How to: Stretch your own Canvas

May 21st, 2009 by jules

Stretching a canvas is not necessarily fun nor easy, but investing in your work from the canvas up, is immensely rewarding.  I do use ready-made canvas’ myself, but it is never as gratifying as making my own.  In this example the finished piece we are making is 2.5′ x 5′  and the canvas material has been recycled from a different painting I never completed.  Here we go, on our hands and knees!

Working Away

You will need:

  1. Un-primed Canvas Material
  2. Wood
  3. Drill, drill bit, clamps, wood glue, screw driver, rust-proof screws
  4. Staple gun, staples, hammer

Step One:  Cut the Canvas

The Beginning

Canvas Material can generally be purchased at a fabric store or art supply store.  Get more than you need and allow it to be at least a foot wider and longer than the finished size.  Bigger is better as you can always trim it.  Cut or rip your piece of Canvas to size.  Leave a good amount of extra material, 6-8 inches or so around all sides.

Step Two: Make the Frame

The size of the wood can vary, depending on the size of the canvas you are making.  I typically use 2″x2″ pieces for frames ranging from 2′ – 7′.  When cutting the wood to size, be precise in your measurements.  If you’re handy, use a mitre cut for the corners, its stronger and tends to warp less.  If you are not that handy, use a straight cut and a couple screws on each corner to improve stability.

Miter CornerStraight CornerInternal Support

Clamp corners together and pre-drill the holes for the screws-come in from the outside through to the inside meeting the second piece of wood.  Do this for all four corners.  Remove the clamps, add a little wood glue to the seam, then insert the screws tightly-countersink them, but you do not need to fill the gap with putty.  Make sure the screws are long enough to make the joint secure.  If you have the time, let the glue dry before proceeding.  Once you have all four corners complete, you may need to add an internal support or two-the larger you go the more internal supports you will need to keep the frame strong and square.  For these supports, use straight cuts, and screw in from the sides.  If your frame is small, you will not need internal supports.

Screws on Miter Corner Laying Out Canvas

Step Three:  Stretch & Staple

With your frame complete, you are ready to start stapling.  Start in the middle of each side, one staple in the middle at the top of the frame, stretch it tight and place a second staple in the middle of the bottom of the frame.  Proceed to the sides, again stretch and place a staple in the middle on each side.  The process from here on is to keep working your way around the canvas, working from the middle outwards, rotating to each opposite side stretching the canvas as you go.  This order is important working from the middle out toward the corners, and always going back and forth from one side of the canvas to the other-think of it like a clock and staple in this order:  12, 6, 9, 3, 11, 5, 8, 2, 1, 7, 10, 4.  Its best to have someone help you with this part-one person to stretch and one to staple.  If you find the staples do not completely sink, use the hammer to tap them in firmly.

Plain old StaplingPounding a Staple

I cannot stress enough how hard you need to stretch the canvas-my first Canvas stretching attempt ended in bloody knuckles.  (You can buy canvas pliers to help stretch the canvas, I wish I had one, but I always buy paint instead.)  Be sure to keep your staples all in one direction for looks, but on an angle to the frame for strength.  Always staple on the back of the frame-stapling on the side looks cheap and forces the client or yourself to have to frame the work.  When you only have a few staples, check the tightness.  Its easier to remove less staples to increase the tension.  Finishing the stapling to have a floppy canvas is crushing.  Don’t let yourself get that far, start over early in the process and make the canvas tighter (stretch it till you think it will rip-it can take it.)  If the canvas rips, you will need to start over but there should be room to re-center since we’ve left a generous amount of canvas on all sides

Now the corners-very important, and this is where I vary a bit from others, but it is the way I learned in Art School, and I think the best way to do your corners…

Corner Sequence 1 Corner Sequence 2 Corner Sequence 3

Corner Sequence 4 Corner Sequence 5 Stapling Corner

You want the folding to be hidden and smooth…you are basically folding the corners to the top and bottom of the canvas but the diagonal line that is created via folding should be underneath itself, not on top.  In other words, not showing.  The folds should be at the top and bottom of the canvas, not on the sides so that it looks crisp from the side if not being framed.  Pull the canvas straight out from the corner then fold at a 45 degree angle as if you are wrapping a present, but invert the fold so the angle piece is hidden-see pic above.

Step Four:  Gesso

Time to Prime the canvas.  You can certainly use “Gesso” or you can thin down any white paint you have.  The liquid in the paint helps to shrink the canvas making it taught-I do a few coats.  You can even do a rough “sanding” by sort of buffing the canvas between coats with a rag or the finest sand paper you can find-just be careful not to scuff canvas fibres.

Completed CanvasBackside Complete

Congratulations, you are now staring at a blank Canvas!  A blank canvas to some, but your heart is already in it, you have already gotten to know it, during the process of making it you’ve organized thoughts regarding what you are going to do with it.  If you have never made a canvas before, try it, just start smaller rather than larger, you will find it easier.

I hope you find it rewarding and maybe even therapeutic.  For the whole set of step-by-step pictures, click here.

Do you use different techniques?  Have any short-cuts or tips?  Please share in the comments!


2 Responses to “How to: Stretch your own Canvas”

  1. Nadine says:

    I love this tutorial! I especially love the connecting with the canvas by creating it. I would think this is how spinners feel spinning their own wool before knitting with it.

    • jules says:

      Thanks for your comment! I think you must be right, although I won’t be going as far as making the actual piece of canvas cloth…ha. Jules