Installing Under Wallpaper, Murals, and More

Plywood is mostly known for its use in construction and furniture manufacturing. But the various styles of this wood product have many other uses, including some not so well known ones. The large surface area and dimensional stability of plywood make it ideal for many artistic purposes, including installing under wallpaper, creating murals and making other types of art. With the right preparation and perhaps a bit of glue, plywood boards are transformed into surfaces both useful and decorative.

While we can consider furniture to be artistic, especially some of the finer pieces created by noted craftsmen, that’s not the kind of art we’re talking about here. In this article, we’re going to focus on flat art that can be hung on the wall. In this, it’s not so much that the plywood is the art itself, as it is the substrate for putting the art on.

Selecting the right plywood is key to any of these uses. They all require a smooth surface, but it usually doesn’t make sense to use cabinet grade plywood for making them, as the hardwood surface veneer will be covered. A high A-B grade softwood plywood, MDO (medium density overlay) or phenolic plywood is ideal for this.

Tips for Using Plywood Under Wallpaper

Typically wallpaper is hung over drywall, as that provides a very smooth, low cost surface. But there might be times when it is impractical to use drywall, because it doesn’t have the necessary structural strength. Plywood is a structural material, often used as such in construction.

It wouldn’t make any sense to build a reception desk out of drywall, even if you did want to cover it with wallpaper. Likewise, there might be design elements where you need a thin panel to act as a divider, such as in making stalls for a commercial bathroom. Drywall won’t work for that, because there is no structure to support it. However, plywood will, having the structural strength to support itself, as well as being able to provide a good surface for the wallpaper.

Obviously the first part of applying wallpaper to plywood is to build the project itself. Make sure that you putty and sand smooth any nail or screw holes, as well as any splintering that happens along the edges of the board. If the plywood you are using isn’t smooth enough, you may need to sand it before applying the wallpaper.

Setting mural on plywood wall, Mobile G.

A few other hints which may be applicable to your particular application:

  • It is best to prime the plywood, in order to keep the wallpaper adhesive from soaking into the wood too much. It is best to use a fast-drying shellac-based primer for this, as an acrylic primer will need to be left exposed for an extended period of time to allow the paint to finish outgassing. 
  • If you don’t have a smooth surface, either because of the type of plywood you are using or because you are installing wallpaper over an uneven surface, such as wood paneling or beadboard, you’ll need to install liner paper before hanging the wallpaper itself. Follow the instructions that come with the liner paper, as different varieties come with different requirements. The type of glue required should be noted in the instructions. Some brands have their own adhesive applied to the back of the paper, like pre-glued wallpaper does. 
  • For paintable beadboard wallpaper, follow the instructions that come with your wallpaper. At minimum, you will need to cut it to fit and wet it in some areas. After it dries, you can paint it to suit your taste.
  • Paintable beadboard wallpaper makes a fantastic backsplash and when installed over plywood, lets you update your kitchen, bath, and other areas in your home easily and inexpensively.

Using Plywood for Murals and Wall Art

Plywood is extremely useful for any art project which requires a large, flat area. Signboard plywood, which is either phenolic plywood or MDO, is designed for painting a large design onto and hanging it on a building, either indoors or outside. Old-fashioned sign painters have used this for years, long before the modern vinyl-cut signs took over the market. Painting such a sign isn’t much different than creating a mural, except from the viewpoint of the artistic creativity.

If you’ve ever wanted to design a mural for a child’s room, needed to create a backdrop for a play, or even wanted to make a large outdoor mural, you’ll find it is a rewarding process. The right plywood product makes a great substrate for these projects, as plywood readily lends itself to a number of creative pursuits! Here are just a few.

Instructions for Wallpaper Mural Sheets

The commercial manufactured murals, printed on wallpaper, can be readily mounted on plywood for installation wherever you like. This can simplify the installation process, as well as making it possible to relocate or remove the mural, without destroying it. In the case of using these murals for office décor, the ability to move them is an advantage, adding flexibility to the office setting.

Note that mural sheets can be large and difficult to handle. Likewise, handling full sheets of plywood, especially in a crowded area can be difficult. It might be useful to have an assistant for both attaching the mural to the plywood and for moving and installing the mounted mural.

Typically, these murals are laid out on the plywood in vertical panels, not horizontal. Doing so that way reduces the number of seams in the mural once it’s hung. Vertical seams are less visible than horizontal ones, making the mural more attractive. Horizontal seams would also be a problem when moving the mural, as any chips in the edge of the wallpaper will be very obvious when the mural is installed in a new location.

  1. Before doing anything, check the width of your mural’s pieces. If they are anything but 24” or 48” wide (which they most likely will be), you’ll either need to cut your plywood into strips that match the width of the rolls of wallpaper or you’ll need to cut the rolls of wallpaper to match the width of your plywood. *
  2. Prime the plywood using a high-quality white shellac primer. You can also use a high-grade acrylic primer, if your schedule allows sufficient time to ensure that the primer finishes outgassing before installing the mural. 
  3. Paint the edge of the plywood sheets, as the top of the plywood around the edges, with a color that closely matches the predominant color in the mural. This will help to hide any gaps or chips that may occur in the edges of the mural. 
  4. Lay out the entire design as indicated in the accompanying instruction sheet, to check for fit and verify that you have all the pieces, before applying any adhesive. 
  5. Prepare the glue or paste according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  6. Apply the paste to the first panel of the mural and line it up carefully with the edge of the plywood.
  7. Smooth the mural into place. Some small bubbles will disappear as the mural dries. If your adhesive hasn’t fully dried, you can work these out with your smoothing tool. It might also help to pop the bubbles with a pin and then smooth out the wallpaper around them. 
  8. Continue applying the mural panels to the plywood, taking care to butt them up well with one another. 
  9. Once the adhesive is partially dry, use a small amount of a matching acrylic paint on your finger to fill any chips in the edge of the wallpaper. These will be obvious, because they will be white. 
  10. Once the mural has dried completely, hang the plywood mounted the mural on the wall, using  drywall screws to ensure that the installation is secure. Be careful not to allow your driver to slip out of the screw heads, as that can cause damage to the mural. 

