Storing Art Papers

Q. I want to build a flat file for my art papers, using plywood shelves, a backing and doors. Since I’d like to put a barrier between the wood and my papers, I was thinking I’d paint the shelves. I know oil painters use gesso on Masonite before they paint—would this keep the acid in the wood from leaching into my papers? Or would another type of paint be a better choice?

A. This sounds like a good plan for storage of your papers, but using acrylic emulsion gesso as a paint is not a good idea. First, this material isn’t really a paint: It’s an absorbent ground, formulated to be painted over. Second, acrylic gesso is so absorbent that your shelves would get dirty very quickly.

Instead, you could use a good-quality, glossy oil (or acrylic latex) house paint, or even varnish or polyurethane. For the wood itself, I’d recommend good-quality, knot-free birch veneer plywood. Make sure you sand it smooth before painting it. Give the paint at least two weeks to dry before you put any work into the file—that should give the paint enough time to cure and harden.

One more suggestion: If the file is deep, give some thought to how you’ll retrieve any small papers that slip to the back of the cabinet. It might be a good idea to line the bottom of each shelf with a piece of acid-free cardboard (available from art or photo supply shops). Then, to remove your work from the shelves, simply slide out the cardboard, bringing the work with it.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of The Painter’s Handbook (Watson-Guptill Publications).

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