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How to Make Custom Wall Art Out of Reclaimed Wood

If the multitude of projects on Pinterest and Etsy are any indication, reclaimed wall art is definitely a growing trend. While I appreciate the rustic feel of wood pallet signs, I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the price tag. Some pieces cost more than $100 for what amounts to nothing more than some old wood and paint.

After a recent barn renovation, I was inspired to make my own wall sign out of some of the old wood left lying around. The project was very easy and took only about a day to complete. Best of all, the end result is exactly what I was hoping for – and it cost me only a fraction of the price of purchasing a similar sign.

Supplies Needed

I made my sign using the following supplies, the majority of which can be picked up from your local hardware store. If you don’t have any spare wood sitting around, check Craigslist or Freecycle to see if anyone’s giving away scrap wood or old pallets, which work well for this type of sign. Measure the space you want to fill and cut the wood according to your needs.

This is what I used to create a 36 by 34-inch sign:

  • Two pieces of old barn wood – one piece cut to create slats for the actual sign and the other to create support posts to hold the sign together
  • Bucket
  • Dish soap and bleach
  • Sponge
  • Wood screws
  • Stencils of your choosing
  • Masking tape
  • Rustoleum spray paint in your preferred colors
  • Clear Rustoleum spray paint
  • Tarp, drop cloth, or newspapers
  • Wood stain (optional)
  • Sanding block and sandpaper (optional)

If you do end up using old pallet wood for this project, you might also need a nail puller and crow bar to help disassemble it.

Because of the size of the project and the materials being used, I chose to complete my sign entirely outside. If you plan to make yours indoors, be sure to choose a well-ventilated area to reduce the effects of fumes from the bleach and spray paint. You should also be especially careful about laying down a tarp, drop cloth, or newspapers to protect your floors and furniture.

Making a Reclaimed Wood Sign

1. Measure Your Space

Measure the space where you plan to hang your sign so you know how much wood to use. For example, if you want the sign to hang in your entryway in a space that’s 15 inches wide by 30 inches tall, you’d want five 6-inch-wide pieces of wood, each no longer than 15 inches. Then, you’d need one or two support bars, each 30 inches in length so you can mount the sign slats over them.

In my case, I was building a sign to mount above my kitchen sink. It’s a large area, so I wanted a sign at least 36 inches wide by about 30 to 34 inches tall. Because my wood was six inches wide, I knew I needed five 36-inch-long cuts of wood to create a 30 by 36-inch sign. Then, I cut two support bars to 34 inches each, so when the sign slats were mounted on top, roughly two inches would peek out above and below the sign.

2. Cut Your Wood or Disassemble Your Pallet

Once you’ve determined how large your sign is and how much wood you need, you can get to work cutting the pieces. I used a basic handsaw, which was labor-intensive but effective. You could also use an electric saw if you have one available. If you want a smoother finish to work with, use a sanding block and sandpaper to smooth the edges.

If you’re using a pallet instead of full pieces of lumber, you need to disassemble it into individual slats of wood. Use a screwdriver to remove any screws, and a nail puller to pull nails. You may find you also need a crowbar to loosen the joints between slats before you begin disassembling the pallet.

reclaimed wood

3. Clean and Dry the Wood

Reclaimed wood and pallet wood usually isn’t clean, and while you might want to retain the “old wood” look, you probably don’t want to bring moldy, insect-infested lumber into your home. It’s important to clean your wood thoroughly before you paint it.

I used a bucket of water with a few tablespoons of bleach before scrubbing my wood clean, but it did make it look almost brand new. For my purposes, this wasn’t a big deal because I planned to paint the entire sign. If you’re hoping to retain the “old wood” look though, stick with warm water, dish soap, and a bit of hydrogen peroxide. The soap cleans, and the hydrogen peroxide disinfects without affecting the color of the wood.

Once you’ve cleaned your wood, rinse each piece thoroughly with water and set it in a sunny spot outside to dry thoroughly. If you don’t have a dry place outside, bring the wood inside and set it near a window that gets lots of light to help speed the process. If you have a fan, you can use that as well.

4. Assemble Your Sign

To create your sign, you have to start with the support pieces and build your sign on top. For instance, to assemble my sign, which is horizontal, I started by placing the two 34-inch pieces of wood on the ground, spaced about 20 inches apart. Then, I ran the five 36-inch pieces of wood horizontally on top of these two supports, adjusting each piece as needed to create the look I was going for.

