House Doctor

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN BETHNAL Green Eddie told me he'd soon be needing a bit of scumble, I assumed this was a quaint cockney way of prodding me in the direction of the cashpoint. After all, he's been painting the woodwork for a couple of days, and might well be needing a few quid for expenses.

But it turns out that scumble is not another slang word for cash, but the name of the glaze used to produce old wood graining effects. We're having the hall and stairs done in chestnut. The grainy pine was never meant to be left exposed; the Victorians had imitation wood-graining effects painted onto their doors, architraves and skirting boards: mahogany, chestnut, oak, bird's eye maple.

Up in the West End they often used the real wood, but out east, cheap pine tarted up with graining was the way to do it. By the turn of the century, wood graining had reached such a level of skill and popularity that its practitioners could plaster a pub wall and then bring it up to look as though it was panelled in veneers of the finest imported hardwoods.

This was all in imitation of the real hardwood panelling in rich folks' homes, which was made from tropical hardwoods - such as Honduran mahogany - chopped down and shipped over in boatloads from the former British colony to satisfy the whims of Edwardian house buyers. This widespread deforestation of the Honduran landscape led to changes in the local environment which resulted, nearly a century later, in the flooding and mudslides which have recently devastated communities, and claimed so many lives. And all for a few nice staircases and doors in Knightsbridge.

Eddie's wood graining certainly cannot be held responsible for the deaths of thousands of central Americans. And it has other advantages too, such as making even modern fire doors blend in with the original four-panel Victorian ones. Fancy a mahogany radiator cover? No problem. Obviously a degree of taste is required; you can overdo it and produce real anachronisms, such as the "genuine reproduction Victorian video cabinet" I saw advertised the other day.

The trick to reproducing a genuine Edwardian Honduran mahogany staircase is to give the woodwork a base coat of orange (or cinnamon as the paint swatch describes it), spread the scumble around with a badger-hair brush, and then push it into patterns resembling wood grain. It takes artistic ability - not to mention a familiarity with the grain patterns of the various hardwoods - to produce a convincing effect.

But given these prerequisites, it takes surprisingly little time to turn a plain pine panelled door into a rich dark slab which wouldn't look out of place in one of the old high street banks.

It's a shame that wood graining has fallen out of favour. Many owners of older houses seem to feel compelled to strip their doors, skirtings and floorboards down to the bare pine. Why? Apart from giving themselves lead poisoning in the process, they are removing something of the original character, and may be unwittingly destroying valuable examples of a dying art.

Of course, wood graining is no longer the force it once was, but it is still taught on decorating courses in some building colleges, and there are a few practitioners about. Try looking under "French Polishers" in the Yellow Pages.

Oh, and if you ever want to check out the credentials of someone who calls himself a painter and decorator, just ask him if he knows where to get hold of a bit of scumble.

`Struck Off - The First Year of Doctor on the House', by Jeff Howell is available from Nosecone Publications, P O Box 24650, London E9 7XQ, pounds 9 inc postage.

Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon. co.uk

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