Have you seen the price of modular display systems? Professional panels are aimed at the business world, not local artists. You’ve got to pay up or make your own.
I’ll show you how I made cheap art display panels that look super professional.
You can make cheap portable art display panels using polycarbonate sheets. You need 4mm or 10mm twin-wall polycarbonate roofing/glazing panels. Cut them to size, use them as they are, or cover them in nylon fabric, vinyl, or spray paint. Tidy the sides with edging strips.
Let’s go into more detail and then I’ll suggest an even cheaper option.
(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)
Why Make Your Own Art Display Panels?
While there’s no doubt that buying a professional modular system is convenient, that comes at a financial cost, plus they’re only designed for interior use.
There will be times when you’ll book art shows with outdoor booth space, and I know from experience, the elements are your enemy. Wind, rain, and sun all create major problems.
- Fabric fades in the sun and velcro melts
- Things blow over in a puff of wind
- Rainwater will seep into any unsealed gap
You can’t win, all you can do is limit the problems.
Art displays must be lightweight, strong, and suitable for exterior use, not only that, but an artwork display system must also be versatile enough to adapt to any given space and situation,
- Professional art display stands can all meet some of these design requirements, but not all. Gridwall mesh walls, for example, are heavy and can withstand windy situations, but they also rust to hell.
- Pegboards look cheap and nasty and disintegrate in the rain.
- Modular Exhibition Panels fade in the sun and most are not as light as you imagine.
And if that’s not enough to think about, they have to be portable, easy to transport, and easy to store.
Professional artists must have art displays that look equally good in:
- Art Fairs
- Art Exhibitions
- Craft Markets
- Pop-up Art Galleries
Ideally, they should be so versatile they can be used as art display walls, A-boards, or on tabletop displays They should be made to the highest standards and still be cheap.
It took me years to solve this conundrum, and like all good ideas, it was simple. You can buy most of the materials you need at Home Depot!
Make Your Art Display Panels With Polycarbonate Sheets
You see so many ideas for art show display panels on sites such as Pinterest, and they’d have you believe that you can just throw your display boards into the back of a van and, off you go. Yeah right.
Well, what if you don’t have, or want to own, a van? Are the display panels they suggest really so practical? Have you ever picked up 6ft x 2ft metal Gridwall panels? They’re not my idea of portable I can tell you. You’ll get a bloody hernia.
It’s all very well if you’re young, fit, and healthy, but what about everyone else? You need something much more manageable.
Eventually, I discovered polycarbonate sheets. They are super strong, super light, and easy to cut yourself. Not only that, they can be spray painted, covered in sticky-backed plastic, or brushed nylon fabric
And if things go wrong? It’s not the end of the world, because they’re cheap enough to replace.
How to Cut Polycarbonate Sheets
You can order polycarbonate cut to size but if for some reason this is not an option, you can cut your display panels yourself.
No skills are needed and very few tools:
A sharp craft knife will cut 4mm sheets and you’ll need a long metal ruler. Please be careful. You’ll be tempted to press too hard and the blade can slip easily. Mind those fingers, I say that from bitter experience.
I used a cutting board beneath the board but you could use some cardboard.
A new sheet will have a protective film on both sides. It not only prevents ugly scratching, but it’s also less slippery for your ruler, and you can draw guidelines over it with a permanent marker. Don’t peel it off until the end.
Thicker polycarbonate can be cut along its corrugation with a sharp blade but you’ll need a fine-tooth hand saw to cut across it.
Simple errors or untidy cutting can be disguised with an edging strip at the end.
What could be simpler than that?
What Size Art Panels Do You Need?
This is where it’s not as obvious as you think. I traded for many years without a van and when I eventually bought one, it was very small and space was limited.
I cut my art display panels to fit my van space. I had just over 5ft (150cm-ish) to play with, 6ft panels were too long.
You’ll find that standard-sized panels in hardware stores will usually be 2ft (60cm) wide by up to 10ft (300cm) long. It may make more sense to order your panels online, and if you do that, you might as well get them cut to size.
