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Completing an "under varnish" Découpaged Box

by Roy Larking

How To’ ONE (preparation)

The aim of this project is to complete a découpaged 'under varnish' box with lining, by means of a series of 'How To's, thus enabling you to complete the project using any box. The box chosen was made of fibreboard and was extremely plain, with a lift-off unhinged lid.

Examine the box closely for any flaws, indentations or excess glue, and using medium grade sandpaper and a sanding block, sand down the box inside and out until all surfaces are smooth. Any indentations should be filled with wood filler or a similar product. Allow to dry and sand smooth. Brush away dust and wipe with a tack cloth (dust being the enemy).

The box is now painted and sealed using either an acrylic undercoat or gesso and a suitably sized brush. Apply three or four coats, allowing each to dry thoroughly between coats.

The colour of the primer undercoat can be tinted to suit the intended finish colour, i.e. if you decide to choose a dark finish then a grey primer would be preferable. The box is then sanded again to achieve a completely smooth finish on all surfaces. If you sand off too much and go back to the MDF, re-coat and sand again.

When painting, avoid overloading the brush with paint. A number of thin coats is preferable to one thick one. Try to avoid runs, drips or build-up of paint on edges and corners.

As the box chosen was new fibreboard, the initial preparation was simple, but if your box is of grained wood, always sand with the grain rather than across it. Increase the coarseness of the sandpaper to suit the roughness of the wood, but always finish with a finer paper. Our box has no hinges, but if yours has, make a note of their position and remove them with any other hardware before preparation. Make sure you take note of which way round the lid fits, and if necessary, mark it.

‘How To’ TWO (background)

Before applying a paint finish upon which the cut-outs are to be glued, certain decisions need to be made. Ideally, the découpeur should have a firm idea of how the completed box will look. The design, size and colour will need to complement each other.

The choice of backgrounds is endless, from metal leaf to plain black or white paint. A combination of colours can be applied with a sponge, either wet on wet or as successive coats. Usually the découpeur has a design they like in mind, either from wrapping paper or a print. If unsure of background colour, it is worth considering one of the colours from the chosen design; but this is a personal choice and as always, the advice is to choose what pleases you.

There is also the choice of paint: emulsion, acrylic or oil-based. Once chosen, this will dictate the type of varnish, which can be used on top of it, i.e. you should not use a water-based varnish on top of an oil-based painted finish. An oil-based varnish will then have to be used, with the associated longer drying time, turpentine brush washing and some yellowing of the finish, which can affect the appearance of some colours in the design, particularly blues and pinks. If this all sounds daunting, fear not, you can try your proposed paint background on a small piece of hardboard or similar material. In fact, this is always a good idea and you will surprise yourself with the results, especially when sponging colours wet on wet.

Allow to dry, lay your proposed design on top and see what you think. Whatever background you choose, paint the box, making sure it is well covered. Allow to dry thoroughly before the next stage of cutting out and gluing your chosen design.

"How To" THREE (cutting/gluing)

If you have spent time and effort on producing a fine piece of decoupage thus far, then in my view it also deserves a find finish. The aim of varnishing is both to protect your work and to enhance its appearance. Before cutting out your design, seal the face of the paper with a coat of sealer (water-based varnish or acrylic spray). This strengthens the paper and makes cutting easier. The scissors normally used are the cuticle type with sharp fine curved points. Cut with the points facing away from you. If you are new to cutting, have a couple of black and white photocopies of your print made and practise on those.

Look at your design and cut out the inside areas first, keeping your scissors underneath the print as much as possible (for especially small internal areas a sharp 'X-acto' type craft knife can be used). Where delicate parts of the design (tendrils, leaves or stems) exist, draw 'bridges' between areas, to be cut through later just before gluing on the design. Large subjects can be cut into pieces and joined again when gluing on.

Once cut out, place your design on the box using ʻBlu Tackʼ or similar. You may find it useful to secure the lid with masking tape before you start gluing. You can adapt the design to suit the box by moving the various elements around until you are pleased with the result. Remember that space is important too.

Start by gluing the larger pieces first. You may prefer to apply the glue to your cut-outs by laying them face down on a piece of wax paper and lifting the cut-out with the paper to the box. Alternatively, you can apply the glue to the box and lay your cut-out onto it. Place a damp (not wet) cloth onto the cut-out and press down. You may also wish to apply slight pressure with a roller. Check for air bubbles or lifted edges, continue applying your design. Gently clean away any excess glue as you progress with a damp sponge cloth or cotton bud, working away from the edge of the design.

Allow to dry overnight. Check again that all edges are firmly glued down with a toothpick or similar, and glue down any loose edges found. Again, allow to dry fully. You are now ready to apply the varnish.

"How To" FOUR (finishing)

If you have spent time and effort on producing a fine piece of découpage thus far, then in my view it also deserves a fine finish. The aim of varnishing is both to protect your work and to enhance its appearance. Before starting this final and important stage, you have one or two decisions to make. Firstly, which type of varnish to use: oil- or water-based. For light-coloured backgrounds use water/acrylic-based varnishes, which do not discolour. For dark backgrounds you could use an oil-based varnish: although it will yellow a little, this may not matter, and indeed it can add to the effect if you want an 'aged' appearance. There are distinct advantages in using a water-based product: quicker drying, no fumes, and brushes can be washed out in soap and water.

