it is not:

  • Completely worn out
  • Dirty
  • Messy
  • Non-functional


Shabby chic items “clean up nicely,” returning to a state of grace and beauty. These items paint colorful mental pictures such as:

  • Impoverished gentry
  • Elegantly scruffy
  • Well-loved or dated items that still have a touch of class


What You Need

1. Picture Frame: It should be a good, sturdy wood picture frame. Do not use a poor-quality frame as it may not last long. Shabby chic highlights an item’s past and future glories, so make sure it’s a frame you’re proud to display for years to come.

2. Sandpaper: Select coarse (grit class P40 and P50), fine (P120) and superfine (P1000) sandpaper.


3. Tack cloth


4. Paint brushes of assorted sizes


5. Wax candle or crayon (white or colorless)


6. Paint: You’ll need satin or eggshell paint finish in white and two other colors.


QUICK TIP: A more pronounced distressed look requires a brighter or deeper color than the first coat of paint. The brighter color will be more visible through the other layers after sanding than a paler hue. For a subtler look, use pastels or neutrals.


Once you have all your tools and the frame ready, you can begin transforming your picture frame.

9 Steps to Shabby Chic

1. Sand the Frame

Start by roughing up any glossy areas, creating an uneven finish. Additionally, sand any sharp or protruding areas, both for safety’s sake and because future snags may damage the finish you worked so hard to achieve. Wipe the frame with the tack cloth to remove dust and grit.

2. Paint It, Part One

Pick a paint color and apply it to the frame using a brush. The application need not be perfect, but try to cover all areas of the frame. Let the first coat dry for about a half hour.

3. Wax on

Since paint adheres poorly to wax, the next coat of paint will be splotchy, creating the desired distressed look. Rubbing on a lot of wax means more “missing paint” later, lending a more disused flair. Smaller amounts applied just at the corners and edges results in just a touch of shabbiness. Rub the candle or crayon wherever you want wear marks. Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy with the wax — getting the right look requires a fair amount of the stuff!

4. Paint It, Part Two

Use another brush to apply the second paint color over the first. Perfection is neither required nor advisable. Let the paint dry, which usually takes over an hour.

5. Wax Off

Fold a piece of the coarse sandpaper so that it has a rigid edge. Using the folded edge, rub away the wax-coated areas. When you start to see the first paint color coming through, stop sanding. Smooth out the edges of the areas with fine sandpaper. Avoid over-sanding areas, as that can remove the first coat of paint.

6. Wax On Again

Rub the wax over exposed areas of the initial paint coat. Forget neatness and precision: slather it on so that it also goes onto the second paint coat surrounding the exposed first coat.

7. Apply More Paint

The shabby chic look finally becomes apparent with the application of white paint. Coat all surfaces of the frame with the white paint, and then let it dry completely. Note that each successive paint layer takes longer to dry.

8. Sanding to the Best Distress

Using coarse sandpaper, work off the waxed areas beneath the white paint to expose the other paint colors beneath. Avoid removing the first layer! Once the desired amount of color shows through, switch to the fine sandpaper to remove any really rough edges and borders. Wipe the frame lightly with the tack cloth. If desired, preserve it with a light layer of a clear satin acrylic sealer.

9. Hang It Up

How and where a frame hangs and what it encases are big parts of pulling off the shabby chic vibe. If the frame will have artwork within it, don’t worry about being too “matchy-matchy.” Consider color, style, and try different options; you may be surprised at what works! You could also consider framing a mirror for a completely different look and function. For an easier build, try a rustic picture frame from FD.com.

QUICK TIP: Colors look different depending upon the light, so consider the location if you’d prefer the frame’s color to be consistent, or highlighted by sunlight. However, if there is a valuable photograph or print within the frame, make sure to use the correct type of UV glazing to protect the piece. Having a shabby chic frame is great, but shabby-looking artwork — not so much.

Last Updated June 15, 2021

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4 thoughts on “Distress a Picture Frame to Shabby Chic Perfection”

  • Lori

    I have to say that your directions, and how to apply all your supplies, was so helpful. It made such a difference for me trying to do it on my own LOL. I enjoyed reading your articles and I look forward to checking in on you now and again. Thank you so much.

  • Sam

    This was a wonderful article! Thank you so very much for taking the time to explain this process. Definitely makes me appreciate the effort that goes into creating this style of picture frame.

    And I love how you mentioned that you could use crayons, too because every crafty home at one time or another has a bunch of short, or broken ones lying around.

  • […] eight hours. Apply the next coat of paint after you are sure the paint has dried. You can also paint wooden frames in a shabby chic style, which requires just a few more […]

  • Jennifer Robinson
    Jennifer Robinson December 20, 2018 at 11:33 am



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