The Constructive Comment Column


Paul S. Jenkins

Number One

It's a Fake, Honest!

Many years ago, when I first started work in an architects' office, one of the partners brought in samples of fake timber beams. The practice was doing a refurbishment job in an old building, and someone had decided that some ancient timber would enhance the interior decor.

There were two samples. The first was moulded in plaster, and had a satisfying and convincing solidity to it. But the surface finish was less convincing at close quarters. It would, however, fool most people who didn't scrutinise it too closely.

The other sample was glass-fibre, and exactly looked the part. Even up close it looked like real timber. But touch it and one's suspicions were aroused. Knock it, and the illusion was shattered. A timber beam should not sound hollow when tapped.

Both samples would have been convincing when out of reach, for show only -- and that was their purpose.

But viewing them, I felt a deep-seated unease about the whole concept of fake finishes. I asked the partner what he thought. "It's brilliant," he said, indicating the glass-fibre. "It looks exactly like the real thing."

Yes, it did. Exactly. And therein was my concern. I knew that from then on I could not look at a timber-beamed ceiling without the nagging doubt: is it real, or is it fake?

The very existence of the fake item had forever devalued the genuine article.

Some years later, I recall specifying a laminate-faced counter-top for a purpose-made cupboard unit. I knew that the durability of laminate was preferable to varnished or polished timber for this particular application. I imagined a finely textured, patterned surface, of a similar or complementary colour to the unit itself.

But, as I believe the client should always have a choice, I asked him to select from a swatch of laminate samples. He flicked through them absently. "You choose," he said, handing the swatch back to me. "All I want is a wood-grain pattern that matches the timber of the cupboard as closely as possible."

Such was my position in the practice at the time that I didn't argue. I bit my tongue and selected the best fake I could find.

But why should this have caused me such concern?

It's a matter of integrity. Why pretend a material is something it isn't? If you don't believe that timber is sufficiently hard-wearing for an application, why pretend that it is? If plastic laminate is better suited, why pretend that you've used timber?

Of course, this issue isn't always black and white. What about wood veneer? That's a tricky one. But people understand about veneer. They don't expect something that has a wooden surface to be necessarily the same material throughout. But personally, given the choice, I'd go for the real thing.

When the chance came for me to design some furniture for myself, I put this concept to the test. I needed a series of five storage boxes -- strong, of decent quality. The material I selected was flooring grade chipboard. I made the boxes using ordinary hand and power tools. The cut edges I lipped with hardwood, and the faces -- inside and out -- I sanded down to a smooth finish. I then applied six coats of clear gloss polyurethane varnish, sanding down between each coat.

The result was spectacular: five solidly built boxes, with concealed glued and doweled joints, and a beautifully smooth surface that shows off the fascinating texture of the board. It's hard-wearing, heat-resistant, and looks a lot more expensive than it actually was.

And it's totally honest.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins