You probably already know how popular painted and distressed furniture is these days. You see it everywhere. Furniture makers, artists, and craftsmen are turning out lots of pieces that have been purposely manipulated in order to make them look old and worn. This technique is called “distressing.” There are lots of different ways to distress painted furniture. You can use sandpaper to create wear, you can use paint or stain to create a patina, and you can add several layers of paint in different colors and chip some of it away.
Another way to distress furniture, which is often used for tabletops, is to strike the surface with a hammer, a chisel, and/or a heavy chain. For a super distressed look, some people use a paint scraper to remove a good portion of the top coat of paint. Yet another way to achieve an old look is to create a crackle finish.
What’s a crackle finish? Furniture with a crackle finish has lots of lines that show the paint color under the top coat. The surface of the paint is broken or fractured. The lines or cracks might be long, minuscule, or somewhere in between. The process gives the furniture a beautiful vintage appearance, making it look as if it’s been handed down for generations. Crackle paint adds lots of character and interest to pieces that are otherwise boring and mundane. Best of all, you can do it yourself!
The first thing you need to do is to decide on the colors you want. The first coat is the color that will show through the fracture lines. The top coat of paint, of course, will be the overall color of the piece of furniture. It’s important to choose your colors carefully. You’ll probably want there to be a lot of contrast in the colors so that the crackling will show up well. For example, dark brown works well for a first coat to be used with a white or antique white top coat. Other good choices for shades of white are undercoats in red, dark green, black, dark gray, and navy.
The type of paint is important, too. Some types of paint don’t crackle well. These include paints with a semi-gloss finish, paints with a gloss finish, and paints with a metallic finish. Since you’re going for an old look, anyway, it’s best to use a latex paint with a flat finish. This goes for the undercoat as well as for the top coat.
How to Use Crackle Medium
There are lots of crackle medium products on the market, and my husband and I have used several different brands. So far, our favorite is Sherwin Williams Illusions Faux Finish Crackle Medium. We like the latex version that’s clear.
You can use this product on any furniture with a sealed surface. If you want to crackle over something like bare wood, metal, or stone, the surface will need to be sealed first. You can use a clear sealer for this purpose.
Okay, let’s say you want to give a crackle finish to a piece of furniture. First, clean the surface well and make sure it’s dry. Apply your first coat of paint. This is the color that will appear in the fractures. Allow this coat to dry thoroughly.
Once the first coat of paint is dry, brush on the crackle medium. Be sure to apply it as evenly as possible, and make sure you don’t miss any surface areas. The crackle medium needs to dry for about an hour until it feels dry to the touch. Don’t wait too long, or the medium won’t work.
When the crackle medium feels dry to the touch, apply your top coat of paint. As the paint dries, the fractures will appear.
Crackle Paint Tips
The way you apply the top coat of paint is going to determine the type of cracks you get. For long cracks, make long brushstrokes when applying the top coat of paint. For smaller cracks, I sort of dab the paint on with a small brush. For tiny fractures, you’ll need to use a natural sea sponge to apply the top coat of paint.
If this is your first time using crackle paint, you’ll probably want to practice a little first. You can do this on a few pieces of scrap wood. Paint the wood a dark color first and allow it to dry. You might want to experiment with different colors of base coat to see how you like the results before starting on a piece of furniture.
You’ll also want to try different brush strokes with the top coat. That way, you’ll get to see how different applications achieve different results. If you’re doing several different experiments at the same time, you might want to jot down the technique you used for each example and attach the notes to the scraps of wood.
Once you’ve followed all the steps and your crackle finish is achieved, allow it to dry completely before doing anything else to the surface. Of course, you might not want to do anything else to change the look of your crackled surface. You might, however, need to protect the finish. Don’t use a water-based product for this purpose. Instead, use an oil varnish, preferably one that dries quickly.
If you like, you can do more distressing with sandpaper. Sand away areas that would receive lots of wear in a real-life situation.
Crackle Paint With Glue
If you don’t want to buy a professional crackling medium, you can achieve similar results with plain glue. I’ve used Elmer’s Glue for this purpose, and I’m sure other brands will work, too. In my opinion, the results aren’t as good as the ones you’ll get with crackle medium, but they’re a cheap, acceptable option.
Just like with commercial crackle finish, your furniture needs to be painted with a base coat of paint first. When that coat is completely dry, brush on the glue. I usually thin my glue with just a few drops of water. When the glue is somewhat dry but still a little tacky, brush on the top coat of paint. As the top coat dries, the cracks and fractures will appear. It’s best to make short brush strokes in different directions when applying the top coat over the glue.
