How to Make an Oil Painting Palette Cover

In this post, I’ll share 15 tips you can use to create an oil painting palette cover to keep your paints wet longer.

For thirty years I painted so regularly I didn’t worry about my paints drying out. My habit was to start a painting and work on it 10 or so hours each day until it was finished – from a day to a few weeks. Even when a painting took weeks to finish, I would generally use up the paint on my palette before it had time to dry out much.

Now that I spend so much time teaching online there can be days between painting sessions, or I may only get a couple of hours to paint. I’m now discovering why so many artists from our community have asked how I keep my paints from drying out.

With such limited painting time, I was getting tired of wasting any of it with scraping and replacing paint on my palette. So, I decided it was time to buy or create something that will help my paints stay fresh longer.

 

Ideas that Failed

In the early ‘90s, I tried using an enamel butcher tray palette and putting it in the freezer overnight. That lasted about a week. It took longer to wait for the paints to thaw than to de-skin them each day. Freezing the paints also made them sticky and less workable.

In the early ‘90s I tried using an enamel butcher tray palette and putting it in the freezer overnight. That lasted about a week. It took longer to wait for the paints to thaw than to de-skin them each day.

In the early ‘90s, I tried using an enamel butcher tray palette and putting it in the freezer overnight. That lasted about a week. It took longer to wait for the paints to thaw than to de-skin them each day.

 

When I decided recently that I needed to slow down the drying of my paints, the first idea that came to me was to use plastic wrap. I thought if I was going to cover my paints I may as well cover the entire paint mixing surface. That meant that I needed plastic wrap that was wider than the typical kitchen roll.

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So, I started by purchasing plastic wrap slide cutters and figuring out ways to attach a roll of plastic to the end of my palette. That way I could pull some plastic over the entire palette each night and cut it cleanly without too much hassle.

After buying different materials, I saw a convenient plastic wrap holder and cutter all-in-one and bought that.

A plastic wrap holder and cutter all-in-one with other plastic wrap slide cutters and an 18 inch roll of plastic wrap

A plastic wrap holder and cutter all-in-one with other plastic wrap slide cutters and an 18-inch roll of plastic wrap

 

That’s when I realized I didn’t like the idea of disposing of plastic any more than is necessary. I also realized that a lot of paint would be lost from the paint sticking to the plastic. I began thinking of ways to protect the paint without something touching the paint.

Camille Przewodek created a fun paint saver palette for plein air painting. The palette slides into a cover and you place a drop or two of clove oil on the end to keep the paints fresher. It has never been practical for me because I like bigger piles of paint than will work reasonably with her paint saver. But, that idea combined with my recent research into the pros and cons (mostly cons) of clove oil sent me in a better direction.

We should stay away from clove oil mixed into our paints. Clove oil will greatly soften the final dried paint film and makes conservation a nightmare for museums. But, some drops of clove oil on my palette under a cover of some sort will slow down the oxidation of the paint without affecting the paint itself – theoretically.

My Oil Painting Palette Cover

What did I want in an oil painting palette cover?

  • A clear view of my paint and mixing area so I wouldn’t disturb either
  • The cover needed to seal well without getting sticky or being difficult to remove
  • It had to cover the entire paint and mixing area while leaving space for my palette knife holder (there’s a blog post about that), mixing oils, and Turpenoid Natural brush cleaning pots
  • The cover had to be durable enough to remove and replace on a daily basis for years to come

I came up with a wooden structure covered in plexiglass with four flush-mounted magnets that would hold it firmly on my enamel table palette. I place Q-Tips broken in half and dipped in clove oil in several spots near the paint and mixing area.

A wooden frame covered with a sheet of plexiglass with four flush-mounted magnets underneath to hold it firmly on my enamel table palette.

A wooden frame covered with a sheet of plexiglass with four flush-mounted magnets underneath to hold it firmly on my enamel table palette. I place Q-Tips broken in half and dipped in clove oil in several spots near the paint and mixing area.

I’ve only used it for a couple of weeks, but so far it has definitely slowed the drying process. How much it’s slowing it and whether it will have a negative impact on the paints themselves I’m not sure about. So, with that caveat, if you would like to know the tools and materials I used, then keep reading.

