Tutorial on Constructing Canvases

Part of my painting process is the creation of my canvases.  It always has been and always will.  I’ve never been fond of traditional stretcher bars, they’re way to thin for my liking (and flimsy) and they don’t have the sharp edge that I enjoy (there are some that are not rounded, but they are hard to find).

At Anderson University, during Painting II, one of the Seniors showed us underclassmen how to create our own stretcher bars.  I believe that all painters should have knowledge of creating their own canvases, so I pass on my knowledge to all the developing (and other) artists out there.

One of the things that I’ve learned is that it takes time to perfect the art of making canvases.  I’ve made a good number of stretcher bars and canvases and I still mess up from time to time.  More realistically, every single one of my canvases have some type of flaw, it’s part of the art process.

So, without farther delays, lets begin.

Step 1: Preparing Your Stretcher Bars

Step 1a

Supplies needed include (can be found at Lowes or Home Depot): Hammer, Wood Glue (optional), Nails (at this stage, 3d 1-1/4″), 1×2″ and 11/16″ Quarter Round (I use 8 foot sections of each).  I use pine because it is relatively cheap and sturdy enough for my needs.

You want to make sure you get the straightest pieces of wood you can find.  Due to the way hardware stores display their wood, it warps easily near the ends.  As for the Quarter Round, it’s not all that important as you can manipulate it easily as you attach it to the 1×2.

Step 1b

So, the goal here is to attach the Quarter Round to the 1×2 to get the base of your stretcher bar.  I don’t use wood glue, but a little extra support can’t hurt.  I put in a nail every hands-with or so (4-7 inches, depending on how big of canvases I’m creating).

You want to make sure that the edges line up evenly.  Push and/or pull the Quarter Round until it lines up and nail it into place.

Step 1c

In the end, it should look somewhat like the above.

Step 2: Cutting to Size

Step 2

At this point, what you need is a miter saw to cut your stretcher bars at a 45 degree angle.  At this stage, you will be cutting down to size your stretcher bars.  If you already know the size of your paintings, bring a measuring tape.  I do everything by eye and fly by the seat of my pants (aka: I don’t measure anything).

Step 2b

It is simpler to have a powered reciprocating miter saw, but in the change that you do not have access to one, a cheap alternative is a miter box.  For about $12 you can still cut your stretcher bars at a 45 degree angle, though it will take more of an effort and more work.  Trust me, it can be done.

Step 2c

So, you want to cut each piece twice, so that they will fit together in the corners of your canvas.

Step 2d

I measure by cutting the first piece, then putting it up against the next piece and making sure it is equal in length.  Even if you measure it out before hand, I’d suggest doing this to ensure that you make each piece equal in length.

Step 2e

By the end of a couple of hours of work, you should have a small pile of scraps, a dusting of sawdust, and a collection of stretcher bars.  I find that I can get about 6 canvases out of four eight foot sections of wood.  Above is what came out of eight lengths of wood.

Step 3: Construction of the Stretcher Bars

Step 3

Supplies needed at this point include: Wood glue, corner braces, hammer, and nails (I use 8d 2-1/2″ Bright Finish, though my father claims that it is overkill).  I only use one corner brace per canvas, I now have two, so now I construct two canvases at a time.

Step 3b

Coat the inside of the corner piece in wood glue.  Extra glue can be wiped off with a wet paper towel or left in place like I usually do.

Step 3c

Put the corners pieces into the corner brace and tighten down.  Make sure that the corner edges line up evenly.  Put in the nails as far as you can while the corners are in the braces.

It is easier to figure out a way to brace the whole set up so that everything doesn’t move as you attempt to hammer everything together.  Let it sit for a couple of minutes until the glue somewhat dries before taking everything out to the corner braces.  This is where constructing two canvases at a time works well.

Once out of the corner brace, hammer in the nails the rest of the way and continue to work your way around the canvas until all four corners are connected.

Step 3d

I was always taught to put in three nails in each corner, but two seems to work in most cases.  If you want extra support, put in the extra nail.  It can’t hurt to be extra secure.

Note the extra hole in the side of that corner, I had to remove a nail due to the fact that I messed up (see below).

Step 3e

Things you don’t want to do includes this, putting a nail in and having it come out the side or back of your stretcher bar.  Remove the nail and put in a new one without making the same mistake.

What’s really frustrating is having to remove several nails from the same corner.  My record is currently four.  Trust me, it sucks.

