Faux Finish Opens Doors to Possibilities

By Dorothy V. Malcolm

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Article first appeared in “Home Improvement,” Fall 2001, CNC/Herald Media Publishing, Boston.

Feel like your walls are crowding in on you? Fed up with the color? Bored with the view from your sofa or dining table? Well, take heart, because there are several solutions.

Any designer will tell you the fastest, most effective and least expensive way to get a brand new look is with color — paint. While most of us have rolled-out a wall or ceiling in our time, there’s one artistic endeavor that some are hesitant to try — faux finishes — those fabulous vertical, two-dimensional tricks that add so much pizzazz to a room.

Faux finishes are nothing new. They’ve been around for centuries. There’s marbling, stippling, sea-sponging, color-washes, and perhaps the most popular faux finish of all, wood graining. Nothing takes the visual chill off a room like wood. But wood can be expensive and some may just prefer to try their hand at improving nature and create the wood and grain themselves.

Wood is not static, it’s alive and breathing, but like most things that grow old—the look of it, its complexion so to speak—tends to fade. Besides, not all wood was born with great beauty. And like ordinary good looks, all over the universe, man will always try to improve upon it.And so it is with art and wood: if we don’t like the grain and color of the wood, we are free to create one we do like!

You have a decorating project in mind. You’d gladly annihilate all the mind-numbing off-white walls in order to add the rich patina of wood instead.Yes, you can pay artists the big bucks to do it for you (with little margin for error) but there are probably more do-it-yourselfers willing to risk a try.

In order for rank amateurs to do it properly, relatively speaking, we contacted a painting and decorating contractor whose company spans more than 130 years of experience the family owned and operated firm of J.W. Graham, Painters and Decorating Contractors of Weymouth and Holbrook, just a few miles south of Boston, MA. According to owner, Joe Vitello feels that some faux finishes are best left to the professionals but encourages people to try their hand at it if they’re willing “to learn, make mistakes, and experiment a little.”

“It’s best to practice on a board, plywood or something inexpensive, and try a few strokes, some graining and combing,” Vitello said. See if it’s a project you want to pursue. If not, call in the experts. But if you do make it a DIY project, stick with it and don’t expect perfection the first time around, just try to enjoy the process,” he said.

A finished oak door can cost as little as $700 for the most basic door and can skyrocket from there. A metal door, on the other hand, probably won’t be much more than $400 and Vitello explained that working on an old wood or metal door is a good place to start.

So how do we get a metal door or a beat-up existing door (or wall) to look like a million? To start, wood-graining kits can be bought in any paint store, artist supply store, and larger hardware stores. There’ll be a graining comb that’s used to create the striated effect, those lines within the wood that span the length of it. And the graining roller is made precisely to affect the random swirls that occur naturally in wood grain.

Vitello further explained, “The method is a four-step process that should be followed precisely, especially when first starting out, in order to get a decent result.” He strongly recommends studying the formations in natural wood, the striations (lines) and swirls that occur naturally in real wood.

Step 1. Sand until smooth, your door or wall or craft item to be finished. Wash, rinse off and allow to dry thoroughly. Apply a “low sheen or satin” (but not flat), oil-base primer/ base coat. Let that dry thoroughly — about 24 hours.

Step 2. Lightly sand again with about #220-grit sandpaper. Brush or vacuum off the wood dust.

  • With a natural-bristle brush, stroke on the oil-base glaze (the wood-graining liquid). Ask the paint or hardware store clerk to tint it a darker shade than the base coat/background color.
  • If you want your door, wall or craft object to look like oak, then choose a beige or tan background color for the primer/base coat.
  • For a darker finish, like mahogany, choose a light, reddish-brown shade for the primer/base coat background color.
  • For walnut, go with a medium-brown background color-base coat.
  • While still wet — let the art begin!

  • Remember, the graining comb creates the striated effect, those lines found within natural wood that spans its length...and
  • The graining roller is made precisely to affect the random swirls that occur naturally in wood.
  • Utilize the “wood graining technique” with the comb and roller that comes in the kit. Lightly apply the comb to the wet surface of your door or wall and gently drag it downward.
  • NOTE: If it doesn’t look right or good to you, promptly wipe it off with a clean, lint-free cloth. Oil-base paint is forgiving when a mistake is made because it takes longer to dry and set than water-base paints.

  • You can alternate too, comb-swirl-comb-swirl, to get a natural, richly-grained look.
  • Keep experimenting with the comb and the graining roller until you discover a grain/look you find appealing.
  • Continue in a “randomly consistent” pattern, but remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect to look natural.
  • Let dry thoroughly, 15-24 hours.
  • Step 3. Don’t forget to lightly sand again, between coats, with #220 grit sandpaper. Brush or vacuum off dust.

  • Next comes the “blending liquid.” This is a semi-gloss, oil-base varnish that’s tinted with universal colors (your choice, have the clerk tint it for you). This interesting part of the process mellows the wood and makes it appear much more organic — it literally blends the base coat with the graining coat, sort of like morphing the varnish into an integrated whole fashioning the look of natural wood and grain.
  • Apply with a brush (natural bristles).
  • Let dry thoroughly, 15-24 hours.
  • Step 4. Again, lightly sand between coats with about a #220-grit sandpaper. Brush or vacuum off dust.

  • Apply a clear, oil, semi-gloss or high-gloss varnish. If it’s a door or wall that sees a lot of traffic, you may want to apply another coat of clear, oil-base varnish.
  • NOTE: The higher the gloss the greater the durability.

  • Let dry thoroughly, about 24 hours.
  • Boston-based contractor and master painter Joe Vitello recommends: “Use a gentle touch. And don’t forget to always lightly-sand and clean-off between coats.” He suggests working with poplar as a good wood to experiment with because it’s inexpensive and lends itself beautifully to wood faux finishing. “Poplar can end up looking like a dead-ringer for oak, mahogany or cherry. It’s a great wood to work with.” He also recommends explaining clearly and thoroughly to the paint store clerk exactly what it is you hope to achieve with your DIY faux finish project.

    With patience, a little practice, and the need for the natural beauty of wood to grace your surroundings, a wood-grain faux finish may be just the decorating project to tackle this fall.

    All material produced and maintained by Dorothy Malcolm dba Verbatim-Ink.   Not to be reproduced without permission.