How to Prepare Wood Panels – for Painting with Acrylic, Oil and Other Artist Mediums

by | Mar 14, 2017 | Blog | 257 comments

from Why Use Wood Panels for Painting

There are many types of surfaces that painters can use for fine art painting. Canvas attached to wood stretcher bars have been used for a long time, and wood panels even longer. Wood is stronger and more durable than the fabric of canvas or linen, and is therefore more archival. Contemporary painting techniques such as pouring paint (i.e. Jackson Pollock) and gluing collage-style are much easier with a sturdy level surface such as wood. (By the way, Pollock did not use wood for his paintings).
Proper preparation of an artist support is essential for producing long-lasting artwork. Raw wood panels need to be sealed prior to priming and painting, to keep moisture from getting to the wood which causes warping and other damage. So once you purchase a wood panel you need to do two important steps before painting: seal to keep out moisture, and then prime to strengthen adhesion between the paint and wood panel.


What’s the difference between hardboard and Masonite

I get asked all the time about the difference between these two terms for wood panels. Click here for a great article that clears up any confusion between the two.


Where to Get Wood Panels

If you are lucky enough to have wood working machinery, you can make wood panels yourself, or hire a carpenter to make them for you. You can also go to any store that sells wood, purchase a sheet of hardboard (they come in sheets 4′ x 8′) and pay them to cut it up for you into custom sizes. The sheets runs about $20 and the charge for cutting will usually be an additional $15 (depends on how many cuts). For a reasonable price, then, you can get a stack of wood panels. Otherwise you can purchase commercially made wood panels from art stores and online artist supply sites. Ampersand makes great panels of good quality. They are the only commercial panel company that I know of that properly seals and primes their panels called Gessobord.  Less expensive versions are available through Dick Blick and other online sites. I have recently heard from some artists having delamination issues with the cheaper panels, so if you want quality go with Ampersand. Commercial panels can come with or without cradled sides (separate wood applied to the panel to add depth to the sides), and with or without coatings (such as gesso or other primers).

I have two issues with commercially made wood panels. I like to work large and in sizes that are not standard. Commercial panels only come in standard sizes, with maximum lengths around 40″ per side. If you want a non-standard size or something larger than 40″ there are not many options. Some commercial companies offer custom panels, but these may take up to six months (no kidding) to get it to you. Commercial panels mostly use hardboard for the painting surface which can get very heavy in large sizes.


Why is it Important to Prepare A Wood Panel

Oil painters must seal wood to stop any acidic oil in the paint from penetrating into the wood support, which can cause wood fibers to rot. While acrylic painters do not have this same issue, sealing is still an important step for using acrylic paint on wood, to eliminate Support Induced Discoloration (SID). SID is a phenomenon that occurs uniquely with acrylic paints. Supports naturally contain impurities that can cause an amber yellow discoloring to any light colored or clear acrylic layer that is applied to the wood unless the support is sealed properly. More about SID on GOLDEN’s website.

Sealing (sometimes called sizing) reduces chances for the wood to warp due to shifts in humidity, and therefore adds an important archival process to your artwork regardless of which painting medium you choose. Sealing also provides an easier surface to apply subsequent paint layers.

Sealers are often confused with primers. A sealer protects the underlying layer or material. It usually needs to be glossy (or non-absorbent) to properly protect the surface by creating a barrier. A primer is a foundation layer that strengthens paint adhesion onto the support. Generally a primer refers to a coating that prepares the surface for the acceptance of paint. Gesso is a primer and not a sealer. Gesso, when applied, has a satin or matte finish, is absorbent in nature, and therefore will not adequately seal the wood unless multiple applications are used – and this still may not seal.

A general rule is to apply at least two coats of sealer directly onto the raw wood to protect the wood. Then over these sealer layers when dry, apply primer to (1) enhance adhesion (2) return tooth to the surface, and (3) whiten the surface for optimizing paint colors applied over it.


Instructions to Prepare Wood Panels

(1) Clean off any dust or debris from all exposed areas of the panel including the cradled sides and panel back, first using a vacuum or air pressure if very dusty, then wiping clean with a microfiber cloth (or other lint free cloth) slightly dampened (with water).

(2) Lay the panel flat on a table, propping it up several inches on all four corners with jars, wood props, etc to allow for wiping away any drips, and ease of application.

(3) Apply a glossy acrylic medium over all exposed wood surfaces. GOLDEN’s GAC100 is made especially for this purpose. It’s special thin formulation of polymer acrylic, applied over the wood, soaks in quickly and minimizes brushstrokes and texture. GOLDEN has recently changed their advice saying that their Acrylic Gloss Medium works better as a seal then their medium called GAC100. I still prefer to use the GAC100 because it is thin and doesn’t create brushstrokes like the Gloss Medium. GOLDEN still says both work fine. You can also opt to use a commercial stain sealer like Kilz found in home improvement stores.

Tip: Let one surface dry fully before flipping over to seal the reverse side. Drying times can vary. When dry to the touch with no tack, it can be flipped over without sticking to the table or other props.

(4) When all exposed wood areas are sealed and fully dry, the wood will feel very coarse. That is because the wood grain gets raised with this first coat of sealer. Lightly sand all surfaces to smooth them using a 220 grit or fine sanding block. There is no need to heavily sand, just an easy swipe with the sandpaper will suffice.

(5) Wipe the surfaces clean with a slightly damp rag after sanding or vaccum, then apply a second coat of sealer. Usually two sealing coats are sufficient, making the wood appear slightly satin or glossy in sheen. Optionally apply more coats if you desire a more saturated seal.

