Painting Wooden Icehouse Pieces

(a screed for the painting-incompetent)

Why, you may ask, am I writing this long after the deallocation of Icehouse Games, longer after the last xyloid Icehouse set was sold? Good question. It's actually fairly pointless. But a couple of people have experimented with piece-cutting recently. More importantly, I'm bored; I meant to write this down over a year ago; and eventually I'll forget it all. So forth we go.

These are my tips and experiences with painting xyloid pieces in nifty patterns. I write from the viewpoint of someone who hasn't painted anything since high school art class. (And I was taking art class only to fill up holes in my schedule.) If you have any experience with painting, you know a hell of a lot more than me, and you'll save us both some embarrassment by not reading this.

You may view the results of my work. As of mid-2000, I've painted some wooden cubes as well as the pyramids and flat squares.

Things You Want

Find a xyloid set. (This of course is the hard part. I had several stashes of undyed pieces, but the dyed pieces can be painted just as easily.)

Find an art supply store, or a craft or hobby shop. Acquire the following items:

Setting Up

Find a place to work. Lighting is important; have lots. And colors go all funny in fluorescent light, so avoid that. (I know, it's a persnickety art-geek thing to say, but it's probably important.)

Do any sanding which you think necessary. Then sweep away all the sawdust and wash the pieces off carefully. You don't want any sawdust clogging your paint.

Tear off a couple of long sheets of aluminum foil, and line up all your pieces on it. Fill a plastic cup with water and drop in a paintbrush. Look excitedly at your workspace, all shiny with foil and possibility.

Turn on the CD player now, on multi-disc repeat. You don't want to touch it while you're covered with paint. You may also wish to make a decision in principle to not answer the phone.

Deciding What To Do

Most likely, you will paint each piece a uniform base color, and then put additional decoration on top of that. Not necessarily, mind you. You may come up with an idea where it's easier to paint half of each piece one color, and half a different color. (This solves certain technical problems -- see below.)

All of your ideas will turn into different ideas as soon as you try to turn them into paint.

Painting Things

Squeeze out a little booger of paint. If it's the "medium-viscosity" kind, which usually comes in the jars, just dip a brush, smush it around, and go at it. If it's the thick stuff from the tubes, mix in a little water. But not too much. It should stay thick. If you thin it down to a liquid, it won't be opaque enough when it goes on.

One coat is never enough. To be precise -- one coat can be enough on the rough sides of the piece, where the paint can run in and stick; but usually two sides and the base are cut with the grain, and they're very smooth, and a single coat will be uneven and half-transparent. Acrylic paint dries with a rough, matte surface, so a second coat will stick nicely.

(On the Planet of Real Artists, they have something they call "gouache." I think it's sort of a free first coat -- guaranteed opaque and rough. I don't bother. Probably I'm dumb.)

This creates a certain dilemma. I'm terrible at mixing the same color twice, so I really have to do both coats from the same batch of paint. But of course if I let the first coat really dry, the batch of paint will dry up too. Plus how can you dry all five sides of a pyramid simultaneously? In fact, how can you paint all five sides without leaving fingerprints?

Well, I don't have good answers. What I do, actually, is fake it. I mix up some paint. I paint an entire piece. This gets paint on my thumb and forefinger, and leaves faint fingerprints on two sides of the piece. I put the piece down on a ridge of foil, which will leave a streak. I repeat this fourteen times. My fingers aren't really leaving prints anymore because they're caked with paint, although I still have to be careful. By the time I finish the last piece, the first isn't really dry yet, but I can go over it with a second coat without completely wasting the effect. Plus it mostly covers the fingerprints and the streak.

Usually I run out of paint halfway and have to mix more, which comes out a slightly different color. But at least each piece is an even color. (Even if the top coat is a different batch from the bottom coat, the colors are close enough that you can't tell.)

If you're really good at paint mixing, or if you buy a color you want to slap straight on, you can go the slow-and-careful four-stage route -- paint the sides, then the base, then the sides, then the base -- allowing plenty of drying time between each stage. I salute you. You're not me.

You should definitely allow drying time before you start putting different colors on top. Two or three hours is enough, if you turn the pieces halfway to make sure all sides dry.

Paint Management

Acrylic paint gets a little darker and less intensely colored as it dries. This is caused by the rough surface. When you get the gloss varnish on, the colors will become intense again. They'll still probably look slightly darker than they did on your mixing foil, especially if you added water. Experiment. Also save some dried bits of unmixed paint, so that you'll know next time.

If you let paint dry on a brush, it becomes an ex-brush. You knew that. Don't forget. Drop your brush in the cup of water when you put it down, and swoosh it around. When you're going to stop painting, even for half an hour, go wash the daylights out of all your brushes. Just turn on the faucet and stick the brush underneath, and mush the bristles around -- until you can't see any paint at all -- not even in the roots -- and then a few minutes more.

Even when you do this faithfully, your brush will eventually betray you. If you find that the bristles go forked or split, it is time to lay it to rest. Retired brushes spend their time mixing paint for the use of younger, fresher brushes. There's no justice.

When You Screw Up

Eventually you will splop paint entirely in the wrong place, or just drop a piece into a puddle of paint. First, mutter profanity. Then tear off a bit of paper towel, and dip it in water. Wipe furiously at the piece. You can probably get all the offending paint off.


When you have painted, or screwed up, to the limit of your ability, you pass to the stage of varnish.

First let everything dry thoroughly. Then pour a little varnish into a cup. I mean, really a little; I use just enough to cover the 1/2 inch flat brush if I tilt the cup to one side and hold the brush at the bottom.

(If this is the second time you've done this, and your brush has turned into a chisel because you're like me and didn't clean it, you'll have to allocate an hour or two to dissolve it. Drop the brush in the cup, cover the cup with foil so that it doesn't dry up, and go do something else. Come in every half-hour and mush the brishes back and forth to see if they've loosened up (and crack them apart a little if they have.) The brush will eventually go as soft as when you bought it. It just takes a while.)

Varnish generously. You only need one coat if you keep the brush nice and juicy. It takes more on the rough sides of the piece. I try to glop a lot on with the first stroke, and then spread it and remove the excess with the second stroke. That ensures that the face has been well-soaked. Also be sure you don't miss any edges or corners.

You do need to be careful, and not leave any fingerprints or streaks, and not put a piece down on a wet face. Here is my original and carefully-tested Varnish Pattern.

First, cover the base of the piece and one side, plus the bottom halves of the other three sides. You can hold the piece near the tip, so that you don't get your fingers in the varnish. Then put the piece down with the finished side up; balance it on a ridge of foil, so that again it is supported near the tip. Do all the pieces like this. Cover your cup again, with the brush inside, and let the pieces dry for several hours or overnight.

Second, cover the remaining three half-sides, up to the tip. You can hold the piece by the base now, since that's done and dry. Put the piece down on the foil again, with the dry side down. Wait some more.

(Yes, this pattern is equally applicable to paint. I don't use it because of the aforementioned paint-mixing deficit disorder. I don't want three sides to change color halfway down, like the Washington Monument.)

Give the pieces a full day to dry. You don't want them to be sticky when you start handling them. Every few hours, turn a new face up. Keep the fan running.

The Payoff

Carry your pieces around at all times. Show them to people without fear or favor. Challenge your friends to Icehouse or Zarcana. Teach random strangers to play Icehouse, solely to show off your pieces. Not only will you attract compliments, but you'll be helping the Cause.
Last updated June 14, 2000.

Painting plastic Icehouse pieces

My painted Icehouse pieces, Zarcana pieces, and cubical playing tokens.

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