On Saturday, Nader Khaghani of Gilroy, California wrote, “In your book The Painter’s Keys, you suggest untempered Masonite as a support. It’s now getting hard to find and the edges tend to break down. I’m considering switching from canvas to wood panel. What are your thoughts about the so-called ‘door skin’?”
Thanks, Nader. untempered Masonite is indeed fading from shelves. Further, the quality varies–corners can crumble away like oatmeal cookies. Sealing and reinforcing with something like acrylic medium doesn’t always do the job. Some painters, driven to tempered Masonite, have seen other alarms go off. This support, while harder, is simply loaded with acids that gradually seep through several layers of gesso. After a few years the painting surface will certainly be foxed. The estate of a deceased painter friend was mostly ruined by tempered Masonite.
Door skin, or other thin plywood, is an excellent alternative. You can buy different hardwoods as well as the popular Luan or Honduras mahogany. I’ve seen no darkening or foxing on any of my panels over the forty-odd years I’ve been using them. Carried in a “wet-box,” they’re the cat’s pyjamas. You don’t want to go too big with them — 16″ x 20″ is about the limit without cradling (reinforcing the back). Every few years I get a large selection of sizes cut on a proper table saw by a local woodworker. I also find these handy as gifts for friends or for folks who need to try something new.
Priming and preparing is a matter of personal taste. I like a couple of coats of clear acrylic medium so the colour of the wood is retained. Variations can be had by tinting. Opaque gessoes can also be used. If you don’t like the wood grain, sand enthusiastically between several coats. Save time and trouble by selecting a harder, less grainy wood. Prevent long-term buckling by treating both sides.
Because panels don’t flex or move around like canvas, they are also ideal for mixed media, collage, etc. Pores in wood give most binders an excellent grip. For painters with an eye to immortality, whose work must withstand the crawling bugs of Armageddon, panel backs and edges should be sealed as well. No matter what happens in the future, you need your work to be there.
PS: “Every master knows that the material teaches the artist.” (Ilya Ehrenberg)
Esoterica: Another angle is to use panels to remount canvas, paper or other material. Panels are particularly valuable for cropping otherwise problematic larger works. You can use regular cut mahogany door skins for this, or invest in more expensive, prepared and guaranteed archival supports. More than one of my disasters has been saved for posterity by a little effort and a recropping panel.
Wet-box: This box holds twenty 8″ x 10″ panels of one-eighth-inch thickness. Ideal for oil sketches from the car or carrying in the bush. With a couple of wraps of duct tape it also gets accepted on airplanes.
Luan mahogany panels: 9″ x 12″ quarter-inch Luan mahogany, accurately cut to order by a local woodworker. Inexpensive, they’re handy to prime the pump at workshops. (Free panels—try ’em!) For acrylics I generally prime twice with gloss acrylic medium.
Composition panels: Commercially prepared composition panels with heat-sensitive glue. Ideal for mounting canvas or other material. These ones are made by Art Boards of Brooklyn, NY, who make a wide range of archival supports.
Sample kit: Art Boards supply excellent sample kits that contain maple, natural fiber, pre-glued and other surfaces. They also supply larger panels cradled, as well as rounds, ovals and circular and oval stretchers. Other suppliers produce similar supports.
Wood panel for figurative work
by Carel Meyjes, Netherlands
I am working on wood panel since 2000. Its the best underground for figuratifs, its like dry fresco and the smooth atmosfere its because its dry. MDF is very good for pastels it has the best skin structure and colour.
by Gregory Albright, Hartland, VT, USA
By far the very best is Baltic birch plywood, which comes in 5 x 5 foot sheets. The top veneer is the thickest of all plywoods, it is whitish and very stable. Linen or canvas can be applied with acrylic medium and gessoed right away. The linen protects the edges, even if not wrapped, and they are a snap to frame. Quarter inch is good for sizes up to about 16 x 20 inches, half inch is stable up to 24 x 36. It is heavier, but still lighter than 3/4 inch. Door skins need both sides gessoed as they tend to flex when painting one side. I have had success cradling large panels of quarter inch MDF too.
