How to Do Crackle Paint on Furniture

by: Dale Cox

photo a crackle paint finish on a chest of drawers

Crackle is a faux painting process often used to decorate 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 using a clear base coat, instead of paint, to expose the natural beauty underneath. A crackle finish like this can be added to any paint-able surface but it's usually not done on large spaces like walls.

Choosing Your Project Colors

There are three basic steps to creating a crackle paint finish:

  1. application of a base coat of paint
  2. application of a coat of crackle medium which will appear clear
  3. application of a topcoat of paint of a contrasting color to the base coat
photo crackle paint finish on a drawer front

For the base coat, choose a color that will accent and contrast with the top color. In the example pictured here, 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. Natural hide glue has long been used to create this cracked paint effect. When the crackle medium is completely dry, the topcoat of paint goes on. As the paint is applied, it will begin to separate to expose 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 piece together nicely.

Choosing Crackle Materials

photo bottle of liquid hide glue for crackle faux finishes

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. The glue is rendered from cowhide and is available in a powder or liquid form. For ease of use and the best consistency, choose the liquid form of hide glue. Hide glue can be used with either latex or oil-based paints for 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 for each coat. If you're making a radical change to the color, you will need more for multiple coats so it may be best to buy a gallon.

#1- Prepare and Base Coat

photo a chest with the drawers removed drawer pulls suspended on nails for easier painting

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 glue.

#2- Apply the Crackle Medium

photo brushing crackle medium coat on chest rails and stiles photo brushing crackle medium on a drawer front

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 as little as 24 hours or up to 3 days to dry completely 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.

#3- Apply the Paint Topcoat

photo brushing paint over dry crackle medium on chest rails and stiles photo rolling paint over dry crackle medium on a drawer front

Be sure the glue coat is completely dry and then apply the topcoat of paint. Again, work 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 as it will start almost immediately.

Start the topcoat by brushing all the rails and then do 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 quickly and the effect will be ruined if the surface is disturbed during this process.

Correcting Mistakes

photo sagging crackle paint on a drawer front

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 final paint coat 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.