Architect Brainerd Jones' directions were clear: don't paint any of the wood on Comstock House, inside or out. The interior was mostly spared the paintbrush (although one "expert" tried hard to convince the Comstocks that everything would look much nicer with a coat of white paint), but every inch of exterior wood has two, three coats, much of it now peeling away.

Something has to be done to protect the outside redwood from sun and rain, of course, and Jones' instructions were that instead of paint, it was to be treated regularly with a linseed oil/turpentine formula. Oiling your house a couple of times a year may be unusual, but it's not an onerous chore - at least for the first story, where windows and trim can be easily reached. Working on the upper stories, however, requires scaffolding or a dangerously high ladder, so it's difficult to imagine that the oil treatment was continued for very long, and thus some painting was unavoidable. But was there a paint color that could really match the look of oiled wood?

Our first actual restoration project was rebuilding an attic window, and I began experimenting with paints, settling on a reddish-brown color that was popular in the Arts & Crafts period, and just might pass for "redwood" if you squinted real hard. Real. Hard. I continued to dabble for months (we still have gallons worth of brown-ish paint in small cans, each with slightly different mixes of red or orange), and finally did a study of oil and turpentine on actual century-old redwood. It became apparent that it was a mistake to seek a single "redwood color;" the solution was adding very dark grain patterns over a red-brown color base. In other words, faux painting the wood too high to reach.

Although it's doubtful that the exterior of Comstock House was ever faux painted before, Brainerd Jones certainly knew about the technique; faux painting became quite popular in America during the two decades before WWI. It was used to fake the look of stone or fine wood (James Wyatt Oates had a set of four redwood bookcases faux painted to look like golden oak, which can be seen here in the background) and from 1895 onwards it was somewhat of a DIY fad thanks to Glidden, which had an advertising edge over other lacquer companies by selling its "Jap-A-Lac" varnish as part of a kit for homeowners to make splintery-wood floors more attractive as well as smooth and durable by using their graining kit.

(RIGHT: 1909 ad from McClure's Magazine - click on any image here to enlarge)

Probably anyone with a home built before 1930 would benefit from knowing a little about faux painting. With a few simple tools and just a little practice, the results can be quite rewarding. A couple of books about the technique from that period can be downloaded through the Comstock House library, but without question the definitive instructional book is "Professional Painted Finishes." I might even place it among the top 10 books I've found for old house restoration.

To finally get that century-old redwood color perfect along with the faux grain, we consulted with Sonoma County artist Patti Zimmer. Above is a short instructional video of Patti teaching Jeff Patton (Patton Painting/Santa Rosa) how to use the graining tool. Note that this is exactly the same tool shown in the ad from a century earlier.

Patti was able to precisely match the look of our old redwood. At left is our window sill test platform, with the actual oiled redwood on the outside (farthest left) and the faux painted sill closest to the camera. There is a varnish top coat on the paint to preserve it and give it the same semi-gloss appearance of freshly-oiled old redwood. On windows, the rails, stiles and mullions will be stripped of old paint and oiled, while the muntins and window putty will be fauxed.

Oxide Yellow (Y3)
Black (S1)
White (W1)
Oxide Red (R3)
The formula for the base color of "Comstock Red" is shown at right. It is Benjamin Moore exterior Aura paint flat, deep base four tint. Note that these details only apply to Aura exterior, and differ from even the brand's sister interior grade. The graining color is lamp black and raw umber mixed by eye in an acrylic glaze base. The top coat is a 50-50 mix of Acryvar Clear Satin 494 and Acryvar Clear Matte 492, which seemed to match the sheen of oiled redwood.

The photos below show Jeff Patton's remarkable work in faux painting a pair of the windows on the north face. Like the very best faux work, it deserves highest praise because it is never apparent. Only when we point it out and explain that it is painted do visitors notice, and always they marvel at the surprise of it.


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