Learning how to stretch your own canvas is an incredibly useful skill for any artist, whether working on a professional level, or as a hobby. Even if you only produce a few canvases a year, buying materials so that you can stretch your own canvases from home saves you a TON of money. And of course, if you go through many canvases each year you will most certainly need to stretch your own. I’m going to show you, step by step, how to stretch a canvas, and also explain in a little more detail the advantages of being able to do so.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
What You Will Need
- stretcher bars
- cotton canvas
- staple gun and staples
- carpenter’s square
- canvas pliers
Now, what I am doing here is stretching a blank, unprimed cotton canvas from bulk materials that I buy online. If you are stretching a canvas that has already been painted, or a canvas print, the process will be the same, but you will need to be much more precise with how you line it up. I plan to go into more detail about that in a separate post, but for now I’m just going to focus on the process of getting a canvas stretched nice and taut.
For this tutorial I’m building a 16″ X 20″ canvas, so I’ll start by grabbing two 16 inch bars and two 20 inch bars from my stash. Now that it’s warm outside again, I can use my screen porch for projects like this one. Yippee! (Please excuse the ugly carpeting. It was there when we moved in.)
I use the tongue in groove style of stretcher bars, so assembling them into a frame is super easy. The corners fit together snugly so there is no gluing required. You can tap the corners with a hammer to help fit them together tightly.
Next you will need to cut some canvas to fit your size. (I buy mine online in a large roll. It’s a little bit of an investment but it lasts a long time and I get a LOT of canvases out of it.) Lay the assembled stretcher bars down on the canvas and use your scissors to cut about 2 1/2 – 3 inches away from the edge of the bars. If your stretcher bars are extra thick you will need to leave more space, but 2 1/2 inches is enough for the standard width stretcher bars that I’m using here.
Before you begin the stretch, use a carpenter’s square to make sure your corners aren’t askew.
Now you’re ready to begin the stretch. Center your stretcher bar frame on the canvas. Fold the excess canvas around the sides of the bars. Holding it in place on the top and bottom, raise them up together toward yourself. Get your staple gun ready.
You are going to start from the center and work your way out. Put the first staple in the center of the longer bar. Then flip the whole thing around, use your canvas pliers to pull the fabric as hard as you can directly across from that first staple. Holding the fabric in place with a firm thumb, put in your second staple. There will be a taut ripple down the center like this:
Then do the same thing to the two remaining sides. From the center, grip the canvas with your canvas pliers. Pull as hard as you can and then hold the canvas there with your thumb, like you see me doing in the picture above. Then set down the pliers, pick up the staple gun and put your next staple in place, being careful not to let the canvas slip from where you’ve been gripping it. If you lose your grip, start again. Do the same thing to the 4th side. You now have one staple in the center of each side and the ripple down the center should be completely gone.
*Now I will note here that you can do this without canvas pliers. They are a specialty item and I haven’t been able to find any use for them other than canvas stretching. When I first learned how to stretch a canvas in college, I didn’t use them. You can just pull the canvas with your hands and it gets the same job done. Canvas pliers just make it MUCH easier to pull the canvas as tightly as it needs to be pulled. Their unique shape allows you to grip the canvas while at the same time, rotating your hand back and bracing the pliers against the back of the stretcher bars. As with most things, buying a pair will just depend on how often you plan on using them.
Now that you have your canvas in place on all four sides, continue pulling and stapling working your way out from the center. Put a staple on both sides of the first one you put in. Then flip it around, and put one on both sides of the second staple. Do the same to the third and fourth sides until you have 12 staples put in.
Continue on, rotating sides and working your way out from the center. Place the staples no more than 2 inches apart. I usually place them even a little closer than that. Every time you put a staple in, the canvas needs to be pulled as tightly as possible, or the end result will not be very nice looking. (Preparing a linen canvas is a different method where you are actually supposed to attach the canvas loosely at first. But for a cotton canvas we want to make it nice and tight like a drum from the get go.)
The canvas should be getting pretty taut by this point. Only the corners that you haven’t gotten to yet will still have some rippling going on. The front should look like this:
Now it’s time to start folding your corners. On each corner, take the fabric and fold it into itself. Then tuck one side under the other. I believe there are a few different ways to do this, but this is what works for me. Any method you come up with is fine, as long as it looks neat and tucked in.
It’s sort of hard to explain, so I just took a bunch of pictures. Here’s a slightly different perspective:
After you’ve got the folds started on all four corners, you can continue stretching. At this point you don’t need to keep rotating. You can just finish up one corner at a time. Remember, every time you put a staple in, the canvas needs to be pulled as tightly as possible in that spot, even up to the very last staple.
And there you have it! A perfectly stretched cotton canvas, ready for whatever is in store for it next. I’m using unprimed canvas, which means what’s in store for this one next is some layers of gesso. But they also sell large rolls of canvas that are already primed. I’ve used those before and I like them. If you aren’t going through that many canvases per year, I’d recommend buying the already primed canvas. Not having to do the additional step of priming will save you a lot of time.
Advantages to Stretching Your Own Canvases
So now that you know how to stretch a canvas, I’m going to talk a little bit about the advantages of being able to do so.
First and foremost, stretching your own canvases will save you money. Of course buying materials in bulk and doing the labor yourself will save you thousands (literally, thousands) of dollars in the long run if you’re a person who uses canvases quite frequently. A large 40″ X 60″ (16.66 square feet) gallery wrapped blank canvas costs roughly $100 at an art supply or craft store. A canvas roll 52″ X 30 yards (1,300 square feet) starts at about $110. Yes, you will need to buy other supplies (stretcher bars, staples, gesso, etc) but still, there’s no comparison.
The skill can also benefit someone who just has a single canvas project they are looking to get done. Say you take a vacation overseas and purchase a canvas painting done by a local artist. They are often sold unstretched and rolled up for ease of travel. Once you get home, depending on the size of the canvas, you could be looking at a charge of $100 – $200 or more, just to get it put back onto stretcher bars. A surprising fee that is possibly more than you even paid for the artwork. And that’s not even including a frame! Knowing how to do the stretch yourself will save you a bundle.
Stretching canvases yourself also assures great quality control. When you do it yourself, you can control how tightly it’s stretched. There is absolutely nothing more annoying to me than a loose, floppy canvas, which is sometimes the case with the mass produced pre-stretched canvases you find at box craft stores. Blech!
Another plus is that you can control how much fabric you leave around the sides. This could be important if you ever wanted to take the canvas off the stretcher bars and later have it re-stretched (if you’re traveling with it or shipping it, for example.) Pre-stretched canvases commonly trim off all excess fabric, making it virtually impossible to ever re-stretch.
Finally, when you do you own canvas stretch, you can avoid the ugly “staples on the side” look and make sure to wrap the sides with fabric and put the staples on the back on the canvas, out of sight. This is called a gallery wrap.
Summary – Advantages to Stretching Your Own Canvas Include:
- It will save you money
- It assures great quality control
- You can control how much fabric you use, thus leaving your options open in the future
- You can make your own gallery wrap
Thanks for reading guys, and stay tuned for a lot more tutorials and “How To” posts. I’ve accumulated a lot of handy skills like this over the years and I’m just getting started! If anyone has any questions, comments, or requests for more tutorials, please leave them below and I will be happy to help you out.