Add Crackle to Your Finish

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Years before shabby chic or the green movement, people enjoyed showcasing furniture that showed its age. It’s easy to see why. Scratches, dents, and cracked paint testify to a full life, and, indeed, new pieces can learn a trick or two from antiques. I think crackling—produced when a later coat of paint fails to fully bond with the undercoat—creates the most dramatic distressing technique. It highlights veins of color, initially masked by the new monochromatic topcoat, that tell of times past.

By knowing how to replicate the effect, I no longer need to hunt for the naturally aged piece; I can make what I want and then give it a convincing colorful history. Another advantage: by antiquing a new piece, I eliminate any chance of coming in contact with dust or chips from lead-based paint (a common ingredient in early paints). Last but not least, the crackling process takes less time and money than a weekend of antiquing.

Be aware, however, that crackling is counterintuitive. You want to experiment with drying times and encourage paint bond failure. What’s the secret ingredient? Hide glue! When you brush a coat over the topcoat, the paint reacts by skinning over and shrinking. This results in cracks that let the base coat show through in eye-pleasing ways.

To work up a convincing crackle finish, follow the instructions given here and watch the transformation happen in minutes. Practice on sample boards in order to manipulate and fine-tune the desired look. Then, once you’ve mastered the basics at brush-level, apply your crackling skill to your next project.

Most workshops have the makings for a crackle kit. A hair dryer can help accentuate or even out the crackling process.

Partial or Complete Crackle?

Cracklers typically find themselves in one of two camps: partial and complete. Personally, I think the partial crackle, on display in the kitchen work table on page XX, looks more authentic. With real antiques, crackle happens in patches, such as on drawers, corners, or moldings where paint was applied too thickly. I’m also a believer in moderation. Depending on the colors used, a little serves as an eye-catching accent; a lot can be overkill.

If you want a complete crackle, I suggest using an HVLP spray gun to lay on the topcoat as quickly and evenly as possible.


Paint Preference
Almost any latex paint lends itself to crackling, but I’ve found that flat house paints work best. The percentage of pigment does matter. Before committing to a crackle combo, test your topcoat to make certain that it covers the base color in one coat. 

Latex paint and water-based stain work well together. Brush the paint onto the stain as soon as the wood feels dry.

Sand, stain and paint

Because water-based finishes raise the grain, I suggest taking preemptive action. After finish-sanding, wipe down the project with a damp rag, give it time to dry, and then knock down raised grain with worn 220-grit sandpaper.

Next, I apply a base stain to give the wood a darker color than would come naturally over the years. (If you don’t plan to heavily distress the piece, skip this step.) For the kitchen work table, I used General Finishes’ medium brown water-based dye stain, diluted 50/50 with water, and applied it with a rag and brush. 

Once the dye is dry, begin brushing on the color. Apply the base coat (see “Crackle Color Combinations,”) with a quality china bristle brush (Photo A). Depending on the coverage, you may want to apply a second coat. After the paint dries, knock off any bumps or nibs with a medium grit (red) abrasive pad.

To seal the paint, apply a coat of high performance polyurethane. A sealer coat isn’t always necessary, but some paints blend more than others. When in doubt, add this extra step.

Dab the hide glue on the spots where you want the paint to crack. The glue dries clear, so keep track of your work.

Go for the glue

While the basics aren’t tough to master, a few details can help make your crackle crack more consistently.  First, choose your crackle medium. I’ve tried yellow, white glue, and commercial crackle mediums, but I think liquid hide glue makes the best looking cracks.

When brushing, it’s important to watch your stroke. The crackle pattern depends on the paint to some extent, but the glue plays a part. You’ll want to experiment on a sample board, but I find that a thick coat tends to produce wider cracks than a thin coat does. I generally aim somewhere in the middle, except for a few spots where I might want to suggest a little more distress.

Brush strokes also matter. Cracks follow the brush; long strokes tend to encourage longer cracks. I prefer dabbing on the glue, as shown in Photo B, for a more random pattern.

Any water-soluble glue will work, including yellow or white, but hide glue has the advantage because it has a longer working window. You can brush it on and set the piece aside for an hour, a week, or longer. The glue will soften and react with the paint whenever you’re ready to do the next step.

A hair dryer causes the wet paint to skin over, encouraging the topcoat to crack more than it might on its own.

Topcoat two-step

The most important thing to remember when brushing on the topcoat is that there’s no second chance. The paint softens the glue (like it’s supposed to), but this means that you need to work quickly. If you don’t like the way that a section crackles, wipe it off immediately or accept the fact that you’ll need to sand it or strip it off and try again.

Focus on the crackle sections first. Lay the paint on thick and leave it. Drips will happen, especially when you aren’t able to position the piece horizontally, but you can sand them off when dry. Refrain from back brushing or tipping off. If you do, you’ll wind up with a sticky mess.

The paint will begin crackling almost immediately, but heat can enhance the effect. I find a hair dryer helpful in accelerating the crackling process and creating wider cracks (Photo C).

After completing the crackled sections, finish painting the piece. Because some of the paint was applied extra-thick, give the piece a day or two to dry before scuff sanding and sealing. The break will also give you a chance to view your crackle with fresh eyes.

Treat the sandpaper like a brush to blend the cracks in with the surrounding surface and add additional wear marks.

Sand and seal

With the cracked section adjoining smooth paint, your piece might not look quite right. To blend the new-old with the new, I use a worn piece of 120-grit sandpaper (Photo D). Run the abrasive across some of the wider cracks and scratch through some of the smoother sections that might naturally see some signs of regular use. Depending on the amount of history you want to replicate, you might choose to sand through both layers of paint to reveal the stained undercoat in a few spots that would have seen the most wear, such as the tops of stretchers and the bottoms of the legs.

Finally, wipe off any dust and then apply two coats of high performance poly to lock in the years. The satin topcoat gives the piece a protective, even-looking sheen and a little extra protection so that it doesn’t look any older before its time.


Crackle Color Combinations

I think one of the most interesting aspects about crackling is how the colors work with each other. Black on red offers a much different look than red on black.

Here are samples of a few of my favorite combinations, but feel free to find your own. And don’t be afraid to use bold colors, especially as base coats. Whether it was meant to show off fancy pigments or help brighten dark rooms, period furniture was frequently painted in bright colors. Bright colors pop through a dark topcoat quite nicely.

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