Full Chisel Blog

November 14, 2008

Painting and Graining

Filed under: Finishing,Historical Material,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 7:46 am

Bob at Logan Cabinet Shoppe suggested that I do a blog post on painting and graining.  Good idea, so here is a description of the process of painting and graining.  It is also called faux bois (French for False Wood) and marbleizing (to imitate stone) and another process called scagliola (an Italian term for something), which is actual ground up stone in the work.

Demi Lune Side Table

 It actually takes me longer to properly prepare and paint a piece than it does to do the actual graining, which goes quite fast.  The surface should be smooth and the paint applied in the direction of the ‘intended’ grain.  So for cross banding you would apply the paint in that direction.  This will add to the overall look of the piece.  It starts the process by adding a slight texture to the surface, it is more of an optical thing rather than a visual one.

I use only oil based paints (no latex) on my pieces as I want them to last.  I also use an alcohol based paint, the advantage of this is that it dries in minutes.  It is just shellac, alcohol and dry powdered pigments.  In the nineteenth century paint was sold by the pound, indicating that it wasn’t liquid.  Dry powdered pigments can be purchased at any ceramic/pottery supply house and are finely ground.  Do be careful as some of the pigments can be dangerous, red lead, chrome yellow, etc.

The base coat is always the lightest color of the finished graining.  Now this base coat can be quite bright, I have grained mahogany using a bright orange base coat and it turned out very nice.  The bright or lighter base coat reflects through the over graining and adds ‘artificial depth’ to the work, making it more convincing.

Speaking of convincing, here is when the 6 foot rule applies.  If I were to paint an exact copy of a wood like walnut or mahogany, it would only look good from a foot or two, beyond that it looses definition.  What you need to do and what is of the utmost importance is to make the wood a cartoon or caricature, rather than an exact copy.  The grain is exaggerated, so that when viewed from a distance, the first thought is that it is real wood and they never give it a second thought.

I painted and grained an example of walnut that was convincing at 2 feet, but from a distance it just looked brown, not at all like wood.  Years ago, I had a painted and grained Gondola chair in the window of my shop, it had a mahogany crotch painted on the seat.  A fellow stopped by and said that in his 40 years of woodworking he had never seen a piece of crotch mahogany like that one.  I turned the chair over and told him he still hadn’t.  He was surprised.

There are two types of graining that can be done after the piece is painted.  There is the additive process and the subtractive process.  The first adds the graining to the painted substrate with brushes and rollers, this is how I do most of my graining.  The second removes or subtracts the graining medium from the painted ground work, this is used mainly in graining oak.  For the first process I can use the alcohol base paint to make the graining medium.  For the second process I use spar varnish, thinned with oil and turpentine with a pigment (burnt umber for most, black iron oxide for rosewood).

 The tools required are few and most can be easily made in the shop.  I do have some specialized tools made just for graining and they are commercially available.  As for the pigments, I have a limited pallet that works for everything I have ever had to grain.  Black Iron Oxide, Red Iron Oxide (in lieu of red lead), Yellow Ocher, Burnt Umber and Zinc Oxide (instead of white lead), are the main pigments.  I also have a small bottle of Prussian Blue that I can use for blue or green, which I seldom have to make.

I will take some pictures of my graining tools and post them in my next post.



  1. Stephen, that table is incredible! If this wasn’t a post about painting and graining, I’d never believe it was. Thanks for putting this together. I’m going to have to look through your bibliotheque for some references on these techniques. Any suggestions where to start?

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — November 14, 2008 @ 8:25 am

  2. Stephen, if you ever teach a hands on class i’m your first signup. by the way a diffuser over your flash or a bounced light off a card or ceiling will give you a even light on your subject along with a higher shutter speed.
    Dave B

    Comment by Dave — November 14, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  3. Bob,

    The Art of the Painted Finish by Isabell O’Brian (maybe it is O’Neil) is a good book. Also check out the Painting & Graining section on my web site.


    Thanks for the information about the flash, will give it a try. I really should plan a workshop. Where my shop is located I have plenty of room to teach classes. I will let you know.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 14, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

  4. My father-in-law is one of those old world painters who had to apprentice for 5 years before he could call himself a painter. One of the processes he had to have down pat was faux graining. Sadly, his memory is going and he no longer remembers the techniques. Having talked to him about this in the past, he thinks he used to do most of it with a piece of potato sack and a graining comb. I can understand the comb. Its the potato sack I’m having trouble with. Cheers, Mitchell

    Comment by Mitchell — November 14, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  5. Mitchell,

    Too bad he can recall those techniques. I use steel graining combs for oak and it works for walnut if you are careful. As for the potato sack, that would be burlap and that was used both for graining and applying the graining medium. Also the burlap can be rolled up and used endgrain (so to speak) for making burls.

    I have seen pieces that I am convinced were grained entirely with rags, probably burlap.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 14, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress