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I'm working on (water-based) ink-jet ink transfers to wood by printing images on freezer paper and then rubbing the ink into the wood. I'm using aspen and poplar for this project.

The issue I'm having is the wood isn't as smooth as paper so it ends up with micro gaps in the ink giving it a really grainy look. But at the same time the ink bleeds a tiny amount so the finer details blur.

I've been trying to figure out either a way to prevent the ink from bleeding or if nothing else, color the wood just a tiny amount so the lighter colored "grainy" parts don't show as much.

So far I've tried a golden oak stain, which if I use a tiny brush and wipe off almost immediately it sorta works but tends to make the image look more golden yellow than I'd like. I don't have any other colors of stain to try right now but if the images are black and white, maybe a gray or black would work. I don't think it would work with colored ink, though.

I've also tried Gesso canvas primer but it actually made the ink bleed more. The other one I tried was Liquitex Matte Medium over the ink which gives a neat look by blending the ink to fill in gaps but it makes it too dark.

Colored ink transfer picture to help people understand.

You can see in the top image the grainy gaps; the bleed is a little harder to see. The picture below it shows the gaps a little better. I did buy some 400 to 3000 grit wet dry sand paper to try and get this wood smoother. I'm hoping that'll help too.

I'm just a bit stumped on what else to try. I wonder what would happen if I used wood conditioner and then did a very light gray stain before the ink transfer.

  • To be honest, I'm kinda shocked it works as well as it does! It seems that you're going to a "painted directly onto the wood" look, but without doing that, this may be the best you'll get. It does look "realistic" in that most of the art I've seen painted on wood is old and ends up looking like this anyway. – FreeMan Jul 18 at 11:57
  • There are two related questions here: Transferring to a smooth surface, and preparing the surface so the ink takes without too much bleed. These are somewhat related, but a good answer will require addressing both. – jdv Jul 18 at 13:54
  • I think you should be able to get a little better result than this with better prep, but within the limits of a wood species you actually can't sand it smoother. This sounds wrong but I'll try to explain. The best examples are coarse-grained or open-pored (these mean the same thing) species, like oak. You can sand and sand and sand and sand oak and the open grain remains visible, because this characteristic runs throughout the wood so you continually expose more of it as you sand. On a much smaller scale the same thing is true of close-grained species like poplar, maple etc. – Graphus Jul 19 at 5:32
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So, I don't have direct experience here, but I have a friend who does a lot of transfers to wood, metal, glass, etc. Here's what he said:

Canvas gesso isn't good for ink. It's quite porous. He should probably start with a matte clear coat spray varnish. That's if he wants it to look like he's printing on wood. Otherwise, paint it, then varnish, then print, then clear coat again. Or switch to a water transfer method. That's what I'm using these days.

Almost certainly you want a smooth matte finish to print onto, so no sanding the base-coat.

Since I went out of my way to make a comment about addressing both your questions, you will probably have to sand to a much finer level. The last pass should be a pretty fine grit, possibly wetting the wood first to get the fibres to swell up and be cut nicely.

Though, for the cleanest cut you cannot beat cabinet scrapers. A sharp scraper will make a very smooth surface with very little fibre ends.

That being said, if you wet sand before applying your base-coat, you will have the opportunity for a quick pass with sandpaper before a second base-coat, which will make for a very smooth starting point for your printing process.

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  • Cool, i'll look into those. Looks like the matte clear coat is fairly cheap so i could pick up some of that to try. I would prefer to keep the wood grain at least be seen under ink if possible. It's a bit of a balancing act. So far with oak for example, the grain messes up the image but aspen or poplar it seems to enhance. I'm going to a hardware store today so i'll check for the matte clear varnish. Not sure if they'll have it though. But i can get it online if nothing else. Question: Should i sand the varnish before the transfer? Thanks for the help, your friend too. – Lokiie1984 Jul 18 at 16:32
  • A second question: With the matte clear coat spray varnish should that be water based or oil? I'm seeing both while searching online. – Lokiie1984 Jul 18 at 18:56
  • Once cured it doesn't matter. Water-based is easier cleanup, but might be more of a challenge to apply. The oil-based or oil-modified also needs a space to off-gas as it cures, so it can be more problematic that way as well. See some other Q&A about clearcoat finishes in previous Q&A. Lots of good advice there. Quickly: never shake the finish, always stir, keep the brush quite wet, apply thin, fast coats, keeping a wet edge for the next brush application. – jdv Jul 18 at 22:45
  • My only worry with oil based stuff is that the ink would bead up on the surface of the varnish and then not soak in / wipe off when i try to coat it again. I will look into those Q&A and see what i can find. Thanks – Lokiie1984 Jul 18 at 23:20
  • Once cured, these types of finishes no longer have any significant oil or water in them, and should be pretty identical in use. Only the application really changes. – jdv Jul 19 at 0:17

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