How to Make Cheap Art Display Panels That are Light and Strong

How to make a cheap art display panel image header. prints displayed on polycarbonate sheets

Have you seen the price of exhibition display panels? Why not make your own? I can tell you how I make cheap art display panels that are easy to make, lightweight, and strong.

Use 4mm or 10mm twin-wall polycarbonate roofing/glazing panels. They are readily available in clear or bronze finishes in pre-cut lengths. They are easily cut with a Stanley knife or fine-toothed saw. Alternatively order your panels cut to size. They can be spray painted, covered, or used as they are. Tidy the sides with edging strips.

Lets go into more detail and then I’ll suggest another option which is cheaper but not as strong.

Why Not Make Your Cheap Art Display Panels With Polycarbonate Sheets?

You see so many ideas on sites such as Pinterest and they would have you believe that you can just toss your display panels 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 panels they suggest really so light? Have you ever picked up a 6ft x 2ft metal Gridwall panel? They’re not my idea of lightweight and portable I can tell you.

It’s all very well if you’re young, fit, and healthy but what about everyone else? You need something much more manageable.

That’s why I use 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 nylon fabric.

And if things go wrong? It’s not the end of the world, they are cheap enough to replace.

How Do You Cut Polycarbonate Sheets?

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.

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 length with a blade but you’ll need a fine-tooth hand saw to cut across the corrugation.

Simple errors or untidy cutting can be disguised with edging strip.

That’s all there is to it.

What Size Art Display Panels do You Need?

This is where it’s not so obvious as you think. I traded for many years without a van and when I 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 will find that standard sized panels in a hardware stores will usually be 2ft (60cm) wide by up to 10ft (300cm) long. It may make more sense to order online, and if you do that, you might as well get them cut to size.

Further Reading: Does the Size of your Art Really Matter? What Size of Art Sells Best?

For years I’ve been using 3 x 5ft x 2ft (150cm x 60cm) panels as my main display. Originally I used 10mm twin-wall panels but more recently I’ve used 4mm x 4ft x 2ft (120cm x 60cm) panels.

Polycarbonate sheets for cheap art display panels. Examples of both bronze and clear finishes.
Bronze and clear polycarbonate sheets with white ‘U’ section finishing strips

If the panels are going to take any weight or be free-standing, you will be better off using 10mm sheets, they are more rigid. I use 4mm now because my panels are suspended on a metal frame.

I’m obsessed with weight and size. These days I cycle to work and leave some things in a 4ft storage box and transport the rest on a bike trailer. Everything I do must survive the knocks and bangs of every day work and the weather. I work outside.

How Do You Cover Your Art Display Panels?

There are 3 ways to cover your panels. All have pros and cons.

Brushed Nylon Fabric Display Covering

Originally I spray-glued Velcro-compatible nylon fabric to the 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 good.

Further Reading: Selling in Art Fairs (5 Tips You Can’t Afford to Ignore)

At first it was the perfect answer but after a few months of heavy use the shortcomings became apparent.

The fabric did not like the weather. The color bleaches in the sun. Every time I moved a picture there was a dark patch of color left behind. It didn’t like the rain either. The fabric began to shrink at the edges.

If I was indoors those problems wouldn’t exist, but there was another reason to stop using fabric. The velcro wears out. Eventually the fabric loses it’s tack.

Sticky-Backed Plastic Vinyl Wrap Display Covering

You can buy sticky vinyl wrap plastic in wide 3ft (90cm) rolls. Choose your color and you are good to go.

It’s important to remember that anything trapped between the vinyl and the panel will stand out horribly as you stick the plastic down and you cant remove it. The tiniest speck will stand out like a teenage pimple. 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.

You can remove a bubble by pricking it with a needle. It’s not invisible but it is much better.

Cover the Panel with Spray Paint

My final discovery was spraying a section of polycarbonate with black car spray paint. It adhered a treat. I used matt black but the limit is your imagination.

I have experimented with paint but as yet not tested it long term. I don’t anticipate problems if I spray both sides. If scratches present a problem, I can’t see why a quick respray wouldn’t fix the issue.

If you decide to cover or spray one side only, be aware that any scratches will allow the light to shine through like tiny light beams. It doesn’t look good.

Further Reading: How Do Artists Price Their Work? (and Increase Their Profits)

One Other Option to Consider

Polycarbonate panels are available in bronze. It could look attractive not to cover it with anything. They look darker indoors and perfectly good enough. Gridwall, pegboard, and wire-mesh alternatives, certainly don’t look any better.

Can You Join the Art Display Panels Together?

I have done so 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 cord or shoelaces. The holes can be tidied with eyelets.

I’ve also inserted aluminum rods into the end corrugation channels, at the top and bottom. They need to be fixed in place. You can do that by drilling a hole and securing the pipes with self-tapping screws.

These tubes act as hinge points. You can tie them together using elastic, or rubber bands. They also act as pegs to slot a header board on top.

If you want to attach two 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 Do You Edge Your Art Display Panel?

Polycarbonate sheets are easy to make 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 binders instead. It looked OK. Another option is 4mm car trim. Black panels with chrome car trim borders would look great.

Are Their Any More Cheap Art Display Options?

Yes, 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’s 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 at each end if you use it as a display panel.

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.

Conclusion

Have you ever heard the expression ‘The Cash is in the Flash’? Subtlety is all very well, but you have micro-seconds to catch the eye. When it comes to advertising your wares, and that includes your art, ‘Bold is Best’.

All you need is something that grabs the attention of passers-by. There are a number of ways of doing that and a bright display is only one of them. Don’t get too obsessed with having the perfect display. When in doubt throw a cloth over it. It works wonders.

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.


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