Now I’m going to ask you to round up some weird stuff if you want to follow along with grain-painting a door. The stuff is actually mundane, not weird, but I’ll call it weird because you’re probably not used to seeing it on the shelf at a home center, or used in the way I’m using it. But it won’t bite you or anything. Never fear.
First, we’re using Kilz primer, the alkyd-based kind, to coat the door. Then we’re getting a pint of raw sienna colorant. It’s the same stuff you see them squirt into your paint cans when you have them mixed at the hardware store. You can buy it in little tubes if you prefer, but we’re not painting doll houses here. Get big pints and slop it around and keep it on the shelf to inspire awe in visitors to your shop. Whoah, this guy buys ink by the barrel, and pigment by the pint. Best not mess with him.
So, how much colorant do you put in there, Sippican? Beats me. I squirt some in until it looks like the desert, and I’m done. Let’s paint (prime) the door with it.
Well, now. That’s sort of a garish color, isn’t it? This is where the meek falter, generally. I’ve ruined my door! Trust me, we’ve not yet begun to ruin the door! The background color for grain painting is supposed to be a kind of blah yellowish tone. If you took all the finish off a piece of woodwork, and removed the grain, this is more or less what it would look like.
The reason we used Kilz primer is because it dries super-quick. You can work on it the same day, just hours apart, if you like. We like. Now we get some glazing liquid. I used to use alkyd glazing liquid for this sort of work, because it had a longer “open” time, but we’re not looking for photographic realism on this job (just looking for grainy photographs lost in seventeen folders scattered all over my computer desktop). I think Brits call it scumble, but any water-based glaze made for decorative finishes will do. You’ll need a second pint of pigment, raw umber. It makes a rich, dark brown, with a vaguely greenish tint in there somewhere.
We start with the muntin bars. If you look at the brush in the paint pot, you can see that it’s suffering from bristles interruptus. It’s a faux finish brush that has every other 1/4″-worth of bristles missing. Officially, it’s called a strie brush. I have boxes filled with arcane brushes like that, in all sizes, because I used to do wild finishes in mansion-y places. You can use a crummy chip brush and not worry too much about it, but a strie brush makes it easier to mimic wood grain because it naturally segments the glaze into something resembling the railroad-track lines of wood grain. You can also flog the glaze while it’s wet. Flogging is simply taking a brush with flexible bristles and beating it up and down on the wet glaze to make what looks like check grains, the little disconnected dashes you see in the grain of woods like oak. We don’ t need to flog the surface, because we’re going to use combs.
You can buy a set of metal combs for graining for short money. You drag them through the wet glaze at oblique angles to the lines made by the strie brush. They very quickly and efficiently make oak-looking grain in the glaze, like in the last picture.
Once the muntin bars are glazed and combed, we’ll work on stiles and rails. Use painter’s tape to cordon off areas where the grain changes directions. The primer is vaguely absorbent, and it’s hard to wipe excess glaze off completely. First you lay on the glaze with the strie brush if you have it, following the direction that the wood would be oriented in. I liked typing “wood would” an inordinate amount. I’ll bet it would give an editor a seizure, if I had one.
Now we’re going deep into the “quick and dirty” portion of our project. You see that piece of cardboard? That’s what we’re using to make grain lines in the glaze. Of course my cardboard is dark brown and covered with lines from a failed grain-painting experiment from decades ago, but you can use any kind of cardboard. Me, when I get my hands on a good piece of cardboard, I hold on to it like grim death. Cut a series of random notches in the edge of the cardboard, wrap a scrap of old T-shirt over the edge, and drag it through the glaze. You vary the angle of the cardboard from perpendicular to the grain to change the spacing of the lines. Wood is seldom completely straight grained, but don’t overdo the squigglyness of it if you want it to look like real wood.
Now we get out the big combs. There’s two bigger ones on display next to the work. Drag them at slight angles to the direction of the grain, and use two different comb spacings to get the broken grain effect of oak.
The grain gets a little harder to mimic on the long side stiles. Those boards on a door usually have what it called heart grain, not just wiggly railroad tracks. Heart grain is what is revealed as wood is cut straight across the width of a tree. You get a kind of sawtooth, or swirling effect in the center. Back in the day, we used to draw the heart grain in with paint brush, like an artist would. Another method was to glaze the panel solid, and then remove the glaze from around the sawtooth lines with your thumb wrapped in cotton cloth. They’re both too much work. We’ll dig out an old graining roller (the black cylinder in the photo), and drag that through the glaze down the center of the panel. You sort of rock it back and forth while you drag it to make the sawtooth shapes you see. You can do it over and over until you get a pattern you like. Just repaint with glaze and start over if you muck it up the first time.
Now is where people usually screw this up. The center of the board is sawtoothed, but the edges shouldn’t be, if you want it to look real. After you fiddle with the graining roller in the center, drag the left and right sides with your notched cardboard scraper to get the wavy parallel line look. Drag the combs through the lines when you’re satisfied with the look of the grain.
OK, now the graining is done. As you can see, the bright yellow background is more subdued at this point. It almost looks like unfinished wood. Now we’ll give it an overglaze, to give the impression that the grain isn’t right on the surface, and to give the door the right shade to match what we have in the house.
I mixed this glaze myself, using TransTint dyes. They’re great stuff. You can put them in any sort of finish. But knowing how to color match from dye, and putting in the right amount, is challenging. If you’re not feeling experimental, you can buy any number of varnish stain products at the home center, and coat your work with one you select, pre-made from a color chart.
So we put the door back in its hole, and the grain looks about right compared to the ropy oak doorframes that surround it. We flipped a coin to choose whether we’d try to match the woodwork in the living room or the hall, and the hall won. Here’s the hallway side.
Not great, but good enough. Hey, maybe that should be our motto around here. It certainly was good enough for that doorway, because we demolished that wall a few years later. More about that in another episode.
[Thanks for reading and commenting. Please recommend Sippican Cottage blog to your internet friends, or regular friends, if you have any.]