How to Stretch a Canvas Yourself

Why stretch your own canvas?

Life at Les Trois Chenes Bed and Breakfast, Limousin, France, is ever-varied, and today I have a commission to paint a portrait, so the first thing to do is to prepare the canvas!

But why not just go and buy one? They are cheap and, at least here, they are readily available. Well, you may not be so lucky. You may not have access to ready-made canvases. Or you may need a large canvas or one with unusual dimensions, or even an unusual shape.

You might also require a canvas that is sturdier or better quality than those sold cheaply, or you may want to make canvases in large quantities – all valid reasons for stretching a canvas yourself.

Have you stretched your own canvas?

Have you DIY and how easy was it to stretch a canvas?

  • No, I've never done it before
  • Yes, I've done and it's easy
  • Yes, I've done and it's difficult
  • Yes, I've done and it's easy with practice
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Tools to stretch the canvas

You will need:

  • Canvas stretchers (or canvas pliers) which you will have to buy from a specialist art retailer or buy on-line
  • Tacks
  • Medium-sized (2 lb) hammer
  • Pincers 
  • Medium sized flat-headed screw-driver.

The tools you need to stretch a canvas. You also need pincers and a medium-sized screw-driver.
The tools you need to stretch a canvas. You also need pincers and a medium-sized screw-driver.

Tools to make the frame

You will need the following tools:

  • Saw and a 45° guide. This can be a simple wooden guide, a metal guide or a sophisticated rotary saw – they are all equally serviceable, and the choice depends on how often you will want to use the guide, how much you want to invest and how confident you are with machines
  • 2lb hammer, and corrugated fasteners for wood 10mm deep x 30mm wide
  • a heavy duty stapler to secure the canvas, which can be used instead of tacks, and this is the more usual method. The problem I have come across is that as a woman with quite small hands, I don’t have the hand-span to be able to easily use a stapler that is strong enough to do the job.

Wood beveled on one side, mitred at 45 and fastened with corrugated fasteners.
Wood beveled on one side, mitred at 45 and fastened with corrugated fasteners.
You can buy corrugated fasteners cheaply on line
You can buy corrugated fasteners cheaply on line
Put a corrugated fastener behind, in between the two front fasteners.
Put a corrugated fastener behind, in between the two front fasteners.

To make the Frame

I was taught to make this type of frame at art college and 25 years later I have found that my canvases are perfectly ok. It is quite crude compared to the classic frame which has wooden wedges that can be used to tighten the canvas if it gives a bit over time. To make the frame you must use beveled wood or nail a quarter dowel around the edge. This is to keep the canvas from touching the wood. Go to any carpentry shop or business which prepares wood with large machines, and get 2 x 1 inch wood beveled on one side. You will also need to get the same wood planed down to the inner depth of the wood for cross-bars. You will need a crossbar when the dimensions of your stretcher are more than c. 70 cms.

Cut the 4 corners at 45° angles to fit together. Cut the crossbar straight across, and fix by hammering in two fasteners on the front face as shown, and one on the back, in between the front ones. There is a bit of a knack to this so have a few trial goes on scrap wood first.

Choosing the canvas

The general rule is that the larger the stretcher, the stronger, and therefore the more expensive the canvas. The canvas is sold by weight, but there are also variations in weave and texture. The best thing to do is visit your supplier and take their advice. If you are working with large quantities, it is worth buying a large roll of strong canvas in bulk, as this also gives you freedom to make stretchers of varied sizes. The texture is a matter of personal choice. I prefer a more robust texture in general.

The canvas needs to be about 15cm larger in both dimensions than the stretcher.


How to stretch canvas: a visual guide

Place the tack in the centre of one side. Hammer it half-way but don't knock it right in.
Place the tack in the centre of one side. Hammer it half-way but don't knock it right in. | Source
Pull the canvas taught and place a tack in the centre of the opposite side.
Pull the canvas taught and place a tack in the centre of the opposite side.
When you have one tack in the centre of each side, start to put a tack about 4 - 5cm on either side of the initial tack. Use the canvas stretchers to tighten the canvas, but also to pull slightly away from the centre.
When you have one tack in the centre of each side, start to put a tack about 4 - 5cm on either side of the initial tack. Use the canvas stretchers to tighten the canvas, but also to pull slightly away from the centre.