Talking about sizes you should read this too: What Size Art Sells Best? Frames and Apertures – FREE Chart
For years I’ve been using 5ft x 2ft (150cm x 60cm) display panels.. Originally I used 10mm twin-wall panels but more recently I’ve used 4mm x 4ft x 2ft (120cm x 60cm) panels. They are strong enough for my needs, I suspend them on a metal frame.
If the panels are going to take any weight or be free-standing, you’ll be better off using 10mm sheets, they’re more rigid.
I’m obsessed with weight and size because these days I transport my gear on a bicycle trailer. Everything I do must survive the knocks and bangs of everyday work and the weather.
Polycarbonate sheets are the perfect portable solution.
This post is an extract from my guide called Selling Art Made Simple, and there is plenty more like this. It’s everything you need to know!
How to Cover Your Art Display Panels
There are 3 ways to cover your panels. All have pros and cons:
Let’s go through them.
Brushed Nylon Fabric
Originally I spray-glued Velcro-compatible nylon fabric to my boards. The same stuff they use on commercial exhibition stands.
It was a messy job and tricky to get a bubble-free finish, but the results were professional.
It seemed like the perfect answer at first, but after a few months of heavy use, the shortcomings became apparent. The nylon fabric was not suitable for exterior use. The color bleached.
Every time I moved a picture there was a dark patch of unbleached color beneath. It didn’t like the rain either. The fabric actually shrank at the edges!
None of this is a problem indoors, but there was another reason to stop using fabric. Brushed nylon wears out. Eventually, the fabric loses its tack and velcro doesn’t stick.
You’ll have the same problem with professional modular display panels. They’re great for occasional use, and if that’s your intention, go for it. Otherwise, consider a different option.
Sticky-backed Plastic Vinyl Wrap
You can buy vinyl sticky-backed plastic in wide 3ft (90cm) rolls. Choose your color and you are good to go.
Before you start, it’s important to remember that anything trapped between the vinyl and the panel will stand out horribly as you stick the plastic down. The tiniest speck will stand out like a teenage pimple and you can’t remove it. Even a hair will look like twisted wire. Be warned, the surface must be clean.
The other issue is air bubbles. It’s so hard to apply vinyl without leaving a rash of bubbles behind. I found the most success by laying the vinyl on a flat surface and unpeeling it, sticky side up. I could then carefully place the panel on top, press it down, flip it over and smooth it out.
You can remove a bubble by pricking it with a needle. It’s not invisible but it is much better.
You can also use a hair dryer to heat the vinyl and peel back the edge. You must be careful and peel it evenly, but it works.
Car Spray Paint
My final discovery was spraying a section of polycarbonate with black car spray paint. It adhered wonderfully. I used matt black but it’s your choice.
I have experimented with paint, but I haven’t tested it long-term. I don’t anticipate problems if you spray both sides. If you decide to spray one side only, any scratches will allow the light to shine through from the back side like tiny light beams.
If scratches present a problem, I can’t see why a quick respray wouldn’t fix the issue.
One Other Option to Consider
Polycarbonate panels are available in bronze. In other words, you can use them as they are, without covering them at all. Grid walls, pegboards, and wide wire mesh alternatives, certainly don’t look any better.
If you need darker boards, you can cover the back with anything you like and just use the bronze frontage. When you add edging strips they will look great.
How to Join the Panels Together
I have done this in the past. The easiest way to link the boards together is to use self-adhesive Velcro strips as hinges. Another option is to drill holes and tie them together with a cord or use zip ties. The holes can be tidied with eyelets.
There’s almost nothing that can’t be rigged up using self-adhesive hook and loop velcro tape and zip ties, I use them all the time. I buy 25m x 25mm Velcro rolls on Amazon or eBay.
If you want to attach two 10mm panels without needing to hinge them, there are ‘H’ section PVC strips designed to do just that. You can get them from the same roofing suppliers.
How to Hang Your Art
Hanging picture frames outside is an accident waiting to happen. I gave up displaying frames years ago.
Picture frame glass is fragile and breakages in transit are almost guaranteed. Not only that, having glass around the public is not wise. If you’re determined to display framed art, use acrylic plexiglass for safety. It’s won’t break, but it will scratch easily. Likewise, the frames chip easily too.
