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The Art of Graining

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

This Old House TV: Charles Town house project
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"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.

"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.

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Spinning a Cocoon

 

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!
 
 

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