Cathy Callahan’s Old School: Decoupage

Craft & Design
Cathy Callahan’s Old School: Decoupage



decoupage | dākoōˈpä zh | noun
the decoration of the surface of an object with paper cut-outs, which is then usually varnished or lacquered. French, from découper ‘cut out.’
With roots in the 18th century, decoupage was all the rage in the 60s and 70s and has even had a rebirth lately (think John Derian).
I recently found some packages of “Patricia Nimocks Decorative Hardware” (hangers, corners, knobs, etc.) at a thrift store. It turns out that Patricia was the leading lady of decoupage in the 60s, authoring how-to books and creating a line of products. Her popular varnish is still sold today.
When I was 13, I wanted to decoupage a poster of a girl at the beach holding a conch shell up to her ear. My mom said I could use her supplies but I had to work in the garage because it was smelly — mainly because I wanted that thick glossy resin as the finish. Mind you, my parents were both smokers, so toxins in the house were not a concern. I think that speaks to how gnarly the supplies were. With a little help from my dad I sanded and stained the wood, glued the poster down, and carefully applied the resin. The next morning when I went to check on my creation I was devastated to find that a big bug had flown into the resin (which had already set), leaving a huge trail. I was so bummed out.
With that in mind, I wanted to explore some less dangerous methods and was happy to find that paint and craft stores today offer many non-toxic stains and varnishes. Explore your local paint and craft store to see what’s available in your area.
There are many approaches and variations to decoupage. The basic goal is to make it look old and make the image seem like it’s part of the surface — sometimes achieved by burning the edges. Wood is the most popular surface material: a flat wall piece, a handbag, a box, etc. You can make groves in the wood, add gold foil trim, shape the edges, make it 3-D, whatever you like.


Object of your choice
Stain or paint
photo, ephemera, decal, etc.
Mod Podge or other adhesive
Varnish glass, matte, or satin


1. Choose an object. I used a rustic wood plank because it reminded me of something from a vacation cabin.
2. Smooth the surface of your object with sandpaper.
3. Stain or paint the surface, always following manufacturer’s directions. Let dry. Or leave unfinished like I did — that way you see the natural grain of the wood.
4. Prepare the image you are using as desired. You can cut to shape, burn the edges, whatever you like. Avoid using an image from a book or magazine that has something on the reverse because it can “ghost” through.
5. Position and glue the image — Mod Podge” works well. Let dry.
6. Apply varnish, again following manufacturer’s directions. The number of coats you need depends on your desired effect. Make sure you work in a clean, dust (and bug!) free area so that nothing will settle into the varnish as it’s drying.
About the author:
Cathy Callahan is a crafter and window dresser who draws inspiration from vintage crafts. She blogs about 1960s and 1970s crafts at

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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