Butcher Trays make great acrylic pallets

by Brady Peery
(Marietta, Ohio)

A butchers tray pallet with dried acrylic paint.

A butchers tray pallet with dried acrylic paint.

A butchers tray pallet with dried acrylic paint. After soaking in water for a few minutes, pour off the water and wipe away the acrylic paint.

Most every artist has their own favorite type of paint pallet, ranging from traditional styles that you stick your thumb through, to wet pallets that use a sheet of paper over a damp substrate. Pallets come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. I however, use something which most people have never heard of -- I use butcher trays for my art pallets.

Butcher trays are enamel coated metal pans that come in a variety of sizes. They were traditionally porcelain coated and used by butchers to display and store cuts of meat. The enamel coating helps make them a breeze to clean, and the metal construction means they are durable. It is possible, however, to chip the enamel, but you must hit it extremely hard.

Butcher trays are useful in a wide variety of art projects. I use a large tray to soak print paper in water, before imprinting -- this would work well for soaking watercolor paper, too. I use a medium size tray to set my stained glass grinder in to catch overflowing water. And I use a few different size trays as acrylic paint pallets. Although I haven’t tried it yet, they should work well for watercolor and oil paints, too.

The benefits which make butcher trays most advantageous for me are: price, durability, flexibility, and most crucial of all, cleanup. I have used several different types of pallets, but being the lazy person that I am, I never clean paint off in time, and eventually I ruin them. As you well know, dried acrylic paint can be impossible or time consuming to remove from common pallets made of plastic or glass. But that is never a problem with butcher trays. I can take a tray containing six month old dried acrylic paint, cover it with a little water, and in as little as 15 minutes, the once rock hard paint lifts right off the tray. Because acrylic paint is a synthetic rubber, the dried paint comes off in rubbery splotches. So after pouring off the water, most of the old paint splotches are lying loose in the bottom of the tray.

I hate wasting paper towels, and with these trays I don’t have to. Cleaning a butcher tray pallet requires nothing more than wiping the loose rubber splotches into the trash with your hand. There is usually no need to use any paper products at all if you dry the tray with a cloth towel. But if there is wet paint left on the tray, a tissue or a few sheets of toilet paper will easily take care of it. So I guess you could say butcher trays are the “Green” painter’s pallet, as a way of saving on paper towels.

Butcher trays can be found at art supply stores and range in price from around $7 for a 7”x11” tray like the one shown in the photos here, to approximately $13 for a 13”x17” tray big enough to soak larger sheets of paper in. Butcher trays are convex, or have a slight hump in the center. Traditionally, when butchers still used these trays, the raised center kept the meat out of fluids that would drain into the pan. It really is not an issue unless you use a very watery medium. I have never had trouble with running paint, even when I use soft body acrylics, or thinned paint for use in a rigger brush. Although I don’t use much water when I paint, if you do, plan on your water pooling to the sides of the tray. This can come in handy if you keep paint in the center of the tray, and pull water up from the edges when you need it. If the slope bother’s you, however, simply take the tray outside and stand in it for a while. I’ve flattened some of the bigger one’s that way..

If you purchase your butcher's tray from a local art supply store, look through the available trays before choosing one. You don’t want one with chips in the enamel. Chips or thin places in the enamel will eventually rust out. If you purchase one from an online supplier and it is flawed, return it for a better one, because they can last a long time. Mine have lasted through six years of constant use and show no signs rust whatsoever.

I haven’t found a better pallet that can hold up to yearly use and is so inexpensive. I use two for most painting jobs -- using one while the other is soaking. Then when I need a new one, I just switch their places. I’m ready to go in minutes.
Butcher trays are a great system for me. Give one a try. At less than $8, you can’t go wrong. Even if you end up not using it as a pallet, you will find lots of other uses for it, carrying or holding your supplies.

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