What’s that quote again, “Scenic Artists: Painting wood to look like wood… since forever”?
I mean, honestly, if you haven’t transformed CDX Plywood into the finest of Mahogany, can you call yourself a Scenic? Let’s say it’s kind of in our roots, and we all have apron pockets full of recipes, techniques, and cool tools for creating our faux wood effects.
Today we will look at just one of our most common faux wood tools: the trusty Rocker! We will go over some of the best ways to use these tools to create beautiful faux wood effects. And along the way, our team of pros will give you some great tips to remember the next time you get to rock the boards.
Before we begin, we should do a quick reminder of some standard terms and how they will relate to the tools and steps we will talk about later:
- All wood starts as a tree, and the different parts of a tree determine what piece of wood we have been tasked to recreate.
- How a piece of lumber was milled from the tree determines the grain style seen. Many fancier faux bois patterns like burling, feathering, and silver graining are all based on these fancier cuts. However, today we will be focusing on the more generic ‘plank and quartersawn’ style of lumber patterns.
- A quick tip is to take the time before you start your project to really look at the wood around your shop and the designer’s research. Getting these images “uploaded” into your brain will help you understand better how wood works so you can better render the grain style needed and faster.
Heartwood – (Heart/Figure grain)
These are the rings closest to the center.
It’s all the pretty grain patterns we see.
Oldest and hardest parts.
Sap Wood (Long/Side Grain)
Located between Heartwood and the bark.
Major highway of moisture for the tree.
Knots will often be found here.
As new layers form, it becomes Heartwood.
Let’s meet our band of tools
Rockers, Combs, and Brushes
A Rocker, often referred to as a heart graining tool, is best when made from rubber rather than hard plastic. They come in all shapes, sizes, and styles to create a myriad of patterns. To use them, you lay down a thin layer of translucent paint and slowly drag or pull. The gentle rocking or rolling motion of the tool will squeegee off most of the paint to reveal those lovely heartwood patterns.
Rubber Combs are also used like squeegees and are great for making the straight/side grain patterns either alongside the heart grain or as stand-alone planks. Giving them a little wiggle or pulling at a slight diagonal are ways to add detail and composition.
Brushes are mostly used to lay down your layers of paint and help create knots and flog/feather out your grain patterns.
To give us a quick review of the process, here is a step-by-step sample made by Jason Strom.
This video shows Scott Gerwitz showing off his flat-style rockers.
Now that we know the goal, let’s dive deeper into the process and discuss some key steps to preparation and technique.
Tip #1: Rockers like it Smooth and Slick
Because you need to use pressure when dragging these tools, any bumps on the surface will cause problems. MDF, Maso, and other super-smooth substrates are excellent choices. (It’s like painting sawdust and glue to look like wood again).
Having a slick surface for a base coat will allow rockers and combs to slide the paint around and easily wipe it away. Satin finishes are ideal, as more matte paints may cause too much friction and drag.
Sneaky Base Coat Tip: Did you notice that Jason used metallic gold paint for his base coat color in the sample earlier?
“High polished wood furniture has a certain glow to it, a depth. A metallic base coat can help add that luster and glow. If done properly, the translucent layers of grain and overglazes will allow that metallic to show through and glisten.”
Tip #2: Paint Thickness Matters
When applying your grain-colored paint, you need it to be spread thin enough to pull away easily, but not so thin that you over grab and create holidays. Too thick, and you will have a mess of puddles. Take your time to sample, adjust and practice how much paint you need to apply, the amount of viscosity it needs to slide, and eventually, your inner baby bear will be happy that you can consistently get a good pull.
Tip #3: Take Time to Rehearse
Faux-painted wood looks believable because of the transparent layers of paint working off each other to build details and depth. This means careful attention in the sampling process to color and pattern creation is vital in reproducing the desired effects. This means before starting any project, take time to test all of your colors and interview your tools.
For example, some rockers have built-in combs on either side of the circular pattern, which is great for quickly changing the design.
Tip #4: Feather it Out
If you look closely, you can also see the effect of a quick dry brush before it dries and helps feather out the peaks in the two heart grain sections. The feathering of your peaks and lines from that light dry brush helps draw out and stretch the grain pattern, creating those little sap lines and establishes direction.
A flogging brush is another lovely tool that will break up the wood grain and overcoat layers with linear marks, giving it a more realistic look when used in a slapping, upward motion. Especially on elements closer to your audience, when finer details matter.
