Tag Archives: George Washington

Turning Wood Into Stone — Rustication at Mount Vernon

Why would someone want to turn wood into stone?

A stone building or home often conveyed a sense of lasting presence, wealth, and a connection to the many famous stone structures of antiquity that we so often try to emulate and incorporate into our architectural designs. So why not just build with stone in the first place?

The answer is usually economics — wood is a lot cheaper, easier to move and shape compared to stone — so if you could make your wooden home look like stone you’ll be keeping up with the Jones’ and not break the bank.

I just returned from a  trip down to Washington D.C. where we also visited  Mount Vernon — the home of George and Martha Washington with amazing views of the Potomac — and the most famous example of Feigned Rustication I am aware of.

George and Martha Washington's Home -- Mount Vernon
George and Martha Washington’s Home — Mount Vernon

What is Rustication?

Rustication is a term from the world of Masonry wherein the individual stones are squared off or beveled so as to accentuate the textured edges of each block.  You can learn more about it on Wikipedia here. You can often see this feature on the lower and/or first levels of large masonry structures like banks and older stone office buildings. It provided a sense of grounding and provided a stark contrast to the smoother ashlar work on upper stories.

Close up of the Mansion
Close up of the Mansion

What is Feigned Rustication?

Feigned Rustication is the process of taking wood siding — carving/shaping it so that it looks like a series of rusticated stones, priming and painting it, and then when the paint is still wet covering it with fine sand so that the board takes on the color/shape/texture of stone.

Rustication Process
Rustication Process as shown in stages on a sign out on the grounds of Mount Vernon. (Click to enlarge)

Here is a close up view of this technique applied to the exterior siding and trim:

Close up detail of Rustication
Close up detail of Rustication

While not alchemy, this technique got the job done and from a distance it’s hard to tell the building is not made from stone until you get up close — and even then you have to know what you are looking at.

The Rusitcation lets the home look like as if it is made of stone
The Rustication lets the home look like as if it is made of stone

So while George and Martha Washington were generally quite wealthy during their time, they did make decisions that weighed materials vs. appearance vs. cost much the same way we do in our own homes today and stretched the dollar as much as they could. As you can see in the picture below, for secondary buildings they only applied this technique to the fronts of the buildings — around the corner you can see the siding reverts back to a nice beaded clapboard detail. You can also see some other more common faux finishes like artificial grain applied to some doors in the home — to make them look like expensive mahogany.  This was a fairly common practice and not looked down upon the way some readers may be interpreting this.

Note the transition from Rustication back to beaded claps on the side of this secondary building
Note the transition from Rustication back to beaded claps on the side of this secondary building

Now that you’ve seen how we can transform wood into stone — were you fooled by the illusion? Are you going to work some similar alchemy on your own home’s exterior?

I highly recommend visiting Mount Vernon if you are in the Northern VA/Washington D.C. Area. You can find out more about this historic home, museum and grounds here.

In your travels if you find some other examples of Feigned Rustication, let me know here on the blog.  (Another famous place with this treatment is Monticello also in Virgina)