It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas… –Paul Cezanne
It’s perfectly fine to buy canvases at an art store, but if you want a large canvas, they can be quite expensive to purchase. You can save a lot of money in the long run by learning how to build your own canvas. Purchasing the supplies needed to build your own canvases will require a larger up-front sum of money, but will save you money in the long run. It’s also nice to have control over the size, depth, and shape of your canvas when you make it yourself.
You will need:
Canvas pliers (optional)
These can be purchased at an art store or you can make your own.
Above is an example of a stretcher bar you can purchase at an art store. If you’re going over 24” in either direction, you’ll want to get the heavy-duty stretcher bars. These bars come in varying lengths and sizes and all have interlocking corners which makes putting them together very easy. You will need to purchase them in pairs, otherwise you’ll end up with a funny looking canvas! If you use light weight stretcher bars, you’ll need to brace the back so that the canvas doesn’t warp (it won’t hang correctly if it’s warped).
With heavy-duty stretcher bars, you will most likely not need cross braces (unless it’s a large canvas, over 36″ x 36″). If you’re using lightweight stretcher bars, you’ll want to get some cross braces which can also be purchased at an art store or made using 1″ x 2″ board from the hardware store. Corner braces are also helpful to keep the canvas square and prevent warping. You can make corner braces out of masonite or other thin board cut into triangles.
If you want to make your own stretcher bars instead of purchasing them, you can go to a hardware store and buy some lumber. The benefit of this is that you can choose the depth of the wood and make your own gallery wrap canvas (these are very expensive to purchase).
The caveat here is that unless you have access to a wood shop, you won’t be able to cut the wood unless you’re very friendly with the staff at the hardware store. They typically won’t cut precise pieces for you at a hardware store.
If you go this route, you will also need to purchase quarter round to attach to the front of the frame. All stretcher bars have this and it’s to prevent the canvas from laying flat on the wood frame.
Purchased stretcher bar with quarter round.
If you’re purchasing stretcher bars from the art store:
- 2 pairs of stretcher bars in your desired size (if you want your canvas to be 50” x 40”, then buy two 50” bars and two 40″ bars.
If you’re building your own:
- Lumber (1” x 2” board, 2” x 2” board, etc.)
- Quarter Round
- Nails (long enough to go through the quarter round and into the frame)
If you’re making your own, remember that you’ll need to cut 45° angles on the boards, so plan accordingly when purchasing the length. Give yourself enough room to cut a few inches off either end.
You can purchase canvas by the yard, on rolls, or in blankets (folded). It comes in different weights, explained here by Art Alternatives:
The weight of artist canvas is commonly expressed as ounces per square yard (oz) or grams per square meter (gsm). A canvas label may list pre-prime, after-prime, or both weights. Since these 2 weights can vary greatly from one another, it is extremely important to know how these weights are measured and which you are looking at when comparing canvases.
Pre-primed weight is the weight of the raw canvas before any sizing or gesso is applied, and is determined by the thickness of the yarns, the thread count, and the type and tightness of the weave.
Lightweight canvas generally has an open weave and a fine yarn. It is easier to stretch but is more susceptible to fluctuations in tension in either humid or dry conditions. Heavier canvas has a higher thread count, a tighter weave and is generally longer lasting. It will better support heavier paint applications and will better handle re-stretching due to its greater tear strength.
After-primed weight is the weight of the canvas after sizing and gesso have been applied. The number and thickness of the applied coats will affect the final weight, and can account for up to half of the after-prime weight. Since priming methods can vary between factories and machines, after-prime weight will vary between brands and even between canvases of the same brand.
Due to this variation, it is important to ensure that you are only comparing pre-primed weight to pre-primed weight and after-primed weight to after-primed weight when considering a canvas purchase and deciding between the various brands. In general, light-weight canvas is about 4 oz or 5 oz; medium-weight is about 7 oz or 8 oz; and heavy-weight is about 10 oz or 12 oz.
You can also purchase pre-primed canvas that has acrylic gesso already applied to it, but this can be very difficult to stretch. If you’re just starting out, we would recommend beginning with raw canvas (not pre-primed).
You will need a heavy-duty stapler to attach your canvas to your frame. These can be purchased at art stores or hardware stores for anywhere between $10 and $40.