Quality MDF panels
by Bill Bonham, Dickinson, TX, USA
The new replacement for untempered Masonite is MDF which stands for Medium Density Fiberboard. My company, Art Panels & Frames, has been providing MDF sheets and cradled panels for nearly three years with fantastic results. Today’s lumber technology has created advanced wood composites that provide an economical, durable, and versatile surface for creating art. MDF is designed to be painted upon. The surface is designed to absorb the coating being applied, forming a unique bond. Used in the furniture and general construction industry, MDF comes in a variety of thicknesses and grades. However, I must warn you that all MDF is not created equal. The premium MDF used in my panels is not found at your local home improvement center. I began creating MDF panels for myself and local artists and that effort has grown into a nearly full time activity.
by Susie Maguire, Jacksonville, FL, USA
I recently watched a PBS show about the Amazon put together by Jaques Cousteau’s son and family. They spoke specifically about the horrible downing of trees including and especially mahogany trees and the terrible waste of wood that never even gets sold. A Peruvian spokesperson said that every piece of mahogany that is used “has blood on it.” He went on to say that one tree on average is sold for three kilos of sugar. Can we not find a substance that is begging to be recycled for the purpose of painting? Your letters go out to so many people, I can just see a flock of folks now going out and buying mahogany panels. I hope I am not making false assumptions here as I don’t know much about the panels. This was just a response that I felt to your letter, and I hope I have not offended you in any way.
(RG note) Thanks, Susie. And thanks to others who brought this to our attention. From what we can gather the MDF that so many artists wrote about is the most ecologically friendly product at the present time.
by Marjorie Tressler, Waynesboro, PA, USA
I have been using Marine plywood for years, it is about 3/8 inch thick and does not lose its shape, we coat it with rabbit skin glue, just like the old masters did. We use several coats with the rabbit skin glue and whiting with the last one (#3 or 4) having powdered pigment added to tone the surface. The last 2 with just the rabbit skin glue to seal, for a total of 5 to 6 coats. This is a lot of work but we do several at a time and then we have them to use for months. One 4 x 8 foot board makes many different sizes. Applying the coats one way then the other gives a cross hatch effect. Sand in between. I also use the Maroger medium with this prepared board–a very good combination. These boards don’t break down. After students see these prepared boards that is all they want to use.
Melamine surface on hardboard
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA
For my smaller work I use a pre-finished Masonite type hardboard that has a melamine finish on both sides. I sand this with 100 grit on an electric sander and then gesso. This material is flat hard and rigid and is perfect for smaller work but awfully heavy for anything larger than 12 x 16. Check with commercial plywood distributors that sell to sign and display shops. I find that 3mm Luan warps awfully easy if unsupported. I do prefer 3mm Luan over canvas for my larger work and have framed up panels as big as 40 x 120 inches with excellent results. One nice thing about hard panels is the ability to scratch into the paint, an under-utilized technique.
by Scott Lloyd Anderson
What does “foxed” mean? And you say the acids soak through over time? When you say that your deceased friend’s work was ruined, what actually appeared?
(RG note) Thanks, Scott. Foxing refers to dark spots and blemishes that appear on watercolours, mainly due to fungus caused by moisture or impurities in the paper. Dark areas, or general darkening, are also called foxing in other media. Sometimes an overabundance of linseed oil either in the paint itself or in the support will start the process. The uneven presence of other oils, acids, or even natural lignins are also to blame. My friend’s work became blotchy after about twenty years and generally was not as bright and lively as when first painted. Thank you to the hundreds of artists who responded to this problem. Travis Jardon wrote, “Tempered Masonite made in the last decade, at least in the USA, no longer has the acids and hardeners that leach out through the gesso to destroy your work. Synthetic resin binders that are extremely stable are now used in the production of Masonite.”
