To Distress or Not to Distress, That is the Question

What is distressing? Distressing is the process of giving a card or paper a vintage or worn look. This look can be accomplished in many ways with a number of methods.

Patter Cross wrote a great article for about distressing that was also shared on in April 2009. I want to share part of what she had to say about distressing with some of my thoughts thrown in.

Tools for Distressing

What kinds of things do you need in order to distress the edges of your paper?  There are tools you can purchase or you can use something as simple as your fingernail.

Making Memories edge scraper

Heidi Swapp edge distresser

Tim Holtz paper distresser

baby wipes

water and a cotton ball or paper towel

various stamp inks


emery board

sand paper

water and a heat gun

Time to Distress

Before I dry distress, I will ink the edges of my paper with my favorite ink, Tim Holtz Distress Ink Walnut Stain by Ranger. To dry distress my paper, I usually use one of the scrapers or distressers listed above.  I put my paper into the slot and start at the top corner of one side and “scrape” it back and forth along the edge of the paper.  You will get used to how firmly you need to do this.  I then continue around the paper distressing all the edges.  I suggest trying your tool out on a piece of scrap paper first.  Of course, different paper weights will require a different amount of pressure, and be ready for the paper mess.  You will probably get a little messy from the paper dust but the effect is so worth it, and it’s nothing you cannot just dust off.

To wet distress my paper, I love to take a baby wipe and run it down the edge of my paper and then use my fingernail to distress the paper.  It works well and is so easy!  You can also use one of the tools but it requires a much gentler touch since the paper is damp.  Another way to dampen the edge of your paper is with a wet cotton ball or a damp paper towel.  Both will work the same way as the baby wipe.

I like to ink my paper edges before I distress them, but you can ink them after. To ink the edges, I will sponge on the ink. I personally like the effect that the sponge gives verses using the ink pad itself to ink the edges of my paper. My favorite inks to use are Tim Holtz Distress Inks by Ranger.  I just run the ink pad along the edge of the paper, and it gives it a very fun look.

On this card I just used ink to distress the edges.

On this layout and card I used ink and an edge distresser.

You can simply tear the edge of your paper to also create that distressed look. You can free tear, use a ruler to create a straighter tear or use a special tearing ruler that has different tearing patterns.

Here on this layout I tore the edges of my paper.

Kels, from, gave some great tips for achieving that distressed look.

You can wrinkle and crinkle dry papers and cardstocks, ink them lightly or heavily, making sure your ink pad just grazes the raised surfaces of the paper, and then spray them with a fine mist of water to spread the ink and help it to blend into the texture of the paper. Allow to dry completely before using. Iron flat on backside of paper on low heat, if needed.

You can use sandpaper to distress edges or whole pieces of cardstock, patterned paper, photos, embellishments, etc. Just choose the grain you want (the higher the grain, the finer the sandpaper finish you’ll get) and gently sand the areas of your choice until you have achieved the desired look.

Steel wool works very well for distressing photos and embellishments. You can rub the steel wool across the desired areas in straight forward or backward movements, circular movements, diagonal movements, and horizontal and vertical movements to achieve a crisscross/checkered pattern.

You can also distress items with colored chalks, colored pencils, ink pens, and household items, such as coffee grounds, strawberry juice, and much more.

Burning the edges of your paper creates another fun distressed look. You need to be very careful with this technique so that your paper or your work does not go up in flames. Whenever I do this, I am standing at the kitchen sink with a small stream of water running out of the faucet. I use a candle because I find I have more control than if I use a match.

You do not need to “burn” the edges of your paper to create that burnt look. You can use the faux burnt method where you use ink to create the burnt look.

Here I used a candle to create the burnt look.

Water distressing is another of my favorite distressing techniques. It is a fun, but messy way to distress. Before I use the water, I will ink and distress the edges of my paper.

With your fingers, wet the edges of the paper.  Run your fingers down each side wetting it as far in as you want the distressing to be.  Don’t put the paper directly under the faucet, it gets too wet and runs all over the paper.  You only want the distressing area to get wet, otherwise your paper will bulk up too bad.

