Are you considering new options for painting surfaces and have an interest in painting on wood? If so, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we will cover the fundamental information needed to start using acrylic paints on wood.
A great place to start is:
What Types of Wood?
There are many different woods to consider, so below will be some basic guidelines for picking out wood from various sources and constraints to keep in mind when making your selection.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of time sourcing quality wood, the easiest thing to do is get some wood panels. These come gessoed and un-gessoed depending on your preference as well as in a variety of thicknesses. These can also come precut in a variety of shapes outside of the simple square or rectangle. Everything from clean triangles to circles with beveled edges are available at your local craft store. If unavailable in your area, online options are available as well.
Your standard hardware store or local lumberyard might have what you’re looking for as well. There are a few parameters to keep in mind however as lumber for building will have different standards than ones for painting. Keep in mind you want to pick woods that are resistant to moisture and don’t warp over time. If you can get wood that has been kiln treated, do so. The lower the moisture content the better as well, with an ideal moisture content being around 9-11%.
Hard wood tends to be smooth and ideal for painting on but can be more expensive and heavier. While softwoods are easier to work with in terms of carving, sanding, and price, they can warp more easily. Birch is a good option as it's popular, easily accessible, and easy to sand.
Palettes? – No, the other kind: Pallets
Used pallets are an option if you are able to find them locally and have the tools to get them apart. There are some things to keep in mind when gathering pallets that are necessary for safety and your project's lifespan.
Get dry pallets that have the symbol “HT” somewhere on them as this means they are heat treated to prevent pests and bugs from living inside the wood. “KD,” which means kiln dried to reduce moisture, will also work. This means that you will have greater success for the longevity of your wood projects.
Warning! Using any pallets with the marking of “MB” is not advised to use. As this means that the wood was treated with a strong pesticide, Methyl Bromide. When sanding this can cause a long list of health issues and side effects, which makes these pallets unsafe for DIY projects. If there are no markings at all, use caution when working with recycled pallet wood. Use gloves, protective eyewear, and a respirator if you are at all unsure.
There are a few basic steps you’ll need to follow in order to ensure that your wood is prepped to receive paint and make sure that the colors you pick will stay vibrant while also filling every nook and cranny.
There is a long history of carving in relief and adding paint to the surface. From religious iconography to making wooden figures, carving can be an interesting way to add dimension and interest to your work. Ideally, you would stick to soft woods that can be more easily carved and sanded.
Something to keep in mind when carving is knowing that the more detailed the carving is, the thinner your application of paint needs to be. Be sure to follow the instructions for your paint for correct dilution. Using a product like Novaplex can help get your medium to heavy body acrylics to a fluid state that will be ideal for the details.
Sanding is ideal if you want a smooth surface to work on. Depending on how rough the surface is to start with, you will need to begin with a rougher, or lower grit, sandpaper and work your way up to a higher grit. If there are a lot of imperfections and bumps in the wood, starting with a 40-60 grit would be a good place to begin then work your way up to 250-300 to finish it off. You can use either an orbital sander, which will be more expensive, for flat surfaces or a sanding block, which is the more economical choice.
If you have carved elements, I recommend getting a soft sanding block so that you can get into small grooves with precision. If the project is small enough, you can even get nail buffs in different grits at your local beauty supply store as well.
Sometimes you may want to leave a bit of texture for aesthetic reasons, such as going for a distressed or weathered look. In that case, stay in the lower grit territory or skip sanding altogether.
No matter which looks you are going for, always keep in mind the way sanding can help pull together the textural nature of your work.
Gesso is a key step for your wood projects as it will provide the ideal surface for your acrylics to cling to. White gesso is ideal for when you want your colors to pop and be vibrant. Black Gesso is great if you have lots of small details, so when you add paint on top it will look more like a natural highlight. Clear gesso is ideal if you want more of the wood to show beneath your colors, or if you want parts of the wood to be shown. Gesso can be thinned with some water and applied in more coats if you have intricate details in your wood or carved elements.
