Faux Walnut Woodgrain Restoration Project

A Great Old House (a great big challenge)

I received a call from Mark, a real estate investor in Seattle, who said he had a house that needed some faux walnut restored. 

Damaged faux walnut woodgrain ready for restoration.
Faux Walnut, beaten and worn by decades of abuse

The house is a 2 story, 1913 Craftsman. Judging by the deferred maintenance and quality of repairs overall, it had been a rental for at least 20 years, probably much longer. 

This project offered some very unique challenges. The biggest tasks would be damage repair, and developing an approach to matching the original artists style and colors. 

There were lots of small nicks and scratches in the dark faux woodgrain, revealing the very light fir wood underneath.

There were also several larger gauges and chunks from… who knows what, but this damage had to be filled, sanded, primed and base coated before it could be blended in to the surrounding faux walnut. 

The original project was pretty big, including several doors and casings, 8″ baseboards, 3 built-in cabinet sections, many window casings, a mantel and a stairway handrail with matching pickets. 

Home Owner’s Pride

It’s impossible to date the original faux paint work but based on the effort it took, it was done during a period of very proud ownership. 

I believe that, due to color and graining technique variations throughout, it was an amateur effort that took quite a while to complete. 

The originial work was an act of pure love and homeowner pride. I have immense respect for anyone who undertakes such a project and the artist did very nice work. 

Speaking of love and pride; Mark, the fellow who hired me for the project, bought the house in an improving neighborhood to flip. Most investors would have painted over the faux graining. Mark saw it as a potential focal point and a unique feature that would help sell the property. He was both fascinated and impressed with the work, and wanted it restored. 

Faux walnut woodgrain stair skirt and base boards damage
The stair case and entry way were totally trashed. One cannot imagine all the pets, kids, tenants, furniture moves… that hammered this home over the decades.

Needless to say, Mark’s attitude brought me much joy. I agreed to take on the project and made an effort to keep my fees affordable so the work could be preserved. 

Note to pro’s: I rarely reduce my fees for service. When a situation calls for working for less (as in, it simply wouldn’t happen at my normal price), I don’t issue a knee-jerk “NO”. I give some consideration to other possible value. In this case I valued both the restoration of some old art, and a great addition to my portfolio. 

Triage

We decided that the graining on the second floor was too far gone to save. That’s okay because the most impressive work was on the main floor in the entry, living and dining rooms. These areas include the mantel, built-in cabinets, archway and wainscoting. All classic, Mission era Craftsman features. 

The main entry door had delaminated from weather and abuse and was too far gone to save. I suggested that Mark purchase a pre-framed, fiberglass Mission style front door for me to grain in the style of the rest of the faux walnut. Much to my delight, he agreed. 

Note to pro’s: Part of our job is helping the customer with solutions like this. He could have paid his painter to put a solid color on the door, or bought stain-grade at much greater expense (that wouldn’t have matched the faux work). This solution saved money, looks great, and resulted in more paying work for me. Win-win…

Faux walnut woodgrain entry door
New fiberglass entry door grained in the style of the existing faux walnut.

A Little Woodgrain History

Historically, there are 2 overarching camps of faux wood grain: The French camp aims to create very realistic grain, to “fool the eye” (Trompe L’oeil). The Italian style leans more toward very dramatic, bold graining that can be used to cover vast areas (an opera set, for example). 

Another, less often mentioned camp is American Country Graining. This is done using graining heals or rockers, feathers and other makeshift tools. The look is very dramatic, but not very realistic. 

The work in this house lies somewhere between Italian and American Country. No rockers were used, but the artist was not highly trained. Still, they did a great job with simple house painting brushes and wood stains. 

Faux Walnut Grained Door
This door from upstairs was in better shape than the dining room/kitchen door. Still, it took some serious work to bring it back to life.

Tedious, But Worth It

As mentioned, there were several colors used in the original work. Meaning that, as I moved from one panel or board to the next, I’d have to mix new tones for my repair work. It was quite slow and often tedious.

A few times, I found myself spending 30 to 45 minutes mixing color for one small area, only to need all new tones for the next area! 

The upside is that it’s very satisfying to watch something go from trash back to treasure. 

Many of the wainscoting panels in the dining room were covered with scratches and dings. Each little mark had to be individually dotted with dark glaze. 

The work was rewarding, but I was relieved when the final protective acrylic clear coat went on. 

Restore, Not Improve

I was hired to restore the work of another artist, not impose my own technique.

No matter how much I wanted to “fix” aspects of the original graining technique, it was important that I stick with the original scheme. 

This meant duplicating the artists brush strokes, colors and ideas. 

The result is pretty cool and I’m lucky that I got to be involved. 

Takeaways

When I saw how much work would be involved, I considered walking away from this project. It was a lot of work, but, again, I’m glad I saw the value in pushing through. I learned a bunch and had fun in the process. 

Thanks for reading 

Norman Petersen

 

 

 

 

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