Given the extra work, storage issues, and costs, I decided to sell just prints.
I stuck my display prints to corrugated plastic signboards and wrapped them in cellophane. I attached them to my boards with sticky velcro squares.
Easy, cheap, and lightweight. What could possibly go wrong? Not much indoors, but quite a few things outdoors.
- The wrappers must be sealed against the rain. Even a pin prick will let in water.
- Prints will curl in full sun so they must be glued to the board.
- Velcro gum melts when it gets super hot.
- Prints will sweat in full sun
Trading art outdoors is not easy. Dry your display prints with a hairdryer before wrapping and sealing them. The paper holds more moisture than you think, and you’ll get condensation.
I have sticky-back Velcro everywhere, and it only goes wrong when it gets very hot. It’s usually OK but It would be a mistake to hang anything heavy.
You can attach picture frames with heavy-duty Velcro indoors but outside don’t display them in full sun.
You have another hanging option if your pictures are all the same size. You can hang two plastic chains over the panels from picture hangers. Use s-hooks to hang your pictures from the small eye hooks.
Secure Your Art Panels
Your other hanging issue is attaching your panels to something secure. Indoors, you can lean a panel against a wall, but outside you must consider the wind.
I have a permanent metal market stall with a strip of Velco running along the top bar and along the top of the panels. I attach them instantly. If I need extra support on windy or hot days, I use spring clamps to hold the panels in place.
The most important thing to remember is to carry spares, for repairs. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong, and it’s only a disaster if you can do anything about it at the time.
One last tip. You will need heavy weights on a windy day. Take plenty of large empty containers with you and fill them with water when you arrive. Take plenty of string/cord and zip ties.
How Do You Edge Your Art Display Panel?
To make polycarbonate sheets look attractive you can buy 4mm and 10mm edging trims and cut them to size.
When I had trouble finding 4mm trim I improvised and used a series of paper binder bars instead. It looked fine. Or you can try using a 4mm car trim. Black panels with chrome car trimming is a brilliant idea.
An Alternative Art Display Option
Instead of using polycarbonate sheets, you can use Correx corrugated plastic signboards. It’s the same board used by sign makers for temporary ‘For Sale’ signage.
I use it all the time. It’s so handy. It cuts like cardboard and you can make boxes, trays, and backing boards. There are any number of uses. I use it for cheap art display panels too.
It’s not as robust as polycarbonate and it scuffs easily, but then again, if it gets damaged I cut it up and re-use it for smaller jobs.
Like cardboard, it’s not very strong along the corrugations. It bends easily. You must use rigid trims, crosswise at each end, if you use them for display panels.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind doubling up, you can buy some double-sided carpet tape and stick two panels together. If you cross the corrugations, one panel with vertical lines and the other with horizontal, the board will be rigid.
There are surprisingly few classes about exhibiting in shows. This is one I found for you on Skillshare
Cheap Display Panels: Final Thoughts
I make my own cheap art display panels because I know from experience that the less I have to carry, the happier I am. Lugging around heavy gear ain’t no fun.
Don’t get too obsessed with having the perfect display. When in doubt throw a cloth over it. It works wonders. All you need is something that grabs the attention of passers-by.
Subtlety is all very well, but you have micro-seconds to catch the eye and bold is best. When it comes to advertising yourself, good taste must take 2nd place. Think big and bold and you can’t go wrong
If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit:
- Pentel Mechanical Pencils 0.3mm
- Derwent Graphic Drawing Pencils
- Daler-Rowney Heavyweight Cartridge Paper
- Jakar Battery Eraser
- Tombo Mono Eraser Pen
- Faber Castell Putty Eraser
- Blu Tack
Don’t miss out. This is info’ you will not find anywhere else!
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If this post floats your boat, check out these:
- How to Repair Drawing Paper: 9 Ways to Rescue Your Artwork
- Selling in Art Fairs (5 Tips You Can’t Afford to Ignore)
- How to Prepare for an Outdoor Art Fair (Your No1 Problem Revealed)
- This is How to Price Art Prints: Practical Advice for Beginners
- What Kind of Art Sells Best? All The Secrets Revealed
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