Once your gesso is applied and dried, take a look again at the texture and decide if you need another pass at sanding. Stick to a higher grit (250 should be fine) as it does not take much to knock gesso back. Likely, given the thickness of gesso, there might be brush strokes left in the gesso you might prefer to sand away. Apply 1-3 coats depending on your preference and the instructions for your gesso.
Check out What other artists are buying after reading!
Finding Sap or Moisture
This is less of a concern for pre-made wood panels and more for upcycled wood you are trying to use. If you happen to find sap or moisture, it may be time to re-evaluate your materials.
Sap can be resolved with certain oil soaps and shellacs. If not applied or cleaned properly, it can result in the sap bubbling beneath your paint creating an uneven texture. Be sure to read the instructions on all materials used to get rid of or create a barrier between the sap and your paint and make sure that those products are compatible with acrylics.
As for moisture, (as in oops! I left the pallet outside during April!) The best thing to do is find a place to let the wood dry for ideally 4-6 weeks. If the wood does not warp, then that is a good sign to go ahead and use it. Although it is important to keep in mind that wood is a porous material, there is always a risk of warping, especially over an extended period.
I could say paint to your heart's desire (and do so!) but let's get the creative juices flowing a bit with a few creative ideas.
Wood grain flows in a way that is truly nature’s beauty so do not be hesitant to show it off! Use assorted colors to paint in the rings or knots of the woodgrain to really highlight the wood itself for a unique look.
Faces and figures have been painted on trees from everything to Snow White to the Legend of Zelda. If you see elements of a figure or expression in the grain, do not ignore it! You could have something one of a kind in your hands!
Use a clear gesso as a base and wipe away your acrylics with a dry brush or old rag to show the wood beneath! This is great for minute details or for carvings you really want to highlight.
This could also be used when painting on flat surfaces if you want to highlight the wood by masking it off with tape or butcher paper.
Wooden icons were also exceedingly popular during the Byzantine era, 3rd century CE. Often these would come in single painted panels, however these can also have three or more pieces of wood attached with hinges. While you do not have to use religious imagery specifically, having your base material be wood, means you can use more hardware such as hinges and latches to create more interactive pieces.
The Final Touches
So your beautiful wooden creation is finally finished and now it’s time to consider the last few details that will ensure your work is secure, protected and ready to display.
Varnish is essential in keeping moisture out of your wood as well as protecting the acrylics from various forms of damage.
There are varnishes that are designed for exterior use, which will help keep the paint from degrading as quickly. You will need to seal the entirety of your wooden surface for the best protection.
There are also shellacs and oils, available at your local hardware stores, which are good at protecting the wood itself, but not always the acrylics. So be sure when selecting your products to check that there won’t be any adverse reactions with the acrylics.
For pieces that will remain indoors, you can use a varnish for when the piece comes into contact with sunlight and light scuffing. Nova Color has both matte and gloss options for protecting your work.
In general, for maximum longevity of the work, you’ll want to avoid humid environments as excess moisture can cause the wood to rot and create ideal environments for mold and bacteria which can eat away at your wood.
Avoiding sun exposure is important for the paint as even when the acrylics are lightfast, the UV rays will degrade eventually.
Leaving the piece outside, especially for long periods of time and through the seasons means that the change in heat and humidity will cause the wood to warp and bend.
Mounting Options and Weighty Wood
Hanging hardware can also be found at your local hardware store and can be easily installed with some basic tools. It’s best to keep in mind the overall weight of the piece as most hardware will be rated by the max weight it can hold.
More lightweight wooden boards can be hung with basic sawtooth picture hangers or temporary adhesive hooks.
Heavier items can be hung with D ring hangers and wire, which can come in convenient kits.
If you’re setting the wood on the ground, you might want to set it off the floor with a small platform or stand.
At the end of the day, wooden pieces of art can be unique and a statement for the many types of wood we have access to today. It’s important to keep in mind the basics about preventing wood warping and preparation for works that are vibrantly enhanced with an application of acrylic paint and your own style.