How To Stretch A Canvas - Instructions
Why stretch your own canvas?
Working as an artist, I sometimes do paintings that I decide I don't like any more and if it is not possible to paint over them then I will remove them from the frame they are stretched on and reuse that frame.
Also, it can be cheaper to stretch your own canvas on stretcher bars that you can buy in bulk and have shipped to you, or just easier to get the products shipped and make them up as you need them. For those reasons it is good to know how to stretch a canvas.
Personally though I find that you can buy very cheap ready stretched canvas from plenty of shops these days that saves the time in stretching your own, so I will only really do this when I have a frame that needs a new canvas on.
Stretching canvas over a frame does take a bit of practice - it is easy enough to do but to get the canvas really tight does take work and often sore hands! The bigger the canvas and frame are, the harder it is to get the canvas tight so I would recommend if you are doing this for the first time, until you get to grips with how to stretch a canvas tightly, to try it out on a smaller frame until you are confident that you can get the canvas tight.
Items Needed For Stretching A Canvas
Canvas on a roll - this is double primed already and suitable for oil or acrylic painting. It's 72 inches or 180cm wide so will fit most frames that you want to stretch on to.
Heavy duty staple gun - this one is pretty much exactly like the one I use - essential!
Canvas pliers - these are not essential but they can help to get the canvas stretched tighter than you would otherwise be able to stretch if by hand.
Things you need to stretch a canvas over a frame
You will need the following items to start stretching your own canvas. These can be bought easily in many places and to help you out I have added links to where you can buy these online if you need to get them. Once you have the items required, follow the instructions for how to stretch a canvas below.
- Canvas on a roll - you can buy pre-treated canvas that is ready to paint or else you can prime your own canvas with gesso, rabbit skin glue etc.
- A heavy duty staple gun
- Sharp scissors
- Canvas pliers (optional). This will mean that you can stretch the canvas a bit tighter than you would otherwise but they can be a bit fiddly to use.
You will need a good flat and clean surface to work on - ideally a kitchen or hard floor works best and plenty of space around.
How to Stretch a Canvas
Cut The Canvas
The first thing you need to do when stretching a canvas is to start by rolling out the canvas and cutting a piece that is at least 5 cm (2 inches) wider than the size of the frame.
Roll out the canvas on the floor (I find it best to use a soft carpeted floor to stretch a canvas on) and place the frame on top so that you can cut round it.
Cutting a bigger canvas is best as you can always trim off the excess canvas afterwards, but you need enough canvas to stretch around the sides and onto the back of the frame (so it may depend on the depth of the frame itself). So cut round the frame, allowing a decent amount of canvas so that it stretches over the sides and the back of the frame.
How to Stretch a Canvas
Stapling The Canvas To The Frame
Firstly, make sure that you have the canvas with the front side facing the floor before you start...
There is a bit of an order that you should following when stretching a canvas on a frame so that the canvas is as tight as you can get it. Start at the centre of one side (it doesn't really matter which side) and staple the canvas to the back of the frame.
Next go to the opposite side of the frame and stretch the canvas as tight as you can against the previously stapled side. Ensure that you are directly opposite your first staple so that the canvas does not twist.
For the 3rd staple, go to one of the other sides of the frame, in the middle. Don't try to stretch the canvas too far when stapling this side as you will only twist the canvas. Just keep it as tight as possible and at the same time keep the canvas straight. This is probably the trickiest one to get right and takes a bit of practice when learning how to stretch a canvas.
For the 4th staple, go to the last side of the frame (once again in the centre) and pull the canvas as tight as possible. The way I do this, without using canvas pliers, is to hold the canvas down with the flat of my hands and push the frame against the 3rd side with my thumbs. Then keep the canvas tight whilst you staple that side (see pic).
Complete the Canvas Stretching
Once you have the first 4 staples in, go from one side of the frame to another adding more staples. Once again when you staple on a side that does not already have an opposing staple, do not pull the canvas too tight, make sure you pull it tight on the next staple.
Keep stapling around until you have stapled the canvas at around 2 inch intervals, leaving space at the corners to tuck them in. You have nearly completed the process of how to stretch a canvas so make sure that the canvas is tight at this stage before you complete the stretching process by completing the corners.
Finishing the Corners
There are a couple of ways that you can finish the corners of the canvas. You can cut the canvas and tuck the 2nd edge underneath or you can do what I will show here, and fold in the corners. If you are folding in the canvas on the corners then this makes it a bit easier to restretch if you ever have to take the canvas off the frame again.
Fold the edges of the canvas over, as shown in the pictures, and staple in place. Try and give the canvas a sharp fold so that it does not stick out too much - it's a little bit like making the bed!
Once you have finished stretching the canvas over the frame, cut off any excess canvas at the back so that there is no spare canvas flapping around. You can also use a sponge to damp down the back of the canvas and this will slightly tighten it even more.
Once you have tried this a few times you will get the hang of how to stretch a canvas and exactly which bit of the canvas that you need to pull tighter and each canvas will get better than the last. It is a really useful skill for an artist to have - I have also used this to stretch existing paintings for people who have bought a rolled up canvas from art markets abroad.
Buying Blank Canvas
If you decide that stretching your own canvas is too much work then you can always buy ready stretched blank canvas! One of the cheapest places to buy blank canvases is on eBay and there are a number of sellers who have shops selling blank stretched canvases.
Check out a few of the options shown below.