Stenciling Over Crackle Finish
One of the most popular trends with painted furniture is to stencil words, images, and/or symbols onto the painted surface. Can you do this with a crackle finish? Yes, you can! You do it a little differently than you would over a smooth painted surface, however. In that case, you probably want your stenciled image or letters to be sharp and clear, but with a crackled surface, super sharp stenciling would look sort of out of place.
Instead, don’t completely fill in all the stencil forms. Use an almost dry brush, with thick paint, and fill in just enough of the stencil to provide an overall idea or impression. Maybe you can see what I’m talking about on the crackled wine rack above. Notice that some of the tops and bottoms of the letters aren't completely filled in.
How to Distress Furniture by Scraping
Another way to give a very distressed look to furniture is with scraping. This can be done with or without a crackle paint finish. Scraping is just what it sounds like – you remove some of the paint by scraping it away. You can use a paint scraper, a screwdriver, a metal spoon, the edge of a butter knife, or a host of other tools. By changing the amount of pressure you use, you can remove just the top layer of paint or all the way down to the original finish.
Something else you might want to try is to use different colors of paint for the base layer. See the photo of the frame, above? It was plain dark wood before I distressed it. I painted the wood with several different paint colors, including brown, red, sage green, dark green, turquoise, yellow ochre, gray, and burnt sienna. Basically, I did a splotch here and a splotch there, with no pattern. I then applied the crackle medium and added a top coat of white paint. When I scraped off some of the top coat, it made the frame look like it had been painted with lots of different layers of paint.
According to my experience, the best and easiest way to scrape paint from furniture is to wait until the paint is completely dry and then dampen the surface with a wet cloth. After running the damp cloth over the areas, you want to scrape, wait about one or two minutes before scraping. Once you’ve finished scraping, wipe away the removed paint with a dry cloth.
Don’t Be Afraid!
Distressing furniture with crackle medium is fun and easy. If you’re going for an old, abused look, it’s practically impossible to make a mistake. Anyway, if you don’t like the way your piece turns out, you can always change the look! Paint can always be painted over, even paint that’s been crackled. Of course, the finish will require some sanding before you can paint a smooth coat of paint over it. Just think up what you want your furniture or other wooden décor to look like, and then make it happen. With just a little practice, you’ll love your results. You might want to give a crackle paint finish to almost everything in your house!
Questions & Answers
Question: Can you use crackle finish on a spray can painted piece?
Answer: Yes, as long as the spray paint has a matte finish.
Question: Can I apply the topcoat with a spray can?
Answer: As long as the paint has a matte finish, it should be fine.
Question: What do you put on your crackle paint job for protection?
Answer: I use spar of poly, depending on whether it's going indoors or outdoors.
Question: What is the best way to get rid of a crackle finish effect?
Answer: Sand away the finish.
Question: Does it matter what type of paint you use to crackle?
Answer: Use water-based paint, one that's not gloss. Matte works much better!
Question: I’m using a crackle medium. My paint is a cabinet paint. Will it work?
Answer: As long as it has a flat finish, it should work. Try it on a scrap piece of wood first.
Question: I want to put a rub-on transfer over crackle paint. Do I seal it before I put the transfer on?
Answer: I would seal it after applying the transfer. If the finish is rough, I would do light sanding before adding the transfer.
© 2014 Holle Abee
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 30, 2014:
Very creative and with beautiful results. It's worth a try since it's not supposed to look perfect anyway. Thank you, Habee.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 28, 2014:
I can see how this could easily become addictive! I liked all of your photos but really loved that picture frame with the different colors. Hmm...now what can I start distressing in our home? Ha! UUI votes and pinning to my crafts board.
cfin from The World we live in on April 28, 2014:
This is very cool and totally back in fashion.
Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on April 28, 2014:
Great hub. Helpful. I may give this a try.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 28, 2014:
My mom owned Yesterday House Antiques for a decade or so. So I learned these techniques back in the 60's. We changed the name normally to "antiquing the piece". As a house painter for a time, the techniques helped me to "undestress" trim.
Thanks for bringing fond memories.
Annie Messeri from Spain on April 28, 2014:
This is great. I just acquired some furniture out of a dumpster which would really good distressed. I will have a go and let you know how I get on. Voted up and pinned.
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on April 28, 2014:
This is a technique I have often considered but have never investigated. You have clearly explained and shown excellent photos so now I think I may be ready to take the plunge. thank you Angels are on the way Pinned and shared