How to Clean and Prepare Wood for DIY Signs

Learn how to clean and prepare wood for your next DIY sign. It’s easier than you think! Find out how with these step-by-step instructions.

How to Clean and Prepare Wood for DIY Signs

Today I’m going to go over the best ways to clean, prepare, cut, and prime a variety of different types of wood surfaces you might use. It is extremely important not to skip this step! 

Think of it like this. In the morning, in order for your makeup to look its absolute BEST, you’re going to do what? Wash your face? Maybe add a little bit of moisturizer, and then your foundation.

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The same goes with the wood you will be using for your sign. Clean, clean, clean. Then, prep it up for it’s beauty treatment.

How to Clean and Prepare Wood for DIY Signs

CLEANING

The only reason I’ve ever washed my wood boards is if they were reclaimed and looked a little scary. Typically a hot bucket of water with dish soap and a stiff brush will do the trick. However, most dirt can just be sanded off and will save you a lot of time by not having to wait for it dry.

I want to also emphasize if your board looks questionable due to undesirables upon it or not being structurally sound it is better just to toss it. There’s no point putting in the effort of cleaning a piece of wood that could cause problems during the designing process.

PREPPING

Learn how to clean and prepare wood for your next DIY sign. It's easier than you think! Find out how with these step-by-step instructions.

Step 1: Regardless if your board was dirty or not I highly recommend sanding it down. Sanding the surface will not only get rid of any loose dirt and splinters but also will provide a smoother surface to work with.

Typically I use my Ryobi Cordless Orbital Sander with 60-Grit Orbital Sandpaper to accomplish this task with reclaimed wood, and then my 220-Grit with smooth boards.

Step 2: If you’ll be painting your board and need it to have a flawless surface now is the time to look for imperfections and patch them up. You can accomplish this using any wood filler. Just insert the filler into the area of concern, smooth over with your finger, then allow it to dry before sanding down, and painting over it.

CUTTING

You may not need to cut your board because you like its current dimensions, or it’s possible that you purchased it at a specific length.

However, if you will be cutting your boards yourself please make sure to incorporate both of these practices into your routine every time:

1.) Safety first! Wear your safety goggles whenever you’re cutting your wood.

2.) Measure twice, cut once. You’ve probably heard this phrase a hundred times, but it’s worth saying again.

PRIMING & PAINTING

how to clean and prep wood

Need help making your own signs? Visit these tutorials!

Reclaimed Wood

It’s very possible that you may not even want to paint your board because you want the natural beauty of your reclaimed wood to shine through. However, I still stand behind one method to help you with the designing process. I always spray my reclaimed wood boards down a few times with a finishing spray and let it dry out.

Why? Because reclaimed wood is very porous. If you plan on hand-painting your text onto your sign you might have to paint and repaint it several times to get the paint to show up properly. However, when you have a few coats of finishing spray on it first you’ll be amazed how much time (and paint!) it will save you.

cleaning and prepping reclaimed wood

My Top 3 Favorite Items for Making Signs

Overall Color

If you are painting a small sign (anything less than 11”x 11”) a 1.5” to 2” paintbrush will work just fine. However, if you’re planning on doing anything larger I highly recommend using a paint roller cover. Not only is it a super-fast way to achieve your desired color, but also will give it that smooth and professional finish.

Step 1: Ensure that your board is clean. I like to literally brush off all dirt from my surface, and then use a damp paper towel to catch anything the brush may have missed.

Step 2: In a pinch, I’ve used a general-purpose paint roller cover, but my preferred method is a 9” foam paint roller cover. The key to success in this step is to use multiple, light coats. Typically I like to wait one hour between each coat, and usually only need two coats. However, use your own discretion if you’d like to add more.

NOTE: Use a paint with a satin finish rather than a flat or matte finish if you are going for a clean, crisp, and non-vintage look.

Step 3: Between each coat (after each has thoroughly dried) I like to take 220-grit sandpaper and very gently remove any bumps that you may see.

Step 4: After you have finished painting and sanding it is best to let your sign “cure” for a week. I’ve found that (especially if you’re using vinyl stencils) you will have fewer pulled-off-paint issues.

NOTE: If you’ve noticed any light scuff marks from your sanding on your last coat of paint, don’t fret! Once your sign is completed a matte finishing spray will even everything out.

How to Clean and Prepare Wood for DIY Signs

Stain

how to stain wood

Using one or multiple stains for the base of your sign is another great way to add interest to a piece of wood very easily.

Step 1: Ensure that your board is clean. I like to literally brush off all dirt from my surface, and then use a damp paper towel to catch anything the brush may have missed.

Step 2: Lightly brush your stain all over your board, and then wipe away any excess with a paper towel.

Step 3: Let dry for a few days prior to adding any designs or stencils to your board.

NOTE: If you are not using a water-based stain I highly recommend using gloves and applying it in a ventilated area.

And that my friends… was a doozy of a post! Wasn’t it? However, I stand by these methods 100%.

Why? Because I use them on a daily basis!

I hope you have a great weekend, and see you again next week 🙂

Pssttt…. Don’t forget to check out my DIY signs page chocked full of DIY and decorating goodness!

Learn how to clean and prepare wood for your next DIY sign. It's easier than you think! Find out how with these step-by-step instructions.

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This post was originally created in August 2017 and then updated in August 2021.

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