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August 28, 2010

Transfer Photo Images to Wood Using Your Inkjet Printer

CoastersIn case you missed it, this is a really fun, cheap way to cover wood with your favourite photos.

The plywood coasters pictured on the left are part of my recent discovery that you can take any digital image and transfer it to plywood, solid wood, wood veneers or unfinished furniture.  It's fun, fast and cheap.  I've made mouse pads, lap desks, flooring and even wall tiles using this technique.

The result is a fantastic alternative to stencilling or staining and you can even use your computer to create watercolour effects in your photos, or do other freaky stuff to the images.  If you're into carving wood you can also use this technique to transfer your pattern directly onto the wood surface.

Printing onto transfer paper Start with a package of T-shirt transfer paper, available at office supply places.  Print your favourite photos onto the paper.  Use the 'Mirror Image' setting to reverse the printed image so that the ironed-on image won't be backwards.

P1030126 2

Cut a blank from plywood (TIP: Use Baltic Birch plywood - it's the nicest and you can buy it in small 2'x2' sheets at the Home Depot).  Clamp a straight edge (like a carpenter's square or another piece of lumber) so the saw cuts a straight line.  If you don't like power tools, you can easily cut Baltic Birch with a handsaw, or cut curvy shapes with a jigsaw.

Sand the surface of the wood Sand the surface of the wood.  The smoother it is, the better it will accept the transfer.  If you sand starting with 100-grit and move up gradually to 180 or 220 grit sandpaper, you'll have a really nice transfer surface.  On the other hand, if you want a more antique, flaking look, leave the surface of the wood unsanded.

Trim the white edges from the transfer image After sanding, trim the white edges around your photo images (I like using a paper trimmer, but scissors work fine) and place the transfer paper image-side-down on the wood.

Ironing the transfer onto plywood
The iron has to be used dry (no steam!) on a fairly high setting to get the plastic film on the transfer paper to release.  Press down and move the iron over the image for about 2 minutes.  change directions and maintain steady pressure, making sure to evenly heat the entire surface of the paper.

Lift a corner of the heated transfer and peel back Test a corner of the heated transfer sheet after about two minutes to see if it lifts easily.  If not, apply heat slowly and evenly to the edge.  Then peel away slowly, keeping the iron on the rest of the paper to maintain the heat.

Keep peeling Keep peeling, slowly and steadily.  If some of the plastic/image lifts, don't sweat it.  You can patch it later.  Or just leave it rustic.

Seams may show If you are placing several images side by side like I did when I made my office chair mat, you'll end up with some space between 'seams'.  You can patch seams and bald areas by cutting a similarly-shaped scrap from unused images, and applying it to the naked spot.

Patch in place

Iron the patch over parchment paper
Iron the patch in place using a sheet of parchment paper (the stuff you line cookie sheets with), which will prevent the iron from tearing up the already transferred image around the patch.

Patch results

Now the bald spot is gone.  If you have the opposite problem - dark overlapping seams - you can apply a similar solution.  Place parchment paper over the seam and place the iron on the seam for about 30 seconds.  This will heat up the seam. Then use the tip of your iron through the parchment paper to nudge/melt the seams together.

Seams can be minimized on large pieces but they're still visible.  I actually like the vintage linoleum effect of the seams.Seams can be minimized on large pieces

The completed chair mat
This is the chair mat.  I took photos of the rug that's already in the office and transferred them to the mat.  Now I have a nice chair mat that doesn't scream plywood.  (The reason I need a wooden chair mat instead of a plastic see-through one, is that the floor is so un-level that I have to shim the mat up about an inch and a half on one side so I can be sitting on a horizontal surface.  You can't shim a plastic mat.)




Chair mat with mousepad and girl
This is how the chair mat looks under the desk I made from bamboo plywood.

Have fun with your photo transfer projects and send me photos if you do some cool stuff.

Lap desks, mousepad and coasters(Photo right) Lap desks (which double as TV trays), a mousepad and coasters (or wall tiles!) and (left) a veneer votive holder.Votive made from wood veneer with iron-on pattern



This is very very interesting. Can this technigue also work on a regular printer... or does it have to be the inkjet Printer?

Ps the canadian Home coming is that time of month already? wow how time flies I hope you fun this weekend.. by the way are you enjoying your gift?
take care,
with love Abi

Gary Earle

Hi Mag

Oh man..this is also pretty cool! I think I just found a very good idea for gifts! A question though...for when you get back from the show...You didn't mention sealing the wood...should you? Like with a urethane or varathane? or will the printer ink not react well with that? And..you mentioned mouse pads....any suggestions on where to buy blanks or sheets of that stuff? Just curious....the ideas for this can be endless ...Thank you..I wouldnt have thought of this in a million years!


I've been looking for an easier way to transfer stencils to wood for carving. Awesome! Thanks Mag!!


What a cool idea!



Gary, I use a clear coat (matte) over the finished transfer. And I make the mouse pads from wood veneer. Then I apply a rubber or vinyl backing to make it non-skid.