You also have to decide what sort of finish you want to achieve. Do you just want to protect, or do you want to obtain a really super-smooth finish which gives a deep warm glow to your piece? There is nothing wrong with the former, which can be completed with, say, 5 or 10 coats of varnish, and if you are happy with that, fine. If, however, you want your work to be finished to the high standard to which traditional decoupage aspires, then you may have to apply 30 or more coats to achieve this - the choice is yours.

The aim of varnishing is both to protect your work and to obtain a good finish. The application of coats of varnish fills in the areas between the design cut-outs, and the ultimate finish involves applying sufficient coats to bring up: the level of these areas so that the edges cannot be felt or seen.

Obviously, the varnish covers the cut-outs also, and to achieve a smooth surface the varnish must be wet sanded from these higher areas. Before sanding, however, at least 10 coats of varnish should be applied (more if the paper is thick) or you are likely to sand down to the cut-outs and spoil your work. If you do experience this, you may be able to rescue your piece by allowing it to dry, and then with coloured pencils colouring in where necessary.

Assuming all has gone well, after you have applied your first 10-15 coats of varnish, wet- sand (600 grit), wipe clean and allow to dry. A further 10-15 coats should be applied before the next sanding (again with 600 grit).

You should now have sunk your cut-outs, and on completion of this sanding you should have removed the 'shinnies' (i.e. areas of varnish lower than the surrounding surface and which appear shiny). A further light wet -sanding with 1200 grit wet & dry paper should now follow, which will smooth the surface further. Follow this by rubbing the surface lightly with '0000' grade wire wool, and any last small 'shinnies' will disappear.

The finish should now be smooth, although matt. This could now be polished to produce a first-class finish to your work, but an even better finish can be achieved by using 'MicroMesh' - this is a slightly abrasive cloth which comes in a variety of fine grades. You need only use three grades in my view: 6000, 8000 and 12000. These are used wet, and are rubbed lightly in alternate directions over your work in progressively finer grades (i.e. the 6000 first, then the 8000 and finally the 12000).

After this has been completed, wipe clean and allow to dry. The surface can be buffed with a soft cloth, and you should now have a superb finish with a deep lustre, which, I hope you feel, justifies all your hard work and enhances your piece.

"How To" FIVE (lining)

There are several alternatives here. Are you using a paper or a fabric as a lining?

Paper lining
If paper, then place the box and the lid on the back of the chosen paper and draw round them. Draw a further line all around the inside of the original line equal to the thickness of the box sides. Cut out on the inside line, the resulting pieces should fit snugly in the bottom of the box and lid. Next the sides.

Accurately measure the inside depth of the box, cut a strip of paper wider and 1" (2.5 cm) longer, which will go all the way around the inside of the box allowing the 1" (2.5 cm) overlap. Do the same for the lid, reducing the depth of the strip as necessary. You should now have four pieces of paper.

Apply glue to the bottom of the box and insert the base paper, smoothing from the centre out, ensure the edges are down tight using your fingernail or suitable tool. Put glue around the internal sides of the box. Tear off the end of your paper strip and place it at one corner, allowing the torn end to go around the corner a little. Now work the strip around the side, ensuring the paper goes right into the corner, press and roll the paper all the way around the inside again. Make sure you press into the corners, use a tool if necessary. When you arrive at the final corner, mark the corner on the paper with your fingernail and cut along the marked line. Re-glue the corner at the overlap and press home tight. Trim the top edges of the paper flush with curved scissors. Repeat the above method for the lid.

Fabric lining
For a fabric lining you will need to measure and cut accurately a piece of thin card for each side and bottom of the base and lid - 10 pieces in all. Place the bottom piece of card in the box with a piece of cotton or ribbon underneath so as to allow its removal. Place in the side pieces and trim to allow a snug fit. You will need to allow for the thickness of the fabric.

Now cut a piece of fabric allowing an extra 1/4" (0.6 cm) all round the card, one for each of the pieces of card. Apply glue to the card and stick the back of the fabric to it. Cut off the corners of the overlapping fabric at 45o degrees and glue the overlapping side edges to the back of the card. This process is repeated for all ten pieces. Dry under a weight.

When dry, insert the pieces into the box, sides first and bottom piece last (use the cotton to remove the bottom piece). You may have to flex the bottom piece to get it in position. If all fits well, remove pieces and glue the inside of the box and press home each piece in turn, taking care not to get glue on the face of the fabric. If you have been accurate in cutting, then the pieces should fit snugly. Press each piece firmly home, ensuring that all the corners are down tight with no gaps.

This process is not easy and needs some practice to achieve perfect results, so don't be disheartened if your first attempt is not faultless.

Prints of this beautiful box are provided below, give it a try and enjoy!