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Artists use all kinds of tools to get the effects they want, and decorative painting has its own bag of tricks. I remembered this recently when I had to match up a repaired base board to an existing wall which had been wood grained by someone else using some serious comb work.

This woodgraining is part of a fantastic foyer in a client’s apartment. The entire room is faux woodgrain, done in a unique style I’ve never seen before. The combs have created a relief pattern on the surface, so the painted wood is three dimensional, and when you walk into the room, the walls look exactly like real oak.

Here’s a small section of the wall that was painted by another artist. This is a flat wall. The three-dimensional trompe l’oeil effect of the molding is painted.


Here’s a detail. This work is phenomenal. It not only looks like wood, it feels like it, too. The control that the artist had with his combs is impressive. Look at the variations in the colors and how clean and crisp the combing is, with a thin glaze of creamy white on top to knock back the graining and give the effect of whitewashing.


There are all sorts of different combs that can be used to create patterns. Below are a few. The big orange comb on the far left is similar to the one that was used to create the pattern in the walls above. It creates graduating lines that mimic real wood.

Some of the other combs: top left are white and red custom combs that I cut at a specific size for a certain job; the triangular comb has three options; the metal combs come in sets at various tooth widths, and the center bottom orange comb has both pointy and straight teeth.


Below is our patient. A portion of the baseboard has been replaced, and I have to repaint it to match the existing finish. The installers managed to mangle the wall above the baseboard, so that has to be fixed, too. After measuring the comb’s marks, I went home and discovered that I had an almost identical comb. Hooray! If that hadn’t been the case, I would have custom cut a comb to match the pattern.


We start off with taping, floor protection, patch, sand, prime and base coat. Everything in this process is water-based. Next up, a light glaze to create the correct undertone for the combing.


Right away, here we go with the comb. The glaze has to be dark to stand out because there are more layers going on top. I also started filling in the damaged area above the base board using small brushes and liquid acrylics.


The next couple of glaze layers knock back the starkness of the combing while creating an irregular whitewash effect as seen on the rest of the wall.


And here we are, all matched up. That took about two hours and the help of a blow drier.


Combs are commonly used when painting oak, since they break up the figure pattern in a realistic way, mimicking the choppy grain. Below is a sample of painted oak with a very strong figure grain. The vertical lines that scratch through the darker figure pattern and side grain are created by pulling a comb through the wet glaze after the figure pattern and side grain have been completed.


Below is a close up of a European Oak grained door that I’m working on this week. I’m matching this door to the existing wood in a Library. This is the first coat of glaze. The glaze is rolled on, then brushed out with a chip brush. The first comb, a rubber one, has 1/8-inch teeth set 1/8 inch apart. It’s dragged down once, following the curves I’ve created with the brush. This comb is then dragged again at a slightly different angle, which naturally creates moiré patterns. Then a metal comb with much thinner teeth set close together is passed over twice at other slight angles, further breaking down the paint into different organic patterns. This may look complicated, but it’s all done naturally by the combs and perfectly mimics the patterns of the real wood in the rest of the room.


Combs can also be used to create all sorts of pretty patterns that can be glazed onto walls as well. This is a criss-cross combed pattern. First one direction is combed, and after it has dried, the other direction is combed on top. Finishes like this are usually created in muted colors because bright colors would give you a migraine and overwhelm a room. I apologize for all of the beige in this post!


The example below of a striped combed pattern shows a few of the beautiful effects that combs can produce. The irregularity caused by freehand combing is part of the charm. Sometimes levels are used to create perfectly straight combing, especially on large walls. At which point I say, if you want perfection, use wallpaper!


The best part about combs is that if you cut your own, the pattern possibilities are endless.