Once the wood is placed, affix each horizontal slat of wood to the vertical supports with screws. Because I was using five horizontal pieces, I used 10 wood screws – two per board, one for each vertical support.

When choosing the size of your wood screws, you have to account not only for the number of support and sign slats, but their thickness as well. They should be long enough to screw completely through the sign slats and almost all the way through the support slats.

For instance, the pieces of reclaimed wood I used were about two inches thick. So, when the sign slats were placed on top of the supports, the total thickness was roughly four inches. I needed wood screws long enough to sufficiently affix the pieces together. I used screws three and a half inches long – a half-inch shorter than the sign’s total thickness. You can always add additional wood screws for support as needed.

5. Decide on Your Design

This is where you need to spend some time thinking about the end result. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want the sign to be fully painted, or do you want some of the natural wood to show through?
  • Do you want to freehand your artwork, or do you want to use stencils?
  • If you plan to paint your sign, how should you apply the paint to achieve your desired result?

Achieving Visible Wood
If you want some of the wood to show through, you need to think about how you’re going to paint or stencil your art to achieve that result. For instance, I knew I wanted my written message, “Add Spice,” to show up in natural wood. That meant I needed to figure out how to protect the message from being painted. This is possible by taping solid stencils down to the wood to protect it.

Writing Your Message
In my case, I didn’t want to use stencils in a particular font or style – I wanted my message to appear “rustic.” However, I didn’t want to freehand the text and end up with letters that had wobbly edges or drastically different sizes. Instead, I wrote out my message using masking tape, then used a steak knife to cut away pieces of the tape to round out the edges of some of my letters. This approach allowed me to make the letters the exact size I wanted.

If you’d rather use stencils, you can pick up pre-made stencils from a craft store for less than $20, or you can print your message on card stock paper at home. If you print your own stencils, simply cut out the letters after they’ve printed and use masking tape or double-sided tape to temporarily affix them to your sign.

Layering Your Paints
Finally, if you’d like to paint your message or image, you need to formulate a plan of attack. It’s certainly possible when you use stencils and layer your paint accordingly – you just need to have a game plan in place before you break out that brush.

There are stenciling stores that offer pre-made stencils in a wide variety of designs and styles. If you want your sign to look as professional as possible, you might want to check out Cutting Edge Stencils – I love their Chevron and Lobster designs. While these cost between $10 and $40, depending on size and style, they are reusable.

removed tape sign

6. Paint Your Sign

Once you’ve got your design plan in place, it’s time to start painting. If you do hope to layer your paint colors, here are three tips for doing so easily:

  1. Paint the entire sign the color you want your message to appear and allow it to dry for one to two hours. Affix solid stencils (or masking tape letters) to the boards, and then paint the sign’s primary color on top. Remove the stencils when the paint dries to the touch – this should take 10 to 30 minutes. The base color shows through where the stencils were applied, with the primary color making up the rest of the sign.
  2. Paint the entire sign the primary color and allow it to dry about one to two hours. Freehand your artwork on top, or use a stencil that allows you to “fill in the blank” and paint your message on top in the color you want.
  3. Apply solid stencils or masking tape letters to the wood before you paint your sign. Paint the primary color on top and allow it to dry for about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the stencils, exposing the plain wood underneath. Use a paint brush to manually fill in the empty area with the paint color or wood stain you want your message to be.

I chose to follow the third method. After applying my message in masking tape to protect the wood underneath, I used Rustoleum spray paint to thoroughly coat the wood in its base color. (I actually used a different brand of spray paint first, and it was a disaster – the paint sprayed weirdly and came out in droplets that didn’t cover well.)

It’s a good idea to apply two coats of paint for better coverage, allowing each to dry to the touch between applications – about 30 minutes. When the second coat is dry, you can remove the stencils or masking tape to expose the wood underneath. Depending on your design plan, at this point you can paint or stain the exposed letters as desired.

Adding Spice
After bringing my sign in with the “Add Spice” wood exposed, I felt like it needed something more, but I didn’t want to paint it. Since some of the other accent colors in our kitchen are yellow and orange, I wanted to add those colors to my sign without covering up the wood. On a whim, I decided to literally add spice to my board.