Vikki R

OMG!! I have been trying to figure out how to transfer a picture I took of La Havre harbor inside of and an old window frame. Thereby making a view out of a window where there is none! I can hide the seems with the mullions!!! WAHOO!!

Tina Witt

How would I go about transfering an image onto an irregular object like a smooth, dry, barkless, large tree limb? Is it possible?


Hmm. That's tricky. You might be able to do it with a small travel iron that could manage the undulations in the wood surface, but I think it might be frustrating because the paper would tend to kink. It would be a really cool effect though, if you could get it to work. Let me know if you do any experimenting.



Note to Vikki -

That's brilliant! Please, please send photos of your finished window!!



You could print directly on plywood, eliminating the transfer step:
See www.leevalley.com latest newsletter


Kevin Massey

I like this idea. If you want to print on large sheets or even smaller pieces check out my website @ theholzwurm.com. We directly print on wood using UV cured ink.


Nice idea.

Have you heard of Lazertran (http://www.lazertran.com/products/lazertran_products_inkjet.htm)?

This gives a similar effect on wood, ceramics, metal, glass etc without the use of heat. It's like those old decals you got in bubblegum that you soaked and then slid off onto skin/book/desk. It sinks in to the grain of the material you're applying to which makes it almost invisible if done correctly. Fun stuff.


Looks like a great way to personalize wood projects with photo/images.
Question: Will it work on wood that's been painted or stained?


Hi Alison,
I'm about to try ironing on to painted wood but I think it will just blister the paint. I'll let you know.



Hi again,
Transferring images to painted surfaces is possible! It worked really well for me on some old trim that had been painted with alkyd. Next I'll try it on a latex-painted surface to make sure the paint doesn't bubble or lift.


Hi Mag! I just found your site and I love it! I see that your last post was about transferring to latex painted wood. I was wondering if that worked out? I would love to do that with some images that i have! Thank you!!


Hi Michelle,
I'm on tour right now and can't try it (unless maybe this hotel would like baseboard festooned with photos!) I will get to this as soon as I get home, which will be in November. I hope you can wait. If you go ahead and test it yourself, PLEASE let me know your results!



Hi, is there a certain kind of ink need for this technique, or will regular inkjet printer ink work?


Hi Amanda,
Regular inkjet printer ink is all it takes. The ink prints onto the plastic film on the t-shirt transfer paper. When you flip the transfer over and use heat to release the film, the ink adheres directly to the surface and the plastic seals it.



Will paint accept the iron on transfer?


Hi Bob,
Yes, with qualifications. Depending on the paint type, the age of the paint, etc., the images transfer pretty well. Not as well as onto bare wood, but with a choppiness and grunge/shabby aged look that is kind of arty.


Jill Heath

Which laser tran paper works best for transfering to wood? Also, are photo printer inkjets.....?...can photo printers print on transfer paper and then put onto wood?


I've only used this process with inkjet t-shirt transfer paper that I found at Staples Office Supplies. Photo printers (like Kodak kiosks) are laser printers, so you'd have to have a different kind of t-shirt transfer paper made for laser images. I don't know if the kiosks offer t-shirt transfer printing because I've never used one. But I don't see any reason why it wouldn't work. All t-shirts transfers are wax/plastic-based and should iron just fine onto wood.

roger earp

Hi Mag,

I have looked everywhere to find out if this technique will work with newly stained wood. From everything I have seen here it should. I am hesitant to spend money and time on materials, just to have it deface my project.


Hi Roger,
The only way to know for sure is to test a sample on a scrap of finished wood. It'll cost about $10 for a package of t-shirt transfers and the ink to print a photo. It's so worth testing to make sure you get the effect you want. If it's an oil-based stain it may not work (I don't know because I never use oil-based stains), but an acrylic stain will probably take the transfer fine. You're the only one who can prove it though!
Hope that helps - please let me know your findings?


Does the 'blank' transfer paper AROUND the image have a different color after you apply it? In other words, if you apply a circle but don't trim all around the edge of the circle and say leave the excess paper on, will you see that excess? Do you recommend trimming as close as possible to the image?


The 'blank' parts of the transfer paper come out as a slightly shiny transparent finish, so it's better to trim the image as tightly as possible to the edge to avoid getting a clear border around it.

Hope that helps.

pete mcmeans

will this method work on a acoustic guitar?

pete mcmeans

will this work on a acoustic guitar?


Hi Mag,

Did you ever figure out if this method works on latex/water based painted surfaces?

diane mead

Tool girl, need help. my best friends husband and my dear friend, Bill, died suddenly a few years ago. He was 62 and had only retired a month earlier. We are all still struggeling with his loss. Bill always wanted to see Paris so luckly we made the trip as a retirement present a few months before he died. I want to make a memory for his wife, Anne, also a dear friend, to remind her of his happiness on that trip. I Idon't want to screw this up.

diane mead

I'd like to transfer several of the wonderful pictures of him/them on our trip that I have. The major thing I'm worried about is the longevity of the piece. I want to transfer photos to a beautiful little wooden table I found. I'm afraid i'll look great and peel up after a few months. Can u help?


