How to Prime Wood for Acrylic Painting

By Mandy Moss

Acrylic painting is an ideal medium for artists of any skill level. It comes in a variety of bright colors and can be used on different surfaces oil and wax-free to create beautiful, vibrant masterpieces. When applying Acrylic paint on wood, you should ask yourself how to prime wood and if needed.

How to Prime Wood for Acrylic Painting

What Wood surfaces can be painted with Acrylics?

Essentially anything can be painted with acrylic paint – if it’s primed correctly. Wood panels are durable and easy to prime, making them a popular choice for painting methods that require a sturdier surface than, say, canvas.

For example, Acrylic pouring requires a larger volume of paint that fabric canvas may not be able to support (think Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler). Their strength and versatility make wood panels a great option for out-of-the-box ideas. 

Do I need to prime a waxed or oiled wood surface?

Wax is applied as a top protective barrier when the wood is being primed for use as furniture or wooden objects (like bowls). The wax helps the wood appear shiny and highlights the natural grains in the wood.

Oil finishes are equally as popular due to their ease of use and the guaranteed “natural,” shiny finish. Therefore, pre-treated wood typically has an existing coat of wax or oil already on it. 

Priming the wood will ensure that the wax or oil used to treat the wood will not interfere with the painting. If you’re painting wood that has not been painted previously, best to prime the wood canvas as if it was raw wood.

If surface is painted already, do I need to prime it?

When paint is lighter in color than the wood itself, Primer can help achieve a nice, white base. Gesso is a popular primer due to its ability to easily create a bright, white base that beautifully accepts acrylic paint. 

When Painting with acrylic paint over varnish keep in mind:

Some varnishes are able to be painted over with acrylics and re-varnished. With others, it may be necessary to sand off the top layer of varnish to get to the layers of paint underneath. Once sanded down, it’s best to re-prime. 

NOTE: Primer is not necessary in between layers of paint.

Why do we need to Prime wood before using Acrylic paint?

Why do we need to Prime wood before using Acrylic paint?

Wood has a naturally porous texture that can absorb the paint and dry it out if there’s no base coat separating the artwork from the raw material. Over time, the colors could fade and crack, stripping the painting of its luster and vibrancy.

In addition to priming, raw wood needs to be sealed prior to painting to prevent moisture from getting into the wood after the paint dries. Without a sealer, moisture will make its way into the wood and cause warping and other damage.

How do we prepare raw wood for acrylic painting?

For each raw Wood where we want to paint on, we take the two-step preparing process:

  1. First, we seal the panel to prevent moisture from seeping into the wood over time. 
  2. After we prime it to ensure the paint has a smooth, even surface to cover.

Let’s dive into more in detail

Step 1: Preparing your Panel

An easy way to ensure proper coverage and even layers of paint distribution is to prop your canvas up on all four corners, the added height will allow space on the sides for the paint to drip off.

It’s also a good idea before sealing and priming the canvas to wipe it clean of any dust and debris with a clean, dry cloth. 

Step 2:  Sealing the Wood 

Sealing is an especially important step if the medium is acrylic paint on wood.

“SID” or Support Induced Discoloration only occurs with acrylic paint. Supports (in this case – wood panels or objects) naturally contain contaminants that discolor white and clear layers in acrylic paint. Sealing will prevent SID from altering the colors of your painting in any way.

Sealing tips:

  • Make at least 2 layers, when sealing
  • Use a glossy finish so the primer doesn’t stick to them.
  • Make sure that the sealer covers all areas of the exposed material, even if your painting won’t cover the entire area.

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The sealer will ensure the material does not warp, mold, or discolor over time. 

Step 3:  Wood Priming 

Generally, primers are anything that is laid down as a base coat in order to get a surface ready to be painted. You may also hear “gesso” in place of the word “prime” in some scenarios. Gesso is a popular brand of primer that has become commonplace enough to use its name as a verb synonymous with “prime.” (“You still need to gesso that canvas before you start.”)

Priming tips:

  • Prime the canvas for painting by creating an adhesive surface for the paint to stick to
  • Add “tooth” or texture to the sealer’s glossy finish 
  • You will need to make as many layers as it takes for you, to achieve the desired whiteness as a base.
  • It is only necessary to prime the areas you intend to paint, unlike sealer which should cover the entire surface area of the canvas.
  • Allow the primer to dry until it is dry to the touch with no tack. 

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Sealing Acrylic Paint on Wood

Once your painting is finished, it is best to seal your painting with a protectant sealant. This final layer will prevent chips and cracks in the paint.

Wait 24 hours after applying varnish to allow it to dry and seal the other layers of paint. Keep in mind that varnish’s true curing time is more like three weeks than 24 hours, so don’t let a dry surface allow you to handle the piece too roughly.

TIP: Modge Podge is a great choice for sealing acrylic paint on wood because it is a protective sealer that dries clear. It can be used as a glue to adhere porous materials (such as acrylic paint) to nearly any surface.