High-end flooring and cabinetry is looking a bit better for the wear these days. Manufacturers and craftspeople are taking hammers, chains, chisels, and custom-made blades to fine wood in service of a hot new trend: the distressed look.

National Wood Flooring Association

Yorktowne Cabinetry's “ImAges character finish package” aims to create the look of heirloom furniture, with all the symptoms of age apparent. The new package is part of the company's successful foray into the semi-custom market. “We saw a niche,” says Diane Palmiotti, Yorktowne's marketing communications supervisor. The company found homeowners were looking for products that would create a historic look in their homes. “You see people going back into the past, into history, [to get] more of a warm look,” Palmiotti says. Yorktowne's craftspeople do all the distressing applications by hand, including sand-overs to round corners, and hand-rubbed staining. Rasping creates a “cow tail” mark, and worm-holes are produced by smacking hand tools against the cabinet doors in random patterns.

A new technique creates a long, shallow indentation to make the doors look “split.” Palmiotti says that the company's distressed finishes have been growing steadily in popularity since they were introduced in 2003.

Down on the floor, the trend continues. “I do it myself because there's nothing like what I do,” says David Marzalek about why he and his small crew at DM Hardwood Designs do all their wood-floor distressing in-house. At his workshop in Mission Viejo, Calif., Marzalek uses tools modeled after some his grandfather had custom-made at a machine shop. He works on his floors like an artist works on canvas, scraping around knots and making “wood look like it's old and has been underwater.”

According to the National Wood Flooring Association, hand-scraping is the most common technique used to distress wood floors. Marzalek says it's easiest to do in softer woods, such as heart pine and black cherry. Black walnut in particular is “huge right now,” he says. “I probably did 60,000 square feet of black walnut this year.”

Marzalek isn't seeing much growth in distressed flooring on the East Coast, but its popularity continues to expand out West, where the architectural styles tend to harmonize with the distressed look. “A lot of the wood [in the homes] out here, the walls or beams are hand-hewn or distressed Spanish-style, so [homeowners are] going for that old-world look, especially in beach-front homes, where that's the style and the architecture.”

Marzalek notes that while the distressed look is getting more popular, hand-scraping is a dying art. “There's not too many of us in this business, or that have this kind of knowledge.”