(6) Once you finish applying all sealer coats and it is dry to the touch, I recommend to apply one or two coats of a primer, such as an acrylic gesso, especially to the front surface to regain surface tooth. Priming your panel, regardless of which paint medium you plan to eventually use, will add a second archival process to your artwork, by strengthening adhesion between your first painting layer and the primer. Opt to prime all surfaces, including the back and sides, for a clean white professional look. However, all you really need to do is prime the panel face that will be painted. To summarize you want to seal all exposed areas of wood, but priming can be just applied to the front face.

For acrylic painters, one coat of a better quality gesso, such as GOLDEN’s Gesso, will add adhesion strength between the sealed wood and your first layer of acrylic paint. Lesser quality primers are sufficient for use with oil paint, as oil seeps into the layers differently than acrylic. The lesser quality primer, though, does not have a high pigment content for extra adhesion strength that acrylic paints require.

Once the gesso is dry to the touch it is ready for applications of acrylic paint. To apply oil paint instead, wait 1-3 days or more.

Important: For this blog article I am offering information for fine art paintings that will be stored and/or displayed INDOORS. For information on outdoor projects, such as murals on wood, read this article.  

Additional Information

GOLDEN’s article on preparing panels
Adhesion in Paints and Coatings

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  1. Kit

    Thanks so much for the information. This is the most thorough explanation I have found on preparing panels.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thanks Kit! Glad you found this helpful.

  2. Mark Basla

    Hi Nancy, this article was very helpful. I appreciate the detail you shared. I plan to do my FIRST mixed media piece, acrylic paint, collage material and dry tools – charcoal, etc.
    are you recommending I seal the sides of the cradle board as well as front and back panel?
    I want to make my own panel – how would you suggest I mount the panel to the cradle frame? I’m thinking about a decent size – but to start maybe 30” x 20”…
    Do you screw the panel to the frame?
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Mark,
      Yes I do recommend sealing all wood that is exposed to air. If there is any area of wood that is not sealed, it can absorb moisture and that is what makes a board warp.
      Mounting the panel to the cradle frame would involve carpenter skills. I suggest finding a carpenter who can glue and attach these correctly. You can screw the panel to the frame, but then you would need to sink the screw so it doesn’t stick up on the surface, then fill it. I am not a carpenter so I really don’t know this part. I have a wood worker make them for me. I always recommend asking the pros!

  3. Alana

    I am about to do a 42″ x14′ mural. I had wanted to use ABS board but the client does not want any seams. No I feel I need to use board covered with canvas. Any thoughts on the best route to take?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Alana,
      Since having seams is the best way to do this, you might consider talking the client into it by mentioning that if they ever moved from their house, or needed to move the mural, they could use the separate panels as separate paintings instead of altogether. This actually happened to me. I was asked to paint a mural 48″ x 20′. I made it using 5 separate 4′ x 8′ panels. I convinced them to do it this way. Sure enough they had to move. The new place didn’t have room for the mural all in one piece. They turned it into two separate paintings and were very happy. I actually created the painting with the idea in mind that each panel could work separately as well as part of the whole. Your idea of covering the whole thing with canvas could work too if you can find a roll of canvas that is 14′ long (I think this is definitely doable). But wouldn’t it be easier for you to create the painting in separate panels? The panels (with or without canvas) will slightly shift in time. This is a natural occurrence with all materials. So even if you attached them all in the back with metal bracing, and covered it with canvas in the front, after a few years they may separate anyway. I really recommend you talk them into separate panels. As a way to convince them, show them examples of ancient Asian panels where the seams actually add an aesthetic element to the work. The viewing is broken down into segments and makes a lovely way to view a long horizontal expanse. I hope this helps you with your commission.

  4. Dr. Krishna Ranjan Kumar

    Thanks for sharing this informative article on how to become a professional painter. Here, I get the right information on preparing wooden panels which I will use in painting. Thanks a lot for your article.

    • Nancy Reyner

      You are very welcome! Glad the article was helpful for you.

  5. Jaya

    Hi Nancy!

    I found your article while searching for resources on prepping for my project. I want to adhere ceramic pieces to artist panels, primed as well as unprimed. The panels look like this –

    From your article, my understanding is that I would seal the sides and back of the primed panel first, paint the primed surface with acrylic, mount my ceramics (I plan to use E6000) and then varnish the whole front (minus the ceramics)?

    For unprimed boards, I understand I would seal everything first, then paint over the sealant on the face, and proceed as above.

    Also for large surface coverage quickly with deep matte black, do you have a recommendation for an acrylic spray paint?

    Thanks so much for making this learning curve as simple as possible! Much much appreciated!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Jaya,

      Yes you are correct in your steps to work with the wood for your paintings. I would add one thing to the steps you mentioned for the unprimed panel. I recommend you apply one coat of a primer like acrylic gesso, on the face of the panel, after your sealer and before painting on it. As for matte black spray paint, I think you will find it easily and inexpensively at any home improvement store like Home Depot or Walmart.


  6. Michael

    What great information for those painting on wood panels! FYI, you are correct that finding custom sized wood panels is hard to come by but we have been offering custom sizes for a decade now- and drop ship in the continental US. We use only 1/8″ 3ply Baltic birch facing with Wisconsin basswood(non-directional grain) for our cradles. We can make any size up to 60″x60″. Cradles come in 3 widths: 7/8″, 1.5″ and 2″. Lead time is currently about 4 weeks. All panels are made to order. Estimates can be had by contacting us by email([email protected]) or phone(845-561-5552).

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Michael,

      This is good to know! I often get people inquiring where to get custom panels. I will definitely post this here and send those inquiries your way.


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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner created this blog about art, painting and creativity from her career of over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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