Wise Howell: Wood graining

Wise Howell: Wood graining

© Svetliy / Adobe Stock

This month, Jeff Howell looks at the lost art of wood graining:

I love seeing old hand-painted signs and adverts on brick walls. They are a reminder of a time when things were expected to be more permanent than they are now. Never mind printing a few business cards, or signwriting the side of the truck – before the First World War when builders wanted serious publicity, they would have it painted across the whole side of a building.

So when a certain Mr C Holdaway advertised himself as Painter, Grainer & Decorator, I doubt he imagined that the ad would still be there over 100 years later. But there it still is, in the London Borough of Lewisham. Mr Holdaway certainly had good value from whatever he paid for the large hand-painted sign high up on the flank wall of a terrace of shops.

I especially like the fact that Mr Holdaway was advertising his skills as a grainer. This was a common profession in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when it was fashionable to disguise cheap softwood doors or furniture by counterfeiting the grain patterns of more expensive hardwoods onto their surfaces.

In fact it wasn’t only softwoods that were disguised in this way. For example, you might have occasionally leaned your elbow on the bar of a posh Victorian pub, admiring the beautiful mahogany timber. But quite often those ornate curved bars were made from fibrous plaster, with the mahogany-style graining painted on afterwards.

Well, I shouldn’t really say “painted”. The grainer’s technique was (and still is) far more skilled than that. A base coat of orange or brown is followed by a coat of “scumble glaze” – a thin oily mixture that is spread out using various brushes, sponges, rags and combs, to imitate the grain of rare and exotic hardwoods.

Sadly, the traditional trade of graining is now a dying one. Very few of your clients will be aware of it, even though it has a history traceable back three thousand years to the ancient Egyptians.

And yet, the concept of imitating wood grain on other materials is still alive. For example, uPVC windows and doors are routinely offered with an optional wood-grain finish. Fibre-cement cladding planks likewise come with an embossed wood-grain effect.

And of course we are all familiar with the cheap laminate flooring that looks like timber but is really plastic.

So why should the ancient craft of wood graining be viewed any differently from these more recent forgeries? Well, for me, it’s the creativity and handiwork involved. If Mr Holdaway grained a door for you, it would be unique, because no two doors would be exactly the same.

And the same can be said of the painted adverts on the sides of buildings. They are all individual, and a great reminder of a bygone time.

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