Introduction: Mandala Panels

You guys, buying wall art is expensive.

This is a simple and fairly cheap way to make some awesome custom art for your walls. While the technique could be used with any type of pattern or image, I chose a circular mandala-style pattern.


  • Plywood
  • Saw
  • Wood filler
  • Sandpaper
  • Latex paint
  • Brush
  • Hanging hardware
  • Projector
  • Pencil
  • Rotary cutting tool (such as a Dremel)

Time: 4 hours, not counting drying time for the stain. This could vary depending on the size of your boards or the intricacy of your pattern, but it came together MUCH faster than I expected.

Step 1: Plywood, Squared

I used a birch plywood because it was cheaper and lighter than solid wood, but still had a nice grain pattern for the colorwash stain. Feel free to flip through until you find that perfect sheet, keeping in mind that any filled knots may not take the stain like the rest of the wood.

Once you have your sheet picked out, cut into panels of whatever shape and size you desire. For ours, I knew I wanted four panels of different sizes, and decided on 21", 18", 15", and 12" squares. If you aren't sure what will work with your space, I recommend experimenting with newspaper or cardboard cutouts to give yourself an idea what looks nice before taking saw to wood. One final word of warning - plywood has many virtues, but strength is not always one of them. Hasty cutting can lead to unsightly chips on your otherwise smooth edges, so take it slow and steady!

Once things are cut, fill any gaps on the edges with wood filler and sand smooth. The edges will be painted, not stained, so don't worry about how the filler looks. The idea here is to get a nice, smooth edge on each side of your panels.

Step 2: Well Color Me Crafty

I love colorwashing, mainly because (and I cannot stress this enough) I am incredibly cheap. Colorwash works on the same principle as stain, but uses watered down paint instead of specialty products. This means you have a LOT of options in color, and should only need a tester size for all but the largest projects. For this one, I'd say I used about a Tablespoon of paint (though who has time to measure?). A note on choosing paint colors - because we are letting some wood grain show through, the color of the wood will affect the color of the final product. I HIGHLY recommend testing the below steps on a piece of scrap wood before staining your entire project a color you aren't happy with.

First, let's address those edges. Prior to watering down the paint, tape off the front face of each board and paint the edges. Allow ample time to dry before moving on to the staining.

For the stain itself, I recommend 1 part paint to 2-3 parts water. This is NOT an exact science - you want the stain to be watery enough to paint on and wipe off easily, but not so watery that it greatly dilutes the color. Painting in the direction of the grain, apply the stain in long, even strokes. Allow the stain to sit for about a minute before wiping off with a clean rag, again going in the direction of the grain. If your stain is properly mixed, some color should sink into the wood while still allowing the grain to show through. This step can be repeated multiple times, with each coat making the colors stronger but the grain pattern more faint.

Once you're happy with the color, give the edges a final wipe down and set the elevated boards aside to dry. I recommend several hours of drying to ensure the stain has fully set before the next step.

Step 3: The Lost Art of Tracing

While this project yields beautiful results, it really is ridiculous how simple the actual pattern making is. First things first, apply hardware of your choice to the backs of your panels, taking care not to break through the front side with any screws. I opted for picture wire, but depending on the size and shape of your project you could go with any number of hanging options. In addition to hangers, I recommend felt or rubber stick-on feet at the bottom corners of each panel. This will help keep them level, and will prevent them from scratching and marking your walls.

Once the hardware is on, go ahead and arrange the panels on the wall however you would like. One final note of caution: MAKE SURE TO LEVEL YOUR PANELS BEFORE TRACING. If you trace and engrave a crooked panel, there's little you'll be able to do to fix it.

Now for a confession - I got so excited about my projector that I neglected to get a picture of the tracing process. However, most of us are familiar with the idea from our school days. Find yourself a design or pattern that you like, and use the projector to cast it up onto the wall where your panels are hanging. Now is your opportunity to change the size of the image on the wall, or move any panels so the pattern falls just so. While this project could be used with any number of images, I recommend something that has some radial symmetry that can continue from one panel to another for the best effect.

Once your image is set just right, it's time to trace! Using pencil, mark each line of the pattern onto your boards. I recommend double- and triple-checking your work here, to ensure you haven't missed any sections of the pattern before you put the projector away.

Step 4: Coloring Inside the Lines

You're almost done! The wood has been cut, the stain is applied, the panels are hung and the pattern is traced. All that's left is to engrave those lines into the wood itself! Using a rotary tool with an engraving tip, you will simply trace the lines you have drawn in pencil. I highly (HIGHLY) recommend you practice this step on your scrap wood tester to get a feel for the tool, your chosen density of plywood, and how deep you need to go to get past the stained layer. This will not be very deep, and requires only a minimal amount of pressure. In fact, it is better to make two shallow passes than a single deep one, as excessive pressure could break through to the pulp layer inside the plywood. Also, it hopefully goes without saying that this step is best done with the panels OFF the wall, where you don't risk them swinging or falling.

Now let yourself go back to your grade school days. Put on some relaxing music (on headphones, maybe, rotary tools are obnoxiously loud), take your time, and follow the lines. Mistakes can be covered by a small amount of stain applied to a Q-Tip or small brush, but are best avoided if possible. Trace along each pencil line until the pattern is complete. Large sections can be carved out by tracing the borders and then filling in the middle sections. Finally, once you're done, go around with a large eraser and clean up any excess pencil marks along the edges of your cuts.

Step 5: Enjoy Your Creation

Once the lines are all cut, hang the panels back on the wall so the pattern lines up between them.

And, voila! You have a beautiful piece of art which matches your style and color choices, while breaking up those bland walls!

Plywood Contest

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