Photo: Keller & Keller Photography
It looks traditional, but this house in Billerica, Mass., TOH's 1999 TV project, used plenty of high-tech materials.
Study the history of building materials and one thing becomes clear: People have been faking it for a long time. Five thousand years ago, Egyptian artisans cagily glued thin slices of burl onto cheap boards, thereby producing the first veneer — and launching a tradition of fooling the eye. Today, thanks to the alchemy of modern manufacturing, you can fill a house with man-made products that mimic the building basics of wood, plaster, metal, and stone.

Purists may scoff at such brazen superficiality, but there's logic behind making things that look like other things. Venetians of the 1500s, for example, figured out a way to make plaster imitate marble, so they didn't have to worry about the weight of stone slabs sinking their city. Twentieth-century scientists cooked up polyurethane that can pass for wood because it will never rot and needs hardly any maintenance. A well-made impostor may be significantly less expensive, last longer, or be easier to install than the real article.

Unfortunately, for every good-looking alternative many more are pathetically obvious or downright flimsy. So if you're thinking about going with faux, call for samples, inspect actual installations, and ask people who've used it how well it holds up. "When you walk up to a front door, you shouldn't be able to tell the difference between real and man-made," says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva. When it comes to the products on the following pages, we can't.

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