Cait Whitson is a self confessed paintgeek who has run her own company since the age of 20 and now based in Perth, Scotland happily working at producing and teaching great decorative paint finishes all over the country (and the world if given half a chance). Here she gives her insights into the history and techniques of Mahogany wood graining.
I have always loved Mahogany and it is my favourite wood to imitate. The variety of tones and patterns are somewhat incredible. These enormous trees sometimes reaching 150 feet in height and 10-12 feet in diameter have been favoured by furniture makers and construction woodworkers since its introduction to Europe and North America and although good quality mahogany becomes rarer each year, the prized beautiful veneer and solid wood is still highly sought after.
While most of us think of mahogany being used in fine furniture, here you can see it used in construction in a house built on Petra Island to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original designs:
Mahogany has been a favourite of woodworkers and cabinet makers partly because of the freedom from waste. It is possible to supply figured timber from the mahogany tree in substantial quantities and at only a nominally more expensive rate than the plain timber; superiority in lengths and widths with fewer defects than other timbers mean that mahogany offers large clear cuttings that are free from sap and these are comparatively easy to finish to a smooth surface make it a much loved quality material. Alongside that Mahogany has a rare and permanent beauty and stability.
The Golden Age of Mahogany was during the 18th Century and the first quarter of the 19th Century as master craftsmen Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and the brothers Adam shaped the furniture that most of us admire today and still live with.
Prior to that European furniture was heavier as a rule and made principally from native wood. Until about 1725 the cost of importing foreign lumber for furniture was a prohibitive luxury. Before that of course came the discovery of the timber and its introduction. The first recorded use of the timber outside of the forests in which it grew was near to its native home during the 16th Century and it was one of the New World treasures brought back to Europe and into North America by early explorers, pirates and buccaneers. When Cortez saw ships being made from mahogany in Santo Dominico he immediately commissioned his own and likewise Sir Walter Raleigh adopted it for his ships. There is a rather romantic tale of Raleigh returning to England with the first examples of the timber and because Queen Elizabeth admired it so much he, in his customary fashion, immediately commissioned the ships carpenters to fashion a table in the timber for her. If this is true it is the first example of the timber being used in England
Crotch Mahogany graining by Cait Whitson credit – Cait Whitson
Graining for me is always about looking at the real thing. Marble you can often have a bit of artists licence with but with woods you need to capture the character of the timber well and most often I find I am matching to something existing, so you need to get practice at some of the characteristics of the wood. Mahogany has a fleck in the background, usually quite regular,
Flat Cut Mahogany Credit – The Hobbit House Inc
and the heart wood of the flat cut tends to be regular and even unlike say walnut which has a much more wayward nature.
Flat Cut Heartwood Credit – The Hobbit House Inc
A great place to check out images of any timber is Hobbit House. (http://hobbithouseinc.com/personal/woodpics/) There you will see all the different cuts displayed in untreated form. The common solid wood cuts used in construction are mainly plain flat cut with a narrow heart or wide heart and plain stripe cut quartered. Veneers used for decorative furniture and panels will be broken stripe, wide broken stripe, swirl and crotch cut as well as the flat cut heart wood. Occasionally you might see some plum pudding or blister figure. For instruments like violins and guitars the fiddle back and mottle and fiddle back are used. The Mahogany Association plates from their book “The Mahogany Book” are a great reference to the different types of figure http://thompsonmahogany.com/the-mahogany-book-plates/ It is worth getting this book as a handy reference.
Mahogany comes from all over the tropical world and so colours and variations are many, likewise the methods of imitating mahogany in paint are numerous. I remember being told when I first started in the decorative painting world that the base coat colour for mahogany was British Standard 04D44 as if this was an immutable fact. This is a very red colour and I don’t believe I have used that colour again in all my days of imitating the timber. There is no “definitive” for any timber, it is all about what you are trying to imitate.
