Today is the last Friday of March, so for the final Big Friday post of this month, I thought I’d mix things up a little and publish an instructional post. I think it’s been over a year since I last did one of these. Today I’m detailing the process I use to create my wood photo transfers, which some of you have seen in person.

The basic idea of this craft is that you take an image and transfer it onto a surface, in this case a piece of wood. You’re not actually printing directly onto the wood, so it’s technically not wood printing, but rather you’re attaching the very thin layer of ink that’s printed on paper onto the wood. Think of it as a classier version of gluing a picture onto a wood surface. You can find a number of websites and Youtube videos that detail this process (viewing them is how I learned to do it) and the instructions you’ll find here are not significantly different from them.

Supplies Needed:
* Piece of sanded/smooth wood
* Image printed on a piece of paper using a laser-jet printer
* Gel medium
* Matte/gloss finish, or wood stain, or whatever you want to use to coat the final product
* Foam brush(es)
* Soft cloth/towel

Possibly Needed Supplies: (depending on your situation)
* Hand saw or power saw
* Sand paper
* Hand sander or power sander
* Work bench/table
* Eye protection
* Dust mask
* Work gloves
* Clamps
* Pen or Sharpie

Here’s a pair of photos of most of the supplies:

Wood, power saw, clamps, work table, eye protection, dust mask, and gloves.

Foam brushes, gel medium, gloss and matte finish, sand paper, and a hand-sander tool

Before we get started, I need to notes a few things:

The image you use can be printed on a regular piece of printer paper, but it must be printed with a laser-jet printer. Images printed with ink-jet printers do not transfer as well as laser-jet ones. If you don’t have a laser-jet printer, places like FedEx have them and can print your image(s). Also, be sure to horizontally flip the image before printing it. You’ll be planting the image face-down on the wood, so if you don’t flip it then you’ll end up with a mirror image instead of the original image.

What type of wood you use is up to you. I’ve used a few different types and all have worked fine, though there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you want a smooth surface to place the image onto. Second, the color of the wood will affect the color of your image. Generally speaking, the brighter the color of the wood, the better, though if you want to go artistic and add a color tint to the final product you can certainly buy something like red wood. Lastly, be mindful of the thickness of the wood you’re buying. Thicker wood is of course heavier, and may require more effort to mount to a wall.

The gel medium I have used is the one made by Liquitex, and seems to be the most popular type to use. There’s a photo of the gel medium container further down for you to look at. For the finish, I’ve used both gloss and matte wood finishes made by Mod Podge, but feel free to use whatever strikes your fancy.

All the items listed under the Possibly Needed Supplies heading are dependent on the wood you purchase. If you can get a piece of wood that’s exactly the right size for your image, then you probably won’t need any of them. If, however, you buy wood that then needs to be cut and sanded into the proper size, like you’ll see in my example, then you will probably need them.

With all that preliminary stuff out of the way, let’s get started.

—–

In the process detailed below, I am using a 2’x4′ piece of plywood and the images I used were all printed on regular 8.5″x11″ printer paper. If your wood is already the exact size needed for the image, you can skip the initial steps in the first paragraph below.

If your wood needs to be cut into the proper size for your image, you’ll need to start there. Mark out the proper dimensions with a pen or sharpie and then cut the wood as needed. This is easiest to do with some sort of power saw or table saw, but a hand saw can be made to work if needed. In the photo below I marked out a pattern on a 2’x4′ piece of plywood with a sharpie and then cut along the lines with a power saw. Clamps are very helpful to hold the wood in place while cutting, and be sure to use proper eye protection and a dust mask to keep your face safe from all the dust and small bits of wood that will be flying around. When cutting, it’s always safer to err on the side of creating a piece of wood that’s a little too big than a little too small (you can always come back later and take off the excess). If your piece of wood needs to be sanded to smooth out the surface, also do that now before moving ahead.

The original piece of wood, marked up for cutting

When you’re done cutting the wood into the desired size, put the piece down on a table with some scrap paper underneath it to keep the table clean. In this case, I used some pages from a magazine. Get the gel medium, foam brush, and your image. With the foam brush, apply a thin, even layer of gel medium to the surface that you want to put the image on. If the layer is too thin, then the image will not properly bond to the wood, and if it’s took thick then it will be really hard to remove the paper on top of the image. Do your best to also make sure the gel medium is spread evenly across the surface. It’s hard to describe the exact thickness of the gel, and I know the photo below doesn’t do much to help, but generally speaking, you want the layer to be thin enough that you can see the wood underneath it. For me it took several rounds of trial and error to finally get the thickness right.