Hi Diane,
What a beautiful idea to make a travel memento from the little table. Does it have a finish on it, or is it unfinished wood? I have had absolutely no peeling on the projects I've done, even though they've been subjected to lots of heat and humidity changes, and spills too. I always transfer images onto bare wood though, so that's all I can guarantee it for. It should last a very, very long time if the images are adhering to unfinished wood. Then you can put a coat of satin acrylic sealer over the images just to even out the finish after you're done. Let me know if you have any more questions and good luck with the table. I'm sure Anne will love it to pieces.


Oops missed a couple of messages higher up.

Sarah, the t-shirt transfers adhere nicely to old alkyd paint, but depending on the quality of latex paint on a substrate, the heat from the iron can cause bubbling. You really need to test the finish in an inconspicuous area (fingers crossed that there is one on the piece you're thinking of working with!)

Pete McMeans - An unfinished acoustic guitar would take images just fine but the heat from the iron would probably warp the veneers and micro-thin plywood used in guitar construction, whether it has been finished or not. This process works better on thicker substrates that can absorb and distribute the heat without burning or warping.


Hi Mag. Came across this and what a neat crafts project. I bought some wood from Michaels, and have been experimenting. Is the wax supposed to come off the paper to "seal" the ink to the wood? Mine did, but it also left what look like air bubbles, and the wax peeled away in some sections. Do you have any suggestions on that?


I went to Office Depot and saw they have several types of transfer paper, does it matter which one I buy?


Hi Hunter,
I'm using regular transfers in the above examples; I like the rustic effect. For much crisper images, choose t-shirt transfers for dark fabrics. The third type of transfer (for stretch fabrics) has quite an annoying flocked texture; I would avoid the stretch transfer paper!


Hey mag it's me again, I bought the kind of paper you recommended and as soon as I put the iron to the paper, it started curling upwards and wasn't transferring at all. Maybe I didn't let the ink dry long enough? Also, I turned it over after I knew it wasn't going to work and saw that the image was starting to bubble...


Hey mag it's me again, I bought the kind of paper you recommended and as soon as I put the iron to the paper, it started curling upwards and wasn't transferring at all. Maybe I didn't let the ink dry long enough? Also, I turned it over after I knew it wasn't going to work and saw that the image was starting to bubble...


Hi Hunter,
It sounds like your iron is too hot - every iron is different so try turning the dial down about 30% or so and try again. Sorry you're having trouble. What kind of wood are your transferring onto?


Haha I don't really remember. I think it's birch, but not baltic birtch.


So happy to found your site! I have had an idea for a long time to do this project; I want to transfer photos onto driftwood for a rustic sea look. I have a piece of driftwood that is fairly flat. do you think it will work? I have bleached and dried it out. Any further tips?


I should add that I want it to look very rustic; I am going to use B&W photos


Hi Kristen,
I've never tried applying images to a curvy surface - it sounds hard because the iron is uncompromisingly flat, so you might have trouble heating the transfer evenly across the surface of the driftwood. No harm in trying though - use the pointed nose of the iron to force the transfer into low spots on the wood. Let me know how it turns out - would love to see photos.

Elizabeth C.

I have some dark fabric iron on transfer paper, like you suggested. But mine has a white background, not a clear one like you have. So doing what you have described would only result in a white piece of wood. Why do you have to turn the iron on over? Why not just follow the iron on's directions and peel the back off, picture facing up, and iron it through a piece of parchment paper?


Hi Elizabeth,
I only suggest 'dark fabric' transfer paper if you want a really crisp look. The white background gives much sharper contrast to photos. If you use regular t-shirt transfers you get the clear background instead, which results in a much less detailed image. With dark fabric paper you should follow the instructions on the package, which involve peeling off the image and ironing it directly onto the wood surface through a piece of parchment paper that they supply in the package. The process pictured above is only for regular transfers, which must be reverse-printed to come out properly. Hope that helps.


Hi: Thanks for the description. How durable is the final piece? Would it withstand being banged on by a four year old? I'm thinking of making a toy for my son.


Hi Guy,
After 3 years of heavy use (i.e. an office chair rolling over it for 8-12 hours a day with hard ballistic nylon wheels), the chair mat I made (above) is unmarred, the pattern is not chipped or scuffed and the thing still looks great. It helps that I clear-coated it with acrylic I suppose, but transfers are pretty tough on their own. They are meant to be laundered many many times, so your photo transfers should be fine, even on a toy. Hope that helps.

Mr Jones

Hi , Im trying to put a design onto a pool cue .. ive got sum water glide lazer trans paper and tried a few things but the paper leaves an edge that is noticable and ruins the whole job in my eyes . i have tried ironing the ink onto the cue with mixed results ..the cue is painted ( enamel paints ) and good to go .. .along with the design , but if anyone can help me either get rid of the edges ( ive tried sanding and clear coat enamel layering already) or tell me a product or method that will transfer the ink straight onto the paint ( without heat would be better) while also giving a near a possible to perfect transfer of the image/design. Thankyou for any help


Hi there, I'd like to try this on a canoe paddle... but I need to be able to coat it with marine varnish after. Will the transfer take the varnish?

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