Stretching the canvas

Whether you are using tacks or staples the method is much the same, except that the tacks you put onto the edge of the canvas but the staples can be put into the back. With the latter method you achieve a much neater edge and you can, if you wish, exhibit the paintings without framing.

1.      Start in the middle of one side. Make sure that you have placed the canvas centrally over the stretcher. Put one tack, as shown, into the centre of one side, but don’t knock it right down. Turn the stretcher over and put a tack into the centre of the opposite side. You need to pull the canvas using the canvas stretchers and pull it quite tight. This is trial and error. If you haven’t already done this start with a small trial stretcher until you get the tension right. Too slack and the canvas will flop and touch the wood, too tight and the stretcher will be put under strain and the canvas may tear. Check from time to time that the canvas has a nice bounce, but isn’t tearing at the tacks.

2.      Repeat on the other side, and its opposite. Make sure that the canvas is central and the excess is about even on each side.

3.      Put two tacks on either side of the first tack about 4cms apart. Turn to the opposite, side and repeat. Do the same on each side. Continue now to turn the canvas round adding tacks or staples, one on each side until you reach the corners. Place the corner tacks about 3 cms from the corner – near enough to support the canvas but far enough away not to damage the wood. By this time the canvas should have a nice spring if you clap it with the flat of your hand, and it shouldn’t come into contact with the cross-bars.

4.      If it is too slack, this is where the pincers and screw-driver come in, as the only solution is to take out the tacks and start again. If you have left them out you can pull them with the pincers. If you have knocked them right in, you will have to lever them out with the screwdriver.

5.      All that remains to be done is to tuck the corners in neatly and secure them with tacks from behind.

Work along adding a tack at each end of each side, rotating the stretcher as you go.
Work along adding a tack at each end of each side, rotating the stretcher as you go.
Work towards the corners but not so close that you split the wood. Then tuck the corner in neatly and secure at the back.
Work towards the corners but not so close that you split the wood. Then tuck the corner in neatly and secure at the back.

A complete painting course

The Complete Painting Course/a Comprehensive Learning Guide and Reference Manual
The Complete Painting Course/a Comprehensive Learning Guide and Reference Manual

This book has used some of my work as illustrations, so you can take a peek at what I get up to. I must also add that it is an excellent guide to painting and would make a wonderful gift for an artist.

 
This shows a canvas stretched with staples with corners neatly tucked and secured at the back.
This shows a canvas stretched with staples with corners neatly tucked and secured at the back.

How to prime a canvas

Once stretched you will probably want to prime your canvas. This is essential if you're painting with oils and most people use a primed canvas for painting with acrylics too.

Traditionally canvases were primed with size - a sort of glue made from animal skins and such like. You can still buy boxes of size but now canvases are usually primed with white paint.

Unless you're a Rembrandt painting for posterity, then a good-quality emulsion paint or water-based primer should be adequate for priming. I would give two coats, one coat diluted with a little water so that it brushes on easily and thinly. Then give a second coat to give a good, even surface without losing the texture of the fabric. Remember to read the instructions given on the tin with regards to the time you need to leave between coats.

You are now ready to go.

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See 'Best Gifts for Painters and Artists Part 1'Monet The Petite Creuse River 1889 See 'Painting Limousin''Learn to Paint in France'
See 'Best Gifts for Painters and Artists Part 1'
See 'Best Gifts for Painters and Artists Part 1'
Monet The Petite Creuse River 1889 See 'Painting Limousin'
Monet The Petite Creuse River 1889 See 'Painting Limousin'
'Learn to Paint in France'
'Learn to Paint in France'
Painting on the banks of Videix Lake
Painting on the banks of Videix Lake

Where on earth are we?

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A markerVideix -
Videix, 87600 Videix, France
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B markerLimoges -
Limoges, France
[get directions]

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Did you find this guide to stretching a canvas useful? 2 comments

Les Trois Chenes profile image

Les Trois Chenes 5 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France Author

KoffeeKlatch Gals, many thanks for the vote of confidence. Never stretched crossstitch, but expect it is all the same idea.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

Great instructions. Clear and easily understood. The pictures are a great addition for those like me who are visual. I noticed stretching canvas is like stretching crossstitch. Great job. Voted up, useful and bookmarked.

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