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Fake, and loving it

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Don’t you just hate fake wood-look laminates, plastic, and the worst of all, contact paper? Ugh, they just don’t make things like they used to.

Well, that’s a lie. Fake stuff isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s a longstanding tradition to make things look like what they aren’t. But not – Gasp! – in woodworking, right? The old masters would never stoop to tactics more common to IKEA products than those of a master craftsman, right? Wrong. Master craftsmen have been into fake stuff for centuries; it’s only in modern times that we look upon it with distain.

Case in point: This past weekend I took part in a Living History event in Wheeling, W. Va., commemorating the creation of the state in 1863. The event took place in the beautifully restored Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling. Part of the restoration involved hundreds of panels adorning walls, galleries and massive doors. But this woodworker’s keen eye noticed that the graining – including a lot of quartersawn ray graining – was all faux-painted. I queried the site manager for the Hall on this, and he complimented my good eye but assured me the fakeness was all authentic: The original woodwork also had faux-painted grain back in 1863.

Isolated incident, right? Nope. Last summer my wife and I visited Adena Mansion in Chillicothe, Ohio. The mansion, built in 1806 for a former Ohio governor, is one of the last remaining structures designed by Benjamin Latrobe, a pal of Thomas Jefferson and considered to be the first professional American architect. Dominating the entrance is a set of doors big enough to allow entrance to a Greyhound bus with beautiful quartersawn grain (the doors, that is, not the bus). All fake, and an excellent example of faux painting of the period.

I love natural grain, and you probably do to. I’m betting you go out of your way, as I do, to select stock carefully for just that reason, and to set your work apart from the fake stuff you find at the local bargain-barn furniture stores. Nothing at all wrong with that.

But keep in mind that fake ain’t always bad. And from time to time it pays to admire the fake work of some true masters of the past.

Till next time,


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