How To Stretch And Prepare Your Own Canvas

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Lots of oil and acrylic artists prefer the convenience of using ready-made canvases. Why waste precious painting time out in the garage or shed sawing, nailing, stapling and stretching when with a few quick clicks on your favorite art supply store’s website or app will have painting supports winging their way to your doorstep?

If, on the other hand, you’re a DIY fanatic, you’re ready to make the investment of time and materials to create your own canvases. By making your own supports, you’re able to create custom sizes that may not be readily available. You can also control the texture and material content of your panel, as well as tinting the support to save time or make textural changes that best reflect your painting style.

Pre-stretched canvas is certainly convenient and very practical for weekend painters. However, if you’re jumping into painting with both feet, have a little woodworking ability and looking for ways to save money, constructing your own canvases may be right up your alley.

Build Your Own Canvases

In and of themselves, the supplies and tools aren’t terribly expensive. You’ll need stretcher bars, a staple gun, a carpenter’s square, a rubber mallet, canvas pliers and unprimed canvas.

Assembling The Stretcher Bars

These pre-made bars are available in loads of sizes and are made from kiln-dried wood. They have simple tongue-and-groove construction, so they’re easy to assemble. They generally range in sizes from 4” to 72” and are sold in sets. You’ll need two sets to complete one canvas.


Using your carpenter’s square to make sure all the corners are perfect 90 degrees, use a rubber mallet to lightly tap the joints firmly in place.



Stretching Canvas Around The Frame

Place the frame on your canvas. Try to align the frame to run parallel with the weave of the fabric. Measure before cutting to ensure you have enough material to fold over the frame and staple to the back.

Unprimed Canvas

There are several materials that are suitable for painting. Traditionally, artists use either cotton or linen. However, advancing technology in milling and fiber content has expanded the category to include synthetic blends. Quality fiber blends can aid in making the fabric stronger, less prone to stretching and a smoother painting surface.


Centering the frame over the fabric, bring up one side of the canvas and fold it onto the back of the frame. Secure it in place with a staple. Pull the canvas taut, wrap and place a staple in the bar opposite. Repeat the procedure on the remaining two sides. Try to maintain a consistent level of tension on all four sides.

Add staples to each side in the same succession of steps, maintaining the same tension throughout. Work your way from the center out on each side of the staples on each side until you’re approximately 2” from the corners.

If you don’t have the strength or grip to hold the fabric taut, use canvas pliers to hold the material in place while you use the staple.


To complete the corners, hold both sides of the corner fabric and fold the fabric at a 45-degree angle against the frame. While holding the fold down, fold the fabric again and line it up parallel to the edge of the frame. Use several staples neatly secure the layers in place.

Examine the front of the canvas for any wrinkles or areas with a lack of tension. If necessary, remove staples with a screwdriver, correct the tension and re-set the staples.

Prepare The Canvas For Painting

Now that you’ve gotten your stretcher bars assembled and your canvas secured to them, it’s time to prepare the surface for painting. You’ll need both sizing and ground to provide a proper support for your paint.

Sizing

Sizing isolates the fabric from the ground, or gesso, and paint. It protects the fiber from absorbing the acidic oils of the paint. Oil paint components can break down and decay fabric fibers.

Traditionally, rabbit skin glue was the artist’s only choice for sizing.


Today, artists have a choice with Poly Vinyl Acetate. PVA sizing, as it’s also called, has none of the problems associated with traditional sizing. Rabbit skin glue can absorb moisture, as well as swell or shrink, which may cause paint to buckle or crack.


Primer

Primer is also referred to ground or gesso. This is the final layer upon which the artist paints. Several coats of gesso need to be applied to give the support a surface that is both absorbent and has sufficient tooth to guarantee the paint bonds with the canvas.

Gesso is a Ph neutral, non-acidic acrylic product that’s available in both liquid and paste formulations. It’s produced by combining acrylic polymer with chalk. This porous substance produces a surface that absorbs the paint and makes for excellent bonding of the paint and primer.

Apply several coats to provide a stiff, rigid painting surface. It can be sanded between coats for a smooth, texture-free surface or allowed to dry with natural, brush texture. Gesso can also be tinted to pre-color your support.


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