Wood Graining Secrets

Neal A. Rogers



A beautifully grained dashboard adds a real touch of elegance to any car interior; restored street rod, or classic. Engine turned panels, custom and vintage instruments are truly at home nestled in deep rich burl and spiral grains. Trim and fabrics accented by moldings bathed in swirling glossy grains complete a luxurious setting.

The following procedure’s are used professionally to produce high quality grain work and should enable the individual restorer to add the same quality and value to his car. So, strip off the black lacquer and join the dashboard revolution!


Prepare metal parts by removing old paint, saving any suitable section of original grain work for possible matching. The reverse face of dash or moldings may reveal the original base color and should be saved until matched. Prime with red oxide acrylic lacquer, sanding smooth with #400 wet-dry sandpaper and water.


Select the base colors in automotive acrylic lacquer, matching an original sample or a desirable background color. Any medium brown or bronze varying from reddish, to very light or yellowish tan will provide a suitable base. Interior and exterior colors may influence selection. While a dark base provides a richer tone, a selection too dark will diminish the necessary contrast between base and grain. Metallic paints are acceptable and add dimension when accented by sunlight. Orange metallic "Indian Fire", a 1969 Ford Thunderbird color matches the 1933-34 Ford base closely, is deep, rich, and suitable for other makes and years. 1966 Chrysler "Turbine Bronze" is equally rich and provides an increased bronze tone. "Old Masters" offers a selection of base colors through hardware stores and provides a color chart. Make your selection and dream of beautiful flowing patterns!

For an ideal base, use professional equipment and spray several coats thinned in a ratio of 3 to l, spraying at 65-lbs. pressure (acrylic lacquer). Substitute a small inexpensive "Preval" brand sprayer or spray cans paints if necessary. A last resort or experimental base color may be formed using spray cans if the proper spray can color or equipment is unavailable. Select a white, very light tan or light yellow and spray parts. Follow with a fine spray of dark bronze (whatever is available), carefully spraying until desired tone develops. Do not apply rubbing compound or polish to base, avoiding later problems with clear finish application. Sand lightly with #400 paper and water before graining.


Be sure to select a graining paint darker than base. Premixed graining paints are purchased through some hardware stores and hobby shops. "Flecto" and "Old Masters" brands should be available. Flecto #12 or a mixture of Flecto #11 and Old Masters 7 blend beautifully with the Ford Thunderbird base. Graining paint can also be home manufactured by combining enamel and enamel retarder, clear Glaze and thinner.


Grain paint may be applied using expensive professional brushes (flat tipped (itch and blender) or with common, equally effective implements: graining combs, stiff feathers, wadded newspaper, cheesecloth, sponges -------- the list is limited only by one's imagination!


The sponge is one of the best all-purpose graining tools, is inexpensive, easy to use, and produces a unique and beautiful graining job. Use a #20 "3M" brand sponge pad (part #5526) sold by automotive paint supply stores. Carefully cut the 3M sponge pad into 4 equal parts, each 1 1/2" by 2 1/4", using one section for application. All edges should be straight and even.

Slightly rough one or both sharp, short end edges (1 1/2") with coarse sandpaper. Additional particles can be picked off to increase pattern definition. Save the remaining sections for later use.

Dip roughed end of sponge into graining enamel, proceeding at one end of molding or dash, covering only a small portion. Apply paint liberally but keep the working-area small. With fore finger over the center, hold the sponge approximately 45 degrees to surface touching roughed sponge edge (not face) to base under very slight pressure. Pull or drag sponge from one edge of molding to the opposite side. Edge remains in constant contact until beginning adjacent path. While dragging, the sponge is slightly jiggled back and forth or slightly circular. Motions are no more than a trembling of hand and wrist. The proper effect has been achieved when a very faint intermittent connecting cross pattern appears, crossing the primary grain path at the various points of deviation. Occasionally "walk" the sponge along the graining path, moving one end then the other, keeping the same constant contact under slight pressure.

For a spiral grain effect, gradually rotate sponge during the path traveled from edge to edge (very effective on moldings). At the same time pattern is drawn diagonally across the molding face. Show some occasional waving. A portion of excess paint may accumulate at pattern edge and can be used intermittently for contrast. Begin new pattern or path slightly into excess, leaving a dark flowing paint portion between.