By the time you get the last side wet, the first side will be pliable enough to work with.  Start gently moving, bending, scrunching, tearing folding etc. the paper, moving around till you get it distressed the way you want it.

Now you have all the sides done you start drying.  I like to use a heat gun, because it doesn’t blow the paper around like a hair dryer does, but you can use that too.  Be sure to flip the paper over and dry the back, too.  Hold down the edges as you are drying, this helps to keep it flat.

Water distressing is NOT hard!!  You just have to play around with it till you get what you want.  I found that it works best on heavier weight paper, and it’s very important to hold the paper down while drying it.  Less lumpy that way!!!   The heat gun gets hot, so you can use your tweezers or something else to hold it.

On this layout I not only used water distressing on my background papers, but also in making my flowers.

On this layout I just used water distressing on the one corner.

You can use paint to distress. Simply just get yourself a plastic netting and some paints. Use the netting as stencil or mask template and paint through. Or you can just “ink” the edges of your picture or paper with paint.

Here I used a paint dabber to “ink” the edges of my picture.

On this card I also used a paint dabber to “ink” the edges of my paper.

I love Irene Tan’s blog. She is so talented and uses a lot of great distressing techniques. Here are a few of her techniques that I put onto one card.

Distressing your Photographs using Hole Punchers

To distress your photographs using this technique, simply just punch holes randomly on the corners of the photograph. Then, tear part of it away. Leaving a “chewed off” look on the edges. Ink the punched area with some distress ink.

Distress your Flowers with Punchers

Simply just use a hole puncher or any puncher you have and randomly punch all over the edges of your paper flowers. Later, ink it with your choice of distress ink. You can layer it with any other flowers or use it on it’s own.

Splattered Paint on Flowers

This is such an easy technique and add that extra little touch to your flowers instantly. Just use a toothbrush with some acrylic paints or water colors. Apply some acrylic paints to your toothbrush and gentle use your fingers or another medium such as ruler or twizzer and scrape the top section of the toothbrush. Make sure your toothbrush is facing the flower. With a more watery consistent in the paint, you will get bigger splatters. Try this technique in your next project with flowers.

To sum it all up, KelliCali, from, said it best in her Distressing 101 tips:

First you sand it.
Then you crumple it.
Then you drown it in water.
Then blind it with paint.
Smother, soak or stain it in ink.
Choke it with soot or powder.
Mix it all up.
Let the colors blend & bleed.
Stamp it.
Scratch it.
Sand it yet again.
Feed it through the embossing torture machine.
Then poke, pierce or punch it.
Cut, trim or chop it to pieces.
Rip it.
Tear it.
Torment it.
And then… (that is, if it can still handle it),
Get out the lighter & burn it!

Basically, there is no such thing as too much.

Instead, I chose to be very mean to paper.

It’s not only fun, but it’s very therapeutic!

Here are some links to blogs and distressing methods for you to try. Get out there and distress and distress some more!

Irene Tan’s blog

Distressing Tip and Tricks

Crinkled Cardstock

Scrapbooking Techniques Distressing

Cracked Glass

Distressed Edge

Emboss on Edges to Distress

Sand Rock Effect

Distress and Stamp on Chipboard

Distress Stickles on Flowers

Distressing with Acrylic Paint

Distress Ink Flower

Distress Stickles for Texture

Distress your Bottle Caps

Distressed Background using Masquepen

Punching to Distress Acrylics

Distressing Acrylic (Embossing and Alcohol ink)

Distressing Acrylic (Gesso)

Creating Distressed Marks

Distress your Chipboard using Water

Extreme Punching to Distress

Distressing with Random Magic Mesh

Scissors Distressing Technique

Combining Distressing Techniques

Steel Ruler Distressing (II)

Masking to Create a Distressed Border

Embossed to Distress

Water Distressing

Create Old Vintage Distressed papers

Chewed Away Edges

Distress using “Tear in” and “Water” techniques


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