Making Wooden Cut-Outs
Thursday, 17 April 2008

I've made about 25 wood cutouts in the past 2 years.  This year I'll be adding another 30 or so.   Here is what I have found over the years:

Wood Selection 

I've used both 15/32 B/C plywood and OSB.  Now that my OSB cutouts have been displayed for several years, I can whole-heartedly recommend it since it is MUCH cheaper than 'real' plywood.  Home Depot In June, 2008 had B/C plywood for $18/sheet, whereas the 15/32 OSB (oriented strand board) which I ended up using was only $5.50/sheet DELIVERED.  That is less than 1/3 the cost.

The only drawback of OSB is that it is a bit weaker then plywood.  When building your cutouts, you may need to leave a bit of extra wood around 'thin' parts and be careful when storing them.  

 

Patterns and Initial Transfer 

If you are using patterns, lay them out on the sheet first.  You would be amazed how much wood you can save by turning, and rearranging your patterns.  Don't be afraid to modify them slightly if it means they fit better.  For example,  by reducing the poof-ball on the top of a hat, I was able to turn a pattern 90 degrees and save nearly 1/2 a sheet. 

Once you have the patterns arranged, remember where they go, take them off, and put the transfer paper down.  Trace the outside edges only - you'll be painting the whole thing with primer so no need to trace the inside yet.

Since I was using patterns, I used Red Saral Transfer Paper .  This transfer paper works GREAT!  Unfortunately when I first started making cutouts I only bought 2 rolls - enough to cover only 3/4 of a full sheet of plywood.  As I got to the edge, I had to move a row from one side to the other.  It was difficult to not move the pattern while moving the transfer paper.  do yourself a favor and buy 3 rolls and be done with it.  I've used the same 2 rolls for 15+ sheets worth of cutouts, and could use them for another 15. 

Try to hold the paper pattern as steady as possible when doing your first trace.  Keeping it steady now means it will line up better later (when tracing the insides).  Don't be shocked later when your pattern misses by an inch or so in places!

 

Cutting

For cutting I would NOT use a jig saw.  I used one for my first 2 cutouts and it took FOREVER.  Then I remembered I had a spiral saw.  WOW what a difference!  Not only is it faster, but it gives the cutout a more 'organic' look.  The spiral saw cuts curves MUCH nicer and makes the cutouts more 'home-y'.  I personally use a Roto-Zip spiral saw.  Don't forget extra bits --> The glue in the plywood, coupled with the shear amount of cutting that needs to be done means these bits get dull quickly.  Figure on using 1 bit for every one and one-half sheets of cutouts.  I usually end up buying contractor packs of 20.

 

Priming (the most important part) 

Time to paint!  Buy a good latex primer and prime all sides of your cutouts.  Make sure you prime those edges.  If there is going to be a problem later, THAT'S where it will happen.  I did 2 coats of primer on BOTH sides (and edges).

If you plywood has printing or other factory marks on it, be sure to test your primer to be sure it is going to cover the paint/ink they used.  Some of my plywood had been splattered with black and red paint at the factory.  When I tried to prime them, the spots came through the primer making my cutouts look like they had the measles!  For these sheets, I had to seal the wood with an oil based primer, and then put 2 coats of latex on.

 

The Second Tracing 

Once the primer coats have completely dried, get the pattern back out and try to line it up along the edges.  Do this BEFORE you put the transfer paper underneath.  For all but the smallest patterns, you notice that it won't line up properly.  The idea here is to line it up as best as you can.  You may need to 'split the difference' between 2 parts of the cutout, or 'push the edge' off to one side where it doesn't matter (usually the bottom).  If it's REALLY off, you may need to trace one part first, then re-position the pattern.  Once you get it where you like it, put the transfer paper under and start tracing all the inside lines.

Be careful where you put your hand while tracing.  Some of the cutouts I made were large, and I had to brace myself while leaning over the cutout.  Every place I put my hand, I had a hand-print on the cutout from the transfer paper.  If you don't want to re-paint the white areas, put your hand in a colored spot!

