Faux Crackle Finish
Faux crackle finishes go beyond the mid-20th century fad of “antiquing” picture frames, tables and cabinets with contrasting paint choices and wads of cheesecloth. Crackling has been around for centuries. Artisans applied pigments to floors as an art form called stenciling.
by Patt Gilman
At a time when trend spotting has evolved into a new-millennium job function and a trend setter is well on its way to becoming an accepted profession, it’s gratifying to encounter a trailblazer who has the talent, experience and foresight to marry both trend spotting and trend setting into a unique business niche. So, just exactly how would Steve Corbett of Murphys, CA-based Corbett Designs define a trend? Movement, motion, tendency—these are the words that he uses to describe trending, particularly when it comes to one of Corbett’s specialties, faux crackle finishing. And, he has some thoughts on how this trend came to be.
“Thinkers influence tradesmen,” he explains. “And tradesmen are the link between the commercial and residential arenas.” Further, Corbett thinks that the growing interest in faux crackle finishes is causing a shift in perspective.
“I believe this is because recognizing a trend and bringing it into public focus develops its desirability,” he says.
Once relegated to high-end specialty use – the likes of hospitality and commercial office spaces – the popularity of faux crackle finishing began to grow as more painters are learning the process. Concurrently, as more painters master the process, costs associated with the sophisticated look are beginning to level off. In fact, creating many of today’s most popular faux finishes has become nearly as time- and cost-effective as applying two coats of an enamel finish.
Faux crackle finishes go beyond the mid-20th century fad of “antiquing” picture frames, tables and cabinets with contrasting paint choices and wads of cheesecloth. Crackling has been around for centuries. Artisans applied pigments to floors as an art form called stenciling. When crackling occurred naturally, facades took on a pleasing old world flavor. Today’s technology provides materials that are better and work more easily and quickly.
“You don’t have to wait a hundred years for time to peel the paint,” says Corbett.
To reduce the time it takes to realize a quality result, Corbett has come up with a unique faux crackle finish that blends current technology with the look of an old-world patina. His formula is water-repellent and functional, yet is an aesthetically pleasing crackle finish that will work well even on inexpensive materials. The currently popular, low-cost MDF (medium density fiberboard) as well as other pre-primed, paint-grade synthetic composition moldings, embrace crackle finishes easily – and gracefully, so there is ample opportunity to stretch creative painting skills.
According to Corbett, alder, poplar or other medium grade woods provide plenty of advantages where more expensive hardwoods might otherwise have been used. In the case of crackle finishes, the most obvious asset is the substantial savings per linear foot when lower grade woods are used. And the fact is, just about any material that can support a paint undercoat can be crackled. Masonite® or other pressed wood composites – and, often, even metals — that will accept a primer are also excellent substrate alternatives.
Corbett’s crackle finish formula method makes the most of paint volume since just a single pint — when supplemented with Corbett’s high-tech acrylic polymer and exterior-grade acrylic glue additives – creates a product that not only covers more surface, but also withstands both interior and exterior conditions. Corbett says that neither snow, sleet, winter wind, spills, whacks or scratches will significantly alter or mar the distressed look he is able to achieve. That’s because his “recipe” is strengthened with the same kind of synthetic polymeric (polyurethane) compounds that are often used in fabricated molded products.
Corbett long ago developed a sense of inventiveness. When customers presented him with a perplexing variety of needs and conditions, Corbett’s imagination and knowledge dovetailed. So, instead of shying away from unusual requests, Corbett tended to respond eagerly, offering ideas and alternatives that many customers readily embraced.
It was just such a situation that spurred the creation of Corbett’s faux crackle technique — and resulted in a visually pleasing faux finish that offered both stability and durability.
The finish relies on a type of glue that’s designed to adhere to concrete. Corbett knew that polymers react naturally on primed surfaces and used the compounds’ tendencies to separate to his advantage.
Because the glue impregnates the substrate, the cover coat becomes impenetrable. Polyurethanes, lacquer finishes or products like Minwax® stain can be applied over it, allowing the base colors to show through.
The crackle process is a chemical phenomenon and distinctions are created by the way the finish is applied. Though it’s called faux, Corbett’s crackle is actually a natural process that occurs on the spot, and thus, there’s nothing fake about it. While wet, the finish crawls or moves over the substrate plane. Once cured, the finish has aged to capacity and no more scoring occurs. Since crackling stops after the original chemically broken line of movement dries, its pot life places Corbett’s art form light years ahead of the curve. The crazed pattern won’t age further, or, in other words, the crackle won’t crackle. Because they can postpone repainting for longer intervals, customers are happy.
Through trial and error, Corbett modified his mixture and explored application styles, and in doing so, he discovered a layering technique. The veneering procedure of overlaying densities and color values gives the final product tremendous stress durability. Working with the latest technologies and fresh, innovative products with remarkable properties, Corbett is able to keep ahead of the pack. And, throughout these ongoing improvements, he hones not just his formula, but also his already significant skill.
For the bold and beautiful, Corbett incorporates streaks of tempting color. He accomplishes most crackle effects with neutral colors, but says that some clients like it hot. To appease those tastes, Corbett incorporates rich pumpkin, cranberry or eggplant accents. Once Corbett begins layering, the colorant delivers both depth and dimension.
Unlike photographic wood grain images and similar designs that are either embedded in or imprinted on plastic — like Formica® laminate and Pergo® floors — Corbett’s crackle finish uses no photography; every stroke of the brush produces a unique mosaic. So, in a sense, the term faux is misleading.
Like any polyurethane (or similar) finish, Corbett’s crackle is virtually impervious to scratching, so consumers can safely apply any non-abrasive household cleaner. In fact, Corbett advises, “Addressed like any good finish, this one will last for years. No flaking or chipping takes place. There are no hard-to-follow care and cleaning instructions.”
Corbett says his work place represents, “not a hodge-podge, but a conglomeration of work in progress.”
Ideally, he prepares his material in-house, whether it’s for cable, crown and strip moldings, baseboards, door jambs and doors, casings, corbels, fascias, friezes, sills, contour trims or any other conventional application. If the substrate or object to be painted can hold still, Corbett says he can crackle it. Nevertheless, some limits are evident: the crackle pattern forms best on a large production basis. Moldings, for example, are self-limiting. And the explanation is simple: “When you run out of board, the pattern is done,” Corbett says.
Because he prefers to work in a flat, level space, Corbett says his manufactory provides the optimum environment, but he does work on-site if necessary.
Corbett can take raw moldings from a nearby molding manufacturer, crackle them to specifications and ship coated products to any job site so that waiting carpenters can field cut and nail the pieces into place.
“The carpenter can treat it like any piece of pretreated molding,” explains Corbett, chuckling, “it’s ready and willing for abuse.”
Corbett’s goal is to finally lay to rest the image of the sloppy painter wearing spattered overalls. His vision is of a professional who has a magician’s box of tricks and trends to bring to the project, an expert equipped with high tech products, ready to be of service.
Corbett explains, “A painter can drive down any street and see work wherever his gaze lands. It’s my job to take the mystique out of crackling by showing how that work can become artistry. By adding faux finishes to his portfolio, a painter can suggest when crackling is appropriate. Most painters consider crackling too exotic and not easily learned. It simply is not in their repertoire for those reasons. Properly manipulated, the process can advance the profession,” he says, adding, “broaden it, so the earning potential improves as the trade develops pricing.”
As a futurist, Corbett sees a place for crackling far beyond a strip of molding. Already, he is experimenting with crackling as a floor finish, capitalizing on the resulting strength and durability that the process affords. Corbett predicts that the next paint trade hot spot will evolve when the public realizes the fundamental durability and economy of his method.
His philosophy is simple: “Anyone can do it,” he claims, and adds, “a coated surface is a basic need taken for granted. You don’t realize it’s there till it isn’t. Bare wood draws attention where paint complements life.”
Corbett’s commitment is “to offer a great product and service designed with the client’s personality in mind. Trend merchandising is a new notion requiring painters to reinvent themselves with a carpe diem (seize the day) mentality. With more than one style of applying paint in the painter’s kit, the field opens up to greater potential.”
Clearly, in Steve Corbett’s world, all that crackles is not old.