THE MAN'S a wizard. The way he moves his hands. Poof! Like magic. It must be mirrors.
Malcolm Robson is no magician. But at 36 he has already made for himself a star-studded career in a rare and ancient painting profession. He's a master at graining, making ordinary wood look like better wood, or turning baser materials into marble or tortoise shell with the twist of his wrist.
Before he installed himself and his family (two boys and now an infant daughter) in suburban Virginia, Malcolm Robson had flown back and forth over the Atlantic three or four times a year since 1973 to practice his craft in the United States.
On his first trip here he traveled to the Gallier House in New Orleans, where the museum made a movie documenting his work. Later he helped restore The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home in Tennessee; also Independence Hall in West Virginia, The Athenaeum in Philadelphia, Stantan Hall in Natchez, Miss., and a new decoration in George Gershwin's old home in New York.
He added those to his list of accomplishments in England: Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden Royal Opera House, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace . . .
. . .And to the names of the many personalities for whom he has worked: Rex Harrison, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Lee Radziwill, former Beatles and Ava Gardner.
As Robson will tell you, graining goes back a long way. At least as far back as the early Egyptians and the Ming dynasties in China, when royalty and those who could afford it simulated fine wood and marble by painting what they had to look like it.
Graining was a decorative deception popular among the gentry of the 18th and especially early 19th centuries, for instance. Furniture was often marbled in the 18th century. Robert Adam, one of England's foremost interior and furniture designers of the period, sometimes used marbled side tables and pedestals to blend with his design schemes. Many museums and historic homes here and abroad have been grained, the Renwick Gallery and Arlington House, the Lee-Custis mansion, among them.
Learning the craft is practically an occupation in itself. Apprenticeships, still common in European countries, take 15 years for grainers, one of the longest of any professional craft. Like most graining apprentices, Robson spent many of those years inside English pubs where the wood-paneled interiors are, even today, grained regularly as a matter of course.
The many nooks and crannies under bars and around cabinets provide plenty of places, says Robson, where the novice can slip and not be readily noticed.
"The barkeep's not likely to say, 'Ey! I think you've missed a spot 'ere.'"
The clientele is likely to be more interested in other things as well.
A fifth-generation grainer, Robson has opened a new family business out of his Fairfax home. He joins a handful of grainers practicing in the Washington area.
One of his first jobs here is the renovation this winter of woodwork at Woodlawn Plantation in Mt. Vernon, Va., once the home of George Washington's foster daughter, Eleanor Parke Custis, and his nephew, Lawrence Lewis.
A paint analysis at Woodlawn had revealed that under the many layers of paint applied over the years the original coat had been grained. After making a careful mental note of the pattern ("We really don't know what kind of wood it's supposed to be") Robson set to work duplicating it throughout the house.
Over a painted base, Robson applies graining color, a mixture of mineral spirits, linseed oil, dryers and various pigments. Depending on the type of wood he is trying to simulate -- oak, pine, mahogany, for instance -- he adds such colors as umber, sienna, browns and black. (When he is marbling, the grainer adds touches of greens, blues and reds for a different effect.)
The brushes he uses are imported from England. Made of bristle from China, the two-inch brushes are exceedingly thick, but from constant use with the thin graining color, the bristles quickly wear down. The four-inch brush is hand-made to Robson's specifications, the bristles just long enough they do not sag, yet sparse to leave a woodlike texture behind them.
As important as the bristles are the coordination and brush techniques the grainer develops over his long apprenticeship. Graining is all in the wrist and fingers, and as though enchanted by a magician's sleight-of-hand, the small group at Woodlawn stood transfixed while Robson rapidly demonstrated his repertoire.
"Isn't that amazing?"
On the first coat of graining color he applies darker streaks, which he feathers out with the wide brush. With a jog here and a turn there, a knot suddenly appears. With a little more color, a bigger knot. And with the thumb, or a finger, the center of the knot. A few touches of the rag and twists of the brush: tortoise shell.
To achieve different textures he uses feathers, artist's brushes, brooms, a comb and anything he thinks up. He recalls one job, a palace or something, when his employer dropped by to see how the work was coming along and found Robson beating on a door with a rolled up newspaper.
For this I hired a craftsman?
But the results are proof enough that a well-trained grainer can use the simplest tools to achieve startling results. "Give me a cheap, pressed-wood door," says the rugby-sized Robson, "and I can come along and make it mahogany or rosewood -- or anything you want."
Robson is betting that at least some customers will choose the latter. Besides restorations to historic homes and palaces, he has worked on modern decorating schemes in private homes and -- brace yourself, George -- discotheques. (Tortoise shell patterns are popular there, he says.)
And, as long as the surface is prepared beforehand, he can price his work at $10 a square yard, comparable to many wallpapers.
"They told my grandfather 50 years ago the craft was dying. It didn't die.
And it won't die. But you have to adjust to the period you're living in."
Amateurs interested in trying the craft themselves can consult Isabel O'Neil's book "The Art of the Painted Finish for Furniture and Decoration" ($9.95, paperback, Morrow Quill). The book contains instructions on such wood finishing techniques as antiquing, lacquer, casein, gilding as well as graining (faux bois), marbling (faux marbre), porphyry, lapis lazuli and malachite, for instance.
Color illustrations show vividly the many faces you can put on simple wood. They also show that Robson has nothing to worry about.