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How to stretch a canvas yourself

Barbara Walton, Art in the Limousin Les Trois Chenes / Bed and Breakfast, Limousin, France

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Make your own Stretchers
Ever since my days at Art College, Edinburgh, I have made my own canvas stretchers. I order several lengths of prepared wood so that they are ready when I need them, and have a large roll of canvas as well. I like to think that whenever I need a canvas I can quickly make one without having the trouble of going to an art shop or supplier.

(Picture 1 finished portrait)

But you might ask, why stretch your own canvas?
Wouldn’t it be easier, and possibly even cheaper to just go and buy one? They are not so expensive and, at least here in the Limousin, France, 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 need a canvas that is sturdier or better quality than those sold cheaply, or you may want to make canvases in large quantities – all very good reasons for stretching a canvas yourself.
The tools you’ll need to stretch the canvas
You will need canvas stretchers which you can buy from a specialist art retailer, however all the other tools are readily available from DIY shops. You will need tacks, a medium-sized hammer, canvas stretchers, pincers and a medium sized flat-headed screw-driver.

(Picture 2 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 a saw and a 45° guide (although I suppose if you are good at woodwork you could just mark the 45° with a pencil. The trick then, is to make sure you cut straight down). I would recommend a guide which can be a simple wooden one, 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. You will also need a 2lb hammer, and corrugated fasteners for wood 10mm deep x 30mm wide. I did have difficulty getting the fasteners and next time I need them I might have to order on line.
As an alternative to tacks you can use a heavy duty stapler to secure the canvas, and this is the more usual method. The problem for me is that I have 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.

(Picture 3 You can buy corrugated fasteners cheaply on line)

How to make the wooden 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 you can nail a quarter dowel around the edge. The aim 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 cross bar 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.

(Picture 5 Wood beveled on one side, mitred at 45 and fastened with corrugated fasteners.)

(Picture 6 Put a corrugated fastener behind, in between the two front fasteners.)

Choosing the canvas
The general rule is that the larger the stretcher, the stronger, and therefore the more expensive the canvas needs to be. 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 but you will be able to find smoother ones.
Cut the canvas so that it is about 15cm larger in both dimensions than the stretcher.

You are now ready to stretch the canvas
The method of stretching is the same whether you are using tacks or staples, 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. Begin 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, then, if it all goes pear-shaped, you’ll be able to take them out easily and have another go! 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 when you tap it in the middle, but that it 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 of the other sides. 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.

(Picture 7 Place the tack in the centre of one side. Hammer it half-way but don't knock it right in.)

(Picture 8 Pull the canvas taught and place a tack in the centre of the opposite side.)

(Picture 9 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.)

(Picture 10 Work along adding a tack at each end of each side, rotating the stretcher as you go.

(Picture11 Work towards the corners but not so close that you split the wood. Then tuck the corner in neatly and secure at the back.)

Priming your canvas
Unless you are 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.

(Picture 12 This shows a canvas stretched with staples with corners neatly tucked and secured at the back.)
Reusing your stretcher
Remember that if you have paintings that you no longer want to keep, or you are given paintings that you don’t want, you can take off the canvas and reuse the stretcher. You can even cut down the stretchers to make smaller canvases.

Les Trois Chênes
Cours de Peinture Chambre d'hôtes
Painting Courses B&B
Le Bourg, 87600 Videix, FRANCE
TEL : +33 (0)5 55 48 29 84

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