Graining—the imitation of wood with paint and glaze—was an early American skill cloaked in secrecy. Expert grainers, who were protective of their techniques, could paint a facsimile of expensive hardwood that was indistinguishable from the real McCoy, giving trim, wainscot, or doors of cheap softwood the appearance of a higher-end material. Today, it’s possible to reproduce graining with a little know-how and practice.
Before You Start
Decide the species of wood you want to imitate. Vertical-grain oak, walnut, or mahogany are fairly simple and can be done with common tools, while imitations of quarter-sawn oak, bird’s-eye maple, or crotch mahogany are more difficult. It’s a good idea to begin on a sample board to see if your glaze is the appropriate color and consistency, and to hone your technique.
Tools & Supplies
- Thinned low-sheen enamel in a light color for the base coat (recommendations: Benjamin Moore’s Richmond Gold for oak, Maryville Brown for walnut, and Burnt Caramel for mahogany)
- Glaze, such as oil-based, heavy-bodied ZAR (Tip: Choose the color at the paint counter by smearing finger dabs over the base color paint chip.)
- Satin varnish or polyurethane
- Sandpaper—either 220-grit or 320-grit wet-and-dry
- 2″ or 2½” trim brush
- Steel graining combs (optional)
- Clean cotton T-shirt rags (for use with steel combs)
- Flogger brush (or any cheap brush with long, floppy bristles)
Apply the base coat as smoothly as possible, brushing it in the direction of the wood grain to diminish brush marks. Two coats are better than one, and thinning the paint helps (use mineral spirits for oil paint, water or Floetrol for latex). Once dry, sand oil-based paint with 220-grit sandpaper, and latex with 320-grit wet-or-dry paper and a little water. Clean the surface with a damp cloth or tack rag.
Brush the glaze evenly over the surface and then out into long, even striations. The glaze is a semi-transparent coating (neither paint nor stain) used to imitate the wood grain. The base coat shows through it, and the grain formed with the glaze “stays put.” For a simple grain pattern, lay the brush over the glaze and press the bristles down with three or four fingers as you pull the brush through the glaze. You can alternate the pattern by wiggling the bristles.
For another simple technique, wrap a piece of cotton rag tightly around the end of a steel comb and pull it across the glaze. Always move at an angle to avoid perfectly straight patterns. Next, add pores by tapping the large flat side of the flogger brush at an angle across the surface.
Once the glaze has completely dried, apply the varnish coat with the grain of the wood. To avoid holidays (skipped areas), work under a light and from a raking angle. Or cross-brush the surface: First apply the varnish at a right angle to the grain, then smooth it out in the other direction. One coat of varnish is usually enough protection. (Use two coats on areas of hard wear.)