How to Decoupage Anything

hands applying floral decoupage to vase

Decoupage is time honored arts and crafts practice that involves cutting out paper images or items and then gluing them to a surface in a decorative manner. It derives from the word “decouper” which means “to cut out.”

Given that the technique dates all the way back to the 12th century and was popularized in 17th century Europe, it’s quite easy to replicate with modern supplies and a little creativity.

If you want to learn how to decoupage and join the ranks of other decorating enthusiasts such as Marie Antoinette, Madame de Pompadour, and Beau Brummell, the following instructions will give you an introduction to the basics of decoupage technique.

Step 1 - Selecting What to Decoupage

First, decide what item you want to decoupage. The sky is the limit here. You could create art on a blank canvas of wood, plastic, metal, ceramic, or paper, or you might use decoupage to decorate an old piece of furniture or a boring light shade.

Other items that people have successfully decoupaged include trash cans, picture frames, photo albums, shelves, vases, boxes, candles, and even sneakers.

Step 2 - Prepping the Item

Whatever item you choose, it should be clean and free of any dust or dirt. If you want to paint it, do it at least twenty-four hours before you decoupage it.

Step 3 - "Couper" or Cut Out Your Decorating Materials

Once you have the item picked out, you need to decide what you will use to cover it. Despite the literal meaning of the name, decoupage does not have to be limited to cut outs alone. You can use pictures from magazines or books, wrapping paper, wallpaper, tissue paper, or even fabric as possible materials.

Craft stores even sell specially made paper for decoupage. If you have a good printer, surf the Internet and print out your own pictures or personal photos.

However, you may want to consider getting high-quality copies made first because the copies are usually easier to work with.

Tip: When cutting out designs, make sure you use a sharp scissor or blade. Tilt the cutting edge slightly toward the outside to give the paper a beveled edge and avoid the hard, raw edges caused by straight up-and-down cuts that can cause the underside colors to show.

Step 4 - Arranging the Materials

After you have all your pictures cut out, decide how you want to arrange them on the item. Pictures can be in any design and even overlap. Be creative. Keep in mind that at this stage, nothing is glued or attached so if you don’t like the arrangement of cutouts, simply change them until you find something you like.

If you want to change anything after you’ve already done some gluing, most decoupage medium will come off with the use of water provided you do it before it has been sealed.

Step 5 - Choosing the Glue

Other than the paper items you’ll be using to decorate, your main ingredient is the adhesive you’ll use to attach them. Inexpensive decoupage medium is an adhesive that can be purchased at any craft store, but you can also use diluted white glue.

Simply add a little water to make the glue thinner. Polyvinyl acetate (PVA) is the variety most commonly used and works on a variety of surfaces. Once dry it will not melt or chip easily, but it is very vulnerable to water. If you will be storing your decoupaged items near water or in an area with high moisture, consider another adhesive. For larger projects, you can also use wallpaper paste.

Step 6 - How to Apply the Adhesive

You will also need something to apply the glue or decoupage medium to the paper. Foam brushes specifically let you get the best decoupage results, but simple cotton swabs can also be used.

Tip: Other items to keep handy include a Popsicle stick or a brayer (which looks like a mini-rolling pin) to help smooth out any wrinkles and a damp rag to wipe up any excess glue.

Step 7 - Gluing

There are two ways you can decoupage. If you are planning to decoupage onto paper or if you do not want to have any finish on the item, only apply the glue to the backside of the picture as this is the side that will come into direct contact with the item you’re decorating.

Otherwise, you can coat the entire cut out with glue or decoupage medium on the front and back. You might also want to put a thin layer onto the area of the item where you will actually be sticking the picture.
Place the picture onto the item. Then, starting from the center, use your fingers to push the picture down gently.

Step 8 - Wrinkles and Excess

As with any crafting technique, it’s the finishing touches that separate great looking pieces from amateur attempts. Take the time to smooth out any wrinkles and excess glue using your brayer and damp cloth. If the edges are not sticking, lift up the picture carefully with a toothpick and apply a small quantity of glue. Then, use your fingers or a damp cloth to press it down again.

Continue doing this until all your pictures are glued on. Let the glue dry and top it off with a second coat of decoupage medium or diluted white glue to over the entire project.

Once it has dried, you can use soft steel wool to buff the surface of the project and eliminate any spots that look white. However, this is not necessary. Additional coats of decoupage medium or glue can be applied if desired.

Step 9 - Choose to Apply Sealer

Finishing your decoupage with sealer is also optional. However, it is strongly recommended if your project is going to see any wear and tear. The more coats of sealer you use, the more the decoration will recede into the background and look like a painting.

Let the sealer dry completely between coats. Some people will use ten to twelve coats of sealer on an object, but it is up to you.