Enamel retarder causes the graining patterns to flow and blend during graining paint application. It is the ingredient necessary to keep the paint workable and to avoid harsh lines. However, it may be necessary to regrain fresh paint portions, reforming the pattern to counteract excessive flow out and diminished contrast. The uncontrolled factors of humidity and temperature as well as differing paints and colors will effect flow rates. If paint becomes too dry to work, wipe off and apply fresh.

Realistic knotholes are created with the sponge edge or face. Place the graining edge of the sponge to the surface with one tip at a center point. Use the graining edge as a radius, and under slight pressure complete a circle. To vary knot hole sizes and shapes, move edge away from center point while rotating, adding hand motion for irregular effect. To capture the true burl look, intermingle smaller knotholes and swirls using a smaller width sponge if necessary. Probably a more satisfying effect results from moderately waved grain flowing in one general direction blended around a few knot circles or concentric circles.

Notice how the sponge process is much like grade school finger painting; a process of drawing rough edges through the paint leaving portions of the base exposed. The distinguishing characteristic of sponge graining is the way grain lines flow and deviate uniformly.

For additional ideas, study patterns of natural wood where possible paneling, furniture, gunstocks, vintage car magazine dash photos exhibit applicable patterns. Be observant during a possible trip to a furniture store, sporting goods department, or lumber yard.

Graining may be discontinued at almost any point beginning a new pattern or adjacent path later. Complete portions or patterns that do not turn out satisfactorily can be erased while still wet with a paper towel. It is unnecessary and impractical to wipe off all. When erasing, be sure to avoid leaving a partial grain path or pattern. When regraining some of the fresh paint will overlap onto dry patterns. Simply wipe off excess avoiding erasure of fresh portion.

After finishing, squeeze the sponge dry with a paper towel (thinner will dissolve the sponge). Squeeze thoroughly otherwise remaining residue will destroy necessary roughness and flexibility. Some of the best patterns are created with a well-used sponge, so, never discard. Changing the sponge sections while graining also produces desired pattern variety.


The best of grain applications will not reflect full beauty unless mirrored under a smooth, flawless, clear finish. Crystal clear "Flecto Varathane"#90, available in spray cans, is recommended for covering the enamel grain and can be purchased in hardware stores. Clear enamel can be used but lacks comparable durability, requires a much longer drying period, and will not accept succeeding lacquer applications. Do not mistake Varathane satin finish (frosted) for the clear! Varathane can be used entirely as the finishing agent or as a buffer between the enamel grain and succeeding lacquer coats. The Varathane is more durable than lacquer but is much harder to rub to a high luster. The additional effort to finish a dashboard entirely in Varathane will be worthwhile, insuring non-chip surfaces around glove box, ashtray, and instrument areas. Allow the enamel grain paint to dry at least 24 hours before spraying clear. Use extra care when spraying Varathane to avoid runs and rough overspray!

When applying initial clear coats, grain will stand out, producing an uneven surface. The necessary smoothing process is one of spraying additional clear coats between successive steps of drying, sanding, and respraying. Allow 5 hours drying time before sanding. Use 600 wet dry sandpaper and water. Using very fine sandpaper will minimize possible grain wrinkling and reappearing sand scratches. A rubber sanding block or squeegee is employed during the last sand-spray steps for ultimate smoothness. Sand carefully to avoid exposing or erasing the pattern using extra care around openings, edges, and curves. Avoid the temptation too fully smooth out in one sanding operation. Gradually the surface becomes smoother using the clear as filler to build up low areas. Varathane may wrinkle the grain where previously exposed by sanding and can be cured by repetition of additional thin clear coats, lighter sanding, and longer drying periods.

Clear acrylic "Krylon" brand #1301 can be sprayed directly over the sanded Varathane, providing the enamel grain remains completely Varathane coated and resulting surface is moderately smooth. The acrylic lacquer is also available in spray cans and can be purchased in auto parts or paint supply stores. Note that any exposed enamel will wrinkle radically when contacted by lacquer or acrylic lacquer spray.

