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The Art of Graining

For his next trick: master refinisher John Dee transforms MDF into wood.

<p><em>This Old House</em> TV: Charlestown house project</p>

This Old House TV: Charlestown house project

"That's an interesting color." From "interesting," to "@!!# ugly!" no

one passing through the foyer of This Old House's Charlestown project

was without an opinion about the freshly-applied orange paint on the

newly-added pair of medium density fiberboard (MDF) doors, or the

willingness to express that opinion. "Did someone actually choose that

color?" These supposed arbiters of good taste ranged from the diplomatic

to the cruel in their comments on the ghastly color. But what this

circuit court of proper decor didn't know is that they were observing

just the first step in the miraculous metamorphosis of ordinary paint

into beautiful wood grain. The process of graining (or faux bois, "fake

wood") begins with a plain painted surface, over which one or more

layers of glaze are applied and skillfully manipulated to simulate the

visual elements of a wood grain. Just as the ugly (and often strangely

colored) caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly, so the grainer's art

transforms an ordinary surface into a rich and (almost) real wood grain.

The Caterpillar

The background color for the Charlestown doors is called

"jack-o-lantern". While you'd likely never select it as a finish color,

it is, in fact, a slightly intensified version of the color that lurks

glowingly beneath the red tones and the deep brown grains of the

existing mahogany trim. Seemingly caterpillar colors like jack-o-lantern

are often the starting points for the grainer's magic.

Spinning a Cocoon

The paint medium used to render wood grain over the base coat is called

a glaze, which is simply a thin paint film that enables a substrate

color to pass through it. Glazing mediums are available in oil or water

base. Typically, the grainer will thin the glazing medium and tint it to

grain colors reflected in the target wood sample. The tints can be

universal tinting colors, artist tube oils, or the settled pigments from

non-penetrating stains. The important characteristic of the finished

glaze is a viscosity that is thin enough to be translucent, while having

enough body to respond and submit to the control of the artist's tools.

Beauty Emerges

Of all the tools of the painting trade, graining tools are the most

bizarre! Long-bristled floggers, badger hair softeners, mottlers, steel

and rubber combs, check rollers, and, would you believe, plastic

scouring pads? Yes, even the kitchen sink! But all have specific

purposes and effects, and when the tools meet the medium on a work

surface, magic happens and paint becomes wood. Guided by a trained eye

and in the hands of a skilled artisan there is literally not a wood

species on earth that cannot be rendered. And lest the artisan get too

cocky, there exists this humbling irony: the eyes of the beholders of

the grainer's art won't know or appreciate that metamorphic skill.

They'll think they're looking at real wood!