Crackle is a faux painting process often used to decorate old furniture in need of a new finish because of damage or age. The effect resembles cracking paint and usually includes a contrasting color underneath that is exposed by the cracks in the topcoat. This finish may also be used on surfaces like bare wood or brick with a clear base coat instead of paint to expose the natural beauty underneath. You can add a crackle finish like this to any paint-able surface, but because it can be a very busy effect, it's usually not done on large spaces like walls.
There are three steps to creating a crackle paint finish: application of a base coat of paint, followed by a coat of crackle medium, and finished with the application of a topcoat of paint. For the base coat choose a color that will accent and contrast with the top finish color. In the example pictured at right we use a deep rose color base to contrast with the white topcoat.
Between the two paint coats a crackle medium is applied. The medium can be a specially made product for creating crackle finishes or it can be liquid hide glue, this glue has long been used to create cracked paint effects. When the glue is completely dry the topcoat of paint goes on and as it's applied it will begin to separate from itself, exposing the surface color underneath.
You can choose any color combination you find appealing for this project, but if you need a little inspiration a chart from a paint supplier can be helpful in finding colors that play well together. If you want a little pop in the finish try a metallic base paint or a very shiny finish like high-gloss paint to contrast with the topcoat.
To set off different features of the piece, base coat small parts like drawer handles, but don't apply the crackle medium or topcoat. When you're done and you reassemble the piece, these parts will compliment the overall look and tie the whole thing together nicely.
We recommend you use liquid hide glue as your crackle medium to get consistent cracks in the finish, some specially made mediums may not work as well to create an even effect. When using hide glue, either latex or alkyd paint can be used for both the base and finish coats. If you choose to use another medium, check the container label for the recommended compatible paint coatings.
Always buy all the paint you will need for this project at one time, it may be impossible to get the exact color mixed again if you need more. For an average sized piece of furniture like a dresser, a quart of paint will usually be enough, but if you're making a radical change to the color, you may need more for multiple coats so it may be best to buy a gallon.
Prepare the piece, doing any repairs and priming first and then apply a base coat of paint. For a list of preparation procedures for most surfaces see this link. If your project is directly adjacent to other surfaces not to be crackled, you will want to mask them using painter's masking tape. Use multiple strips of tape to create a 3 inch barrier on all surrounding surfaces.
With furniture projects, disassemble the piece as much as possible by removing drawers, doors, handles, etc. Paint your project with the base coating and allow it to dry for 24 hours or more. Be sure to give the paint plenty of time to dry before proceeding with the glue coat. If it's too soft the application of the thick hide glue will loosen the paint film and cause it to sag and wrinkle.
If the existing paint surface is sound and you like the color, you can skip the preparation and base coating processes and start with the application of the crackle medium.
Apply a thick coat of the crackle medium using a brush or roller, the thicker the application the larger the cracks will be in the finish. Use a sausage roller to coat large area and a paint brush for smaller features.
Coat the project in logical sections, for example, coat all rails and stiles before moving to the drawer fronts, side panels and top. Finish each section completely before moving to the next.
Allow the crackle medium to dry thoroughly before continuing with the topcoat. Liquid hide glue can take 24 hours or more to dry depending on the surrounding temperature and humidity. As a rule specially made mediums will dry much faster than natural glue, check the label for this information.
Be sure the glue coat is completely dry. This can take 2 or 3 days with hide glue, a specially made crackle medium will usually dry overnight. And then apply the topcoat of paint, again, working in logical sections. Use a brush for smaller features and then roll the larger areas. Avoid overlapping the paint where two sections meet while you work to prevent disturbing the cracking process.
Start the topcoat by brushing all the rails, and then doing all the stiles. Next use a roller to do the side panels and the top, finish by rolling the drawer fronts and any other large parts.
If you want large cracks in the finish, use a very thick coat of paint here. If you want small, fine cracks use a thinner paint coat. Avoid brushing or rolling back over the paint more than once or twice, the cracking will begin almost immediately and the effect will be ruined if the surface is disturbed during this process.
Avoid an extremely thick topcoat on vertical surfaces where the paint will tend to sag and run. If sagging occurs, immediately wipe the paint off with an absorbent rag soaked with the proper solvent. Don't wipe too hard with the wet rag to avoid disturbing the crackle medium underneath. If the medium rubs off, apply another coat to the bare spot and let it dry before starting with the topcoat again.
Don't touch the finish until it has dried completely. After about 24 hours you can handle the piece and apply a clear coat to protect the surface if you want to. If your project is an item that will be handled frequently, a clear shellac or varnish is a good idea to help preserve your work.