Don’t forget to get the correct staples for your stapler!
Sometimes the staples don’t go into the wood all the way and when that happens, you’ll need a hammer to knock them in.
In case you make a mistake with your stapler, you’ll need some pliers to pull out the staple. Check out your local dollar store—sometimes they have tools! If not, you can buy pliers at a hardware store for around $5.
This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, but you’ll need something with a solid right angle to check if your canvas is square. Even a t square will work. $10-$40.
You’ll need acrylic gesso to prime your canvas once it’s stretched. This can be purchased from the art store. Depending on the amount of gesso you buy, it can be between $5 (small amount) to $40 (a whole bucket). Your canvas will need two-three coats of gesso, so plan accordingly. If you have purchased a pre-primed canvas, it is unnecessary to apply more gesso.
Because the gesso is acrylic, it will dry pretty quickly and you’ll need to work quickly so a small paintbrush won’t do! You can purchase a paintbrush from the hardware store for just a few dollars, but get one that’s good enough quality so that you don’t end up with a lot of loose hairs in your gesso.
Even better than paintbrushes, I find, are disposable paint pads. They’re inexpensive (around one or two dollars), hold a lot of paint, and don’t leave stray hairs in the gesso.
You can find these at just about any hardware store.
Wood glue will help make sure all your connections are solid so your frame doesn’t wobble.
A fine grit sandpaper will work well for smoothing your gesso after it’s dry.
These aren’t totally necessary, but they help to pull the canvas tight with little strain on your hands. Small canvases are easier to stretch than large ones, so if you’re stretching an 8” x 11” frame with lightweight canvas, you won’t need pliers. But if you’re stretching a 48” x 60” frame with heavyweight canvas, you’ll probably want canvas pliers. These pliers are also helpful if you have delicate hands or troubles with arthritis. Canvas pliers can be purchased at art stores and typically range from $8 – $40.
Building the Canvas
I just recently built a new frame and photographed the process. I am using purchased stretcher bars (I got mine used from another artist for very little money) and the size of the finished canvas is 60” x 40”.
Purchased stretcher bars: Put together your stretcher bars by fitting the corners together. Remember if you have two different length stretcher bars, the pairs need to go across from each other to make a rectangle. Make sure all the pieces are facing the same way so that the quarter round is facing the front.
Making your own stretcher bars: Measure your wood and cut the ends at 45-degree angles.
Measure your quarter round to the same length as your wood pieces and cut it at 45-degree angles.
Step Two: Make sure your frame is square by using your Woodworker’s square or t square. Once it is square, staple the corners to hold it in place. If you’re using purchased stretcher bars, this is sufficient. If you’ve built your own, you’ll want to use some wood glue between the two pieces of board to make sure the connection is solid.
Step Two-and-a-Half: Only for those who are making their own stretcher bars. At this point, you should have a square or rectangle of flat boards and you need to attach your quarter round.
Be careful to cut them correctly! This takes a bit of forethought when you’re cutting your quarter round.
Lay your quarter round on top of your frame and line up the corners. When it’s all ready, put some wood glue on the quart round to create a secure bond between the quarter round and the frame, then nail the quarter round into place. You can put a nail about every two inches or so.
Attach the triangles with wood glue and nails.
Stand your frame on one end and try to wobble it. If it is wobbly, then you’ll need to add cross- and/or corner braces.
To make a corner brace: The easiest way to do this is to get some masonite and cut it to a 45-degree triangle. If you don’t want to/can’t cut masonite yourself, they sell these corners at just about any art supply store that also sells canvases.
Attach them to the back of your frame at the corners, set in from the edge about one inch.
To make a cross brace:
A piece of 1” x 2” will work for a cross brace. Cut it so it fits snugly in the frame. Conversely, cross braces are available for purchase at just about any art store that also sells stretcher bars. You may need to hammer it into place, but make sure it’s not warping the existing stretcher bars. You can attach this piece with plastic cross brace hangers also available at art stores or online.
Stretching Your Canvas:
Lay out your canvas on a flat, clean surface and place your frame on top of it.
The picture below shows you where to staple first.
