Stretch a Canvas

Here are the basics of making your own canvas!


• Scissors
• Hammer
• Heavy Duty Staple Gun
• Canvas Clamp
• Extra staples
• Canvas
• Stretcher Bars or Wood Strips: Stretcher bars can be purchased at art stores, with 3/4 inch profile or 1.5 inch profile. Wood Strips can be bought from the hardware store or any lumber supply store, but you need to cut them at 45 degree angles at the length you want. Wood strips are cheaper but require a little more labor. The advantage to being in control of your own stretcher bars is that you can also make very deep profile canvases if you like!
• Gesso and gesso brush


Take your stretcher bars and piece them together. You may need to use the hammer to help shove the corners together. Make sure they are pieced together at 90 degrees... you can check by lining the corners up with the corners of a table or box or something- one time, I made a canvas that looked straight but eventually found out it was slightly crooked when I needed to get it framed. This saves framing hassle big time!

For wooden strips from the hardware store: more info on this later, but you would need to piece the bars together differently than bars from the art store.

The first staple: Does not matter where you insert it, I have heard about people stapling the corners first but I generally start from the middle of the longest side.
Sometimes the staples do not shoot all the way into the wood so I would hammer it in.


So there is no right or wrong way to go about this... the main objective is to stretch the canvas tightly over the bars. I like to alternate sides when I staple... some people like to finish stapling one side and then another...

For small canvases you can just use your bare hands, but for larger canvases, the clamp is handy. The picture shows how I use it.

One way I have discovered to get super-tight canvases is to push the bars away with your feet while pulling the canvas towards you after the first staple is down (as shown in the photo). So make sure there is enough floor space especially for huge canvases. Then I would hold down the bars with my feet and fold the canvas over the bar with one hand, and take my other hand to staple.

This is how to do it all by yourself; of course if there is another body present, you can get that person to help staple or stretch or hand you tools... and make him/her into your slave ha ha!


 The image to the left of the purple box shows how all four sides of the canvas have one staple on it, all about midway the measure of the bar.

I alternate sides until only the corners are left. Then I tuck in the corners (for further details on corners scroll down down down) and voila! Canvas! Wonderful melodious drum sound from the tightness of it! Can you hear it?

If you have a hairy pet, or lots of lint on your floor a lint roller can pick up all the bits and pieces so they don't annoy you when you gesso... or you can leave them on for interesting texture.


I like to give 2 coats of gesso: one coat is thinned out slightly with some water and another just straight pure gesso. The canvas texture will lessen with each coat. You can use the gesso to customize surface texture also.

If you plan to paint with acrylic paint on your canvas, 2 coats may not be needed, but the surface (I find) is nicer after the second coat.

If you are using oil paints, you should have 2-3 coats. What happens when there is not enough gesso on the canvas is that the oil paint cannot bind effectively to the cloth. You also get gross pigment seeping through the other side and the colors are not as brilliant when this happens.

If you are staining, then skip gesso-ing, obviously...

That's it! Start your masterpiece!


The extra information below may be useful. I talk a little about gesso choices and how to cut your own stretcher bars, instead of purchasing bars from the art store.


 There are many different types of gesso; they come in different colors and brands. I will just go over the ones I have...

I have two types: Studio Series Acrylic Gesso and Professional Acrylic Gesso

Studio Series: This is cheaper than the professional, but it is runnier and I use it up quicker.

Professional: This gesso is thick! Like greek yogurt thick- I can turn my palette knife full of this stuff upside down and it will not budge. It is more expensive on the other hand, but the benefit is that I don't use it up so quickly because I can thin it down with water if I need...


If you bought your own wood strips, you should get them cut at 45 degree angles at the ends. People can do this for you. But they may charge you. Or they may screw up... ha ha

Anyway, if you can only rely on yourself for the cutting, then the best tool for specific angles to your cuts is a miter saw. Make sure you have safety goggles just in case wood shoots up at your face and pops your eyeball.

If your wood strip has knots in it, be extra careful because cutting through a knot has a high chance of splintering the wood at that area.

If you have sensitive ears, ear plugs would be good too.



Sanding down sharp edges on your wood strips may lessen the chances of your canvas ripping, especially if you have old canvas and it is a little dry.

If you bought stretcher bars from the art store, you do not have to do anything... just assemble it and start stretching the canvas!


 A few extra pointers:

Stretcher bars bought from the art store have a raised outer ridge as shown in the picture. For those who buy their own wood from the hardware store, it is good to take note... sometimes the bars are shaped wonky and are thicker at different sides. If this is the case with your wood, try to position the strips so that the thinner sides are inward.

Buying wood strips and cutting them yourself also means that you need to piece them together some way. I just use wood glue. The stretcher bars from the store just fit together- no gluing, sanding, or whatever needed.

This is also handy to know: Wood epoxy paste can fill in cracks and gaps in wood. It hardens over night and can be sanded down. Unlike some other epoxys, it does not have that chemical scent to it, and it is colored a light tan color to match a general wood tone. Very useful when building frames for finished paintings :-)


Corner Details: Fold pretty, clean and crease-less corners!

Sloppy canvas sides are not very nice.

This stage is before the corners are tucked in and there is any gesso-ing. You have loose leaf-shaped flaps of corners.
Make a cut to the side with the last staple that is closest to the corner. This is the flap to be tucked under the adjacent flap. Do NOT cut all the way to the front corner, just about midway will do.

Next snip off the other side to the same point as the first cut, making sure that this flap is a bit longer than the other flap.


Fold in the smaller flap first. Roll the longer flap under itself and pull it over the small flap.

Fill in the corner with a few layers of gesso to smooth out the crease line. Sand paper helps to even out any bumps.


Hope that was helpful. Feel free to contact me for questions or comments.