TUTORIAL: How To (Re)stretch A Canvas

Howdy, everybody! Although I plan on getting out Montana Tales starting tomorrow, I felt an itch to blog today… while re-stretching some canvases. And although I wager that most who are interested in such an endeavor already know how to stretch or re-stretch a canvas, it never hurts to write one of these doo-dads for the odd interested party! After all, say you’re a budding amateur painter that’s starting to become really invested in your habit. Depending on how much you paint as a whole, you can save a lot of money building your own canvases — especially if you’re able to find leftover paintings that have perfectly good frames underneath that you can salvage for your own illustrious purposes. Or maybe you want to make a frame that’s in a weird dimension that your craft store doesn’t have; in that case, knowing how to stretch your own canvas is also immensely helpful as a whole.

A note before we get started, though: I’m just using this article to talk about stretching canvases, not building a canvas from the ground up. There are a lot of options on how to build your own frames, from the dubiously flimsy stretchers you can get at the art supply to ripping your own boards and a lot of things in between. Building canvases is another story in of itself, not to mention one that would be kind of dangerous for me to photograph if I were to make a tutorial on it and post it on this blog — at least, the way I do it, which involves Serious Power Tools. I’d rather save that for the eventuality that I might have enough of a demand for such a tutorial and could draw illustrations on the subject. Also, that discussion would go over why not all stretcher frames are alike, etc. etc.

There’s also one more point I’m going to tack on here before we get down to business: not all salvaged frames are created equal! If you’re pretty sure you managed to inherit a painting that you want to paint over that’s on a store-bought frame, it’s just better altogether to re-gesso the piece and start from there. This may sound Greek to you, but it should make sense when you’re holding your frame in your hands. BUT I DIGRESS: let’s get on to actual Tutorialville, USA, which is behind the handy little “Read more!” link — oh, and in case you didn’t figure it out, this sucker is going to be mad image-heavy:

How To (Re)stretch A Canvas

Before we get started, you’re going to want a few tools:

Ooh, these guys are lettered! Here’s what they’re named as according to the labeling:

  • A: Needle-nose pliers, in the case you staple somewhere accidentally!
  • B: Flat-head screwdriver, also in the case that you staple somewhere accidentally!
  • C: Canvas pliers, which are easily obtained at your local art supply store or at DickBlick.com.
  • D: Hand-held industry stapler, which you can find at your local hardware store!
  • E: Box knife, which you can either find at the hardware store or at your art supply store. Either way, they’re pretty cheap.

You’ll also need a frame, either built or salvaged

and a few yards of painter’s grade linen canvas, which you can also get at your local art supply store! With everything assembled, let’s get down to business.

Unfold your canvas and smooth it out flat on the floor (preferably, the larger the space the better). Place your frame on the canvas and try to square it up as much as possible to the fabric’s corners and along its warp and weft. (What’s warp and weft? Google it!)

While you’re measuring up, fold the edges of the fabric over the frame lips and make sure that there’s 2-3″ worth of excess hanging from the lip. In this image, I’ve exaggerated the weight of my thumb on the fabric so you can see where the frame lip is in comparison to the fabric. In reality, you don’t need to pull nearly as hard. Anyway, this will determine how much of a fabric margin you need from around the frame. When you figure this out on all four sides, take the box knife and score at the measurement of the outer-most edges. Rather than cut the fabric, all you have to do at this point is rip along the grain of the fabric at the score points. The author humbly apologizes for not having an image of this portion, but it’s a bit difficult to photograph this part! Either way, when you’re done, it should look like the image below:

Although it’s okay to stay on the ground for all of this (potential stray staples notwithstanding!), many prefer to do this next step on a table or other elevated work surface. And what is this next step? Stretching, of course! Fortunately, the first part is easy (and the images/directions will be found below):

Simply put: find a side you’d like to start on first and eyeball its midway point. Gently stretch the canvas taut over this center point and staple. Voila — your first staple! Isn’t it crazy?

… well, actually, this next part may get a little crazy for you, since it’s going to introduce the canvas pliers, which can be scary. After your first staple, you’re going to want to work on the opposing frame lip to your first staple. Since you already have your anchor staple in, you’re going to want those canvas pliers to stretch the canvas as tight as possible. (NOTE: You can do this with your hands, too, but the pliers make it much easier!) Once your pliers are secure and stretched as far as possible, staple at this point!

After that, you’ll want to staple the other ends in much the same manner until you have this four points thing going on. These are all anchor staples for each side of your frame!

After getting anchor staples in, things are (mostly) downhill from here. Pick a side and staple 2-3″ across the frame lip, stretching the canvas with the canvas pliers while you do so. Do this on all sides until you end up with a canvas like this:

You’ll notice that the above has more staples than the previous image! This is because you’ll need to make sure that there’s no sagging spots along the edges of the canvas. You’ll know these by feel: dips in an otherwise drum-taut canvas, wrinkles, etc. When you feel these, put a staple above the sag spot! When everything feels as tight as possible, you’ll know that you’re ready for the final step: folding your corners!

Folding corners should be easy for those in the audience that are familiar with the good old-fashioned hospital corner. There are stylistic interpretations* that one should keep in mind, but let’s just focus on technique for the moment. Anyway, so you saw one of those tuft-y corners from a few images above, right? It’s shaped kind of like so: _|. So, when you’re first going to tuck your corner, take the fabric from the | side and pull it flush against the frame lip on the _ side. (Apologies in advance if that is not as clear as it could be, but it can’t be helped.)

Once you have that fabric flush, try to make a crease as far as possible down — it may be hard, depending on how close you stapled towards the corners! If so, take the needle-nose pliers and the flat-head screwdriver and pick the staple out. No big! Anyway, crease the fabric until you have a tidy flap on the _ side of the corner; hopefully, the above image is doing a good job of illustrating a phenomenon that is otherwise quite difficult to put into words!

Take said flap (which, I bet, is pretty visible by this point!) and flatten it down onto the opposing frame lip. Keep it tight; your corners need to be just as tight as the rest of your canvas, so hold steady!

Staple the crap out of your corner; repeat for the other four.

And voila! You have one hand-stretched canvas ready for the gesso room. By the way: 4-6 coats of gesso are what I like to do, followed by a hardcore sanding session! Hopefully, this was helpful; if not, then mad apologize. I’ll try to put up links for better tutorials should there be a demand later.


* Generally, my professors have instructed me to fold directionally depending on the orientation of your canvas. Basically, when you fold down your corner, the top edge of the flap should determine the top edge of your canvas. If this is really confusing for people, I’ll take a photograph of the difference between a horizontal and vertical canvas and let you see for yourself! This is all pending on whether or not this is even noticed by anybody, though, so there is that.
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