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 vacuum, 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.
GOLDEN’s article on preparing panels
Adhesion in Paints and Coatings
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Well I would love it if you also make an article on how to frame your wood panel after painting, whether or whether not to for outdoor projects. Thanks.
That’s a great idea! I will definitely consider it. In the meantime, I can say that there are many ways to frame art works whether on canvas or wood panel. And then for outdoors that’s another issue too. The frame is an extension of the actual artwork itself. The style, colors used, surface texture and sheen….all these will influence which frame is best. The most important factor for framing is where it will be hung. Most of my paintings are not framed because this could discourage someone from buying the painting, even if they like it, but if the frame isn’t the right style for that person’s home interior. This is why I like to use the cradled wood panels. I get the deep ones, around 2″ deep, and paint the sides a light neutral color or white for a clean look. Then the purchaser can frame them if they really want to, or keep them as is. The painted cradled sides do look good in my opinion. Any painting I make that is small in size, say around 14″ on any side or smaller, I will definitely frame. I like to use wood frames and leaf them myself.
Hi, Can i make paining panels using MDF? It’s easily available for me. I am planning to use MDF on top and teak wood tripes for the edges. I am planning to get it done from a carpenter. I will be using Acrylic colours. Will MDF be a good alternative to wood? (Mdf of thickness 6mm, waterproof Variant)
You can make wood painting panels from any type of wood, including MDF (which is a type of wood). My issue with MDF is for larger sizes, which becomes very heavy for me to handle. Plywood is lighter and so is poplar. If you are working in a small or medium size, and weight doesn’t matter, then the MDF will work fine. Make sure to seal and prime as per my blog article instructions. You will still need to do this even for MDF.
I tried to prepare birch panels that I made myself using your instructions. After each application of sizing or gesso, I sanded the panel with a power sander. However, the grain popped out with every application of gesso. Is it possible that I am over-sanding?
Yes you are definitely oversanding! After the first coat of sizing (which is probably water-based) the grain of the wood will slightly (and I mean slightly) raise from the water content in the sizing. You can’t see it but if you run your hand over the wood you can feel the slight roughness created by the swelling. Take some sandpaper (or I like using a sanding block) and just lightly swipe over the surface. I barely put any pressure on the sanding block. Wipe your hand across the surface after sanding and it should feel smooth again. It takes me about 10 seconds to lightly sand a surface about 30″ x 40″. Then after sanding this first coat of sealer, apply another sealing coat BEFORE applying the gesso. That’s all you need to do. Power sanders can never lightly sand like you can by hand.
I paint with alcohol ink and am wondering if wooden panels are appropriate for sealing my paintings with resin. Thanks so much.
I’m not experienced with alcohol inks, but are you asking if resin can go over the ink, or if resin can go over the wooden panel? Resin should be able to go over both wood and alcohol inks with no issues, but I do suggest experimenting first on something you don’t care about, before trying it on one of your prize paintings. If you will be pouring resin over the wood panel, you will definitely need to seal the wood appropriately on all exposed areas, so moisture or the weight of the resin won’t warp the panel.
Can I paint acrylic paints over a wallboard that has emulsion on it
I am not familiar with this process. If you tell me what the emulsion is that you are referring to, I may be able to help.
Hi Nancy, I’m planning to paint using oil paint on wood. However, I would like to paint my picture frame and wood with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint so that both my frame and wood panel I’m going to paint on has the same colour. Am I able to use the chalk paint instead of the primer? Many thanks, Sian
I am not familiar with the Chalk Paint you mentioned. However, I looked it up online and it says you can use it directly on wood without priming. I can then assume that this paint has additional qualities that make it serve as both primer and paint. This means you would be able to use it on the frame and wood painting surface without the need to prime. When using oil paint, the oil paint has good saturation into underlying layers. This means it will adhere well to wood, paint or primer. The reason to prime when using oil paint is to keep the oil from harming the wood surface. It does sound like the Chalk Paint will serve this purpose well. Hope this helps you with your project.
