“Fancy Doors” at Dumbarton House

The faux painted interior doors of Dumbarton House exemplify a timeless decorative technique with its own Federal Period flair. Painted patterns meant to imitate the grain of expensive woods or a wide array of natural materials can be done in either a subtle or decorative manner. Dumbarton House’s faux painted doors focus on imitating a simple mahogany grain, the most common style of the period. They were done by Mary A. Plumer, a faux finish artist, who passed away  this past July.


Image: A close up of one of our faux painted doors


Faux painted patterns of wood grain have historically been done in two manners, either by adding or removing paint. Faux patterns that add paint are done by applying paint with brushes, or brush substitutes such as feathers, and letting it set and dry to achieve the pattern. The other technique is more intensive and begins with applying a transparent glaze or wash to the wood and creating the design through its partial removal. Both techniques can be used in tandem to create detailed and convincing grain patterns. Beyond these two core methods a variety of approaches were used to achieve grain patterns with particular styles of brushes, glazes, and varnishes falling in and out of fashion. If a faux pattern is well executed it will not only be difficult to discern if it is real or imitation, but what base material, tools, and technique were used to achieve it. This ability to deceive is part of the delight of a faux pattern, only after uncovering the imitation can the viewer appreciate the finer elements of the material and the skill of the artist who created it.


During the Federal Period in America these techniques would have been referred to as “Fancy Paint” given the faux paint created a “fancier” appearance. Examples of more intricately decorated faux or “Fancy” painted pieces in Dumbarton House would be its two painted floor canvases in the Lower Passage and outside of the Exchange exhibit. In the Federal Period, Dumbarton House’s doors would have been hand painted with brushes and other hand tools using the techniques previously described. It was not until the mid 19th century that artisans would begin to experiment and develop elaborate stencils to imitate grains of choice. Unfortunately, these stencils would not effectively imitate the “free-flowing” pattern of wood grain and traditional techniques continued to be held to a higher regard.

Image: This photo was taken shortly after we installed new wallpaper in our parlor. Visit us to see how the furniture has changed since then! 


Modern faux wood grain can be mass produced and uses far different materials and techniques than those present in the Federal Period. Many affordable designs are now made entirely out of a vinyl or wood pulp wrapped in these materials. While the materials and methods change with time the near eternal nature of this decorative technique demonstrates the human desire to find affordable ways to incorporate “natural” beauty into their designs.


Information Adapted from: Sumpter, Priddy T. American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts 1790-1840 (Milwakuee: Chipstone Foundation 2004)


By Colin Gliniecki, Visitor Engagement Specialist