Working with birch
by Ron Ukrainetz, Great Falls, MT, USA
I seal 1/8 inch birch with two coats of Utrecht Professional gesso, and sand with a medium (120) grit sandpaper. Don’t forget sanding the edges. Panels should be kept under 16 x 20 inches, though. For larger board panels, I prefer 1/4 inch Baltic Birch. I prime both sides, and sand the final coat. If one is energetic, shellac the whole board, glue Belgian linen (using Miracle Muck) to one side, and prime that. It makes a near perfect panel, for my needs, plus 20″ x 24″ panels won’t warp.
Benefits of wood panels
by Lanita Reitsma, Phoenix, AZ, USA
I have been an acrylic painter since they have been available and have painted on all kinds of surfaces. My favorite has become wood followed by clayboard. The way my paint flows over the wood is what attracts me. Maple is one of my favorites because of the smoothness. I get it in sheets from a local woodworker’s store and they cut it down to smaller sizes. Mostly I work on 11 x 14 inches and smaller. Recently I found Cradle Board and liked the built-in support for 16 x 20 and larger sizes. I also had a problem with a corner crumbling on a Masonite panel before I got it framed. So I am reluctant to use that again. Another plus is that if you are a prolific painter and can’t slip everything in a frame right away the finished panels take up less space than canvases. Also if you ship works unframed, packaging is easer.
Novelty show buckles
by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA
A couple of years ago I became affiliated with a gallery new to me. The owner had an idea for a December exhibition that he thought would garner the attention and sales of collectors. He provided all of his artists with raw, Luan palettes, oval or rectangular. The artists were to use the palettes as supports for their paintings. He felt that they would provide a unified exhibit of paintings by his stable of skilled artists, they would have the “novelty” factor, and the pricing would make them attractive as purchases for holiday gifts. When the show ended, I called to inquire about the show. The owner’s response: “It was a disaster!” His clientele “didn’t get it,” and to make matters even worse, the majority of the artists didn’t prepare the wood surface before painting and within a week most of the palettes curled off the walls!
Put everything into it
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
I just finished a work on a half inch thick plywood that is rounded around the corners and splintered in some places. I just spray painted orange hue around the edges. I really used the support as a mounting surface for attaching such items as my first air brush gun, a twenty year old metal rusted palette knife with a bit of paint on it, a cut out of the screen of two different prepared and used frames used for screen printing, a clay sculpting tool with hard clay still adhered to it, a long used wooden handled brush, sponges, a computer mouse, rolling picture hanging wire, a large used tin pan used for soaking paper for dry point prints. Three more old used brushes, a net, a copper sail boat, one American Artist magazine, spools of thread, buttons, half of a old broke canvas stretching pliers, a for sale sign and a few other things. I drug it up from my studio this morning and placed it in front of a fake electric fire place with my clay sculptures on the mantle place. My wife really liked it and said that it was different. She is sleeping now, when she awakens to see it placed in front of the fire place I hope that she still likes it and me because we are different. Because of such things as my old used palette and first air brush and all of the work I am going to ask at least $10,000.00 for the piece.
How to prepare birch plywood
by Marty Hykin, Victoria, BC, Canada
As husband/woodworker to an artist I’d like to put my 2 cents in to the wood panel discussion. Door skins are adequate, as you suggest, but much better is birch plywood. The grain in birch is tight and closed rather than full of large open pores like the Luan and mahogany used for door skins. This makes surface preparation much, much easier and faster. Fewer coats of sealer or gesso and thus fewer sanding sessions are required to fill and smooth the surface. Birch plywood can be obtained in thicknesses from 1/8″ (like door skins) and on up in increments: 3/16 inch, ¼ inch, 3/8 inch and ½ inch are common and easy to find. As you work on larger paintings, you can use thicker plywood instead of building cradles to hold the panel flat. This avoids the woodworking tasks which lie outside interest, abilities, or equipment of most painters. In general, cradling should not be necessary for plywood anyway. It was needed to hold solid wood panels flat, but the criss-cross laminae of plywood tend to prevent the curling and warping that flat-sawn solid wood panels will always do. Whatever you use, it is advisable to seal the back surface as well as the front. The best birch