Step 3f

And this is why you want to make sure you put enough nails into the Quarter Round at the very beginning of the process.  You want to have enough so that each side has at minimum of two nails.

Or you can use wood glue and this wouldn’t happen.  But I’m stubborn.

Step 3g

Soon, you will have a collection of constructed stretcher bars waiting for canvas.

Step 3.2: Support Bars

Step 3h

For larger canvases, support beams are required to brace the stretcher bars to prevent warping and distortion when you stretch and pull the canvas around the stretcher bars.  What you need is a saw and an extra piece of 1×2″ without any Quarter Round attached.

I usually do not use support beams unless one of the sides is more than two feet (24″) in distance (again, I eyeball it and know from experience when I need it).  Most of my canvases are smaller in size, but this recent batch included two that needed the extra support.

Step 3i

You will need to measure the inside distance between the two sides.  An easy way to eyeball the distance is to line up the support on the inside of the frame to ensure that your measurement is not crooked.

NOTE: If your canvas is 30″ by 12″, you will want to put the support beam between the two 30″ pieces, so you would measure the inside of the 12″ side.  Kinda common sense, but I’ve done it before (don’t ask).

Step 3j

Next, you want to position the support beam in the center of the tow sides (note that in the picture above, the beam is not centered and it is crooked).  Glue and/or nail in place.

I usually do not put the beam flush against the back, but somehow raise it 1/8 – 1/4 inch before securing it in place.  I do this for preference, there is no real reason why.

Step 3k

Now you should have a pile of frames and stretcher bars ready to become canvases.  These are the twelve stretcher bars that came out of the 8 lengths of 8′ 1×2.

Step 4: Stretching your Canvas

Step 4

Once you have your stretcher bars assembled (either constructed yourself or prefabricated), you need to stretch your canvas.  To do this, you need canvas (duh) and a staple gun.  You may need a hammer in the event that the staples don’t go all the way in (this is the case if you use heavy wood).

First, make sure you have enough canvas by folding it over your stretcher bars and ensuring that you will be able to secure it to the back.

Step 4b

Start in the center of each stretcher bar, pulling the canvas tightly and attaching via staple gun.  I stretch the canvas with my hands, but there are nifty tools to help you grab the fabric and stretch it.  I find that there is no real difference between using the specialized tools and all by hand, but that doesn’t mean that you will find the same results.

Step 4c

Once you have the first staples in, work your way out from the center, one staple at a time.  I usually follow the following pattern:  Long side, flip, Long side, Short side, flip, Short side, repeat.  On each side, I put in the next two staples.  Each staple is usually 1-2 inches apart from one another.

Step 4d

Continue working out towards the corners.

Step 4e

Above is an example of how I grab and pull the fabric over the stretcher bars.  Yes, it takes a lot of force, but I enjoy the challenge.

Step 4f

When you get close to the corners you will want to fold the canvas over in a way to make the corners clean.  I use hospital corners so that the folds are semi-hidden and concealed.  Find what works best for you and finish off the canvas.

Step 5

Once you are finished, relish the moment and bask in your work.  If you choose to use gesso, now would be a good time to prime your canvas.  I use a single layer of extremely light gesso (1 part gesso, 1 part water) which is why the layers of paint directly on the fabric show through.  This is my style.

Unless you are really skilled in carpentry (or really lucky) creating your own canvases will never be easy.  It takes a while to learn and many of mine still look like [edit], even after several years of making my own stretcher bars.

Continue to learn and make as many as possible.  Practice makes better.

I hope this tutorial has helped and inspired artists to continue to produce their works.

God Bless and PEACE

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5 Comments »

  1. andrea Said:

    Your thought is really worth appreciable that you believe that all painters should have knowledge of creating their own canvases. I have seen in this post you did great work, you are really a very creative person, thanks for sharing this inspiring post. 🙂

  2. Appreciate your work. very helpful 🙂 Thanks

  3. Melvyn Said:

    Interesting and helpful. But whart is the purpose of the quarter rounder?

  4. Melvyn Said:

    Interesting and helpful. But whart is the purpose of the quarter rounder and is the canvas stapled on the side where the quarter rounder is? Thankyou.

    • stkerr Said:

      The quarter round lifts the canvas off the stretcher bars. This way, if you put pressure on the face of the canvas (by the process of painting) you get a free floating canvas. The only part of the canvas that is touching the wood is the extreme edge and the sides of the stretcher bars. The canvas is secured on the “bottom” of the stretcher bars, opposite of where the quarter round.


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