* As an alternative to cutting the strips of mural to match the width of the plywood, you can lay your plywood sheets side by side, as they will be hung, and then install the mural onto them as one continuous piece, butting the strips of wallpaper up against each other. Then, once the wallpaper is dry, you can cut it right at the seams between the sheets. This has the advantage of allowing you to but the seams well, eliminating gaps. Of course, this assumes you have enough room to lay out the whole thing.

Instructions for Painted Murals

Painted murals allow for greater artistic expression, as it is your design, rather than someone else’s. However, they are also a lot more work, especially large ones.

Before beginning, decide how large you’d like your mural to be. Most plywood is sold in 4-foot by 8-foot sheets. You can use just one sheet, or make a massive work of art by combining several sheets of plywood. If you want something other than a square or rectangular shape for your mural, you can use a jigsaw to contour the edges of the sheets into different shapes or create gaps in the middle of your mural, allowing the wall or a window to show through.

If your mural is going to be larger than one sheet of plywood, you’ll need to decide if you are going to hang the plywood before painting it or afterwards. That will depend mostly on what’s easier for you to work with. It is often easier to work in your studio or workshop, but that usually requires making the mural as a series of panels, which are joined together as they are mounted.

Another consideration for larger murals is whether you will need any sort of structure holding the pieces of the mural together, or you will be mounting it directly to a wall. If you are considering mounting it directly to the wall, check to ensure that the wall provides a smooth surface, without high or low points. A good way to do this is with a long, straight board. If you can lay it on the wall, in several directions, without any gaps appearing, the wall should be flat.

For exterior murals, you will want to use WBP or marine grade plywood as it will stand up to the elements better.

  1. Apply a good primer coat to each sheet of plywood, including the edges. If your mural is going to be displayed outdoors, it is a good idea to seal the edges of the plywood with a painter’s caulk, pressing it into the grain and smoothing it out with your fingers. Be sure to clean any extra off of the face of the plywood. Once dry, this should be painted over with your primer to match. 
  2. It is best to apply at least two coats of primer, remembering that thin coats are better than thick ones. Plywood can be thirsty, so don’t be surprised if the first coat is well-absorbed.
  3. Freehand your design onto the plywood in pencil. If you have access to a video projector, you may find it is easier to project images of your art onto the plywood panels and trace them on. Once you’re happy with the design, you can darken lines with a sharpie marker.
  4. Paint your mural with the medium of your choice. While graffiti artists tend to use spray paint, which is an oil-based enamel; murals are usually painted in acrylic paint. Using artist’s acrylic paint can be expensive for a project of this size, so you might want to use an exterior acrylic-latex house paint for the major areas and keep the artist’s paint for the details. 
  5. If you painted your mural in your studio or workshop, and will need to take it apart to move it, you may need to cut the paint at the seams between the various pieces of plywood, before trying to move it. Acrylic and acrylic-latex paints are rubbery and will stretch when pulled, especially if they were recently applied. This could cause it to delaminate from the substrate, causing holes in your finished design. 

Instructions for Creating Wall Art with Plywood

Plywood itself can be artistic, not just used as a substrate for mounting artwork to. Geometric patterns, free-form shapes, and even fine-art quality paintings can be rendered on plywood and used to create stunning focal points on the walls in your home. This can be done as individual pieces, groups of pieces or interconnected pieces, all depending on your imagination.

When using groups of pieces, you may want to consider connecting them together with other materials. Polished brass, aluminum or plastic tubing can connect pieces together. If your décor is more rustic, you might think about connecting pieces together with used gate hinges or barbed wire. Look for something that provides a nice contrast with the wood and matches your overall decorating style.

  1. Begin by choosing the best plywood for the job. Lightweight birch plywood is inexpensive, smooth, and easy to work with. It usually doesn’t have any voids, so you get clean edges. Being lightweight, it’s easy to hang. Another good option is applewood plywood, which is known for the nice edges it provides. However, you can still make a good wood mural out of AB grade softwood plywood. 
  2. Sketch out a design on paper; it might take multiple pieces. For large pieces, use a newspaper. Try to make the design about the same size as the one you are going to use on the plywood.
  3. Hang the paper in the spot where you want to place the artwork. Be sure you like everything about it before working on your plywood.
  4. Cut the various pieces of plywood and sand the edges. If necessary for your design, use a rounding bit on the edges to provide a smoother edge, rather than a 90 degree angle. Check pieces for scratches and dents and fill as necessary. 
  5. Use primer, paint, and/or stain and other medium as needed to finish your pieces. Some ideas you might want to try are:
    1. Covering pieces with fabric, leather or naugahyde 
    2. Covering a piece with the foil backing paper used on fish tanks 
    3. Texture pieces by gluing on beads, die-cut wood pieces, rocks, shells or glitter 
    4. Making a piece reflective by using a semi-transparent paint with aluminum powder in it, like is used for car finishes 
    5. Painting stripes or other patterns on pieces 
  6. When the paint dries, connect pieces together, if necessary. 
  7. Hang your wall art, then show it off!
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