How to Paint Something to Look Like Wood (the easy way)

How to paint props to look like wood (the easy way)

When making cosplay props, one of the most common painting techniques you’ll need to learn is how to paint something that is not wooden to look like wood. There are really countless techniques for painting objects to look like they have wood grain swirls or stripes, but some of them require quite a lot of experience and are not beginner-friendly.

If you’re looking for a simple technique that will give you a surprisingly realistic wood-look, go no further. This is a simple painting technique that uses a sponge to streak thin layers of paint on top of each other to create a wood-like effect. 

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Before you start painting

Just a couple of quick tips and steps to prepare for the wood-painting. First, make sure you have the supplies that you need:

natural wood is a variety of colors
If you look closely at any stick or piece of wood, you’ll see that it’s made up of many different colors.

How to choose your paint colors 

For most props, finding any 3-5 shades of brown will be good enough to get the effect you’re looking for. However, if you are trying to match the color or look of a specific type of wood you may need to get more specific about your colors. 

Look closely at the type of wood or branch you are trying to replicate. It may look like it’s one color, but close up you’ll see that there are multiple shades of sometimes very different colors that get hidden in the big picture. Pick out the lightest shade you can find, the darkest or most dominant shade, and 1-3 shades in the middle. Then look for matches to these colors. 

If you need to find exact matches, many hardware stores will sell small sample sizes of just about any paint color. You can purchase a few of these and test them to decide which colors will work best for the result you’re looking for.

Add 1-2 layers of primer

Before you start, make sure your prop is primed with your primer of choice and dry. This method won’t work as well if the paint layers keep sinking into the material. Using one to two layers of primer before you start will help to make sure your paint stays bright.

add primer in streaks
When painting the primer, use a rough paint brush and paint it in thick streaks. this will create some natural ridges when the primer dries.

Optional: add bumps or ridges to the prop surface

While not 100% necessary, it’s very helpful if the surface of your prop is not completely smooth. If you can, add small indents, lines, and bumps to create a more natural wood-like surface to paint. 

This is easy if you are using clay, but other materials are a lot more difficult to create that natural-looking bumpy surface. One little trick I use is when I add the primer before I start painting. Instead of trying to achieve a flawlessly smooth surface with the primer, I will use an old or cheap brush that has rough bristles. Then I will streak the primer on as I go so that when it dries it will create micro-ridges on the surface. Make sure to only move your brush in one direction (horizontally or vertically, NOT both) so that the ridges are all in a uniform direction.

light first layer
Use your lightest color to paint the base layer of your prop.

Step 1: Paint the prop the lightest color

You’ll be painting your prop from the lightest color to the darkest color. You’ll use a normal paintbrush for this part. Start with a solid layer of whatever your lightest tan color is. You may need to wait for it to dry and apply a second layer of the color. Make sure that it’s solidly the light tan color before moving on to the next layers.

add new layers in streaks
Rip off a piece of sponge and rub it lengthwise across your prop. This will create the streaks of paint. Once the paint dries, to this again with the next-darkest paint.

Step 2: Use a sponge to streak the colors from light to dark

Now it’s time to break out the sponge. Rip the sponge into smaller sections. You want to have at least one jagged edge you can work with instead of a smooth sponge.

Using the rough side of the sponge, streak your second lightest color onto your prop. Make sure it’s a very thin layer. You want to see the lighter layer through the gaps in the paint.

Make sure to only streak in one direction along your prop (typically lengthwise). You want all of the lines you are making to go in the same direction, more-or-less parallel to each other.

Repeat this process of creating thin, streaked layers with all of your colors. The end result should look mostly the color of your final layer. However, in the gaps you should see the many colors of the layers below so you never have one solid area of paint.

paint cracks and crevices a dark color
Paint any details, like cracks and crevices the darkest color. I ended up using black to get the contrast I wanted.

Step 3: Add the darkest color to cuts and crevices

If you have any spots, cracks, or deep ridges on your prop, it’s a good idea to use a small paintbrush with your darkest color and fill in these areas manually. The sponge doesn’t always fill in these areas correctly, so some touch-ups are necessary. If you want these spots to go even darker, consider using black paint instead of the dark brown color.

If you’re like me and tend to be messy while filling in the cracks because of unsteady hands, don’t worry! Lightly rub the sponge over the area to streak any messy spots back into the design.

add spots of lighter color
Go back into some areas with lighter browns to create a little bit of color variation in the final product.

Step 4: Go over some areas to get color variation

This step is optional, but it can add a little more dimension to your final product. Still using the sponge, I will take some of the medium colors that I used and go back over the top of some areas with very thin layers. Typically, I will use the lighter colors on the edges to make them subtly more highlighted. Then use the darker colors on the dips and around the bumps to make the texture stand out a little more.

You don’t want it to be a big change in color, so make sure to use a small amount of paint in very thin layers. This way you’ll create a subtle, more natural color variation.

the final paint job
In the end, you should have a surprisingly realistic wooden prop to use with your next cosplay.

Step 5: Finish the prop by adding a sealant

This step is also optional, but it can keep the paint from chipping and give your prop a more finished look. However, it will also typically give the prop a slight shine to it (even if you’re using a matte finish). Depending on what you’re going for, you might want to keep the more raw look you get from acrylic paint.

Simply apply the sealant or finisher with a normal paintbrush. Be careful to not let it gather in the gaps and crevices so you don’t end up with bumps of clear sealant after you’ve put so much work into your prop.

add sealant to the final prop
Adding sealant will make the prop slightly shiny, but is also protects the paint from chipping.

Emily Joice

My name is Emily, and I have been cosplaying since my very first convention in 2008. Over the years, I've experimented with all different kinds of cosplay costumes, especially loving the process of creating props and styling wigs. I also delved into cosplay photography, and love exploring how to optimize costumes so they look excellent in photos. Most of the photos you find on this site were taken by me over my years at anime conventions.

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