Add Crackle to Your Finish

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This article is from Issue 32 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Years before shabby chic or the green movement, people enjoyed displaying furniture that showed its age. It’s easy to see why. Scratches, dents, and crackled paint testify to a full life, meaning 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. The secret ingredient is hide glue. When you brush the topcoat over the glue undercoat, the paint skins over and shrinks. 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 accelerate the crackling process.

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

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

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 that 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,” below, right) 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 base coat, apply a coat of water-based polyurethane. A sealer coat isn’t always necessary, but some paints blend more than others. When in doubt, add this extra step.

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 crackler. I’ve tried yellow glue, white glue, and commercial crackle mediums, but I think liquid hide glue makes the best looking cracks.

Hide glue’s other advantage is its 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 apply the topcoat.

When brushing on the crackle coat, it’s important to watch your stroke. This is because the crackle pattern depends not only on the top coat of paint, but also the glue undercoat. You’ll want to do some experiments to see for yourself, 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.

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

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

Partial or Complete Crackle?

Cracklers 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 30, 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.

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 refrain from back brushing or tipping off. If you don’t, you’ll wind up with a sticky mess. If you don’t like the way a section crackles, wipe it off immediately or accept the fact that you’ll need to sand it off and try again.

Drips will happen, especially when you aren’t able to position the piece horizontally, but you can sand them off when dry.

Focus on the crackle sections first. The paint will begin crackling almost immediately, but heat can enhance the effect. A hair dryer helps accelerate the crackling process and create wider cracks (Photo C).

After completing the crackled sections, finish painting the piece. Give the thick topcoat 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.

Sand and seal

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. Depending on the amount of history you want to replicate, you might choose to sand through the paint in areas 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 an 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. Green on red offers a much different look than red on green (middle two).

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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