Crackle Finish on a 6-board Chest

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There are lots of ways to achieve a cracked paint finish, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on all the different products and methods out there. But I do know what works for me every time, is completely controllable and is done with stuff I always have on hand.

I use a coat of slightly thinned liquid hide glue that I brush on between the base coat and the top coat of paint. As the top coat of paint dries, it cracks to reveal the color of the base coat.

I decided to use this finish on one of the many six-board chests I’m building for “The Furniture of Necessity” book. This chest features an enclosed base and a suite of iron hardware. The finish on this piece is a base coat of flat black latex paint with a topcoat of a flat acrylic blue paint.

Between these two coats is the hide glue, which is the big question in the minds of newcomers to this technique. Here’s how I do it and how I control the crazing effect.

1. Paint the case with your base coat of color. Flat sheens work better than gloss sheens. After the paint is dry, level it with a fine sanding sponge.

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2. Get some liquid hide glue. Make sure it hasn’t expired, or the glue will dry slowly or not at all. Pour some glue into a bowl or cup and thin it with a little warm water. You want to get it the viscosity of latex paint – thin enough to brush on but thick enough to cover the base coat of paint.

The thickness of the glue/water mixture controls how much cracking you will get in your top coat of paint. A thick mixture will promote lots of cracks. A thin coat will produce fewer and smaller cracks. If your glue/water mixture is as thin as water, it is too thin. It won’t do much cracking to the top coat. So add more glue to your mixture. Or add a second coat of glue to your project.

I apply the glue with a chip brush and let it dry until I can touch it without removing glue from the surface.

3. Apply your topcoat of water-base paint and use all the same care you would use when applying any finish. Don’t get sloppy. Let the glue do that work for you.

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The cracks should start to appear as the paint starts to “flash,” which is the point where it goes from wet to dry. Don’t muck with the finish as it dries. That’s a bad idea, like picking at a scab.

4. If you want to go a step further in adding age to your piece, apply a coat of black wax over the crazed finish after all the paint has dried. The color in the wax will lodge in the cracks and make the piece look both dirty and old.

For the piece shown in this article, I applied a heavy coat of glue to the top to create big cracks. I wanted the base to have more subtle cracks, so I added some warm water to my glue/water mixture before brushing the base.

This chest is complete except for the escutcheon plate. I’ve ordered a few iron German and French ones from Whitechapel Ltd.

If you want to dive deeper into this technique, here are resources I trust (there are some dumb, dumber and stupider methods on the Internet.)

• Glen Huey wrote an excellent article on this technique for the Summer 2008 issue of Woodworking Magazine. He compares hide glue to commercial crackling glazes and barriers formed by white and yellow glues. For a few dollars more, you can order the entire 2008 annual – a very good year.

• Troy Sexton uses this technique all the time on his pieces. He calls it a “barn finish.” He uses a heat gun instead of glue and gets amazing results. His article is in the June 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. But really, do what I did: Get the DVD that has all the issues on it from 1995 to 2013 for $97.57. Watch for sales, because ShopWoodworking.com runs them all the time.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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14 Responses to Crackle Finish on a 6-board Chest

  1. Daniel Roy says:

    Very nice! Looking forward to Furniture of Necessity.

  2. Jeff Skory says:

    I like the looks of this finish. Is it durable? It seem as if it would make the top layer very prone to flaking.

  3. Daniel Roy says:

    Sorry. Yes, I meant the inside. It would have been left unfinished. Thanks!

    • Chris,

      What about a thinned coat of shellac on the inside? Would you have any reservations about doing this?

      Thanks,
      Shawn

      • lostartpress says:

        Shawn,

        If I were to finish the inside of a case, it would be with shellac. Avoid anything with oil (especially linseed oil) because it will stink for the rest of your life in such an enclosed space.

        Shellac dries fast and doesn’t leave a smell.

        But I really don’t see the need to finish the interiors. I like the smell of the wood when I open the case.

  4. Thanks Chris. It looks great. Why acrylic over latex? Have you tried the crackle finish with the powdered milk paint?

    • lostartpress says:

      Because that’s what I had on hand. What’s important is the paint be water-base.

      I cannot remember if I’ve done this with milk paint or not.

  5. Ben Lowery says:

    Pity, those poor shark ray pups.

  6. Ben Lowery says:

    I shall endeavor to not be a wiener this time.

    After you apply the hide glue, do you sand it before applying the final top coat? Or is that ridiculous, given the end game?

  7. jbgcr says:

    They are called “blanket chests” and are often used to hold fabric items. I have seen significant damage to paper and fabric when stored in wood. Wood is acidic and in my work as a custom picture framer we go to great lengths to ensure items we frame made of fabric or paper are not in contact with wood to ensure a long life. We even line the rabbets of wood frames to be sure there is no acid migration into the framing envelope. My wife makes wonderful quilts and we fear storing them in a raw wood chest. Therefore I finish the inside and she lines them with a sacrificial fabric. I am making a small pine 6 board chest, unfinished, and will store a quilt in it to see just what damage, if any, might occur. I’ll let you know in a year or two.

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