A Little Story About a Bookcase

This post is really about a distressing technique I tried over the weekend and wanted to share with you. But it’s also a story about a tired old bookcase that’s almost 40 years old.


When I was growing up, my parents were extremely poor. My dad worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad until he hurt his back and was forced to resign. There were several years of extreme uncertainty as my dad moved from job to job, while still wrestling with his back injury. It was a time of hand me down clothing and family members and friends giving us food. I was very young, but I could still sense the tension in the house as my parents struggled with paying the bills and making ends meet.

Through it all, and perhaps in spite of it all, some of my fondest memories during that time of my life are of my mom reading to me. She’d happily buy used Little Golden Books at garage sales and Goodwill and we’d sit on the edge of my bed reading every night. It was a kind of respite from the tragedy of hard living. And when my dad found steady work and life became a little less anxious, she would buy me new books of all kinds and we’d read them over an over until their spines were creased and the pages were bent. I still have most of those books. They still sing when I open them.

In order to shelf all these books, my dad made this bookcase for me out of two old crates he had brought home from the railroad. It was nothing glamorous, but it was functional. And I loved it. Back then it wasn’t painted It was raw and shaggy and I could only imagine the neat things the Railroad Men would store in such crates. I would sit and trace the wording stamped onto the sides of the rough wood, like they were hieroglyphics from some ancient world. This and my toy box (also made from some kind of larger shipping crate) were the only pieces of “furniture” that survived my childhood, and I’m lucky to have them both.

Sometime after my sister was born, she inherited the bookcase. My mom painted it white, and you can see in the pictures that it was well-loved and well used.

Eventually the bookcase was repurposed to my parent’s bathroom where it contributed to a beachy decor my mom had assembled. You can see that she never repainted. My mom was ever sentimental about things like this, and since my sister had written her name on the bookcase and doodled on it when she was 8, my mom chose to keep it like it was. I’m sure she remembered back to when we were kids every time she looked at this bookcase, like it was some kind of transport channeling back all those memories. That’s the way my mom was.

After my mom passed, I brought this old bookcase home. It held a piece of my childhood, and I knew how much my mom loved it. I wanted to clean it up, and I was uncertain how to do that without erasing the history of it.

Then I came across this cool distressing idea and I knew it was perfect for this bookcase.


The technique I want to share is really easy. You take a dab of Vaseline or some other mineral oil based product (I used Aquaphor) and you simply apply it over the areas you want to “distress”. When you paint over those areas, the paint will simply wipe away after it’s dried, leaving you with a cool distressed look that doesn’t require sanding. Sanding in this case was out of the question, as I wanted to preserve the pencil writing my sister had left almost 23 years ago.


I painted the case with a bluish-gray latex based paint by Valspar I bought off the discount rack at Lowes (it was a mis-tint and priced ridiculously cheap), applying the Aquaphor in the locations that I wanted. After the paint dried, I wiped away those spots with a paper towel. You can see in the pic above that the technique worked pretty well!

The Aquaphor preserved the original layer of paint (and my sister’s writing) while allowing me to add a new layer of paint to the bookcase, giving it a much-needed facelift. I chose to stick with the beachy theme my mom had been trying to pull off in her bathroom. The blueish gray paint reminds me of the Pacific Ocean, and I know my mom would like that.


So the tale of the little bookcase will linger a little while longer. Not bad for two old railroad crates nailed together. And every time I look at it I’ll be reminded of my mom, and those many nights she would sit with me before bedtime to read me a story. I owe my passion for literature to her, I think. And maybe, in a way, to this little bookcase as well.


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