Wood, stone, and plaster look-alikes so convincing you'd swear they're the real thing
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.
Looks Like Slate Shingles
But It's Really Recycled Plastic
Made in part from car bumpers, these rubbery shingles are one-quarter the weight of real slate and carry a 50-year warranty.
Reality Check: Even close up, the textures and colors look remarkably like natural slate.
Cost: $2.95 to $3.40 per square foot, about the same as low-end slate.
Looks Like A Wooden Bracket
But It's Really Cast Foam
Coated polyurethane can't rot and has no seams to open up, so you get low maintenance plus good looks.
Reality Check: Indistinguishable from painted wood, although it can't support a load. (With internal reinforcement, the same foam can be used to
make porch railings and posts.)
Cost: $75 per bracket, far less than the same piece custom-made from wood.
Looks Like Wood Siding
But It's Really Sand, Cement, And Wood Fiber
Fiber-cement won't rot, warp, or burn, and paint sticks for decades. Stands up to freezes, windblown debris, and errant baseballs.
Reality Check: The smooth version is convincing; the embossed wood-grain option isn't.
Cost: 60 cents per foot, 75 percent less than premium red-cedar siding.
5,000 Years of Faux
c. 3000 B.C.
Egyptian craftsmen cover furniture with precious wood veneers, creating the first known faux
c. 30 B.C.
Romans use their marbles, sheathing rough temples
with finely polished stone slabs.
Italian craftsmen one-up their Roman ancestors, mixing plaster and pigment in an imitation
Artisans on the island mix lime plaster with marble dust and develop a lightweight material with a stonelike sheen.
Cast or draw-formed ornaments prove easier and cheaper to make than carved stone or wood.
Colonial Americans use wood to
imitate stone columns, quoins, and balustrades. At George Washington's Mount Vernon, builders lace the paint with sand to heighten the deception.
Wood-graining, marbleizing, and trompe l'oeil become wildly popular as mass-produced paints become widely available.
Embossed linoleum simulates elaborate bas-relief plasterwork on walls and ceilings. (below)
Thin sheets of plastic, molded to resemble wood siding, promise an end to exterior painting.
Porcelain 'stone' tiles
Unglazed, pigmented ceramics are polished or textured to look like stone, but are stronger and lighter.
Looks Like Red-Cedar Shakes
But It's Really Recycled Tires
These rubber shakes — a blend of recycled tires, plastics, hemp, and flax — shrug off hail, rot, and people walking on them. The 50-year warranty surpasses that of any roofing made from trees. When they wear out, just recycle them again.
Reality Check: Fade to gray in the sun, just like wood, but lack the same pleasing randomness.
Cost: $2.85 per square foot, 50 percent more than cedar but 50 percent faster to install.
Where to Find It
Authentic Roof by Crowe Building Products Ltd.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wood bracket, ornamental plaster medallion:
Style Solutions, Inc.
James Hardie Siding Products
Mission Viejo, CA
Red cedar shakes:
Chatham, Ontario, Canada
Klamath Falls, OR
Carved stone balustrade:
Melton Classics Inc.
Cellular PVC beadboard:
Verona Marble Company, Inc.
Outwater Plastics Industries Inc.
Hy-lite acrylic blocks
Hy-Lite Products Inc.