I recently wanted to make some wood backgrounds to use for food photography purposes. After reading a bunch of how-to write-ups, I realized none of what was written already about making photography backgrounds from wood really covered all the important factors like what type of wood to buy, optimum size for the wood boards, and things like sanding, etc. So I decided to do my own article to give people a more comprehensive step by step how-to for making their own DIY wood backgrounds.
The first thing I did was decide what type of wood to buy from the lumber yard. After considering a few different wood types, I decided on pine for a number of reasons. It is light weight, inexpensive, soft (so it is easy to sand if needed), the boards are cut very straight so they will line up nicely side by side, and the wood is rarely warped since pine wood is normally cut when it is young and still straight. But weight and ease to work with were the 2 main considerations and I needed something light weight which is easy to move around the studio, as well as being portable enough to take onto shooting locations. The only negative thing about pine though is that when it is painted you are not going to see the wood grain as well as on an aged hardwood as the grain of pine is relatively smooth and soft.
So I bought 5 bundles of pine at the lumber yard. Each bundle was US$10 each and each of the 5 boards in the bundles I bought are 4′ long, 5.5″ wide, and 3/4″ thick. I will use one bundle per background and make 5 different colored backgrounds when all is said and done. Also, you don’t want anything thicker than 3/4″ because it is just more unnecessary weight to have to move around.
So the wood I bought was very inexpensive and, when I put the 5 boards side by side, I have a 4′ long background with a width of just under 2.5′, which I think is the perfect size. You also don’t want to buy boards that are much narrower than 5.5″ each because otherwise you will end up with many boards to make up a 2.5′ wide background and too many lines in the photo from too many gaps between the boards isn’t so nice. Some people use large single pieces of wood for their backgrounds, but then there are not any of those gaps at all in between the wood, which is part of what helps make the background look like a wood table, and you also have a big, heavy piece of wood to have to move around and store somewhere too.
The other great thing with pine is, since the boards are very straight and even, I can just lay them down either across two sawhorses or on a tabletop next to each other when I want to use them and they will line up nicely and appear to form a wooden tabletop.
I also decided I am not going to assemble the 5 boards permanently since keeping them as 5 individual boards makes them easy to store and travel with. If you want to assemble them temporarily though you can stick some 2 sided foam tape across the back of the boards which will hold them in place and then you can just pull them apart again when you are finished using them.
After buying the boards, the first thing I did was to take a medium grit sandpaper and I sanded over the squared edges of the boards along the 2 sides of each board. You only need to do this on the top side of the boards, unless you are going to paint and use both sides of the boards as backgrounds. I am only using one side of each set of boards though. So I just sanded them lightly by hand to round off the edges on one side, which took me only about 20 minutes to do all 5 boards. The reason I did this is that I want to have a small rounded gap between the boards when they are lying next to each other to make the wood look a bit worn and beveled. If you don’t sand them you may not see any gaps at all. Now, once you finish sanding the boards, you should take a dry towel and wipe them down to remove any loose sawdust that might be still stuck to the boards. If sawdust is still on the boards when you paint them it won’t look very nice.
Now here is the key to painting them. You want to use a water based (latex) acrylic wood paint so that it has a mat finish and so it is not reflective when light hits the boards. You also want to take your paint that you are going to use for the job and mix it with 50%-60% water first to thin it out and water it down quite a bit. This way, when you apply the paint, it goes on thinner than usual and is more like a thin stain finish rather than a thick coat of paint. Then you should end up seeing more of the grain when the paint dries, which is what you want.
The first background I made was a standard mid tone gray color. In the photo below I just placed the 5 boards next to each other on the floor to show you the finished boards. Since the floor I set them on isn’t totally level, the boards don’t lie perfectly level with one another in the photo. But when laid on a table top they should line up perfectly. I also placed a couple of bowls on the background too to give you a sense of scale:
In the next close up shot below you can still see some of the texture in the wood, which is good. The texture, and the gaps between the boards, distinguishes the wood background from a gray paper background. And the boards are wide enough so that when I place a bowl on the background the bowl fits onto one board without encroaching onto one of the gaps. Mission accomplished.
For the next background I am going to make I am going to use other finishing techniques to create a multi colored background with more of a rustic and aged vintage look. I will post another article and more sample photos once I finish making the next background. Stay tuned!