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"Worm Holes", Chain Marks and Gouges

Christmas Tree Ladder

Wire Brushed End Grain and V Gouge Simulation of cracks in wood


The first step of decorating our ladder tree is installing the lights.  We simply wrap a single strand of lights around each of the four legs of the ladder.  NOTE: Pay attention to the direction you wrap your light s on each leg of your ladder and wrap the companion leg in the mirror image of the first.  In other words, if I am standing in front of my ladder and wrap the left leg with the lights going up and to the right, then I will wrap the right leg with the lights going up and to the left to compliment the left one.  Repeat this with the other two legs.

We have a large Dept. 56 Christmas Village that we used on every other board "branch" and now that we have had this for two years we use different houses from our Village each year. The in between boards we don't put as much - a nativity scene and some greenery etc. We did put it on a Christmas rug that we had to help stabilize the ladder - it was old and weathered and we had to shim up one leg of it. Note:  See below for more info about how we weathered and painted the shelves.   We also use the lights provided with our Dept. 56 Village with the string lights as well.

Burnished Edge to Simulate Wear

Leveling Supports on Ladder


I use the same approach in distressing wood whether it is for shelving, cabinet doors or door trim.  First you have to decide just how much distressing you want to do to your wood.  Translation; how primitive or beat up do I want this piece to be?

I use several “implements of destruction” on my wood:

  • Awl or Ice Pick
  • A piece of 10 gauge copper wire twisted together
  • A “V”  gouge wood carving tool
  • A “U” gouge wood carving tool
  • A wood rasp or wood file
  • A 12” section of 1” chain
  • A 12” section of 1-1/2” chain
  • A drill with a wire brush wheel 
  • 220 grit sandpaper and a palm sander

To start, I try to visualize what the wear patterns of a piece would be; for instance, if I am distressing a cabinet door, most of the wear on a cabinet door will be around the pull or handle and on the non-hinge edge of the door.  If it is a shelf I am thinking about, a shelf that has been used for a zillion years will have worn down areas on it’s top edge from the constant movement of stuff over it’s surface over lots and lots of years.  I paint and then use a stain glaze on most of my pieces, so, most of the distressing is creating voids or depressions in the wood where the stain glaze will stay and accentuate . . . keep that in mind so that you don’t get to “in” to your destruction!

Once I have determined the wear pattern for my piece I start with my wood file.  I simply file down the edge rounding it off pretty much all over.  But then in the “heavy wear” areas, I will accentuate my filing to make a much more pronounced flat spot or “worn down” spot on the wood.

Next, worm holes.  That’s what I use the awl for to create trails of worm holes all over the wood.  Just repeatedly jab the wood with your awl making a line or swirl . . . or swirly line on your wood.  I even take this from the face of my piece around to the edge of it.  On shelving, you can do larger patterns on cabinet doors with raised edges, you may want to limit your worm hole patterns to those edges with just a bit in the main part of the door.  Again, this is up to you and your taste and the level of effort you want to put into your piece.

Note:  For worm holes the pros say to us a 1/32” drill bit on a Dremel tool and this is the superior method.  You see, when you use the ice pick, it goes into the wood between the grain making a hole but also pressing the grain of the wood together around the outside of the hole.  Drilling the worm holes after all . . . is closest to what the worms do . . . they remove the wood from the hole not, just push it away.  If you are doing a piece that you will be staining, you may want to consider using the drill bit method.  If you are going to paint and antique, the awl method serves the purpose just fine and . . . takes a lot less time.

Now, it’s time for termites!!  I start with a 4” piece of 10 gauge copper wire, bend it in half and twist it together, leaving a loop at the top.  Holding the end opposite the loop, I place the wire against my piece and hit is with a hammer.  This leave a depression in your wood similar to the remains left after a termite has been dining.  Sometimes, I will rotate the wire with the loop as the pivot point and hit with the hammer making 2 or 3 impressions.  This is a pretty destructive and heavy look and can make your piece “very distressed” very fast.  Especially, if you are going to glaze or antique your piece with a stain or dark wax.  Typically on a 4 foot long shelf, I will only do the termite effect in three or four spots.  Again . . . it’s all a function of personal taste and how distressed you want your piece.   Note: I didn’t use this distressing on the Christmas Ladder.

Wood Gouges.  I use the “V” and “U” wood carving gouges to do just that; they will gouge or what I prefer to call “engineered scratches” in your wood.  I first tried just dragging my ice pick over the wood, but that only woks if you scratch in the same direction of the grain.  If you go across the grain with an ice pick or other sharp object it will tend to “tear” the wood.  In some cases this is OK.  After all, a real piece of wood that was really distressed through years of use, will have had it’s surface torn from time to time.  I have just found that not using a sharpened tool like the gouges, ends up costing me more time in the process dressing up the scratch.  The gouges will allow you to do some scratching of the surface as well as simulate age cracks and splits at the end of your shelves or boards.

