Decoupage Guidelines

Hello my friends!  For most of our decoupage projects we follow the traditional line but using modern materials such as water-base polyurethane varnish and that too, applying a lot less layers than the traditional artisans did.   We also like to use Modpodge in varioius decoupage projects, as glue & varnish as well. 

The standard guideline we follow in our modern decoupage projects is:

Basic Materials:

  • Wood surface (chest, boxes, jewelry boxes or other wooden objects)
  • Vintage graphics, images or photos (from books, magazines, freebies from websites, etc)
  • Wood sanding papers (#500, 330, 220, 180 grit)
  • White craft glue for decoupage
  • Brushes, scissors & sponges
  • Acrylic Paints 
  • Water-based Liquid Gesso
  • Water-based Polyurethane Varnish (matte, satin or gloss)
  • Steel Wool (#0000)
  • Furniture polish liquid
  • Stencils, according to your design  *optional
  • Rubber or clear stamps, according to your own design *optional
  • Paint primer


1.  Prepare the surface.  Remove the lock and hinges from the chest or box and sand the entire surface until it is smooth to the touch.   Depending on the state of the wood you can use sanding papers from #330 (very rough), # 220 (soft) # 180 (more soft).  If even after sanding the wood is still rough, you can give one or two coats of liquid Gesso and sand again softly.   The Gesso helps to achieve a smooth and even finish in raw wood, cover small defects and work as a sealant.    If you did not use the Gesso, then apply instead 2 coats of a paint primer and allow drying thoroughly, according to the manufacturer's instructions.

2.  Paint the box with acrylic paints in the colors of your choice.  Apply soft layers with the brush in different directions to achieve an old look.

3.  Photocopy or print the images you have chosen on regular Bond 20 lb paper or another regular printing paper of similar quality, I use an IBM 90 gr paper for presentations with a matte finish.  I like the quality of print the IBM paper provides.  You may use ink jet printers or laser printers.  You can find inspirational images for your projects on magazines, newspapers, antique books, from online free graphic resources, Dover publication books, or the images I publish on this blog, whatever you prefer.

4.  Seal the prints before you cut them to prevent the ink from running or bleeding.  You can seal the images with a mixture of white craft glue (acid free pva), mixed with a little bit of water to make it lighter.  Brush the mixture on top of the images gently and let it dry.  Another way of sealing the prints is with a liquid or spray fixative” like those produced by Krylon .  Allow your images to dry according to the manufacturer instructions.  I usually let them dry for 24 hours.

5.  Cut the images with a pair of fine scissors, pushing and moving the paper towards the scissors and not otherwise.

6.  Proceed to glue cutouts to the box with white craft glue (pva), glue for decoupage or Mod Podge. Glue the images according to the design and decoration that you want to achieve.  Wet your fingers slightly with water and press over the cutouts from the center outward to remove the air bubbles.   Use a dampened sponge to remove the excess of glue.  Let it dry for 24 hours.

7.  As optional, add decorative details to the box with stencils & stamps according to your design. For the stencils I used acrylic paint and for the stamps archival ink pads for wood or other surfaces.   For a worn look, you want to paint as well a decorative border in black color around the edges of the box, with a small brush or even with your fingers.     

8.  Once the entire design is completed and the box is all decorated, we are ready to varnish. The varnish we like to use is a water-based polyurethane (Aqua-Zar) that will not yellow over the years and is not toxic, especially if we work in small areas with poor ventilation (vapors from oil-based varnishes can be harmful to health), but any good brand water-based polyurethane varnish will do the job fine. 
Note:  The very traditional decoupage artisans could reach up from 20 to 30 layers of varnish, but in the modern decoupage is not necessary to varnish so much. We apply 5-8 coats at the most, since those are sufficient amount of coats to protect the edges of the images, and protect all the work itself.   When we go for 8 coats is when we like to feel a very smooth surface around the edges of the cutouts when passing our fingers over it.   But as Durwin Rice says (one of the gurus of new decoupage) “you want to protect your work from scratches not from hurricane, cosmic radiation, or the Ebola virus” he he!     

9.  Depending on the finish you want to give your project, you can use matte, satin or gloss. You may start with a layer of gloss varnish, and if you like the look of the gloss then continue with it, otherwise you can change to satin or matte.   You want to apply the 3 first coats of varnish in a row, letting it dry well between each one (see drying instructions of the manufacturer).  After the these 3 layers, let it rest for 2 full days.  

10.  Then take a fine grit sandpaper (# 500-600), get it wet with water and sand the entire box softly and lightly. This helps to level the surface, eliminate bubbles and remove any remaining roughness, giving it a very smooth finish.   Wipe it with a cloth, and wait for it to dry.   Then apply 1-2 more layers of varnish.
*It is very important to varnish using a good quality brush, the better quality the fewer bubbles and smoother surface.

11.  The next step, once the varnish is dry, is to take a steel wool (#0000 grade) and pass it lightly over the surface in horizontal movements , it gives a very nice finish and when you pass your fingers over it, it feels very soft, but remember to pass it very softly to avoid any possible damages to the varnish. 

12.  Give one last coat of varnish to the entire surface and you will be done.  Yay!

Allow the project to dry & cure according to the instructions of the varnish manufacturer.   It may feel dry to the touch, but it actually takes longer to dry completely and you do not want to damage your project.    Until the project is fully cured, do not use it for another purposes than merely decorative.

This process based on the traditional decoupage may take time from the beginning to the end, but the final results are really rewarding.  The quality of the finish is strong and wonderful and you get in your hands a piece of art you have done yourself and can feel proud about.  Therefore once the project is ready, you want to take care of it as a precious piece of furniture.  Apply regularly a furniture liquid polish to keep it shiny and clean. 

In different posts we will give more detailed information about the materials, equipment, sources and others in our "technique series".  Follow us for the updates. 

Enjoy working on your projects!

Erika E. 
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