The ancient craft of creating the look of real wood with paint is making a timely comeback
Faux bois becoming popular for environmental reasons and because it’s cheaper than exotic woods
Gail Redshaw was facing a dilemma: The back stairs in her 1840s house in Oakville, which she purchased from her grandmother, were worn and in desperate need of a facelift.
However, they were painted with an unusual technique called faux bois — where paint is used to create wood grain — and finding an artist familiar with the process would be difficult.
But when she found out the front doors of her church were recently painted with a faux wood grain, she quickly contacted the contractor.
David Bambury painted the steel doors at Munn’s United Church in faux bois, an ancient technique that dates back to the Egyptians. He learned the craft from his father, Phil Bambury, who is retired but still works occasionally with his son matching colours and wood grains.
“Since wood was scarce in the desert, people would wood grain clay pots and other objects to look like rare woods,” David says. “During the 1800s in Europe, wood graining peaked. A lot of forests had been cut down, so the art of wood graining grew in order to meet the demand for the look of wood.”
The elder Bambury says that the “main issue of graining perhaps is it’s more relevant today than it was years ago. Environmental people are worried about chopping down trees. Commodities are being exhausted. Wood grainers can take a steel door and give it an exotic wood finish like teak from Burma or a redwood from Indonesia.”
David says that his father learned how to wood grain in Wales in the 1940s, when almost every painting company had a wood grainer on staff, who would distinguished himself from the other painters by wearing a bowler hat. Phil adds that wood graining was a very exclusive club with nobody else allowed on the job while the grainer worked.
“In 1943, when the war was on, I left school and became an apprentice to a general contractor,” recalls Phil. “He was well into his 70s and had started graining in the 1800s. So I learned the old-fashioned ways as well as the modern ways of wood graining.
“We used to use crystals mixed with water for over painting. Today’s latex products are more convenient. The old-fashioned way was more realistic but took longer.”
David Bambury recalls his father telling him that most wood grainers had their own secret recipes and tools and one of the most common ingredients was stale beer.
“One of the grainers my dad apprenticed with would tell the customer to have a pint or two ready when he arrived to grain the door,” says Bambury. “He would use about two ounces for brush graining and drink the rest!”
Bambury explains that as graining became more popular, products were developed allowing people to create their own wood grains on objects at home. One of the most common is the graining rocker tool, which is still available at many paint stores.
“The problem with a lot of these tools is they create the same pattern over and over and the work is often done poorly,” he says. “This gave wood graining a bad name and its popularity decreased. Hopefully, if people see how realistic graining can be when it’s done professionally, it will make a comeback.”
Bambury and his father encountered their first job in Ontario 15 years ago. Erindale Presbyterian Church in Mississauga had hired them to strip and refinish the wood frames on their stained glass windows.
“We discovered that the paint on the windows contained lead,” Bambury recalls. “As a healthier and easier alternative, we suggested wood graining over the existing paint with a faux wood grain to match the pews. The results led to more work at the church.
“Soon after we were asked by Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke to wood grain the bar in this historical tavern that had been converted to a museum. There was an original receipt for wood graining of the bar by a painter in the 1800s. To make it as historically accurate as possible, we wood grained the bar to match a sample that was still visible.”
`Hopefully, if people see how realistic graining can be when it’s done professionally, it will make a comeback.’
To get an authentic wood appearance, Bambury works in stages. He sands the surface, paints a base coat, paints the wood grain, and then applies a few protective coats of sealer. He uses a variety of specialized tools including brushes, a flogger, which is a 12-cm horsehair brush, and steel combs that have been around for 100 years. His tools were given to him by his father, who received them during his apprenticeship in Wales. There are also a couple of not-so-specialized tools that come in handy—rags and his thumb.
In addition to the realism wood graining can bring to any surface, there are two other reasons for a growing interest in this art — cost and the lack of disruption it causes.
These were the reasons Dianne and Brad Daniel had Bambury wood grain the front door and staircase of their Oakville home.
“About five years ago, David wood grained our fiberglass front door to look like wood,” says Dianne Daniel. “He did the interior and the exterior in a dark walnut with wood grain features. It truly looks like wood and has stood up very well. Now our door looks different than any other door in the neighbourhood. And it was cheaper than buying a wooden door.”
When it comes to cost, Bambury says a double set of oak front doors would be about $5,000. To wood grain them is $500.
The Daniels were so pleased with their door, that they decided to have Bambury wood grain their natural oak staircase this summer.
“We wanted a dark walnut look but to strip the stairs down … would be a major undertaking,” says Dianne. “David wood grained the staircase in just a few days and there was hardly any disruption. It looks like we have a brand new flight of stairs.”
Phil believes the technique will become increasingly popular as people are made aware of the art, but he worries that there will not be many people able to provide a proper service.
“The process can be simple if you want something to resemble wood,” he says. “It’s much more difficult if you want to copy a wood. That’s the difference between a stainer and a wood grainer.
“And the problem today with training someone is that it takes patience. When I was an apprentice I was supposed to spend part of every evening practicing. I don’t think young people today are interested in doing this.”
You can contact David Bambury at http://www.woodgraining.ca.