Tutorial: Making Linen Panels

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Making your own acrylic-primed linen or canvas-covered hardboard panels with clean, crisp edges is easier than you might think. I'm sharing my method after a little trial and error.

A selection of handmade panels from my studio.

Step 1: Gather Materials

You'll need:


Step 2: Sealing Raw Panels

GAC 100 from Golden is excellent for sealing hardbaord panels

The first step to preparing hardboard or MDF panels is to seal them. Raw wood must be sealed to protect both the wood and your painting. Sealing protects the wood from absorbing moisture and deterioration and it keeps the paint from absorbing into the wood or being broken down over time by the wood's natural chemicals. All you need is 1 or 2 thin layers of GAC 100 or other appropriate sealant. I pour a little onto a paper plate and brush the GAC on with a soft, cheap crafts brush. The product starts to dry quickly, so work quickly and rinse your brush out between sessions to keep it from drying out. Some people suggest sanding between layers with a fine-grit sanding block, while others discourage sanding. I have never been able to discover which is better. I have done it both ways and have not noticed a difference in adhesion. When I have time, I do like to give the layers a light sanding, dusting off the panel before adding further layers. Allow each layer to dry according to the product directions or longer if you have time.

The raw boards absorb the GAC quickly and it can become difficult to distinguish which panels are sealed and which are not. Find an organizing system in your studio that keeps raw and sealed panels separate.

Note: GAC 100 is a low tack glue and your panels will be slightly sticky even when the material is completely dry. Store sealed panels standing up like books or records and use a pallet knife to unstick them when necessary. Although I didn’t do it in this tutorial, I do sometimes put a thin swipe of gesso on the back of my finished panels to make the backs less sticky.

Step 3: Linen Prep

Here the fabric on top is a fairly heavy apparel-weight linen and the bottom, cream colored fabric is muslin I found in the quilting cotton section.

For my panels, I purchase apparel-weight linen or muslin from a local fabric shop. I then wash the fabric in a free and clear laundry detergent to rid the fabric of any factory sizing or chemicals. I dry my linen in the dryer without softeners to make sure it has shrunk.

I then pre-cut pieces leaving a 1/4" or 1/2" excess that will be trimmed later. This does not need to be exact as I'm not wrapping the fabric around the panel.

Note: Linen is expensive, so watch for sales and check remnant bins, or opt for muslin which is usually inexpensive and makes a lovely surface.

Step 4: Attaching Fabric to Your Boards

Michael Harding's Non-Absorbent Acrylic Primer is my favorite ground for painting. One advantage of preparing your own supports is that you choose the quality and quantity of your materials at every step.

This step is the most important and the most tedious because you want good adhesion on the edges and corners of the fabric. First, you’ll spread a thin layer of your primer onto the sealed panel. Follow product instructions, but Michael Harding's non-absorbent acrylic primer allows the user to add a little water to the first layer. I add just enough to make the primer flow a little better and absorb into the fabric well, being careful not to add too much as your panels can bow if they get too wet.

Once you've covered the panel entirely with your primer or gesso, gently spread the fabric onto the primed panel pushing out bubbles with a tool such as a Bondo spreader (see above). Add another thinned layer of your primer pushing it into the fabric with a paintbrush. Be sure to paint out past the edges so that the excess fabric becomes stiff and easy to cut away later

Now allow your panels to dry for an hour or so then check around the corners and edges adding more primer in places where are you are not getting good adhesion. Check again after another hour or two and then allow the panels to dry overnight or until they are no longer cool to the touch.

Step 5: Adding layers of Gesso/Primer

Once your panels are dry and you’re satisfied that your corners and edges have fully adhered to the panel, you can add one or two more layers of gesso. If you are not going to add the optional acrylic paint, two more layers and you have a triple-primed panel ready to go!

Step 6: Trim Edges

A rotary cutter with a fresh blade and a self-healing mat makes this step a breeze!

Using a rotary cutter, trim the edges of your fabric away from the panel. Cotton and linen fabrics are actually quite hard on sharps, so have extra blades on hand in case your blade gets dull while trimming a large batch of panels.

Step 7 (Optional): Finishing and Pre-Toning

At this point you can now paint on your panel in oil or acrylic, but I love this finishing method for creating a panel that has the slicker quality of an oil-primed panel. First, I paint a layer of titanium white with a little gloss Acrylic medium added. I also add a small amount of water if necessary to make the paint flow. I also do a swipe on the edge for a clean look (or do this with gesso at an earlier stage). Now my panel will have a smoother surface more like that of an oil primed panel without the long waiting time. Allow this step to dry thoroughly. The gloss medium will add to the drying time.

Liquitex "Parchment" is my current favorite for toning my panels. Experiment with different colors to find your signature look.

The final layers are my favorite part. Put on some music or a podcast and just enjoy the process.

For a final touch, I pre-tone my panels with a mid-value acrylic paint. Currently I’m using Parchment by Liquitex which has the look of raw linen. I’ve also used acrylic burnt sienna, pale umber, and neutrals mixed from primary colors as tones for my canvases. You can do a mix of different undertones on your panels, as well as, leaving some white to experiment with different under paintings and wipe out techniques.

Recent still life paintings on handmade panels.

In this detail you can see the texture of the fabric. It's my favorite surface to work on.

I love making these panels. It makes a great weekend project that you can do while watching tv or listening to a podcast, and you get to have a high-quality surface to paint on for the cost of materials!