Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Stretching your own canvas is a rite of passage for an artist. You’ll be better able to understand and get closer to the tools you depend on to create your work. Getting comfortable with your materials isn’t the only reason to stretch your own canvas, however. As an artist starting out, cutting expenses where you can is crucial and gives you more room to spend extra where it really counts. Whether you want to become one with your canvas or not, stretching it yourself will save you plenty of money. Plus, consider you’ll be purchasing your materials in bulk and reducing packaging, stretching your own canvas can even be a greener way to make art.
As a professional artist, I’ve been stretching my own canvases for a while now. I know what makes a canvas the perfectly prepped surface an artist wants to as the base for their work. This article will share the tips and tricks I use to stretch my own canvas with as little difficulty and as much perfection as possible.
What You’ll Need
When it comes to stretching your own canvas, there are a few challenges and one of them is the small armory of materials and tools you’ll need to stock. Yet, once you’ve collected your canvas-stretching toolkit, you’ll be done with the bulk of the expenses and the first hurdle to becoming a seasoned canvas-stretcher.
4 stretcher bars, 2 sets of equal length (for this example, I’m using 2x24” and 2x30”)
2 cross bars (1-24” and 1-30”)
Stretcher keys (wedges or shims)
Unprimed canvas (Add 6” to each length for an ideal amount so 30”x36”)
Staple gun and stainless steel staples
Gesso and paint brush
Where to Find Things
Knowing where to locate the materials you’ll need to start stretching your own canvases might seem daunting, but canvas stretching is a routine process. Most major art supply stores will carry everything you’ll need, from stretcher bars to gesso.
Blick Art Supplies: https://www.dickblick.com/categories/canvas/
Stretcher Bar Warehouse: https://www.stretcherbarwarehouse.com/
The Process: Stretching Your Own Canvas
Once you’ve gathered your materials and set aside time, you’re ready to start stretching. Before you dive into the step-by-step guide, keep one tip in mind:
Your goal when stretching a canvas is to reduce wrinkles and waves on the surface as much as possible by applying even tension throughout the stretching process. The goal is a taut, even surface that will make applying paint as smooth as possible.
Part I: Stretching
1. Put your stretcher bars and cross bars together by lining up the grooves. If you need to use your rubber mallet, just be sure to do so on a sturdy floor surface. Check that the corners are square with the frame’s square.
2. Grab your canvas and lay it out on a work surface, smoothing out any creases. Take your freshly built frame and place it within the center of the canvas, leaving 3 inches on each side. Note: be sure the weave of the canvas is square with the frame and that the side of the stretcher bar with the small lip faces down against the canvas.
3. Grab your staple gun next. Fold one end of the canvas over your frame and place 3 staples on the center-back portion of the stretcher bar. Pro-Tip: Place the staples on a very slight angle to the bar to help prevent any tearing.
4. Now move on to the opposite side. Pull your canvas tightly over the frame and place those 3 staples on the center-back portion of the stretcher bar again. Be sure your canvas is pulled tightly between the staples as well.
5. Moving on to the adjoining side, pull your canvas until it fits snugly over the frame, but take care not to pull too tightly on the side where you previously placed your staples, as this can cause wrinkling. Once you’ve pulled your canvas, place 3 more staples in the center-back portion of the stretcher bar.
6. You’ve arrived at the last loose side of your canvas. Pull this side tightly over the stretcher and place another 3 staples in the center-back part of the stretcher bar.
7. You’ve made it to the final step in stretching your canvas. Starting from any one side, place staples on either side of the center staples as you move toward the corners. Keep going until you’ve completed all four sides, making sure to leave roughly 4 inches from the corner for the next stages of stretching your own canvas.
The Process: Folding the Corners
You’ve made it to the final stage of building your canvas. In this step, you’ll be putting the final touches to ensure your canvas is just as professional as any store-bought option.
Your goal when folding the corners of your canvas is to leave as minimal a bump on the back portion as possible. You’ll also be ensuring the lip on the side of your canvas is oriented in the direction that you prefer. For example, when I’m stretching a canvas for a landscape, I plan the folds over the longest side of the canvas—this creates the appearance of continuous sides and makes the bump as unnoticeable to the viewer as possible.
Part II: Folding Corners
1. Locate the stretcher bars that will be on the sides of your finished painting—stretch and staple right to the corner.
2. Find the extended flap of canvas and pull this into the center of the canvas to create a triangular fold. Be sure to tuck under the fold to ensure it’s clean and there are no wrinkles underneath.
3. Hold down the fold and use your free hand to pull down the final flap, making a nicely tucked corner. Be sure that the canvas fold doesn’t extend over the side of the canvas. Now pull down tightly on this fold and staple on either side of the stretcher bar crease. Note: Don’t staple across stretcher bar crease or directly into it.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for each remaining corner.
5. Now the easy part: trim the excess canvas, but be sure to leave enough canvas as would be needed for any re-stretching in the future.
The Process: Priming the Raw Canvas
Your canvas is officially built and stretched, but you’ve got one step left before the satisfaction of painting on a canvas you stretched yourself is yours. It’s time to prime your canvas.
Priming a raw canvas is meant to seal the cotton/linen fibers so as to prevent the paint from eventually destroying the fabric. Priming a canvas helps ensure the final work has a long lifespan. What happens if you forgo priming your raw canvas? You might desire the fame of a Jackson Pollock painting, but you wouldn’t desire the longevity of one; his works are notorious for being created on raw canvas, already having become highly fragile—a conservationist’s nightmare.
Pro-Tip: Choose professional archive quality gesso for the best results, such as Golden Acrylic Primer.
Part III: Priming Raw Canvas
1. When applying gesso, the best technique is to work in light layers. Apply each layer with a brush all in the same direction, with each subsequent layer crisscrossing the previous layer. The goal is to create a strong enough “tooth” in the final layer of gesso to ensure a proper bond between your paint, the canvas, and the gesso. Note: I prefer applying 3 lightly applied layers of gesso with a very light sanding between layers.
2. Once your surface is primed, I prefer adding a layer of black gesso to the sides of the canvas. Some collectors will prefer displaying a canvas unframed and this option provides a clean finish.
You’ve officially stretched and primed your canvas like a professional!! While it may seem tedious and challenging at first, a little practice makes this process second-nature. Not only does it allow you to save money, stretching your own canvas offers the chance to customize your canvas to the individual needs of every work you’ll create.