 

Painting 

I purchased 9 different colors of of exterior latex paint from Wal-Mart in quart sizes.  In 2006, I believe the price was around $7/qt).  While I bought a good primer, I went cheaper on the paint.  I figure it's only going to be exposed for 6 weeks out of the year, so fading/etc won't be a problem in my lifetime!  I live in FL though where winters are pretty mild, so you may want to consider buying good paint as well.  I have a TON of it left after doing 8 sheets.  The only exceptions were red and green.  I only have about 1/4 of a quart each left. 

I did 2 coats of each color, using the pattern's color guide.  I 'custom mixed' small amounts of colors (Pink, Dk Red, Lt Green, Grey, Orange, etc, when needed.  If large areas needed a color I didn't buy, I simply substituted with one that I had on hand.

I ended up painting most of the colored parts with either a 1/4" or 1/2" artist brush.  I tried using larger brushes for larger areas, but the effect simply didn't look as good as it did using the small artist brushes.  Try to stay in the lines, but don't panic if you don't.  Later on, you'll be coming back with a black paint marker to outline everything.  That marker will cover up to a 1/4" boo boo.

At this point you are going to look at your cutout and be disappointed.  You think you are close to done, yet they really don't look good at this point.  Don't fret - once outlined they will look 1000% better.  Trust me on this one.

For 'outside' outlining (that is, around the edge of the cutout) I used a large black Paint Craft Marker.  They are GREAT (A bit expensive at $6 each, but well worth it).  For the 'inside' black outlines, I used a medium point black paint marker from Elmer's - the glue people.   You local Wal-Mart may stock them in the craft department.  If not, your local craft supply store (Michael's/etc) will definitely have them.

Once everything is outlined, take a step back and admire your work.  Outlining really helps the cutout to stand out. 

 

Some Notes on Sealing.... 

Some people advocate sealing your cutouts.  I admit to sealing the first ones I made, but since then I've made a second set that wasn't sealed.  Those look just as good as the first ones.  Since you are using exterior grade paint, there shouldn't be a need to seal them.  After all, you don't seal the paint on your house, do you?

Keep in mind that polyurethane will yellow over time.  Minwax Polycrylic may be a better solution - since it won't yellow, but it is very expensive.  In all cases, TEST to make sure your sealer won't take off your paint or outlines.  I had problems with the polycrylic smearing all my outlines.  Switching to a spray-on poly made all the difference.

As I said, I now have 2 different sets of Cutouts.  1 set that has been 'sealed' with Polycrylic, another without.  Result:  I would save my money and NOT seal my cutouts.  There is no noticeable difference between the 2.  

 

Display! 

To display your cutouts, purchase fence stakes and 1"x2" lumber.  The stakes come in a few different lengths - I like the 3' ones.  These posts have holes to allow you to screw your cutouts to them,  and each has a large flat piece of metal at the bottom which prevents it from twisting in the wind, making your cutout very stable.

Cut a piece of 1"x2" to run the height of your cutout, and secure it with screws to the back.  Be sure to use screws that WONT go all the way through your cutout!   This 1x2 is what you will attach to the fence post.  Don't skip the 1x2!  Yes, you can screw directly into the back of your cutout BUT:  1 - after a few years you'll have may holes in the back of your plywood, weakening it.  2 - the 1x2 gives you some 'play' in getting your cutout straight and level.  3 - If wind/animals/vandals attack your cutout, you'll most likely tear a chunk out of the 1x2 and NOT your hard work.  Most cutouts will only require 1 stake, but feel free to use 2 for larger ones.  

Drive the fence post into the ground, being sure to get the flat metal part in the ground.  Then use a screw to attach it to the 1x2 that is on the back of your cutout.  Most cutouts only need 1 screw, but use a second on larger ones.  Don't try to attach the cutout to the stake first and then drive it into the ground.  You'll only weaken the joints, or wack the cutout with the hammer!