TIP #1 Finding the right tone for the base coat colour is dependent on how much work you are going to do – i.e. how many layers the budget can afford. If you are only doing one layer then choose a colour just slightly lighter than the finish you are matching, 2 layers look for the paler colours in the timber and choose one of those…3 layers go for the palest colour you can see or a little paler. I tend to start with golden brown and nutty peach colours and I tend to add red into the glaze rather than start with a red base if I want a redder. I use acrylic eggshell these days as a ground for my graining as a rule but oil based is fine, just remember to degrease with Fullers Earth or similar
TIP #2 My system of choice for mahogany has always been a beer or gouache glaze combined with an oil based glaze. The beer glaze is made with thinned “ale” and pigment; alternatively gouache or UK “poster colour” can be used. The same term in USA is not a suitable medium. You could also use a quick drying acrylic medium – even a thinned varnish to work the quicker layers in. These latter mediums can be tinted with powders, acrylic artists paints and Universal Stainers. The oil glaze that I make is a mix of 1 part raw linseed oil; 3 parts white (mineral) spirits; plus about 10% terebine driers (or Japan driers in USA) Your mixes will behave differently depending on your environment – I might make a very different mix should I live and work in Arizona, than the one I make in sunny Scotland. So play with what works for you and your area. There are many variations of these 2 recipes, it is worth hunting around to find what works for you best.
TIP#3 The graining colour added to the oil is usually made from Vandyke Brown, Black, Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber; other colours that may be considered are Raw Umber, Venetian Red, and Crimson and I use a high quality artists oil colour – my preferred brand is Mussini Schminke.
TIP#4 Tools are as below – this is a selection of tools that would enable you to achieve most woods. The main ones you use in mahogany are – flogger, mottle, overgrainer, writer, softener (most usually a badger but a hogs hair I use too), along with some rubbing in brushes and a varnish brush (I prefer a glider for this to finish.
Tools for Graining and Marbling
The layers of water and oil based material work and are efficient because the oil doesn’t work up the water based and vice versa, whereas working extensively oil over oil, may soften the layer below and results in an extended dry time making the project less commercial. The way you combine the layers is really down to the look desired and the budget. I will show you a few methods I have done in the past.
TIP #5 First of all flogging – flogging is what creates the open pore flecks that are characteristic of this type of wood. You use a flogging brush. Paint on the medium of your choice and then hold the flogger loosely as shown below. Do not grip it
Holding a flogging brush – this is a nifty little one useful for door edges and narrow areas
Rock the brush and firmly flap the bristle onto the surface to make the bristles imprint into the medium. Sometimes you need to let a medium ‘set up’ which means dry a little till it is less wet, and that way the medium will hold the imprint. Work in the direction that the bristle is pointing. So if you have the brush in the position that it is in the photograph you work bottom to top…which doesn’t feel intuitive I find for the beginner.
Here is a flogged surface in oil on hand rails and the finished product. The oil allows me to blend 2 colours together more easily and as seen on the LSs rail and the next two images show the water based layer over the top, finished and varnished. I degreased the oil surface with Fullers Earth to allow the oil layer to accept the gouache/beer layer and then I just varnished with a solvent borne gloss varnish
Oil flogged surface with gouache/beer overgraining
TIP#6 My next trick is to use flecks of paint rather than flogging – spatter the surface with a water based medium (water based for speed of drying – you could use anything that will not be reactivated by your next layer).
TIP #7 Soften with the badger in the direction of the grain. I find that holding the brush perpendicular to the surface allows huge control of any medium…try it. Keep the handle perpendicular to your surface and allow the bristles to do the work, you can be quite rough but if you maintain that perpendicular status of the handle, you will be able to manipulate the work with extreme skill.
TIP #8 Graining over the top – to create the figure. Whichever medium you use to create the heartwood the tool used is usually a mottler to create the fine heartwood lines. I find that holding the tool so the bristles lie at an angle that on a clock would be 1 o’clock and 7 o’clock and to keep it there from the start of the movement to the end. Move from the heart out through the figure and then soften from the heart out. This gives you the foundation for the cathedral grain and you can tweak it and pick out individual lines to empahisise, soften some more than others.
Creating the figure graining
Figuring after initial softening
Examples of figuring in real mahogany
TIP #9 When it comes to having one piece of wood cross another, try this little trick. Take some P80 grit sandpaper and lay it across the completed work, the grit side down. Then use this as a mask. You will get clean and realistic timber joints without leaving one to dry and doing the next at another time
Use P80 sandpaper as a mask
TIP #10 Keep it simple, not every piece of architectural mahogany has to have a heavy and complex figure to it. This tends to be the work on furniture or key pieces like doors, don’t overcomplicate the job, you need to make some money!!!
Example of Graining by Cait Whitson
Example of Graining by Cait Whitson
But when you get the opportunity to go for it……..
Book-matched grained panel in a department store by Cait Whitson