I mixed several tablespoons of chili powder with a couple of teaspoons of water, until a reddish “paint” formed. I then applied the mix using an old toothbrush to the letters spelling “Add.” I then repeated the process, this time using turmeric, to create a yellowish paint-like substance that I applied to the letters that made up the word “Spice.” After allowing the spice stain to dry for about 10 minutes, I wiped off the excess with a wet paper towel. The end result was orange and yellow lettering that almost exactly matches the accent colors in my kitchen.

One word of caution if you use spice to dye your wood – turmeric, in particular, stains. I would suggest completing this step outside, or placing old newspapers under your sign to catch any drips or loose spice that escapes.

Other Ways to Give Your Sign Character
Your sign is art, so you should feel free to “add spice” however you see fit. For instance, if your sign’s message is about family, you could incorporate stencils of your kids’ hand prints into the design. Or if you’re creating a sign for a vacation house on the beach, try using spray adhesive to affix sand to the boards in a beach-style pattern.

7. Make Adjustments or Fixes

The good news is, if you’re unhappy with how your sign looks, you can always paint over it and try something new. You can even use paint stripper to remove paint and expose the original wood if you want to start over. While I’m happy with my sign, I still haven’t hung it because I’m trying to decide whether I want to add the word “More” or “Some” in between “Add Spice.” If I do, I’ll probably use a stencil to paint it on in a completely different style font, just to give the sign a little more…well, spice.

The good news is, a rustic recycled wood sign isn’t meant to be perfect. If the edges of your words aren’t exactly straight, or if you accidentally splatter paint in a spot you didn’t mean to, you don’t need to worry about it. Minor mistakes can be part of the sign’s charm, and major mistakes can be quickly painted over.

add spice sign closeup

8. Add a Clear Top Coat

To seal your sign and give it a seamless finish, spray it with a clear coat of spray paint. Rustoleum carries a number of clear spray paints, and you can select which finish you want to use.

I plan to use a matte clear coat, but you can go with semi-gloss or gloss if you prefer. A matte coat is harder to clean if it’s in a dirt-prone area, such as a low-to-the-ground area in an entryway or close to a stove, but it won’t give off as much of a sheen. Semi-glosses and glosses are easier to clean, making them a good fit for high-traffic or splatter-prone areas, but the higher gloss may take away from the rough wood appearance.

9. Hang or Display Your Sign

Once your sign is complete and you’re happy with the result, put it on display. If you do plan on hanging it, make sure you use anchors or a stud to effectively support its weight. My sign easily weighs over 50 pounds – the last thing I want is for it to fall off the wall and into my sink.

Hanging Into a Stud
The term “studs” refers to the wood framing behind your home’s drywall. Because they’re solid wood and part of your home’s frame, they’re incredibly effective supports for hanging heavy items. If you try to hang something heavy on your wall without using a stud or an anchor, the drywall may not be able to hold it and it could fall, leaving an unseemly hole in its place.

A stud finder (which cost less than $20 from The Home Depot) can help you locate the wood studs behind your drywall. Once you’ve found your studs and marked their locations, screw wood screws directly into them and hang your sign by its vertical supports.

Hanging With a Drywall Anchor
If you can’t find a stud where you want to hang your sign, drywall anchors are another possibility. These can be found at your local hardware store as well, and they range in price depending on the size and weight they can support. Generally speaking, toggle anchors are the strongest on the market, so if you’re hanging a heavy sign into drywall, using several of these is your best bet. You can usually pick up a multi-pack for less than $10.

Installing and using wall anchors varies based on the type you choose, but generally you have to drill a hole in the drywall, sliding the anchor into it. Once it’s secured, you can install a screw directly into the anchor, rather than into the drywall.

add-spice

Final Word

Because I had all the materials on hand before I started making my sign, I actually spent nothing on this project. To make your own sign, including spray paint, stencils, wood, and other supplies, you can expect to spend between $15 and $40, depending on your needs. If you don’t want to pay for pallet or reclaimed wood, check Craigslist’s “free stuff” category to see if any local businesses or individuals are giving them away. I found several listings for free pallets on my local Craigslist site.

Do you want to make a wall sign out of reclaimed wood?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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