If you want to transfer a photo or image to wood or canvas, this method is the most reliable method I’ve tested.
For more, see this handy guide on photo and image transfer methods for wood, fabric, glass, canvas, and more.
Best Way to Transfer Images to Wood or Canvas
I have experimented with a lot of different methods and this one provides consistently good results.
Unlike decoupage, where a piece of paper is glued to a surface and top-coated, image transfer just moves the image. This is a really nice effect if you do not want the bulk of the paper, and want it to look like the image was actually printed directly on the wood or canvas, allowing the wood grain or fabric texture to show through.
- Wood surface: board, furniture, crate… anything with a flat surface.
Choose something with a light color so your image will show up.
You can transfer images to painted surfaces as well. In my experience, plain wood works better and painted surfaces give a more rustic look.
- Pre-stretched artist’s canvas – same size as your image
- Laser copy of photo or image, printed on regular printer paper (not photo paper)
If your image contains text or you don’t want it reversed for any reason, switch it to mirror image (‘flip horizontal’ or rotate 180-degrees in your software) before printing.
If you do not have a color laser printer, you can take your computer document with the images to a copy center like Staples (or send the file via internet) and have them print it there.
If you want to use an InkJet printer instead, this article on image transfer methods shows which products work with that type of printer.
- Transfer medium
I like Liquitex Gel Medium.
- If you don’t mind more rustic-looking results, you can also use Acrylic Polyurethane.
See How to Transfer Images & Photos to Wood, Fabric, Glass, & More for more options and tutorials.
- Paint brush for applying transfer medium
- Brayer, rolling pin, credit card, or other smooth-edged tool for pushing out bubbles
- Sponge or rag
- Spray bottle of water
- Soap and water (to clean brush)
These photos show a wood project. It’s the same steps for a pre-stretched canvas.
Gather your supplies and decide exactly where you want the image to appear on the wood.
Remember, if there is text on the image, you will need a mirror/reversed copy. This is easy to do in software including Word, Paint, Photoshop, etc. I also like to reverse the image for garden photos as well so they are the right way around in the end product.
Brush on a thorough layer of the transfer medium. First, brush it on up and down perpendicular to the grain, and then use more to apply it side to side with the grain. You want to be certain that every bit of the wood surface is covered, but not excessively.
Place the image face down onto the wood surface that you just covered in transfer medium. Get it right the first time as you can mess it up if you move it around.
Using a smoothing tool (brayer, credit card, rolling pin), gently smooth out the paper, ensuring there are no bubbles and every part of the paper is adhered to the transfer medium below.
Allow to dry thoroughly. If you try the next step too soon, some of the image will tear off the wood.
I find the gel medium takes about four hours to dry completely. Some tutorials suggest using a hair dryer to accelerate the drying process. I have not tried this so I do not know if it affects the quality of the image transfer or not.
Spray the paper with water to dampen it. Wait a minute and then gently start removing the paper using small rolling actions with your finger tips or the corner of a damp sponge. Go easy and gradually increase the pressure—but not much. Continue to spray the paper as needed. Overworking it will remove the image (not good): the right pressure just removes the paper (good).
As you rub the paper, it will come away in little roly-polies. While it will look quite good (nice crisp image with bold colors), it is temporary. You actually have to repeat this step a few times, allowing the surface to dry thoroughly between steps.
Here you see how the image looks after one paper-removing session. As it dries, the remaining paper becomes visible again. Spray it with water, let it soak in, and continue rubbing (gently!) the remaining paper off. If your finger tips are sensitive, you will be able to feel the remaining paper that needs removing. When it’s all gone, the image feels perfectly smooth. You may need to repeat this step again: it depends entirely on the paper used and how it rolls off.
When it dries clear without any paper ghosts showing, you are done. You can now apply a protective top coat, using the transfer medium or polyurethane or similar product.
Image Transfer Ideas
This first one is a favourite garden photo. If you look closely, you can see how too much rubbing along the wood frame (behind the canvas) can cause some of the image to pull off. If you’re like me, the more you do, the better you get at avoiding boo-boos like this. I still like it, but if you want perfection, it may take some practice.
The same method shown here for wood and canvas will also work on metal. The galvanized bucket (below) is from a dollar store and the image is part of a vintage seed packet. In this case, I don’t think there is any real advantage to doing image transfer: decoupage would have given a similar result.
Mini canvases are good for favorite little glimpses of the garden:
More Image Transfer Methods
- How to Transfer Images and Photos to Wood, Glass, Canvas, Metal, and More lists the products that work with InkJet and Laser printers and photocopies and provides project ideas.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