Full Chisel Blog

November 15, 2008

Painting & Graining Part II

Filed under: Finishing,Historical Material,Of Interest,Proper Tools,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 8:38 am

Well as promised here is a picture of the tools I use.  I do not have a set of steel graining combs at this moment, I need to order another set.

Painting & Graining Tools

The round brushes at the top are the type used in the nineteenth century, oval and flat brushes are later.  The only flat brushes in the nineteenth century were for graining.  The larger round brushes have bridles on them to hold the bristles tight.  As the brushes wear, the bridle can be removed for additional life.

The Elephant Ear sponge is used for burls, I also grain canvas to look like leather and the sponge work for that as well.  You will notice that I don’t have a feather in my tool arsenal.  People would ask me about that all the time as sometimes the painting and graining is referred to as ‘feather graining’, and there is some association with feathers being used for marbleizing, but I have not seen any old grained pieces that were done with a feather.

The large flat brush it a mottler that is used dry to manipulate the graining to blur or mottle the grain.  Can also be used for the subtle cross graining of interlocking wood like ribbon mahogany.  I also have a wavy mottler that is used for the same purpose.  Its advantage is that it doesn’t leave a straight mark like the flat mottler can.

The roller with the wire handle is used to add flame grain to oak graining.  This simulates the medullary rays of quarter sawn white oak.  Oak graining is done with a slower drying glazing medium made from thinned down spar varnish.  I prefer McCloskey Marine Spar Varnish in Gloss.  I buy the gloss because it does not skin over as fast as the semi-gloss or matt versions.  I can also make it semi-gloss or matt by adding whiting (calcium carbonate).  This is a subtractive process.

The varnish is thinned with a bit of boiled linseed oil and turpentine to which I add burnt umber dry powdered pigment.  It is applied to the surface with a brush or rag, the surface just needs to be covered with a thin coat of the graining medium.  I then will dip deeper into the jar and get some more pigment on the brush or rag and make a few streaks of darker color.  I might also wipe a bit off of certain areas to imitate natural changes in the wood. 

I then go over it with steel graining combs, first straight along the surface and then a second pass at a slight angle.  This makes a very real looking oak.  You can also manipulate the combs to introduce curly grain as well.  I always hold the combs skew to the surface, much like using a hand plane.  Once I am happy with the look I use the flame grain roller to introduce the quartersawn flecks.  The roller squishes the graining medium out of the way and the lighter base coat shows through.  I may then work over the surface with a mottler to further enhance the look

The brushes on the lower left are all pencil-over-grainers.  The one in the center is a shop made version taking a cheap bristle brush and removing a lot of the bristles.  They are called pencil over-grainers because in the nineteenth century small round paint brushes were called pencils.  I can use these to apply graining (additive) or I can use them to manipulate the graining medium (subtractive).  I also hold these at a skew.

By skewing the combs or brushes, you can vary the spacing of the lines.  Combs are worked over the entire surface from one end to the other with the comb in contact the entire time.  The over-grainers are not used in that way but only periodically touch the surface, so there are no solid lines on the surface.

The rollers on the right hand corner are called ‘Checkering Rollers’ and are a series of serrated wheels with spacers and are used in an additive process for putting on very fine grain lines.  They are used in conjunction with a brush that charges the wheels with graining medium and transfer long dashes along the surface.  The one on the far right is a new model, they are available in a couple of sizes.  The larger checker roller is an antique from England and has a much looser axle, so it will go over moldings, this is a sweet tool, I had to pay a lot for this one, cost me $85.00.

There are other tools out there, Badger brushes, floggers, etc.  I have seen people use floggers but haven’t bought one for some reason, I probably should have one as they are a neat looking brush.  They are used to manipulate the grain, they have long loose hairs or bristles that flop around as you flog the surface.




  1. Stephen,
    Are any of these tools available commercially or did you make them all? I’ve been looking for large round brushes like those at the top left but haven’t found anything. I’ve thought of trying to make one but haven’t attempted to yet.


    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — November 16, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

  2. The only question you didn’t answer, Stephen, was were you learned all of this stuff. You are like a walking, talking encyclopedia.

    Comment by Mitchell — November 16, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

  3. Bob,

    All but the handled pencil over grainers are available, the small ones are still on the market, as are the mottlers and floggers. Steel graining combs run about $30.00 and the round paint brushes are available from Lee Valley. They are French and available in larger sizes than LV offers but I don’t know where to get the real big ones.


    Well it started about 30+ years ago when I started restoring local antiques. Out West here there were no hardwoods to speak of so everything was made of pine and painted and grained to imitate fancy woods and stone. So, I started studying the old painted finishes and figured out how it was done. When I was much younger back in the 60’s I had the opportunity to see an old master painter, do some touch up on some large ‘marble’ columns in a Hotel my father managed. I watched him for an hour or so and just filed that information away.

    Then it was a matter of just replicating what the originating craftsmen did, with the tools and materials available to them during the time period. I also studied grain patterns on real wood and examined extant examples to copy.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 17, 2008 @ 7:00 am

  4. Thanks Stephen! The round brushes at Lee Valley are very reasonably priced as well. I would expect to pay more for a top quality brush. What sizes do you recommend or use the most for furniture sized work?

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — November 17, 2008 @ 7:13 am

  5. Bob,

    I bought all sizes they had available, but in one order I got a brush with its original cardboard display and it listed even larger sizes than LV offers. I have not pursued that as the large brush is fine, unless I was going to paint a house.

    These brushes hold an enormous amount of paint, with a charge you can paint for quite a while and it cuts a fine line. I would suggest the smaller ones for furniture.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 17, 2008 @ 7:20 am

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