Wood you believe it?

Purists might frown, but they'd probably be fooled by the quality of the fake panels, carvings and even books now available. It's plastic fantastic, says Christopher Middleton
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When Carolyn and Gordon Parker throw a dinner party at their 18th-century farmhouse in Yorkshire, their guests always comment on the elegant, cream-coloured wooden panelling in their study.

"It's on the way to the drawing room, and as they're passing, people can't resist popping in there to have a look," says Carolyn, who runs her own interior design business in Wetherby. "We always leave a single table-lamp on in there, and it brings out this warm, appealing feel - a bit like a cocoon. Invariably, at some point in the evening, the girls in the party will slip out of the dining room and find themselves gravitating towards the study."

What the guests don't realise as they sip their cognacs, though, is that the handsome old panelling on which their shadows are flickering is made not of ancient oak or lime - but of 21st-century cellular resin.

Yes, it's all fake wood, created not in some sawdusty carpenter's workshop, but in a modern factory outside Bradford. Although it has realistic knots, gnarls and woodworm holes, it's made of hardened polyurethane, moulded from an original piece of wood and stained to match the colour.

The crucial question, of course, is - do any guests ever suspect the truth? "They don't have a clue," laughs Carolyn. "It's such a joy to see their jaws drop when I tell them that it's not the real thing."

Yes, far from keeping their synthetic wall coverings a guilty secret, the Parkers take great delight in telling all and sundry that, although 30 years ago the use of non-wood would have been considered non-U, today's imitation oak folk no longer live in fear of being unmasked.

"Things have moved on, haven't they?" says Jonathan Banister, whose firm Oakleaf makes and fits several miles of repro panelling each year, some of it at some distinctly up-market residences (such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace). Time was when people said a Lexus was just a fake Mercedes; now it's a car that's valued in its own right. It's the same with sparkling wine; once it was seen as a poor relative of champagne, but now you're hard put to tell the difference. People today are free to choose for themselves without having to live under the tyranny of snobbery," says Jonathan. "In many ways, we're just doing what James and Robert Adam did in the 18th century. They pioneered the use of plaster moulding instead of wood, and we're introducing modern and more durable versions of both."

In terms of cost, certainly, there's little to choose between synthetic and genuine wood. In fact, many homeowners who've installed the fake stuff started off with every intention of using the real thing. "We trawled round all the local reclamation yards, but could only find rather tatty bits of old panelling that were neither the right size nor the right colour," says Jane Woodley, who with her husband David scoured the Cotswolds for real oak to line their 17th-century cottage. "The big advantage of having the imitation wood was that we could order it made-to-measure, so that it fitted round a rather awkward configuration of pipes and stopcocks.

"Far from it being a disadvantage when the time came to sell the cottage, it turned out to be a bit of a plus point. The people who bought the place from us were in absolute disbelief when we told them that the wood wasn't real. They absolutely loved it - they couldn't get over how convincing it was," says Jane.

And you don't have to stop at wall panels. Many property owners now boast entire libraries that are made of imitation wood - and also contain imitation books. "The effect is so authentic that people are gobsmacked when we tell them the truth," says Maureen Judah, who's lined the bookshelves in her husband's study at their home in Hull with "pretend" leather volumes. "Everyone who comes here thinks that we must be extremely learned to have all these books on our walls."

Again, far from hiding the fact that their literary collection was delivered by the yard, many homeowners make a feature of the fact that their books are fake. "We've done up the door to our under-stairs loo to look as if it's a ceiling-to-floor bookcase," says Philip Castle, who owns an 1850s cottage in Harrogate, Yorkshire. "You should see people's faces when the bookcase swings open and someone comes out. We love it."

There's no end, it seems, to the kinds of things you can cover up with pretend books. "We've used them to cover our 40in plasma screen," says Hilary Watson of Maidstone, Kent, who employed the Cirencester-based specialists The Original Book Works. "The great thing is that because the imitation bookshelves are so shallow, you can fold them back on themselves and slide them into neat little wall-cavities on either side of the screen. It's the perfect solution; the kids get their big TV screen, and we adults don't have to look at it all the time."

The factory-made volumes may be more versatile than the kind you'd buy in an antiquarian bookseller, but at £80 per metre, they're not necessarily cheaper. In fact, the only time imitation wood works out less expensive is when you're going for detailed mouldings, such as ceiling roses or carvings, as made by firms such as Copley Decor, of Leyburn in North Yorkshire. When Tonbridge School, in Kent, needed a corridor's worth of "brattishing" (carved frieze work), the price quoted for real wood was £1,000 per metre; the pre-moulded stuff worked out at a fraction of that price.

Do all these ersatz edifices stand up to the ultimate test - a sharp rap with the knuckles? Traditionally, imitation-wood walls have given off a tell-tale hollow sound, much as if you had struck a large plastic bar of Aero chocolate. Not these neo Jacobean jobs, which have had all the air bubbles compressed out of them. "If anything, my wall panels absorb sound," says Carolyn Parker. "You get the hushed atmosphere of an 18th-century library, except that mine was built in the year 2002."

Oakleaf of Bradford (01535 272878; www.oakleaf.co.uk) for imitation wood panelling and books.

The Original Book Works of Cirencester (01285 641664; www.originalbooks.net) makes imitation books.

Limited Additions (01285 659718; www.limited-additions.com) makes reproduction museum and artworks.

Copley Decor of Leyburn (01969 623410; www.copleydecor.co.uk) for cornices, dado rails and ceiling roses.

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