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How to prepare a wooden palette

Painters can be very par­tic­u­lar about their palettes. For oil paint­ing, I like to use a wooden arm palette. I’ve found that the best prepa­ra­tion is a method tra­di­tion­ally used in wood­work­ing called French pol­ish­ing. This method pro­vides a tough, smooth sur­face that is not sol­u­ble in oil, turps, min­eral spir­its, or any of the other sol­vents used in oil paint­ing. It’s easy to clean. Hard­ened oil paint, if nec­es­sary, can be quickly removed with a green kitchen scrubee pad soaked in turps or min­eral spir­its. The paint sticks well to the palette with­out resist­ing the brush or the palette knife.

Get your­self a new wooden palette and sand down any splin­ters or imper­fec­tions. Make sure it fits your hand well. You will need some fresh shel­lac; the stuff you get at a fur­ni­ture store will do. You could also make your own by dis­solv­ing dry shel­lac flakes in dena­tured alco­hol. You will need some dena­tured alco­hol for clean­ing up, a one-foot square of lint-free cloth, prefer­ably linen, and a small amount of lin­seed oil. Fold the cloth into a con­ve­nient size—about 2” is good. Dip the pad in shel­lac and wipe it over the sur­face of the palette, cov­er­ing thor­oughly and evenly. Pour a small amount of lin­seed oil onto the sur­face of your cloth. While the shel­lac is still tacky, rub the cloth over the sur­face of the palette in a cir­cu­lar motion. With a lit­tle prac­tice, you get a sense of how to do this so that the shel­lac is spread smoothly and pressed into the wood. Let the palette dry enough so that the shel­lac is it no longer tacky (15 min­utes or so). Apply and then pol­ish another layer, and another, and another, until the palette has a sur­face that feels suf­fi­ciently thick (I apply about 810 lay­ers). It is beau­ti­fully smooth.

If the sur­face of your palette even­tu­ally gets dam­aged by repeated scrap­ing, you can remove the old shel­lac with dena­tured alco­hol and apply a new French pol­ish. In three years of heavy use, I haven’t yet had to do that.

Posted in art materials, oil painting.

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22 Responses

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  1. Jose Romero says

    ´m fol­low­ing your instruc­tions to pre­pare my palette. ´ve applied four coats of shel­lac and oil, and it looks quite glossy. Don´t know if that´s the way it´s sup­possed to be or ´m doing some­thing wrong, but any­way, how do I turn it into a more matte surface?

  2. David says

    Jose,

    French pol­ish­ing nor­mally pro­duces a glossy sur­face, which allows it to be very eas­ily cleaned.

    I have not tried to make it matte. If I wanted to do that, I’d exper­i­ment with apply­ing a final layer of shel­lac (per­haps thinned slightly with dena­tured alco­hol) with­out pol­ish­ing. If that didn’t give me the sur­face I was look­ing for, I’d try sand­ing it, increas­ing the coarse­ness of the sand­pa­per until the sheen was as dull as I wanted it to be.

    Let me know how it turns out.

  3. Jeff says

    I just splurged for one of those Whitaker designed mahogany real gesso palettes– I am a lefty so it was nice that they have that option!

  4. Jose Romero says

    Finally, ´ve sanded with fine-grained sand­pa­per, using oil as lubri­cant, and have achieved a very nice smooth, semi-gloss sur­face. We´ll see how it works… (Thank you David)

  5. David says

    Jose,

    I hope it works for you.

  6. Meabh McDowell says

    Thank you Mr. Rourke for post­ing this. I always knew there was more prep work involved than just rub­bing a few lay­ers of lin­seed oil on a palette. Wood palettes have always been a favourite of mine, my father, who got me started in paint­ing, used them. I have never thought of using any­thing else.

    On another note, your blog has so much valu­able infor­ma­tion (dis­cov­ered through wet​can​vas​.com), I have it book­marked and plan on mak­ing reg­u­lar vis­its. I appre­ci­ate you mak­ing it some­what per­sonal; I think this makes folks more apt to mak­ing comments.

    Thank you again & glad to read lit­tle Bren­dan is doing better.

    Meabh

  7. Melanie Peter says

    Tint­ing the French pol­ish? Any idea how I would tint the pol­ish a neu­tral, mid-tone gray?

  8. David says

    Melanie,

    If I wanted a grey palette, I’d prob­a­bly paint the wood before I applied shel­lac to it. The shel­lac would make the hue slightly warmer than the base paint tone.

