How to Make Wood Photo Blocks
Custom Photo Blocks
Vintage Photo Gift Idea
Custom photo blocks are a great project. Use them for your own décor or as handmade gifts anyone will appreciate. They are quite time consuming, but not overly difficult to make and the end results are a definite “Wow”!
Make singles, or create a whole set. Start a tradition in your family of passing out a new one every year for a birthday or holiday. You can also customize sets with lettering – put your last name or the word “family” on the blocks, or any creative idea you can come up with.
Block sets are great for displaying as centerpieces for special dinners, on a mantle, or as a tabletop display year round. I keep ours on a table at the end of our hallway and it gets a lot of compliments.
DIY Decoupage Medium
A simple way to create your own high quality, durable decoupage medium and save money.
Use one part Elmer's Glue All (must be glue all NOT school glue) to two parts water. Mix well and store in a tightly sealed plastic container. I mix it in small batches to ensure I always have fresh glue and to reduce waste.
This mixture dries clear and very quickly and provides a matte finish. If you want a glossier finish you can achieve that with the top polyurethane coat and fixative layers.
- 2 x 4 x 8 pine board which you will cut into 4.5 inch lengths. (makes 20 blocks)
- Saw (we used a chop saw)
- Wood filler (for any holes/pits etc)
- Sander or sandpaper (I use an orbital sander with 60 grit discs)
- Dremel tool (I used this to gently round off the corners and give a nicer look)
- Decoupage Medium *see sidebar for an affordable DIY version that works amazingly well*
- Photo paper - archival quality satin or matte paper
- Photo printer
- Water based Polyurethane (I prefer the satin finish)
- Foam Brushes
- Acrylic paint or water based stain.
- Exacto Knife and/or Decoupage scissors
Preparing Your Photographs
For my project, I took old family photos and created high resolution scans of them. I then restored the old photos in Photoshop, fixing things like scratches and dust, fading, and discoloration. Not sure how to do this? Here's a hub tutorial for basic Photo Restoration.
*Note – I am using Photoshop for this project and for the photo restoration tutorial. If you have different phote editing software you'll have to fiddle with it a bit to get the same results. You need to use something with layering capabilities. I recommend GIMP for those who do not have Photoshop – it is a free, highly useful digital imaging software.
- Once your images are repaired, close them and start a new document in Photoshop. Ensure the size is the right size to fit your blocks. I do mine at 3.25 x 4 inches. You'll also want to set your resolution at 300 or higher to get a nice detailed print.
- Create a nice background in Photoshop (or Gimp). For the examples in this hub, I did a texture that looks like old paper. It's important to do this because we will then blend the photographs into the texture in the same manner so that all blocks have a uniform appearance. This also gives all of your images an even more vintage appearance. You can get creative here trying different looks. Use different layers and hide them so you can try a variety of backgrounds. Some ideas – old newspaper, scrapbook papers, etc.
- Once your texture is the way you like it you are ready to add your photograph. This step is important! So follow closely. Go to File > Place. Locate the photo you want to use and click it. Adjust to fit while holding the shift key to keep the proportions. Click the selection tool, and click place. On your layers panel change the mode to “Multiply” and reduce your opacity to between 85 and 90 percent or so. You'll see how this blends your image into the background. If your image looks a bit dark as in my video – go to Layer > Smart Objects > Rasterize. This will allow you to make adjustments to the photo. Go to Image > Adjustments > Brightness and Contrast. Play around with the settings until your image has the look you like. (see video below for this step if necessary - warning video is not my forte ;) but you should be able to see the steps.)
placing and adjusting your photos
- If you want to add Text that is your next step. For my example I used “Book Antiqua” for the old look at 130px size in a dark grey. I then added a drop shadow and a soft outer glow with a lot of transparency to get my look. Experiment with fonts, colors, and effects until you get the look you want. It should stand out, but not overpower your images. You can use any word you want, doing one letter per block – or just leave this step out and enjoy stacking and placing your blocks any way you see fit.