The acrylic is much easier to sand and rub to a high luster than Varathane but should not be used for any considerable filling or buildup. Acrylic retains a much longer settling period causing highs and lows to later reappear under heavy acrylic filling. Apply enough acrylic body to, sustain light sanding and vigorous polishing. Ideal spraying conditions are during warm or moderate dry days.

Lightly sand the final clear application with #600 and water (color sanding). A very fine grade of rubbing compound may be lightly applied after sanding. Then, polish vigorously with a clean soft rag and "Turtle Wax" or similar auto polishes until desired luster is achieved. Be careful when selecting polish a few brands are very abrasive and can leave a dull, scratched appearance.


Secondary patterns, shading, or crossflow streaks can be applied over the primary grain for added effect. Often an additional process transforms average graining into the realm of the ultimate. The secondary process should not be applied unless the primary grain is covered with unpolished Varathane. Streak the entire surface using sponge and graining paint, streaking at an angle or directly across the original grain flow (cross grain). Let dry 24 hours and erase excess by sanding with #600 paper. To enhance retention of detail, a coating of Varathane may be applied and dried over the secondary streaking before sanding. Only portions of the heavier streaks should remain after sanding. Excessive secondary paint will obscure the base color and diminish desired contrast.

Shading is produced by dabbing a paint moistened sponge end or edge intermittently across the original grain flow. Remoisten the sponge as necessary dabbing back over areas of differing shades until uniformly blended. Improve and lighten areas as needed using a Q-tip. Recast with Varathane and proceed to finish.

A graining comb can be used to create cross grain flow lines. Mark and notch the thin edge of a. "Marson" brand bondo spreader (plastic applicator for auto body filler) uniformly with a razor blade. Lighten graining enamel almost to clear by adding clear enamel, thinner, and retarder. Cross flow lines should be very light and subtle requiring lightened paint. Brush the surface with lightened paint and comb through with the graining comb, crossing the original grain flow. Show some waving. Lines may radiate from an imaginary point below panel. A fine toothed graining comb produces an unusual effect when sharply waved through lightened paint over primary straight grains (short sharp strokes). Graining combs are also used to create primary patterns by combing at random or tapping full color graining enamel.


A flat fitch brush is recommended for graining and is available in art supply stores. Selection of a quality brush is necessary to avoid the "brushed on" look characteristic of many first time graining attempts. Enamel grain paint is brushed over the base, turning the brush and varying pressure during application. Differing pressure develops contrasting dark and light areas, while position or rotation determines spacing between grain lines; normally wider or closer, increasing or decreasing as grain lines approach knotholes. Harsh wet lines are softened with a blender (blending brush) or soft rag, stroking softly in flow direction.

A modified brush increases pattern definition. Thin alternating, uniform bristle tufts are cut leaving an irregular brush face. Experiment with an inexpensive moderately stiff brush, severing small successive bristle sections (half-length) and testing to achieve desired modification.

Simulated pores, are formed by sprinkling fine specks of dark brown or black graining enamel over Varathane covered primary grain. To sprinkle the small particles, a wet brush is stroked across hair comb teeth held above the grained surface. The surface is then gently brushed with a blender parallel to grain flow forming the specs into realistic pores. A graining comb tapped continuously at an angle over a wet enamel surface also provides the porous appearance.


Lacquer grain paint is applied over a lacquer base by dabbing the paint with a piece of soft cloth or velvet tied around a cotton ball. Two differing shades of graining lacquer are effective, each separately applied over the intermittently appearing base color The effect created is that of mottled burl and is followed by immediate clear acrylic application, saving considerable finishing time and effort. Wadded newspaper, tissue paper, and small sections of chamois or cheese cloth are also employed for application of lacquer grain as well as enamel.


Water base acrylic wood stains are inexpensive, odorless, quick drying, water washable, and easily applied with a variety of graining implements and procedures; appreciated by one bothered with paint, fumes and stained fingers. Water or a damp rag or paper to well easily removes the water-soluble acrylics. Cunningham Art Products offers a variety of colors available in art supply and "hardware stores. Rapid drying requires occasional addition of water by dipping sponge or brush into a small container of water. Water is added to the paint as a thinning and lightening agent for secondary pattern application. Primary patterns and unfinished portions should be protected with Varathane to avoid erasure. Unlike enamel, dry

(Note: this is where my documentation ends, Sorry)