Make: How to Stretch Your Own Canvas for Your Next Painting

Get inspired by your own two hands with this quick, economical and useful project…

The first time I stretched my own canvas, I swear, I heard angels singing. While my painting professor at the time would likely argue I had no business being behind a canvas in the first place, the connection made between a quality surface and quality time with my paints was undeniable. Suddenly, I wanted to paint. No longer faced with a rickety, factory-made canvas that warped under even the lightest touch of oil paint, a handmade canvas felt downright luxurious, not to mention sturdy and reliable. Even though I didn’t plan on making a career out of putting paint to canvas, taking the time to invest in my materials the way my professional-painting-bound peers did resulted in a stronger connection with my own creativity. The side of my creative spirit that couldn’t be expressed though photography, the part that craved mark-making and mess-making and color worship and experimentation rejoiced at this newfound skill.

If you’ve never stretched your own canvas, I can almost guarantee that, once you do, you’ll never go back to purchasing pre-made surfaces. Besides being far more economical than buying pre-made, the quality of a self-made canvas far exceeds that of its factory-produced brethren. In other words, prepare to become addicted. Most professional artists already create their own surfaces, but even those of us who dabble can benefit from knowing how to stretch canvas over a frame. Because once you learn, the possibilities of the alternative fabrics you can stretch and gesso is endless.

For the tutorial below, I used pre-notched stretcher bars, which are available at most artist supply stores (I love Artist & Craftsman) but, if you have access to power tools, you can also use plain lumber. If you go for the stretcher bars, I recommend the heavy-duty option. The thicker the bars, the more stable your final surface will be.

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How to Stretch Your Own Painting Canvas

Materials:

2 pairs of stretcher bars at equal lengths (I used 2 @ 18″ and 2 @ 25″)

Large square of raw (unprimed) canvas

Staple gun + staples

Shims

Scissors

T-Square

Gesso

Clean, flat work space

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Assemble your stretcher bars, using the T-square to square them off. You want to ensure the bars are perfectly straight — otherwise, you’ll end up with an odd and warped canvas.

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Lay your canvas on top of your work surface, smoothing out any creases. Place the wooden stretcher frame on top of the canvas with the lip of the frame facing down and orient the edges square with the weave of the fabric to ensure even stretching. Use your scissors to cut the canvas, leaving about 5 extra inches on all sides to allow the canvas to be pulled over the frame and stapled into place. Bear in mind, you’ll want enough fabric on all sides to tightly grasp. This is tough work on your knuckles.

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Fold one end of the canvas over the frame and use one staple in the center of the bar to secure into place. It helps to angle the staple so the fabric doesn’t tear when pulled taut.

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Working on the opposite side, pull the canvas evenly and tightly against the frame and staple into place. It helps to work from the center out. Continue on all sides, pulling the canvas evenly and as tight as possible.

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Crease the corners and fold them under so the extra fabric lays flat against the frame. Staple into place.

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Your canvas should now be tightly bound to the frame, with no wrinkles in the fabric. If it feels slightly loose, mist the back of the canvas with water and allow to dry.

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Once the canvas is dry, it’s ready for priming. Follow the directions on your gesso bottle to evenly coat the canvas. Most gesso requires three coats. Priming your canvas is essential to ensuring the paints and materials you use for your work doesn’t eat away at the material.

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Now it’s ready for your masterpiece!

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+ More artistic ideas from BLDG 25

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Comments

  1. I’ve streched my own canvases for years. The only problem I see is the corners. The way you have stretched them the painting will be difficult to frame with all extra material. Even if paint the edges, the extra material will show from the sides and doesn’t look professional. Let me know if you want the info on how to cut the corners so it will lie flat.

  2. Great job on showing how it’s done. I much prefer to stretch my own too. I have not done one in a while and watching your tutorial makes me want to paint today!! As for your instructor, I feel sad that he said that to you about not belonging behind a canvas. Everyone belongs behind a canvas. He’s there to instruct, not to criticize. I am glad it didn’t stop you from continuing on. Thanks for the great tutorial!

  3. I just Love too see that Free people team finally features fine art things! As artist I enjoy these posts so much! Heh, maybe one day even I will be featured!

  4. I love this idea!!! Painting is therapy for me creating my own canvas organically will certainly help out even more I feel! !!
    Thanks for sharing

  5. Realmente é maravilhoso esticar a nossa própria tela eu já fiz varias vezes e ficaram muito boas pode-se até a usar tecidos usados estando em bom estados principalmente se forem linho ou 100% algodão.

  6. You shouldn’t gesso all the same direction (so I’ve learned in painting classes and by experience…) Be kind of messy with it, like paint the gesso in all different directions, otherwise the canvas prove to be more difficult to paint on. ( I learned this the hard way)

  7. Jessica is right. I do traditional gesso work (rabbit skin glue and marble dust on thick wooden boards for egg tempera) and you really want to incorporate the gesso as well as possible like she suggests. If you prefer, just turn your canvas 90* and keep slapping that stuff on. Awesome tutorial regardless of the slight oversight on that!

  8. You list shims don’t know what they are and can’t see when you use them
    After the first pair of staples you just say carry on But do you do all on the same length or do you alternate with the short length nor do you say how far apart you staple

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