“Faux” means to fool the eye, and thanks to Amy’s 30+ years in the furniture and refinishing world, she has perfected the art of the faux finish — including faux tortoise shell finishes. For centuries, people have used small slivers of tortoise shells to decorate a variety of surfaces, from boxes to chests of drawers to tables and more. Of course, this isn’t a sustainable practice and the beautiful hawksbill turtles who were famous for their beautiful shells are now on the endangered species list. It’s been illegal to sell tortoise shells since the ‘90s, which is why faux finishes have become so popular.
And, as most “retro” styles do, faux tortoise shell is seeing another spurt in popularity, especially in home decor and accent pieces. That’s why Amy is showing you how to create a faux tortoise shell finish in this week’s Finish Friday. Make sure to follow along closely to this week’s tutorial, as the results of your faux finish are all relying on learning professional techniques!
What You’ll Need to Make a Faux Tortoise Shell Finish
To create a lovely tortoise shell appearance on your surface — whether it’s a masonite board like Amy uses in this tutorial or a beautiful old chest — you’ll need a few tools.
Once you’ve got all your materials assembled, it’s time to prep your mixes.
Note: You can play around with other paint colors for a “funkier” tortoise shell look. However, while learning the technique it may be best to stick to a more traditional mix.
Mixing Your Tortoise Shell Paints
For your project, you’ll need two One Step Paints: a brown and a black for that classic tortoise shell look. Mix those together in a bowl until you get a dark, dark brown — think of what a tortoise shells deepest colors look like. Then, you’ll need 3 different glaze/paint mixes and room temperature water. Mix together three separate bowls with:
1 part paint, 1 part glaze, 1 part water (thickest)
1 part paint, 1 part glaze, 2 parts water (thick)
1 part paint, 1 part glaze, 3 parts water (thin)
Once mixed, get ready to apply the thinnest glaze to your surface with an artist brush. But first, you need to make sure your surface is appropriate for this finish. When you do tortoise shell finishes, use a surface that isn’t very absorbent, such as a matte-painted surface or a dry wood. It helps to use a sealed or old wood, something that’s been lacquered, or that has a well-painted surface.
In this week’s Finish Friday, Amy uses a masonite board coated with the High Performance Furniture Lacquer. Glazing liquid is great with One Step Paint because it thins it down but also makes it highly durable and easy to mix.
Applying Your Tortoise Shell Finish
To get started, Amy says it’s important to think of your tortoise shell finish as having an apex, where it starts to radiate out (just like your hand radiates out from your wrist). With that in mind, load up your artist brush with the thinnest glaze and roll it across the surface on the side of your brush. Roll it and allow it to come to a tip — watch the video to make sure you do this part correctly. Apply it in an irregular pattern to the surface, using more at the apex and then branching out with fewer brush strokes as you get further away.
While you wait for that glaze/paint mix to slightly dry, roll a small handful of 100% cotton batting (not polyester!) to “pull” the glaze/paint mix. Use a loose, angled wrist to flick the paint up and out, moving away from that apex Amy mentions. It’s highly recommended that you watch the video so you can imitate exactly what Amy does.
Repeat these steps with the remaining two glazes, using the 2 parts water mix and then the 3 parts water mix to layer your glaze from thinnest to thickest. Make sure to always use a new roll of clean cotton batting and repeat the pulling motion to draw the glaze lightly away from the apex. For your final (thickest) layer, strategically place your brush to provide “accent” marks; you won’t apply it as thoroughly as you did the thinner layers. As a rule, the thinner glazes can dry in about 20 minutes, so you can work in sections to add the layers of glaze to each area of your piece as you wait for the other sections to dry. Again, it’s best to watch the video to make sure you follow Amy’s technique, which has been perfected over nearly four decades.
Finishing Your Tortoise Shell Look
Once all of your layers are applied to your entire piece, let the piece completely dry for about an hour. Then, use your Bright Idea lacquer to add a protective layer and depth to your piece. The final result will hopefully be something that looks straight out of a furniture store, and your friends and family may wonder how much you actually spent on it.
Tortoise shell finishes look beautiful anywhere in the home, from mat board in picture frames and picture frames themselves, to lamps, tables, chests, boxes… you name it. All of these surfaces can be made like new with faux tortoise shell finishes. Of course, it may take some time to perfect this complex technique, so stay tuned to the Amy Howard at Home Facebook page if you want to learn more, follow along, and grow your skills.
You can also join the Before and After group if you want to see how other DIYers are fixing, flipping, or simply restoring some of their favorite pieces with tortoise shell and other fun finishes! Check back in with Amy next Friday (and every Friday) at 12 noon Central for more finishing ideas and tutorials just like this.