Start in the center of the longest side and put in two staples. Then move to the opposite side and pull the fabric so it’s taut and staple there. Continue all the way around following the guide above until every side has been stretched, pulled, and stapled. Watch this video to see it in real time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Cm6JlY57Zg
The corners can be tricky, but if you can make a bed you can make corners on your stretched canvas.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for one way to fold your corners: http://www.wunderbars.com/uploads/1/1/9/5/11956139/10_steps_for_great_canvas_corners_v2.pdf
Here is how I do my corners:
Don’t put in any staples 3” or so from the corners. Stand the canvas upright and pull the fabric up so it’s taut.
Pull the canvas in so it’s taut on one side.
Take the top piece of canvas and tuck the side piece under it. The goal here is to get the top piece of canvas to line up directly with the edge of the frame.
Once it’s there, add your staples making sure to keep the fabric taut the entire time. If you look at the photo above, you can see all the pressure that’s being put on my finger to hold the canvas nice and tight!
The finished corner.
If you want a paper surface to work on, you can stretch paper in exactly the same way you stretch canvas over a frame. Use paper that is at least 140 LB and allow it to soak in warm water 5-10 minutes. Blot the paper then stretch it following the instructions for stretching canvas above. Or, check out this link for step-by-step instructions: http://michaelevermette.com/page/2773/stretching-watercolor-paper-on-a-wooden-canvas-stretcher
Priming your Canvas
Once you’ve finished stretching the canvas, you’ll need to prime your surface. The most common way this is done is with acrylic gesso.
Gesso: Apply gesso with a large brush or brush pad and allow first coat to dry. When it’s completely dry, sand it gently then give the canvas a second coat of gesso. Give it one more quick sanding when the paint is completely dry. Here is a video showing you how to prime your canvas with acrylic gesso:
Oil Priming: Although oil paintings can be done on acrylic gesso, they have traditionally been completed on top of an oil prime.
First, a size* must be applied to the stretched canvas to protect the fabric from the paint (linoleic acid, the component of linseed oil which causes drying, will burn cotton or linen fibers). The most traditional size is Rabbit Skin Glue. Hide glue must be prepared according to package directions. Brush glue on, making sure to drive it into the weave of the cloth, and cover the sides as well to avoid damage from oil. The result should be a glue layer that is uniform and covers all fibers, but without thick lumps that obscure the texture of the cloth. RSG (Rabbit Skin Glue) should be applied as a liquid, warm or hot. The surface should be free of pinholes (the result of air bubbles). If these are detected, a second coat is necessary. The canvas should be allowed to dry completely before applying a priming layer.
Modern, synthetic alternatives to RSG are available in the form of PVA Size. Check with your local art store and be sure to follow the instructions on the packaging before use.
Priming white can be thinned to a thick cream consistency with pure gum spirits of turpentine, taking care not to over-thin, and applied with a brush or knife following the long dimension of the canvas. When the first coat is dry to the touch, a second coat may be applied. The surface should be completely covered with primer, but not so thickly as to obscure the texture of the canvas. The canvas is ready to accept paint in 10-14 days. If the painting cannot begin within three weeks, the canvas should cure for six additional months to ensure a stable paint film.
*Size, when used in this context, refers not to physical dimensions but to a medium added to the canvas or linen. A size seals the porous fabric and isolates it from the ground and/or oil paints. Linen and cotton will prematurely rot without a size layer. Only fabric supports need sizing. Panels only need to have a ground. Acrylic gesso does not require a size.
Tips: Loose Canvas
While your acrylic gesso or oil ground should tighten up your canvas, various factors such as humidity can cause your canvas to loosen a bit. If you’re experiencing this, you may want to try some of these tips.
Spray the backside with water. Using warm water in a spray bottle, gently mist the backside of your stretched canvas. It should dry within a few minutes and tighten up your canvas. Be aware though, you can only use this method five times. After that, it no longer works and may cause your canvas to slacken even more.
Use canvas keys. If you’ve purchased a canvas before and wondered what these things are:
They are canvas keys or tightening keys. If you’ve built your own stretcher bars, these won’t work. They will only work on purchased stretcher bars, as they have slots in the corners where these keys fit in. Insert two keys in each corner and knock them in gently with a hammer.
Here’s a quick video demonstrating how to use canvas keys to tighten your canvas: