Imitating an Old Alligatored Finish

If you want to intentionally produce alligatoring in a controlled way, you're going to have to get creative. These ideas may get you started. April 21, 2008

Is there some way to get an alligatored finish on stained cabinets that can be controlled and duplicated consistently? I am not talking about a crackle finish, but a gnarly, knobby, somewhat rough textured look the way old shellac looks on antiques.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor D:
Seems like you might need a torch for that.

From contributor C:
The look you see on old furniture of an alligator affect is not a shellac but a resin known as "colophony," more commonly known as "rosin" - a pitch type material left over from the distillation of turpentine. As it deteriorates, it separates into little island type areas and faintly resembles an alligator hide. Of course this happens over a long period of time, so it's out of the question to produce an affect like that in a timely manner.

So back around 1980 I developed a finish technique to approximate this affect by using acrylics and crackle lacquer. Unfortunately I do not have the exact methods and means anymore since I lost my formula books to Hurricane Wilma in Florida in 2005. But I do remember I used acrylic lacquer and Mohawk's crackle lacquer to perfect the look. I built the surface of the sample boards up with 2 or 3 coats of clear sealer over a base coat of acrylic white and/or black lacquer. I then let this dry well and sanded 320 and gave various coats of the same sealer with butyl cellosolve retarder on the sample boards. The more retarder I used, the more the islands would separate and look like alligator skin after I had applied the heavy coat of crackle. It actually went so far that I created what looked like a globe where the continents were really separated - I mean like a foot apart on 2x2' panels - when a lot of retarder was added. The main trick is to use the air from the gun (normal air spray gun - Devillbiss JGA) to blow on the just-sprayed crackle surface after it's been applied. This will be the biggest determiner for the effect. The other will be the amount of retarder in the acrylic and the thickness of the applied crackle. I do remember also using different amounts of thinner in the crackle also, but never use retarder in it - that will defeat the purpose of the crackle altogether. What also happened on the more drastic separations were the build up from the contraction of these islands. They looked realistic like real islands would - you know, with elevations like mountains - pretty unique. Anyway, this should give you a good starting point to go from.

From contributor L:
What you want to shoot for is a slower drying product under a fast drying product. I have done this with mixed results. You can stain up your doors (or whatever) with dye for a base color then use an oil stain with something to retard its drying. Try alkyd glazing liquid or even oil based varnish/urethane. While it is tacky or still "live," spray either crackle lacquer or straight lacquer over it. It should create a mess. The look of the clear Mohawk crackle lacquer over a good dye/stain base with black glazing used after to accent the crackle is nice and repeatable.

From contributor J:
You can try spraying the finish with a high gloss finish. Take that Mohawk crackle lacquer and add some flattening agent to it, spray it on the heavy side, then blow some air on it.

From contributor S:
Do your various techniques allow for the final product to still adhere, or do you have problems with it coming off as it would on a piece of antique furniture?

From contributor L:
I usually cut in some acetone to the top coat lacquer for some extra bite (and it flashes off quick). You need to let it set up for a good bit and then clear it again. That will usually hold tight. But, as everyone says, do a sample first!

From contributor J:
You would need to top coat if you were to do it my way.

From the original questioner:
Many thanks to all. I will try each technique and make some sample boards. I had a little trouble locating crackle lacquer (here in backward Austin) but did find some from Coronado and the rep is going to demo a gallon out to me. He told me that it had to be shot over gloss lacquer and that it must be topcoated, just as many of you said.

He suggested no retarder, but I believe that for what I am wanting, retarder would in fact increase the effect. He also suggested that the crackle lacquer could be tinted. I know that contributor L is right about the slow drying oil based. I have done that on accident before. Can this finish be achieved with an airless and fine finish tip? Is blown air an absolute must? I wonder if a more sure-fire method might involve using some kind of oil base clear thinned with lacquer thinner or acetone. Thoughts?

From contributor L:
Not sure if that would help. Getting the "slip" is the thing you are after. If you get your color together and seal up with gloss lacquer, from there you can start trying different stuff. Like spraying on mineral spirits and then quickly spraying the crackle lacquer over it. That might corrupt the finish. Spraying over tacky oil based clears or stains usually causes this effect. You just need to play around to get what you are after.