The cut piece of wood, with gel medium and image ready to be applied

The wood with a thin layer of gel medium

When you think you’ve got the gel medium properly spread across the wood surface, slowly and gently lay the image face-down on top of the gel medium (so that the back of the paper is facing up). I know this can be as stressful as trying to lay a protective screen across a smartphone, but on the plus side if you’re a little bit off you can just gently push the image around until it exactly fits the surface. It will be a minute or so before the gel medium starts to dry, so you have a short period to make adjustments if needed.

The image now applied. I didn’t get it perfectly smooth, but it turned out ok.

Next you need to smooth out the image and make sure it is evenly pressed down onto the gel medium. To do this you can use something like the back of a credit card or another flat surface. In my case, I have an old name tag from my former office that works really well for this. Smooth out and gently press down the entire image, especially the edges. Spend a few minutes gently working over the image and getting it as flat on the surface as you can. On a side note, if you notice a lot of gel medium is oozing out the sides while you smooth out the image, then you know you’ve used too much.

Smoothing out the paper

With the image now applied to the wood, you need to give it and the gel medium time to dry and stick to the wood. Place the wood somewhere off to the side and let it sit around for about 24 hours. A few times I’ve given the wood a little less time (around 18 to 20 hours) and achieved similar results, so if your schedule demands you let the wood sit a bit less than 24 hours you should be ok. I had one time where I was unable to get back to the project the next day and consequently it sat around for about 36 hours, but it also turned out about the same as the others.

Once the waiting period is over, it’s time to begin removing the excess paper from the wood. This is the most tedious part of the process, and perhaps the longest, depending on how big of an image you used. For me it normally takes about two full days, so if you’re doing something similar to what I was doing you’ll just have to be patient. Take a soft cloth or face towel and get it wet. Then, wring out the excess water. You want the cloth/towel wet, but not soaking wet. Use the cloth/towel to get the paper damp and then start to gently rub the paper off. You can also use your fingers to rub the paper off, but however you do it, do not be forceful. After you’ve taken off a layer of the paper, let it dry for an hour or two and then come back and repeat the process. It will likely take you many repetitions of dampening the paper, gently rubbing some off, and then letting it dry before you finish. Keep in mind that you will likely lose small bits of the underlying image as you rub off the paper, but that’s just part of the craft. If you were wanting an perfect reproduction of the image without any degradation, then you should have gotten it printed on nice photo paper and framed it.

Ready to begin removal

The first bits of paper removed

As you continue the process of removing the paper, the image will start to become clearer and clearer. You will likely also notice that the last patches of paper residue are the hardest to remove.

After a few repetitions, the image has appeared

Getting closer

Almost there

After many repetitions, you will get to the point where you have either have all the paper off, or the paper residue is so thin that it’s hardly noticeable. When you get to the point of being satisfied with how it looks, then it is time to finish the project. If there’s any additional cutting or sanding of the wood that needs to be done, go ahead and do that now. Once you’re finished with that, or if you didn’t need to do any of it in the first place, you can now apply the matte/gloss finish or your choice of wood stain. Follow the instructions of the product you choose and let it dry however long is required. When that’s done, take a look at the finished product and feel good about what you’ve made. Below is a photo of the final result of project I was working on, as well a photo of the other ones I made.

My toes make a cameo appearance

How you choose to display your masterpiece is up to you. Mount it on the wall, stand it on a shelf, use it as a paperweight, there’s a wide variety of options.

Before closing, I should also mention what you can do if, for whatever reason, you make a big mistake during the process or are unsatisfied with how the project is turning out. The easiest solution is to just flip the piece of wood over and give the process another try on the back side. If that’s not workable you can use sandpaper to remove the paper and dried gel medium from the wood and then reuse the same side of the wood. A power sander is best for this, but you can also do it by hand (it will just take a lot longer). You’ll want to use coarse, lower grit sandpaper (I used 60 grit). Below is a photo of one of my rejects getting the sandpaper treatment.

That wraps up this guide to transferring photos/images to wood. It’s a time-intensive process but can give you a more distinctive piece of decoration for your home, or a nice gift for a friend. For me it took several attempts before I started to get the process to work consistently, so if your initial attempts have mixed results, just keep experimenting until you get it right.

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