Chris Schwarz's Blog

When Weird Chests Look Less Weird

07-01

For most of my life, I thought wood that was grain-painted looked like… an unprintable bad word that rhymes with “bass.”

Many pieces of furniture were grain-painted to make a less-expensive wood look like a nicer wood. During the Arts & Crafts era, pine was painted to look like quartersawn oak. If you go back in time a little further you see plain woods that were painted to look curly or mottled.

While researching auction records on the ubiquitous six-board chest I encountered a bunch of 19th-century examples that were painted by people who were clearly on hallucinogens. Some of these paint jobs looked like cellular structures. Others looked like patterns made in the dirt by drunken earthworms. Or what you might find in a Kleenex after blowing your nose.

I put these photos away in a folder called “ugly chests,” which I hope my wife never clicks on.

Recently, I was sorting through these folders and went looked at the ugly chests again. For some reason, they weren’t as ugly as I remembered. A few of them look kind of cool.

Or perhaps I am the one on hallucinogens.

Below is a gallery of a few of my favorites. Check it out, if you dare.

— Christopher Schwarz

My article on building a six-board chest is in the November 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

10 thoughts on “When Weird Chests Look Less Weird

  1. DavidG

    As a child I remember my father (a Master Craftsmen) building a desk in the early 70′s where he used a technique very similar to the opening image. When I saw the finished product I thought it was the coolest thing! I never saw him manipulate a brush that way. Today I think he would second guess doing something like that again……..Unless the client wanted it that way. Thanks for stirring up this great memory for me Chris!

  2. tms

    Hey Chris,
    “Graining”, when done by an expert is so convincing that it can even fool the eye at close inspection. The best example I have seen are the doors to Thomas Jefferson’s study at Monticello. Even after I was told the truth, I could have sworn that they were mahogany, and not pine.
    Tom

  3. Anderson

    I love the old painted furniture like the Mermaid chest, or the roses – really beautiful. Joshua would have a fit if he saw what I saw in Germany though. Ebay for example, there is all kinds of simple pine and spruce furniture, natural wood with a drying oil finish, and almost all of it was grain painted. There was an antique/restoration shop down the road, and the guys had a whole garage full of the painted stuff they were slowly working their way through. The old finishes are often in pretty bad shape, but still. Today the simple pine stuff sells and sells.

  4. Joshua Klein

    Decorative painting is my favorite form of ornamentation. I love that it was the only form of ornamentation accessible to people of all skills. Their was a lot of high skill level work done by itinerant painters as well as amateur hobbyist painters. I find brush strokes to be even more revealing of the preferences, tastes, and worldview of the maker than tool marks.
    I think these pieces strike us as weird because we are products of the Arts and Crafts mentality which eschews much ornamentation. It is alarming to many people today when you tell them period homes were brightly colored. They think everything was raw pine with through dovetails on everything. And then you show them stuff like this! Wow. That blows their mind.

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