- Once your image is complete, save it in .psd format so that all layers stay intact. You will use this file to start subsequent photos. Simply turn off the photo layer and place the next photo then “save as” with a new name. This saves time, as all you have to do for each one is change the picture and the letter, then save under a new name.
Yes, this is time consuming. Be patient with this process as it is the part of this project that takes the longest. Doing a good job on your images will ensure a beautiful finished project though, so put in the time and effort here and you won't be disappointed.
Finishes: Black or Stain
Creating the Finished Project
Sand your board down, fill any holes, allow to dry and then cut into blocks. Once the blocks are cut, you'll need to sand the ends.
Re-sand any areas that need touching up and use your Dremel tool to gently bevel or round the corner edges of the blocks for a more polished look. Once all sanding/drilling is done wipe thoroughly to remove any excess sawdust. From this point on you will want to ensure your work area is as free from dust as possible, so avoid the use of fans etc.
Paint and/or Stain your blocks and set aside to dry. Once completely dry, apply a second coat if needed. (you'll need it.)
Once your paint or stain has dried thoroughly, apply a thin layer of decoupage medium all over the block. While this dries, we'll prepare our photos.
If you are doing your own photos, you can print 4 images on one 8x10 sheet of photo paper or print them off individually onto 4x6” paper. I recommend using a matte or satin photo paper and not gloss or high gloss for the best look. Print your photos using “Photo” or “best” quality print settings. Allow your prints to sit for several minutes to ensure the ink is fully dry.
Once your images are printed and the ink is fully dry, lay them flat on a protected surface and apply the first coat of spray fixative to them. You want to do this outside or in a well ventilated area because the fixative fumes are very strong smelling (it stinks to high heaven and it lingers. It may also induce sneezing and asthma attacks and/or gagging sensations ;) ) Spray your photos evenly and quickly in one direction with sweeping motions. After 15 minutes, apply a second coat. Wait for at least 30 minutes before carefully cutting your images.
Cut your images out using a very sharp Exacto knife or a pair of decoupage scissors. You want precise cuts and smooth edges on your images. Take your time cutting out the images to ensure a nice look for your overall project. Jagged or crooked edges will ruin the look of your blocks so be very meticulous with this step. Those big clunky scissors you use to clip your coupons every week? Don't even think about it! sharp blades or even a nice sharp paper cutter which I don't happen to have are ideal.
Applying the images to the blocks is very simple to do. Use your foam brush and apply a generous, but even layer of decoupage medium to the front of the block and then to the back of your photograph. Carefully place the photo on the block and push down gently in the center, moving out towards the edges to ensure the photo lays flat and doesn't have bubbles or lifted edges. Once the image is firmly in place, apply a layer of decoupage medium over the entire front of the block – covering the image thoroughly and evenly. Allow this to dry for an hour and then repeat several times. Be sure that you don't have drips going over the edges of the block. If drips happen (they will) carefully brush it in following the grain of your wood. The more coats of medium you apply here the more durable your photo blocks will be. Each coat adds a layer of protection to the photograph beneath.
Apply the decoupage medium to the rest of the block, using several layers and allowing it to dry completely between layers (30 to 60 minutes each layer) I recommend no less than 5 layers, I typically do 8 to 10 to really seal in those photos and to make the finished blocks chip resistant encase they are knocked over etc. The more layers of decoupage medium you add, the more your photos will appear to recede back into your block - giving it a nicer appearance.
Apply a thin even coat of water based Polyurethane over the entire block. Your poly MUST be water based for this project. I recommend a satin finish for the nicest look. It adds a nice, soft luster that catches the light without a glaring sheen which could detract from the beauty of the photos. Allow your layer of poly to dry for 2 hours and then apply a second coat. Use a high quality stain brush or fresh foam brush for this. *tip* gently stir, do not shake your polyurethane to avoid getting bubbles and an uneven finish. brush it on in very thin, very even layers and work quickly as poly will start to dry very soon.
After this, allow your blocks to dry completely in an undisturbed and dust free area for 24 hours – then use, stack, or gift at will. You'll love the look of these blocks and so will anyone who receives them.
Sound like too much work? You're in luck! – I make these and you can custom order your own set at my Etsy shop for a great price! :)