True Faux

Wood, stone, and plaster look-alikes so convincing you'd swear they're the real thing

Photo by Keller & Keller Photography
1 ×

 

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.







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.







2 ×

Exterior Look-Alikes

 

Exterior Look-Alikes

faux slate shingles
Photo by William A. Boyd, Jr.
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.
3 ×

Interior Look-Alikes

 

Interior Look-Alikes

Faux Wooden Bracket
Photo by William A. Boyd, Jr.
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.
4 ×

5,000 Years of Faux

 

5,000 Years of Faux

Faux Wood Siding
Photo by William A. Boyd, Jr.
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.
c. 3000 B.C.
Wood veneer
Egyptian craftsmen cover furniture with precious wood veneers, creating the first known faux material.

c. 30 B.C.
Stone veneer
Romans use their marbles, sheathing rough temples with finely polished stone slabs.

1400s
Scagliola
Italian craftsmen one-up their Roman ancestors, mixing plaster and pigment in an imitation of marble.

1500s
Venetian plaster
Artisans on the island mix lime plaster with marble dust and develop a lightweight material with a stonelike sheen.

1700s
Decorative plaster
Cast or draw-formed ornaments prove easier and cheaper to make than carved stone or wood.

1700s
Imitation stone
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.

1800s
Faux painting
Wood-graining, marbleizing, and trompe l'oeil become wildly popular as mass-produced paints become widely available.

1870s
Lincrusta
Embossed linoleum simulates elaborate bas-relief plasterwork on walls and ceilings. (below)



1950s
Vinyl siding
Thin sheets of plastic, molded to resemble wood siding, promise an end to exterior painting.

1980s
Porcelain 'stone' tiles
Unglazed, pigmented ceramics are polished or textured to look like stone, but are stronger and lighter.



5 ×

Where to Find It

 

Where to Find It

Faux Red-Cedar Shakes
Photo by William A. Boyd, Jr.
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.
Slate shingles:
Authentic Roof by Crowe Building Products Ltd.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
905-529-6818
www.authenticroof.com

Wood bracket, ornamental plaster medallion:
Style Solutions, Inc.
Archbold, OH
800-446-3040
www.stylesolutionsinc.com

Wood siding:
James Hardie Siding Products
Mission Viejo, CA
888-542-7343
www.jameshardie.com

Red cedar shakes:
Enviroshake
Chatham, Ontario, Canada
519-380-9265
www.enviroshake.com

Porch flooring:
Tendura
Troy, AL
800-836-3872
www.tendura.com

Knotty-alder door:
Jeld-wen
Klamath Falls, OR
800-468-3667
www.jeld-wen.com/auroadoors

Carved sandstone:
Thunderstone LLC
Lincoln, NE
402-420-2322
www.castone.com

Carved stone balustrade:
Melton Classics Inc.
Lawrenceville, GA
800-963-3060
www.meltonclassics.com

Stone wall:
Owens Corning
Napa, CA
800-255-1727
www.culturedstone.com

Solid-wood flooring:
Barefoot Flooring
Troy, PA
570-297-3200
www.barefootflooringinc.com

Cellular PVC beadboard:
Azek Trimboards
Moosic, PA
877-275-293
www.azek.com

Solid marble:
Agglosimplex series
Verona Marble Company, Inc.
Dallas, TX
800-397-6654
www.vmcind.com

Milled woodwork:
Flex Trim
Redlands, CA
800-356-9060
www.flextrim.com

Glass block:
Outwater Plastics Industries Inc.
Wood-Ridge, NJ
888-688-9283
www.outwater.com

Hy-lite acrylic blocks
Hy-Lite Products Inc.
Beaumont, CA.
800-827-3691
www.hy-lite.com
 
 

TV Listings

Find TV Listing for This Old House and Ask This Old House in your area.