I bought a very small chest for holding small desk items, the chest itself being small enough to stand on a desk.

It is raw, unfinished wood, though it has been sanded smooth. I'm not sure what sort of wood it is, but it has a light color.

I'd like to paint it like a replica of one from a video game and would like to make it look old.

What's the best paint type to use on this wood that will be long-lasting?
Will I need to pre-treat the wood at all?
How should I finish it to both make it look old and protect the paint?

Here's what the chest looks like:

Small chest

  • Is the wood finished in any way or is it raw? Do you know what sort of wood it is? Do you want the paint to last? My understanding is that tempera paint is washable, so I'm pretty sure that's not a good option if you want the art to stay.
    – Catija
    Aug 10, 2016 at 20:10
  • @Catija No, it's raw. You don't have any splinters sticking out, so it's smooth. Unfortunately, I wasn't told what type of wood that chest is, but it's very light in color. Could it be oak? And yes, I'd like for the paint to last as long as possible. Also, if there's a coating that would make the chest look old, that material would be great too. Aug 10, 2016 at 21:47
  • For aging the wood, you'd want to ask a second question. I don't know if it's likely to be oak... it depends on your area. Here, most raw, cheap wood items are made out of pine. You can usually tell that it's pine because it's pretty pale in color and you can easily make dents in it... Oak is considerably harder, so will be less likely to dent. Are you looking to paint it in a decorative manner or to just paint it one color?
    – Catija
    Aug 10, 2016 at 21:50
  • @Catija Painting it decoratively. I was thinking about creating a replica from a video game. I guess it's pine then, if you say so. Aug 10, 2016 at 21:54
  • I don't know :) You're more than welcome to add an image of the chest. It may be possible for someone to identify what sort of wood it's likely to be. We probably won't be able to know precisely but someone could probably make an educated guess. Knowing the type of wood may be helpful for determining if any sort of pre-treatment is necessary before painting onto the wood (like a primer coat). I know that some woods are better at holding paint than others.
    – Catija
    Aug 10, 2016 at 21:56

1 Answer 1


For natural wood that you want to look like wood, think staining, not painting.

To make that chest look like an old, beaten-up treasure chest, get two colors of stain: one medium-toned one, such as maple or chestnut, and one darker one, like dark walnut or maybe even ebony. For such a small box, you won't need much stain, especially of the darker color, so see if you can get sample sizes. You'll also need some good varnish or polyurethane, not too glossy.

First, stain the whole box with your lighter stain, following the instructions on the package.

Once that's dry, add some realistic-looking damage or weathering: drop the box on its corners a few times to dent/round them off, get something hard and heavy and drop it on top of the box to add dents and gouges, etc.: get creative, but not too creative.

Now, use the dark stain to add "dirt": rub the stain over the box, then immediately wipe it off, but don't do too good a job. The dark stain will remain in the dents and gouges, but not on the surface. Leave more dark stain along the edges and around the hardware. Use a toothbrush to flick stain onto the box to imitate mildew spots. Look up some pictures of the type of old chest you're trying to imitate to figure out where the "dirt" should go.

Once the darker stain has dried as well, and you're reasonably satisfied with how it looks, finish the box with a varnish or polyurethane coating. This is what will make it durable; it will also deepen the colors of the stains. If the result starts looking unrealistic, wait for the varnish to dry, then basically sand it off (or mostly off), adjust the stain, let dry, and varnish again.

If you want to reproduce the metal strapping of the classical "treasure chest", you have several options.

Option 1, you can get what's called "tooling foil" or "embossing foil" at the craft store. It's basically like aluminum foil, only much heavier than even the heavy-duty foil you can buy for culinary purposes. However, it's still light enough that it can be pretty easily cut with ordinary scissors (well, OK, so don't use your nice Gingher fabric scissors - steal the kids' craft scissors instead). To use it, cut out strips in the shape you want, and glue or nail them to your box. You can then use your wood stain to give the metal a more distressed finish. If the stain doesn't seem to be sticking, rub the metal with steel wool to remove the protective finish, and then try again.

Option 2, you can try doing the same thing as option 1, just using ordinary heavy-duty aluminum foil and glue. You can even spray-paint the foil with brass-colored paint. The advantage of this, besides being cheaper, is that the thickness of regular aluminum foil is more in proportion with your small box than the 36 gauge stuff, so you can go ahead and, say, wrap the edges of the opening in a realistic-looking manner, without danger of preventing the box from closing properly.

Option 3, you can get some brass-colored craft paint and paint on the strapping. Do this after staining but before varnishing, and then varnish everything once both the stain and the paint are dry.

  • Is craquelure varnish something that'd work with this?
    – user24
    Aug 11, 2016 at 14:02
  • @CreationEdge: possibly, though I've never tried it. I probably wouldn't use a craquelure varnish over the entire surface - that'd look highly unrealistic, kind of like those fake termite holes that furniture makers love to apply all over otherwise-nice furniture. But a crackly varnish is certainly a viable tool in the "distressed finish" toolset.
    – Martha
    Aug 11, 2016 at 14:33

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