Tip #5: Slow Your Paint
If you find you cannot rock and feather out faster than your paint is drying, you need to slow down your drying time. Cheaper paint additives like Floetrol will help, or better yet, mix products like Golden’s Slow Drying Medium or Ben Moore Glaze Extender into your paint. These are designed to dry slower, allowing you more working time than usual. An added benefit is the ability to go back and fix mistakes.
Now that we have our tools mastered, our color theory correct, and the perfect paints mixed, it’s time to really get into what makes a believable and beautiful faux wood. And it all comes down to that artistic eye. A good composition of patterns and rhythm is what separates a professional Scenic from an amateur artist.
Tip #6: Don’t Over Rock
10 out of 10 pro Scenics will throw their hand in the air in agreement that this is actually the number one rule. Remember that what you are creating is the heart grain. As if you’re slicing lengthwise through the center of the tree, it needs to be long and intentional. The goal is to only rock it once per board, with the rest of the plank more straight-grained. One plank of wood can’t have two hearts! We don’t want to create a series of Xs or ovals. Take your time, slow your roll- think adagio, not speed metal.
In these photos, Lisa Borton shows us that adding pattern variation to your planks makes for a beautiful installation later.
Tip #7: Change your tool
Rockers are a super reliable tool, so reliable they will easily create the same pattern over and over and over. All that repetition is more distracting than pretty. Turning your rocker in the opposite direction, using the comb edge, or just starting it in a different spot as you pull are all basic tricks if you only have one tool at hand.
Setting yourself up at the beginning with a tray of various-sized rockers can also help create variety and a great way to improve your efficiency. Check out these two articles if you need to make your own super-sized rockers or custom combs.
Tip #8: Don’t Rocker Every Board
You want to use rockers in one long motion, and use them selectively. Meaning that every plank, or whatever you are painting, shouldn’t have the rocker detail, or it looks too busy.
“Knots are great details that can be painted with brushes or drawn with finer details with an HB pencil.”
BONUS TIP: Those knots you added? Remember, as sap runs through the wood, the grain surrounding the knot is tighter, resulting in a lighter color. Jason suggests that to create a lighter tone in your glaze, try using a foam brush contorted into a “V” shape and pull down into the glaze just on top and bottom of the knots.
Tip #9: It’s OK to Re-Draw Your Grain
Fixing mistakes while you go along is always ideal, but sometimes it’s after you are done that visual problems with your pattern can become more apparent. Repainting sections from scratch is one option. Trying to sneak in some fixes might be faster.
Angelique developed this technique when she needed to do a rocker grain on oddly shaped columns.
“My tools either didn’t want to behave, or I had sections of repeated patterns that I needed to break up better. I came back with a small brush and “drew in” my fixes with my base coat or grain color. The goal was to break up any sections where my side grains got too clumpy and to change up some of the peaks in my heart grain sections to eliminate repeated shapes.”
It can look chalky and scary at first, but they disappear and blend quite nicely once you start applying your overglazes.
Tip #10: Finish It, Don’t Ruin It
The graining step takes the longest, but it’s not the last step. Applying 1-2 colors of translucent overglaze(s) to your wood helps tie everything together and gives that finishing touch of realism. Making that glaze too opaque will ruin most of the depth and detail you’ve created. These top layers of glaze are also crucial to adjusting your color theory if needed. Ex: adding some green will help take away red and help shift your wood browner.
James Confer, a retired Scenic Artist at Disney, will often use the same color glaze as his grain and then uses a soft rag to wipe it off.
Painting wood to look like wood is a root skill in our trade. For as many trees as there are in a forest, we probably have just as many ways to create it. The trusty rocker tool method is only one. We hope this article helps demystify the process and gives you some skills to branch out on and improve.
Here are some more resources you can use:
Behind the Scenics has a great video on the Do’s and Don’ts of Faux Wood Grain.
Check out these past Scenic Route Blog Articles:
Real Wood Grainers Have Curves
By Daniela Weiser
This is Nuts! Upgrade Your Woodgrains with Walnut Ink
By Nicole Deibert
Get your own shirt:
Angelique Powers, MFA
Freelance Scenic Artist
Adjunct at UM
Jason Strom, MFA
Leazah Behrens, MFA
Freelance Scenic Designer and Scenic Artist
Scenic Charge Artist
Freelance Scenic Artist, USA 829
Rae Mack Kuhn
Scenic Charge Artist and Production Assistant
The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati
University of Michigan