If you've read my previous post you'll know that I'm in Los Angeles for a class with Adrian Gottlieb. Due to a twist of fate (backordered) a very nice balanced palette I ordered would not arrive in time for my trip so I cancelled the order. Instead, I brought my pochade box as a temp solution but before my second class I purchased a cheap art store handheld palette so not to be a floor space hog. In order to make make my return trip manageable I decided to purchase two smaller palettes rather than one larger palette. I'll make my own larger, custom shaped palette when I return to NYC.
I'm not a big fan of working off a raw wooden palettes so I'm posting two classic palette preparation methods. While most professionally made palettes are beautifully shaped many are coated in polyurethane. This method is fast and somewhat durable but it does not age well and is not easily repairable. This is where some older finishing methods have an advantage. Shellac and Oil finishes are the traditional methods and both are repairable. I learned this the hard way after I bought a nice balanced palette from a palette maker and he convinced me to go with polyurethane... I rested my palette on the edge of a table and it fell. Happens. The problem is now I'm stuck with a chip right where I mix and poly is pretty hard to repair short of sanding it off.
For the two palettes I'm making here I'll be using shellac finish. Shellac is a great coating for palettes for several reasons. The final finish is non-toxic (shellac is used to coat some candy), It's a natural renewable resource (from bugs, makes you rethink the candy part...), It's unaffected by any solvents used in painting and It's easily repaired. Shellac is made of two parts. The first component is shellac flakes which are then dissolved in the second component, denatured alcohol. The alcohol evaporates leaving the shellac behind forming a protective shell. For this project I'm using Bulls Eye brand. It's shellac pre-dissolved in denatured alcohol and comes in a can. You can find it at any home hardware store. If you use a pre-dissolved shellac like this make sure that the can is new. I've had pre-disolved shellac less than a year old that refused to ever dry and remained tacky and gooey, so test first.
The alternate finish method is to use a furniture finishing oil. Oil finishes don't coat the surface like shellac does. Instead they penetrates the wood much deeper and seal it from the inside out. Tung Oil and Boiled Linseed Oil are the most traditional and widely available. Boiled Linseed Oil is an industrial drying oil that is relatively full of impurities compared to an artist grade linseed oil but that's why its cheap (that's also why it can smell rancid sometimes). Tung Oil is cleaned of more impurities than BLO and sometimes comes mixed with a varnish component. You can usually find "Glossy" and "Semi-Gloss" versions of Tung Oil. Because of Tung Oil's higher quality it tends to cost more that BLO. You can thin either with Odorless Mineral Spirits or Turpentine just as you can an artist grade painting oil. Both are fast drying. I find waiting a day between coats is good for either. Most artist will find oil finishes easier to apply than shellac because they will be more familiar with its working properties. After using both methods I've come to prefer Tung Oil over Boiled Linseed or Shellac.
A small warning- There are many difference with these furniture oils vs. artist's grade oils. Don't be tempted to use furniture finishing oils as painting mediums because they are cheap and dry fast. They WILL yellow significantly over time. This adds to the richness in wood furniture but is terrible for a painting.
Here is the process I use:
- Step 1- Sanding. Use a fine grade paper or sand block. The finer the better. Many cheaper wooden palettes still have enough grain to affect the final coat so I sand it down till it's as smooth to the touch as I can get it. At this point you can also take some time to enlarge and reshape the thumb hole and other edges for comfort. Keep in mind a smoother surface will make the final coat more durable and pleasant to work on. I recommend spending the time to get the surface as smooth as you can and it will pay off for you later.
- Step 2- Stain. This step is optional. My preference is to try and get the stain as close to the color of low value skin-tone shadows as possible. The color can be whatever you choose. I'm using Minwax Wood Stain Red Mahogany #225. This particular stain type is oil based WITHOUT a polyurethane component. Follow the can directions for application. I like the color at two coats so I'm stopping there and will let the palettes dry overnight. You can alternately use your paints to tint your palette. A mixture of Transparent Yellow Oxide and Trans Red Oxide are perfect in this scenario BUT using artists oil paints means waiting longer for them to dry. Whatever method you decide on make sure your palette is completely dry before you seal it. This is especially true if you are going to use shellac. Shellac will cut off oils from an oxygen supply and so prevents further polymerization.
- Step 3- Shellac Method. I'll be using Bulls Eye "Clear" Shellac for these palettes. Bulls Eye makes an amber color as well but that will change the color of your stain. Put on your disposable gloves. Have your can of denatured alcohol on stand by. Take an old cup or the cut the bottom off an old water bottle. In your container make a 50/50 mixture of the canned shellac and denatured alcohol. That's a further addition of alcohol in addition to whats already in the can. For the applicator I like to use old tee-shirt material. Take a 6" square and fold the material into a smaller square, about 2"x2" or so. Dip the cloth and apply the shellac in small circles. If you are nervous about coating your nice sanded and stained palette test out you mixture on a scrap piece of wood to get a feel for how the shellac will go on. Fresh shellac that is thinly applied dries to the touch in about 30mins. I like to let each coat of shellac dry for at least an hour or two before applying the following coat. I've found 4-5 coats is about perfect for this type of application. If after the final coat you find you have bubbles (this means the shellac was too thickly applied) or a finish flaw you can take a new piece of cloth, dip it in straight denatured alcohol and pass over the surface. Don't press into the finish. If you feel you have too many flaws in your finish go ahead and sand the flaws out! You can always add more shellac and it will bond with the previous layers. Shellac is impervious to all solvents used in painting BUT it can always be redissolved by denatured alcohol.
- Step 3-Oil Method. Any large hardware store will carry furniture oils close to where they have shellac and wood stain. Wear gloves with this method as well. Having a smooth sanded surface is more important with an oil finish than shellac. Oils penetrate the wood as opposed to sitting on the surface like shellac. Shellac fills in the grain while an oil finish will soak into the wood on the first few coats. As with shellac, use old tee-shirt material for the application. Again, fold the material into a small square, about 2"x2". Lightly soak an area of the cloth in oil and apply by wiping on. You don't have to be as careful with how you apply an oil to get a nice finish as with shellac. Just make your coats even and thin. Oils takes a little longer to dry than Shellac. Just follow the can directions but I like to wait a day between coats. A palette that isn't sanded properly can sometime cause the grain to raise between coats. If you find you have this problem use a superfine steel or copper wool to knock the raised grain down between coats. Coat till you like it. I've found 3 coats is about when it starts to look nice. After that 3 coat base apply as many coats as you like to achieve the look you want.
With either method you can clean your palette how ever you normally like to... well, except for sand paper. It will develop a greyish patina after a lot of use and become very nice to work off of.
Here's something some artist like to do with an oil finished palette- Once you've cleaned your palette off after a painting session, wipe the working side with any excess medium you would normally dispose of. Occasional coatings like this will add to the luster of the finish over time an strengthen the surface. You don't want to do this with a shellac finished palette.
If you ever need to make a deep repair the surface all you need to do is sand the surface with a very fine grade sand paper (around 400 grit or finer). For an oil finish wipe off the sand dust with your normal paint solvent. Apply another coat or two of oil. For shellac you can leave the sanding dust on the surface if you like as the shellac will get dissolved by the denatured alcohol and reincorporated into the finish. For shellac apply one or two thin coats of a 50/50 mixture (can shellac and denatured alcohol). You might have to buy new shellac to make repairs if your can is older than a year.
Hope you enjoy having a cheap repairable palette the will age with some real class!