One of the tell, tell signs that a distressed piece is not authentic is the cut edges or ends of the boards or shelves.  Here you have this beautifully distressed shelf and the end was cut with a good saw blade and it is perfect . . . probably doesn’t even need sanding!  The best way to complete the distressing of your piece is to use a wire brushing wheel on your drill.  Clamp the shelf on to a sturdy surface, like a workbench and using the wire wheel on your drill brush the ends of your shelves.  The wire wheel will remove all of the softer wood leaving the harder grain behind, creating a surface similar to what years of weathering will do.  I even run the wire wheel from the ends around the edges to the flat surface of the shelf just to complete the authentic look.  Once in a while when inspired, I will also use the wire wheel on the surface of the shelf or cabinet door to create a scratched surface.  Again, be careful not to do too much.  Depending on your finish, a little wire brushing can go a long way in creating a distressed look.

We’re almost finished!  Now the chains; I started out only using one size chain and felt that the result looked a bit contrived . . . as if a real distressed piece of wood would have only been damaged by one thing or one size chain.  I found that by using the two different size chains, it helps with the perceived authenticity.  GLOVES!  When you whack your piece with the chains, more often than not, the chain will bounce back and hit your hand.  Once or twice isn’t too bad but after you have completed a project, those chains can dish out some discomfort!  

It doesn’t matter which size you use first just use both and again how much you beat your project up with chains depends on the level of distress you want your piece to have.  Take care to very the direction from which you swing your chain.  You don’t want all of the distressed marks to be in a line or in the same direction.  Also, be sure that you allow your chain to wrap around the edges of your piece.  

Distressing with chains . . . a little effort can produce a lot of distressing so err on the light side.  For a 4’long shelf, I will hit it about 3 or 4 times with each of the 2 sizes of chains.

The finale . . . sanding.  I know it seems somewhat counter intuitive to do all this distressing to your piece and then sand it all away.  And yes . . . you are sanding some of it away.  Think of the real process of distressing . . . it occurs over a long period of time and many of the scratches and gouges get smoothed out by repeated sliding of things on a shelf, for instance.

Now that your project is sanded you are ready to paint!

Measure and mark 12" on shelf

Building Your Ladder Tree:

We had an old weathered wood ladder that we "chalk painted" a red barn color and then stained it with a dark brown color.   BUT DON’T PAINT IT YET!!  We have some work to do first!

Measure the width of your ladder at each step and add 24 inches in length to each board. That way it provides a 12” shelf beyond the width of your ladder on each side.   I marked the bottom side of my boards 12” in from one end to make it easier to line things up when I assemble it.

We then "weathered" the shelves and cut them in ascending order (so it would have a "tree" shape) and painted and stained them the same way.  **(See "Distressing Wood" and "Painting" sections below for more details)**

You may have to make some adjustments so that your selves are level.  Starting with the bottom shelf, put the shelf in place with a level on it and move the non-step side of the shelf up and down until the bubble on your level is centered.  Mark the height of the bottom of the shelf on the non-step side of the ladder.  Depending on your style of ladder you may only have to install blocks to give your shelf level support.  This was the case with our ladder.  Many ladders though will not have a support any where close to where you need it so you will have to install a full cross support.

I installed the shelves using drywall screws . . . first, so they won't move around on the ladder, second; because of their black color they are less visible (with the color shelves we have) and third; to make the Christmas Ladder Tree easier to take apart and re-assemble nex year.

Screw Shelves into place


Now, you can paint the ladder and shelves with your favorite chalk paint combination.  Some suggestions for cool looking color combos are: Barn Red over stain, Barn red over Antique White . . . with the barn red sanded or scraped off to reveal the antique white below . . . or . . . for a bit more of an elegant farmhouse look . . . the Antique White over the Barn Red with the White Scraped and/or sanded off revealing the Barn Red Below.  NOTE:  Depending on the finish I want, I may either apply the top coat to fully cover and then sand and scrape it off to reveal the base coat or . . . I apply the top coat with a pretty dry brush not covering the base coat in the first place.  You can still sand and scrape the top coat off . . . . it’s just another look.  Another color option that is very earthy would be using the Barn Red and Dirty Green . . . You choose which one is the base layer and which one is the top coat.  Your color schemes are a function of your taste and the décor of location of your ladder tree.  Just have fun!!

After the paint is dry, we attached the shelves to the ladder with standard drywall screws so that we could take the "tree" apart and use it for the next year.

Voilà  You now have your own ladder Christmas Tree ready for decorating!!