Canadian Woodworking

The real thing

Author: Hank Ethier
Published: February March 2002
The real finish
The real finish

How do you know if you are looking at a fake finish?

You are at a garage sale and there is an old dresser for $10. It looks to be made of oak and in very good shape. Once refinished, it will match the oak furniture in the guest bedroom. How can you be sure it is really made of oak and does not have a fake finish?

Fake finishes have been around a long time and show up on many antiques. Some are very good. A fake finish, generally, is a finish that makes one species of wood look like another. One common example is making birch or maple look like oak.

These fake finishes are accomplished by using a graining tool (sometimes made of rubber) and streaking a stain onto the wood. By careful manipulation of the graining tool, a grain pattern very similar to oak can be applied to another wood.

How do you know if you are looking at a fake finish? Look for any break in the grain pattern. You may be able to see such breaks if some of the finish is rubbed or worn off, or at a scratch in the surface. If the grain stops at the worn spot and no grain, or a different grain is seen in this area, you are dealing with a fake finish. Grain patterns continue in wood even through worn areas and scratches.

Check the back of a drawer front. See if the grain patterns on the inside match the outside. If they don’t match, it may mean the unit has a veneer on it, in which case the grain pattern would be different on the backside. To confirm if veneer has been used, look for a thin line along the outer and inner edges.

A veneer is perhaps 1/32 of an inch thick and leaves a glue line where it is bonded to a thicker board. The veneer on the backside, called a backing veneer, can be a different species of wood than the front. If you confirm there is no veneer and the grain on the outside does not match the inside grain, then it is likely a fake finish.

If it is a fake finish, once you strip the drawer, you will end up with the grain pattern displayed on the back of the drawer. Be warned that sometimes the manufacturer may use a solid oak top and a fake finish on the rest of a birch unit. Do not assume that because the drawer is birch, that the top will match.

Perhaps you have inspected the unit, found a fake finish and decided to buy it anyway. You are pretty sure the main part is birch and the top is oak. You will live with the difference in grain pattern between the two woods. It’s still a good deal for $10.

One last warning: the light and dark streaks of the fake finish may still be visible after multiple applications of stripper. This is due to more light reaching the wood through the thinner part of the stain. Usually the only way to remove it is to sand it out. If you are not prepared to do that much sanding, then think again before making your purchase.

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