  9. Melanie Peter says

    Thank you, David! I tried the French pol­ish (not with gray paint) on some birch ply­wood 12” × 16” and ran into a prob­lem. The shel­lac dried so fast I could not get the oil rubbed in on the last third of the palette. The shel­lac got sticky faster than I could work it with oil. I live in Florida. It’s 85 degrees today. Could that be it?
    Do you know how I could slow down the dry­ing of the shel­lac for a few min­utes?
    And do you have a ball­park guess regard­ing the rel­a­tive pro­por­tion of oil to shel­lac? I think I used too much oil when the sur­face became sticky.
    Sorry to be such a pest.

  10. David says

    Melanie,

    I am by no means an expert on shel­lac or French pol­ish­ing. You might want to do a Google search on “French pol­ish.” You’ll get referred to lots of sites with info on fur­ni­ture mak­ing and hand fin­ish­ing of musi­cal instru­ments. The pro­ce­dure is the same, so the infor­ma­tion you find on those sites might be useful.

    You might well be find­ing that heat and humid­ity affect how easy it is to work with the shel­lac. How­ever, in my expe­ri­ence, it’s OK for the shel­lac have hard­ened a bit when you pol­ish it. Just keep going over it with a cloth dipped in a very small amount of oil and it will become smooth. If you need to retard dry­ing, you could try adding a bit of dena­tured alco­hol. Also make sure the shel­lac is from a freshly opened can.

    You aren’t mix­ing oil with shel­lac. You apply the shel­lac, then use a pad dipped in just a lit­tle oil. The oil acts to lubri­cate the pad and allow it to glide over the sur­face, pol­ish­ing it at a micro­scopic level. Again, check out sites with info on French pol­ish­ing for more com­plete explanations.

    I hope this is helpful.

  11. Melanie Peter says

    Wow! that was a fast reply! Thanks so much. I will research more online.

    I’ll also get a new can of shel­lac. This one wasn’t new.

    It helps to know I’m not try­ing to mix the oil into the shel­lac, but only pol­ish­ing the layer.

    If I paint the palette gray, the shel­lac might not sink into the wood. I’ll check on that.

    By the way: Today I made a con­coc­tion which didn’t exactly work, but might work if I fine-tuned it. I made an emul­sion by stir­ring water-soluble lin­seed oil into shel­lac. Then I added a bit of gray tube paint, which mixed right in. But I had too much oil; it migrated to the sur­face and just sat there. And now I real­ize the idea is not to make an emul­sion with the oil and shellac.

  12. David says

    Melanie,

    You’re going way beyond what I’ve ever tried to do with shel­lac. Let me know how it turns out.

  13. james says

    First, thank you for this won­der­fully cool, infor­ma­tive site. I used your method here for the palette of my pochade, and it is wonderful.

    may do the entire box, as it is unfin­ished, but for now, it is a dream to mix on.

  14. David says

    James,

    You’re wel­come.

  15. Marie Meyer says

    Thanks for the inter­est­ing blog! I just picked up a can of shel­lac at my local hard­ware store, it seems to require a more com­plex process: first, it has to be “cut” to a cer­tain degree, but they don’t sup­ply the for­mula; sec­ond, it spec­i­fies wait­ing an hour between coats; third, is spec­i­fies sand­ing between coats. Did I pick a bad brand? Or did your brand have sim­i­lar instruc­tions, which you ignored :).

  16. David says

    Marie,

    You can cut shel­lac with dena­tured alco­hol, which should also be avail­able at your hard­ware store. Wait­ing an hour and sand­ing between coats is not applic­a­ble to French pol­ish­ing; you might want to do a search on that topic on the web for more infor­ma­tion, as I am hardly an expert.

  17. Bob says

    Did a table top with “french pol­ish” and if you want to cut the sheen down a lit­tle try rub­bing lin­seed oil with pumice stone on pal­lette. should knock down sheen some­what but the whole idea behind French Pol­ish­ing is to give your piece a deep sheen not the plas­tic look that most cheap fur­ni­ture sports.. hope this helps a little!

  18. Chris says

    I ambe­ing artist (Acrylic) and aquired a wooden palette. Can I use this method to pre­pare the palette to use with acrylic paints?

    • David says

      Chris,

      You cer­tainly could do that, but I’m not sure how hard it would be to scrape dried paint off.

      • Kathy says

        David, I am mak­ing a cus­tom palette to fit a box I have, what kinds of wood are pre­ferred for palettes? Has to be hard since the wood is so thinly cut.

        • David says

          Kathy,

          I’m just not that much of an expert on woods for this pur­pose. I’m sure that a bit of Googling should get you some answers.

  19. Sharon says

    Thanks– this worked wonderfully.



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