 

Tools, Materials, and Process to Make a Palette Cover

The list is pretty simple, but I did use a lot of clamps.

  • Tape measure
  • Hand or power saw
  • Pen or pencil
  • Drill
  • Plexiglass cutter (I used a utility knife to score the plastic and then snapped it at the score lines – not recommended)
  • Bolt cutters (to remove 1/8th inch off the end of the magnet screws)
  • Gloves
  • Strong glue (I used Loctite PL Max Premium from Lowes)
  • Glue dispenser gun
  • Magnets (4 or more 60 lb. pull magnets – mine came in a pack of 12 for $14.99) – they come with screws and have a hole in the middle to screw them to your board
  • A 1-inch Forstner bit ($12.48 at Lowes) to flush-mount the magnets
  • Clamps
  • 1×2 inch boards (something that will not rot or warp easily – mine are cedar)
Some of the tools I used for making an oil painting palette cover

Some of the tools I used for making an oil painting palette cover

 

Some more tools I used for making an oil painting palette cover

Some more tools I used for making an oil painting palette cover

Tips to Think About

It’s pretty self-explanatory, but here are some things to think about when putting it all together.

  1. For those with a table like mine, the boards were 21 inches and 28 inches in length
  2. The plexiglass sheet on my cover is 21×30. It is a half-inch short on the two ends because I ordered a 24×30 sheet which was big enough to cover the area of my paints and palette, but not big enough to compensate for the added board width
  3. One tool I did not have was a plexiglass cutter which you will want. I forgot that plexiglass won’t cut easily with a utility knife like ABS plastic does
  4. Keep the cover as low as possible without it touching the paint so there is less oxygen to remove with the clove oil
  5. Use glue that will hold everything together forever and that will not be affected by solvents or oils over time
  6. Drill the holes and attach the magnets first. I used some PL-Max as well as the screws to ensure the magnets would never work loose. I let the glue under the magnets dry for 24 hours before putting together the rest of the cover. Start with the magnets, because if something goes wrong it’s much easier to replace a board than to repair one after everything is glued to the plexiglass
  7. Get the magnets as flush with the boards as possible so they won’t hold the boards up above the palette surface. At the same time, you don’t want the magnets set too deep or they won’t connect strongly enough to hold the cover in place.
  8. Use gloves when applying the glue – it will not wash or scrub off for days after
  9. The screws that come with the magnets are a bit too long and will come through the other side. So, use bolt cutters to snip off the end. Be careful because that end piece will shoot off like a bullet. I suggest covering the screw with a rag when you cut it
  10. Sand or rough up one inch of the plexiglass all the way around so the glue will hold on well
    You can see the array of clamps I used to squish the glue under the plexiglass so it would seal the lid tight

    You can see the array of clamps I used to squish the glue under the plexiglass so it would seal the lid tight

     

  11. I did not attach the boards to one another. Instead, I dispensed a thick bead of glue around the plexiglass perimeter and then clamped each board one at a time to the plexiglass. I clamped tight enough that the glue squeezed out around the edges so it would seal everything. I didn’t care about how it looked and didn’t clean up the overspill. I figured the extra glue would make it stronger
  12. The amount of clamping I did might be overkill – use your best judgment
  13. I used boards under the clamps to help distribute their force. If you do that, be aware that the glue will squeeze out. You don’t want that glue sticking to your clamps or whatever you use under the clamps
  14. Once the glue had dried for 24 hours I removed the clamps and placed the cover on my palette. I then set weights on it for a couple of days to make sure the glue dried thoroughly without bending the boards as it cured
  15. I will probably add an extra magnet to the middle of each board because there is now a slight gap in those areas
I used weights on each corner to hold the palette flat while the glue cured completely

I used weights on each corner to hold the palette flat while the glue cured completely

 

 

Conclusion

That’s it. I hope that gives you some ideas to keep your paint fresh between painting sessions.

It’s not foolproof, but hopefully, it will save some time that can then be used for actual painting.

Many of you are probably much better at this sort of thing than me. Give us some tips and ideas in the comments below.

Happy Painting!