Discovering this mid-19th century piece in an Iowa antique shop reminded me how important it is to think about the finish for a piece early on, during the planning stage. The builder of this cupboard sure understood this notion. At first glance, it appears the cupboard is made of oak, or maybe ash. But a closer look reveals that the wood grain is actually painted on. That meant the entire cupboard could be built from secondary wood—basswood in this case. Grained finishes were created by applying a light glaze over a dark ground color and manipulating the glaze with brushes, feathers, rags, sponges and other tools to mimic wood figure patterns. Why go to all the trouble—wouldn't it be easier to use oak or cherry or walnut, and apply a simpler finish? In those days, the raw materials may not have been available, or they may have cost more than the labor to apply the finish.
A closer look at the finish reveals that the builder of this cupboard knew how to use the wood's figure to make the piece more attractive. Straight riftsawn figure on structural elements, such as stiles and rails, draws attention to fanciful "cathedral" patterns on panels and drawer fronts. Check out the lower cabinet doors and the frame-and-panel cabinet side (below). Note, too, that the figure painted on the panels indicates single boards. The tall glass door stiles, on the other hand, show plainsawn figure, to add visual interest to the top half of the cupboard.
A successful finish will enhance a piece, just as an handsome molding detail or a beautifully dovetailed drawer will. So, Is this finish successful? In my opinion, it isn't particularly beautiful, and exactly what kind of wood this finish represents is a mystery. But it is striking, and this finish is certainly more interesting than stained or shellacked basswood would be. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.
Do you like this grain-painted finish, or grain-painted finishes in general? Add your comments by scrolling to the bottom of the page. I'm interested to hear what you think. Tim