How To: Crackle Paint
Transform drab wood furniture with this authentic-looking “antique” finish.
A coat of latex paint will add color to plain wood furniture—but not much else. To really beat the blahs, consider treating tables, chairs, picture frames, or other decorative items to a crackle finish, a mottled veneer that gives off a vintage vibe. Produced by manipulating two different shades of paint, it’s an easy and elegant effect to achieve with the right tools and techniques. And though the process of crackling paint can be relatively quick, its artful results will leave people thinking that the aged patina took decades to develop!
In order to remove aberrations and prep the surface for paint, it’s crucial to sand wood that you intend to crackle. Starting with unfinished furniture? A light sanding with 150-grit or finer sandpaper is all it takes to smooth it. If there’s already stain or lacquer on the piece, remove the color and sheen with an orbital sander and 80- to 100-grit sandpaper. Wipe away the sanding dust with a damp cloth.
Apply a thin, even coat of primer to the dry piece; use a paintbrush for smaller pieces and spray primer for larger surface areas. Let dry according to manufacturer’s instructions.
You can use latex paint of any level of gloss for the base coat color, but a semi-gloss or satin is ideal so that the cracks of color shimmer in the light. Moving in the direction of the grain, brush paint over the surfaces and joints of the piece and then allow the base coat to dry overnight.
The crackle medium can take one of two forms, each with a different application technique:
- For a goof-proof finish, choose commercial crackle medium sold at craft stores. Tape off any surface areas you don’t want to crackle paint. Then, apply a thick layer of the milk-white substance over the painted piece, using a sponge to create small cracks, or a clean paintbrush or roller for larger cracks. The crackle medium rolls on clear, so work from the top down or bottom up so you’ll know which surfaces you have yet to cover. Let dry for at least one but no more than four hours.
- For a less expensive—but equally effective—finish, enlist the aid of a school glue like Elmer’s when practicing how to crackle paint. Keeping the piece level with the floor, brush a thin layer of glue over it to create hairline cracks, or a thicker layer for larger cracks. Proceed to Step 5 while the glue is still tacky. If you’re crackle-painting a small project, you can coat the entire piece in glue before applying the top coat; larger pieces will require you apply glue to one surface at a time so the glue doesn’t cure before it is crackled.
Using a clean paintbrush, apply a top coat of flat latex paint in a different color over the dried crackle medium or tacky glue until the piece is fully coated. Choose a shade of paint that contrasts with the base coat color.
- The top coat will shrink, crack, and reveal slivers of the base coat almost instantly after the paint is exposed to the crackle medium. Avoid retouching painted areas so as not to wipe out the cracks. Let the crackle finish air-dry overnight.
- If you’re using school glue, cure the top coat and glue with a hairdryer on the hot setting. Hold the dryer two to three inches from the surface and blast in one area until the degree of “crackliness” suits your style, then move on to another spot. Continue until the entire piece is crackled and the glue is fully cured.
Apply a clear coat to furniture pieces that will get a lot of use to protect the finish and make it last, or let the crackle finish go without sealant to play up its distressed glamour.
After practicing on a single decor accent, you might find you’re ready to put those newfound skills to use giving a new-old finish to more forgotten furniture throughout the house!