Is it really necessary to sand at all? Can I get away with not sanding?
I heard that gesso releases plastic particles in the air, and I don’t want myself or my family to breathe in any of that. Please advise?
The sanding part is extremely small. You only need to run a sanding block lightly over the first dried sealer coat. If you don’t sand you will have small spikes on that layer that may be annoying when you paint over it. You definitely want to wear a protective mask when you are sanding anything. It is toxic, not because it is Gesso, but because our lungs can’t handle any small airborne particles (like baby powder – most people don’t know that). If you wet sand (spray the surface lightly with a water sprayer, then use waterproof sandpaper) you will not be releasing any toxic particles into the air, making this a non-toxic step. Again, you don’t have to heavily sand, just a light sanding that takes me about the count of 10 for a 30″ x 40″ surface.
Dear Nancy, thank you so much for this useful information!! Do you know if PVA glue can be used to seal the wood? Painting will be acrylic.
I do not know about PVA glue for this purpose. I suggest calling the company that makes the PVA glue you are using, ask to speak to their technical department and ask if this would be appropriate for sealing wood, that will be overpainted by water-based mediums. My best guess is that if the PVA is water-based, then it will work like the other water-based suggestions I have in the article. If it is solvent or oil-based, then you would want to make sure the acrylic adheres well, by lightly sanding and applying a professional grade primer (Gesso).
Hi Nancy.. I want to paint wooden blocks.. and ofcourse want to add a basecoat for finer paint application so that it doesn’t bleed through the masking tape..
My question is that which clear basecoat to use? As I want the wood texture to peek through the paint lines.. I think if I use gesso that might make wood patterns invisible.. I am anxiously waiting for ur reply
You have the right idea, to apply a basecoat (or seal it) to the wood so you have more control over painting applications like taping. If the wood is unsealed the paint can bleed under the tape, but once the wood is sealed with a gloss sealer it should stay on the surface without bleeding. In my article I recommend using Golden’s GAC100 or their Acrylic Gloss Medium. These are both thin enough that they won’t add too much texture when brush applied. The GAC100 is thinner and will soak into the wood without showing brushstrokes, while the Gloss Medium is a bit thicker and will show some brush strokes. Both dry clear and will seal the wood. You are correct that acrylic Gesso dries an opaque white and will cover the wood grain totally. There is a big difference between a sealer and a primer. A sealer is clear and glossy. A primer is usually white and opaque – Gesso being in this category. Sealers seal what’s below, while primers add a layer which will increase adhesion between the paint and surface. You need to seal the wood to prevent warping, but you can skip the primer if you want the wood to show and not be covered over by Gesso.
I paint in oils on cradled wood and like to leave sections of raw wood exposed. I use clear acrylic primer langridge, 3 coats. I have discovered tiny hairline cracks in the timber emerging, please see image.
Can you pls help?? I would be most grateful 🙏🏼
I’m sorry to hear you are experiencing cracks in your wood panel. I am happy to help but could use a bit more information from you. When you say that you like to leave sections of raw wood exposed, are you saying there is nothing covering it – or is it actually sealed with the clear acrylic primer you mention? Raw wood left exposed and unsealed will crack because it is exposed to shifting temperatures and humidity. Cracking happens when the wood gets dry. By sealing it properly, you shouldn’t get the cracks. Please feel free to send me more details if you still have questions.
I’m lucky enough to be married to a woodworker and he just finished making me several round cradled panels to paint on. I’m opening an Etsy store late September or early October. I was searching how to prepare these panels for painting and this popped up. Thank you so much for this blog, Nancy! I will definitely be following your instructions. I as about to just prime them all and call it a day. I didn’t know I had to seal them first.
I also was about to use Kilz water-based primer as it’s less expensive than gesso. Will that work after the sealer step?
Yes you can definitely use Kilz water-based primer over the sealed leaf as a primer.
Glad this article was helpful for your paintings. Warm wishes for your new store on Etsy!
