Master of Illusion


Master of Illusion:
Master decorator and special effects expert Martin Green is the Master of Illusion who knows a thing or two about timber 

Master decorator and special effects expert Martin Green is the Master of Illusion who knows a thing or two about timber

Wood graining is a faux finishing technique. It’s a decorative style that falls in and out of fashion with some degree of regularity. We tend to think of it as an alternative to the real thing whether that’s wood or stone. In some respects the motivation behind its use is no different from using a more expensive veneer over a cheaper wood, the intention being to either impress or deceive. The fact is that wood graining when done well is often much harder to do than laying down veneer. The full repertoire of wood graining will include several species of wood – oak (Quercus robur) being the most popular – and a dozen or more recognisable stones, such as travertine and marble.
Oak has a very recognisable look even to the untrained eye. Its distinctive appearance resonates quality and durability and although a layman may not be aware of the terms ‘quartersawn’ or ‘crown cut’ they will be familiar with the appearance of both and as such they are the base note features to capture when replicating oak. These bold features also make it one of the easier effects to produce.
Like general painting there are two media that you can use for wood graining, water-based and oil. And although they have different characteristics and working properties there are no real advantages
to using one medium over the other in terms of appearance.
The principles are much the same but I would recommend gaining confidence with one set of products first before experimenting with the other. In warm conditions especially, water-based products dry quicker than oils and this can be an advantage if you are painting a small area. Oils, on the other hand, will stay ‘live’ for longer and allow more time to manipulate the various layers. In both cases it is not always necessary to overcoat the grain effect with a transparent varnish or sealer. 

Petworth House
Along with some fine Grinling Gibbons carvings there’s a great example of large scale grain painting in the medieval Chapel at Petworth House in West Sussex. The pews, alter, alcoves and canopy are all decorated with a faux walnut (Juglans regia) looking grain effect. I say walnut because there is a definite attempt to imitate a burr pattern on nearly all of the framed panels. The finisher, however, wasn’t well schooled in cabinet work as he also created the illusion of burr stiles and rails to the frames, something that would be most unwise to attempt for real.

The restored medieval Chapel of Petworth House

Getting started
In this article I’m going to work through the process of creating two types of very recognisable oak, crown cut with an obvious cathedral pattern and quartersawn complete with radial medullary rays. As it’s a relatively small area, about 400 x 800mm, I’m going to be using the water-based method. The first step is to prepare your panel with a base coat of paint in a neutral buff colour in a satin finish. Take care of any defects such as pin holes or cracks beforehand as you won’t be able to address them easily afterwards. I recommend three full coats applied as smooth as possible. For a light oak use a warm ochre colour. If you’re at all unsure veer towards light rather than dark. The next step is to apply a coat of glazing medium, such as Proceed. Keep an amount of this in a paint kettle close by as you will return to it frequently. It’s now time to select from a range of paint toners from which to work with. For oak these will typically be shades of brown such as raw sienna and raw umber. Drop a small quantity onto a palette board and mix a small amount from each with a glazing brush. You don’t need to mix all the colour at once, just take a small amount of each of them and work them into an opaque paint solution with some more glazing medium. Apply a thin but even layer in linear strokes onto the area of the panel you are working on to emulate the direction of the grain. Concentrate on working a small area at a time and think in terms of the joinery
that may be appropriate for the design.

Apply a clear coat of glazing medium onto your base colour

Keep a pot of glazing medium on hand

The two main ingredients for a light oak grain effect are acrylic paint colours and glazing medium

Be prepared to unleash the artist in you

Mix what you need as you need it

A thin even coat in the direction of the grain

Primary features
To produce a crown cut pattern, take a spalter brush and make an arc in the glaze at the base of the panel. You’ll find you get the best results if you adopt a loose and random approach to these details. Hold the brush between finger and thumb, be positive with the stroke making light contact. Using the corner of a piece of unfinished cork scrub away a small area of the glaze in an arc that roughly follows your initial brushstroke. Keep the strokes short and in line with the grain of the panel. If your arc isn’t perfect, don’t panic, those found on real wood aren’t either just observe any irregularity and duplicate it accordingly to produce a series of cathedral arcs towards the centre of the panel, stretching them out as you go. There’s no need to create lines down to the base at this point. As the arcs become sharper towards the middle you may decide to replicate the pattern from the top of the panel. When the arcs are complete you can now introduce thin lines from the ends of the arcs to the top and bottom of the panel with the exception of one that runs the entire length of the panel on each side of the cathedrals. Don’t rule out having to add more glaze if you need to. However random your stroke pattern is it will still look a little contrived so with a soft badger bristle brush dust over the entire panel to blur the harsh lines left behind by the cork rubber. Be careful not to remove too much of the glaze. 

Relax your grip for a light touch

Small pieces of cork make great rubbers

Work within the lines

A long soft badger bristle brush is an essential

Gently wipe arcs into the coloured glaze

Vary the shape each time

Give the cathedrals some foundations

Increase the effect
Now turn your attention to the area on each side of the cathedral pattern, you’ll notice it still has the appearance of brush lines. This is a good opportunity to vary the tonal appearance of the panel by intensifying or diluting the colour of the glaze. Just return to your mixing palette and adjust your original glaze mix or add a new colour. Use a small handful of coarse burlap in a single stroke to wipe over the glaze and create a more realistic grain pattern. Spreading your fingers apart and therefore creating areas on uneven pressure will generate light and dark areas that run parallel to one another albeit not in
a straight line. Coarse open weave burlap is best if you can find it. Fine sacking material does also work but benefits from a little shredding and roughing up.
Over-graining is the process used to further enhance the groundwork of your panel. Use a fine metal comb to make confident but rapid flicks across the entire panel in the approximate direction of the grain. This introduces the ticking effect found in oak while softening any hard brush lines that may not have already been touched. In some circumstances it will help to vary the effect by first dipping the tip of the comb into some dark colour. Follow up with another soft dusting with the badger brush and you have just created your first faux panel.

Coarse or open weave burlap

Drag the burlap across the glaze

Fine toothed metal comb

Flick across the surface to introduce flecking and break down sharp lines

Defects as decoys
Just as real wood often comes with defects as standard you can introduce a few of your own to avoid the unrealistic appearance of perfection. Use a fine artist’s brush and solid colour to paint in knots or cracks. Flick a spalter brush across the grain to create subtle ripples. Follow up with the badger brush if need be to soften the effect.

Ripples aren’t a problem

The occasional blemish can work wonders

Waney edged timber isn’t a problem

Lines of distinction
Medullary rays are a common feature of quartersawn oak and are a good way to show contrast in a series of panels. Begin by laying down a thin but even coat of coloured glaze onto a base colour as before. Use the burlap to generate some random but linear grain direction. Then, using a rubber to wipe away some of the glaze, create a series of medullary rays that appear to generate from a single point. In real wood these often appear to cross the direction of grain on the board. On their own they look a bit stark so take up a piece of burlap and lighten some areas of the glaze. I find a good technique is to group the rays around a faded area or use it as a point from which to radiate the pattern. Over-grain the panel with a metal comb as before to introduce some flecking and soften with the badger brush. You’ve just created a quartersawn panel that most cabinetmakers would fight over.

Straight grain with burlap for quartersawn

Over-grain with a metal comb to add contrast

Wipe away glaze to create medullary rays

Randomly concentric

Over-grain with a metal comb to add contrast

Consider appropriate joinery to set out the panel

All the materials used in this article were sourced from Brewers Decorator Centres – – but any professional trade decorating supplier should have these items.


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