Furniture and other wooden objects have been embellished with paint since the 1600s, but the early settlers in New England took it to a whole new level!
Rural craftsmen in New England started painting furniture in the 1700s for a couple of reasons. When they made a wooden object they had to use whatever wood was available to them, and, depending on what was needed, different woods were often used to create one object. In order to make the piece look cohesive paint was applied so that it would be all one color.
The country Windsor chair is a great example of this: different types of wood were needed for the bentwood arms and spindles than for the seat and legs. One Connecticut chair, described in "The Windsor Style in America" by Charles Santore, as "yellow grained paint over original green. Crest rail, arm rail and spindles are oak; arms supports, legs and stretchers are birch; seat is poplar, side spindles are pine".
The Windsor chair pictured at the left has a newer coat of red paint on it. The fashion during the mid 1900s was to "restore" painted furniture by stripping all paint off, which is why it's so hard to find good, original paint today. The result for this chair was unappealing, since the woods were vastly different from each other.
The other reason that country craftsmen painted their creations was to emulate expensive woods that they could not access or afford.
The major ports of Boston, Newport, New York and Philadelphia imported mahogany from the West Indies for the fine furniture made in those cities. In the rural areas furniture makers started to paint mahogany grain patterns onto their pieces, thus the beginning of "grain painting".
Realistic painting of wood grains soon morphed into more fanciful artistry. By the 1820s colorful combinations of paint were used to create swirling, spotted, striped, feathered and some very fantastical designs on furniture, boxes, chests, benches and every kind of wood creation imaginable.
A very popular color combination was ochre and reddish brown to lighter yellow. These paints were stippled on, stenciled, free-hand painted or applied with tools, paper, leather, and cork.
Blues and greens were less common:
The imagination knew no bounds. I once had a demi-lune table which had a faux marble top - grain painted in black over gray.
This wonderful watercolor by Joseph H. Davis, 1837, Deerfield, NH, of Sewell and Sally Marden shows a great deal of grain painting:
The table is grained and the chairs appear to be painted, as well as the carpet.
Tools for graining were many and varied. The graining "comb" was usually made of metal, but also leather, and used to paint lines and even swirls.
Smoke was sometimes used to create black smudges. A candle was drawn over a painted surface which was covered with a thin glue sizing. When almost dry the soot would adhere to the sizing, after which it was varnished.
This smoke grained chest was on auction at Sinner.
Various sizes of candles were used to created the design.
Vinegar graining created seaweed-like patterns. A darker paint mixed with vinegar was put over a lighter ground using a roll of putty to create patterns. The linseed oil in the putty caused the paint to separate, creating the effect
This is a vinegar grained blanket chest in dark green over green. The second example of blue/green graining is also vinegar grained (above).
Good examples of authentic grain painting are hard to find, and you should expect wear, scuffing, fading, etc. In fact, if the paint is too perfect, it is probably not very old.
The exuberance and creativity of these early craftsmen are endlessly fascinating. My favorite piece of grain paint is this little chest that I bought for myself some years ago in New Hampshire. It has it all!
Two very good books on this subject are:
"American Painted Furniture 179--1880" by Cynthia V. A. Schaffner and Susan Klein, Clarkson Potter, New York.
"American Painted Furniture 1660-1880" by Dean A Fales, Jr. and Robert Bishop, E.F. Dutton, New York.