Hi Nancy, I have this wood panel (maybe plywood) that I have no idea of what kind of white primer was used. Should I just clean it with alcohol first then sealer and primer? Please help. Thank you.
If you can’t tell whether the primer is water-based or oil-based, then just to be careful I would first lightly sand it to add some tooth for adhesion, wipe it clean with a damp lint-free rag, then apply your water-based or oil-based sealer and primer over that.
Hi Nancy, this is the best information I have encountered regarding prepping panels for painting. I am a painter and owned an art supply store for over four decades and have never been told any of what you shared here. I have painted on Masonite, hard board, and birch without following these steps and so far haven’t paid a price for doing so but in the future will follow your procedure.
Within the last couple of months I spoke to my friend Davis Cone, a very successful photorealist painter, and he mentioned to me having custom commercial panels prepared by an outfit in Brooklyn that sealed the back of his panels.
I am so glad you like the article and found it informative. Coming from you and your background that really makes me happy. If you can find a place that will seal the panels, then that will definitely save you time. This step, though, is easy and not expensive, so doing it yourself will mean you can prepare it in a timely manner. You will also know what product you are using. I like knowing this so I know it is compatible with the rest of my materials.
Thank you for your comment. It is appreciated.
I wish you would give examples of sealers. I have heard that some economical options can be purchased at a hardware store in the paint section- PVA primers that indicate they will work on wood surfaces and are mat not glossy. Is there something else you know of?
I would like to give more examples, but products change all the time, so I decided not to list them here. I also can only advise products that I’ve used myself. Since I found what works for me, I don’t bother trying other products. Basically all you need is a water-based acrylic that dries glossy and clear. That’s it! You can purchase sealers in hardware stores meant for sealing wood as you mentioned. I would advise against using anything too cheap which may compromise your work. For example, Elmer’s Glue is a water-based acrylic that dries glossy and clear. This may be the most economical but I would never use it on my fine art paintings. That is because Elmer’s Glue uses a cheap polymer that may yellow and lose it’s hold after awhile. It is not meant for fine art purposes, only craft. If you are creating art that isn’t meant to last, in other words, you aren’t selling it or gifting it, then you can use the most economical clear water-based product you can find. However, if you care about the longevity of your artwork, then I recommend going with a fine art product like Golden’s Acrylic Gloss Medium. Fine art products are tested to last 500 years or more if used properly, without yellowing, cracking or losing their adhesion power. By the way, if the product is matte it contains white matte powder. This means it will be absorbent, rather than a sealer. Remember the main idea behind using a sealer is to keep the wood from absorbing moisture. This means you need a non-absorbent product. Products that are non-absorbent are glossy (think plastic wrap for food), ones that are absorbent are matte (think paper towel). Hope this helps!
Can GAC 200 be used to treat a wood panel, it could be thinned down, is this correct?
If you thin down a specialty medium, it will lose some of its properties. GAC200 dries so fast that it can get gummy when overbrushed and create an unwanted texture. It is not an easy medium to use. The GAC100 is made especially for sealing surfaces, so I would recommend that.
Another alternative would be to use a gloss acrylic medium and add up to 20% water to it to thin. The reason you can dilute the gloss medium and not the GAC200 is that the gloss medium has gone through a slight thickening process. By adding water to it, you still have something left to remain on the surface after your application has dried. GAC200 is already thin (not thinned – but not thickened). It is the closest thing to pure polymer which is naturally thin. This means that if you add water to it, it will be way too thin. It will sink into the wood leaving not much behind as a sealer.
Hope this helps!
Thanks so much for the information. This is the most thorough explanation I have found on preparing panels.
Thanks Kit! Glad you found this helpful.
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!
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!
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?
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.
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.
You are very welcome! Glad the article was helpful for you.
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 – https://www.dickblick.com/items/blick-studio-artists-board-10-x-10-x-1-12-gallery/
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!
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.
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@example.com) or phone(845-561-5552).
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.