Preparing Painting Panels.

After experimenting and researching different painting panel types, I've found this to be a simple, durable support that will stand the test of time.


I generally paint on a small scale (up to 16" x 20”) and attaching supports to keep thinner substrates from warping is a step that can be avoided by using thicker high-grade plywood. Although 3/8 inch ply should suffice for sizes under 16 x 20 inches, I prefer to minimize any chances of warping by using ½ inch grade B (or BB) Baltic Birch. There are many types of hardwood ply and most will work, but I prefer the fine grain and overall smooth texture of Baltic Birch. has the highest cabinet grade plywood that I've been able to find.


Probably the most common choice for painting panels and it does offer a nice surface. After 16 years in the picture framing industry and handling/restoring hundreds of fire, flood, earthquake and other types of damaged paintings, I've come to the conclusion that Baltic birch is more resilient, as it is less prone to warping when exposed to extreme temperatures and it's naturally moisture resistant. Also, because it's a hardwood, if dropped on a corner, it would most likely only dent/compress, whereas masonite could crumble and break (which I've seen happen). 

Materials Needed:

There are a lot of artists who make their own gesso, but I prefer to cut out steps where possible to allow more time to paint. Liquitex Gesso is a popular and well-tested ground for rigid painting panels and I would highly recommend it.

The Process:

Because of the lengthy process, I would suggest preparing multiple panels to maximize your time.
  1. Cut plywood to size and smooth with 200 grit sandpaper. Lightly round off the corners and hard edges that can keep the gesso from bonding all the way around the board. Slight scratches, divots and irregularities will eventually be covered with gesso, but you’ll want to sand away any protrusions.
  2. Remove dust and residual oils by gently cleaning all sides of the panel with a damp cloth.
  3. With a soft square brush, my favorite being a 1” Loew-Cornell 1177 Brown Nylon (also great for varnishing), brush on a thin coat of gesso perpendicular to the wood grain. Work the gesso into the surface and sides and lightly level out the brush strokes. Let it dry for approximately 2 hours.
  4. Once the top and sides have dried enough that you feel comfortable flipping it over, lay down a sheet of wax paper and apply gesso to the backside of the panel. Be careful to keep the gesso from running onto the face. Having a coat of gesso on all sides of the panel will act as a moisture barrier and provide a back counter layer that will reduce the chances of warping and yield a more aesthetically pleasing finished panel. No additional gesso coats are necessary for the back and sides but you can apply them if desired. Let dry for at least 8 hours.
  5. For the preceding coats: always apply gesso perpendicular to the prior coat. Allow at least 8 hours of drying time between coats. Apply a total of at least 8 coats.
  6. After the final coat is dry, using an electric sander with 220 grit sandpaper, sand until you have reached your desired surface texture. Personally, I like a smooth ivory-like finish so that the tooth of the panel doesn't detract from the realism effect. Wipe away are now ready to paint!!!


  1. (transferred from original post - Jan. 2012)

    I am switching to baltic birch and want you rec. for pieces that are 5 ft x 5 ft. Would 1/2 ” prevent warping? What to do to the back for support hanging?

    1. (transferred from original post - Jan. 2012)

      Hello Christine,

      Because larger sizes are more prone to warping when exposed to moister, temperature and/or humidity changes, I would consider using marine grade ‘Okume Mahogany’ instead of birch. If you plan to make the panels yourself, you’ll need to make sure that they’re properly braced. Check out the John Annesley Company, they sell custom supports and they have some good information about supports and bracing on their website –

      As far as hanging your panel, I’d suggest using heavy duty strap hangers “without wire”. Strap hangers are commonly used to hang big/heavy objects like mirrors or oversize pictures and your local picture framer or hardware store should have them. –

      I Hope this helps! If you have any other questions – please feel free to ask.



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