plywood is the so-called “Baltic Birch” which comes from Russia, usually in 5 x 5 foot sheets rather than the 4 x 8 foot sheet we use in North America. Baltic Birch may not be available everywhere. But our own product is quite good. The better quality panels are those which use birch in all the plies, the inner plies and back as well as just the face of the panel. Generally speaking, the more plies in a given thickness of plywood, the better the quality. It is pretty easy to cut your panels to size, up to ¼ inch thick anyway, just by using a sharp matte knife and metal straight edge. Here’s how. Place the plywood, good face up, on a flat surface, a table top or floor. Protect the underlying surface with a layer of cardboard so it won’t be damaged as the knife cuts through the plywood. Use any thing you can contrive to help keep the straightedge from moving while you cut. For example, double-faced tape on the back or a small clamp at either end would be very helpful. Make your first cuts using light pressure, just enough to establish a scored line for the knife point to follow on subsequent cuts, then repeat, going over the line with gradually increasing pressure as the cut deepens. Use much patience and firmness, but no great force and you will have no accidents. Keep the knife blade vertical and be patient. You will feel changes in the feel of the cutting as the knife passes from parallel-grain to cross-grain plies. Eventually the knife will cut through cleanly and there you are; no splintered edges, no messy sawdust, no fancy equipment required. Many lumberyards and building supply dealers have racks of smaller than full-sheet sizes available for sale. Many will custom-cut sheets to smaller sizes for a nominal charge.
Buying Baltic birch
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
Look for Baltic birch (Russian made) or Finn birch (Finnish made). They are about the same product but the Finns make sure they have glue in their guns so there is not the occasional delamination. The Birch is nearly white and fine grained. The material comes 3mm / 1/8in, 6mm / 1/4in (very rigid) and up to 18mm, in 60 x 60 in panels. (Some times 50 x 50 in) As in all woods there will be an acidic ph. Try washing it with a concentrated solution of Baking Soda and water and letting it dry. It will buy time if not eternity. The hitch is, Home Depot and other oversized junk shops will not have it. Try a good supplier of hardwoods or a supplier to cabinet shops.
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I used 1/4 inch Luan panels for years, up to 40 x 60 inches. I used 1 x 3 inch cradling on the backs and several coats of gesso on the front. I like to leave some of the grain texture showing. I had to give it up because galleries complain about the weight and shipping costs, but I still like painting on wood better than on canvas. I also made a few hardwood panels with the back edges beveled for framing in the manner of the Dutch masters, but that gets pretty labor intensive, and joining two pieces is pretty much a lost art. Lost to me anyway. Another support I like to use sometimes is copper. Sealed with gesso, it won’t tarnish oil colors. The Flemish painters of the 17th and 18 centuries used it, and Canaletto did some great stuff on copper. But it only works for smaller sizes.
Enjoy the past comments below for Wood panels…
watercolour painting on canvas, 15 x 19 inches by artist
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Mark Rue of San Antonio, TX, USA who wrote, “Excellent archival wood panels available commercially are here.”
And also James Morton who wrote, “I am under the impression that plywoods especially cheaper grades will delaminate in time. I have switched from plywood to tempered Masonite as a substrate for mounting linen canvas on because I have noticed old plywood used on furniture of about 80 years age has delaminated. I prime the back of the linen and the Masonite heavily with acrylic gesso to prevent acids leaching into the canvas.”
And also Victor Anonsen who wrote, “Do you have any advice for adhering paper to panel? What medium would you use to glue the paper to the panel?”
(RG note) Thanks, Victor. You can collage paper to wooden panels with acrylic medium. Used nearly full strength it makes an excellent glue and dries clear. Layers of paper can be built up, either soaked through or topically. Final finish can be more medium for an overall gloss and you can finish with a varnish such as Golden’s Final Varnish with UVLS. This last coat helps to some degree to control fading.
And also Kerry Peters of Hot Springs, SD, USA who wrote, “Can you please tell me where I may purchase the “wet box” for carrying panel boards like the one you have. I have searched the Internet and cannot find a store that carries it.”
(RG note) Thanks, Kerry. A carpenter friend made mine to my specifications. This morning we sent a computer team to crawl over Dick Blick’s and couldn’t find anything quite like mine.