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How to stretch your own canvas

Filed Under: home decor, recreation, art

My dad is a graphic artist by trade, but a painter by hobby. Over the years I've seen him stretch many a canvas -- from small eight-by-ten frames, to huge rectangular ones that ended up being longer than our couch. I was always amazed at how precise and ordered the frame building was, only to be followed by something as free-flowing and creative as painting. The frame seemed like the yin to the painting's yang. Even to this day, when we hang new artwork in our business or home, I still take a moment to admire the craftsmanship of a well-made, hand-stretched frame.

If you're thinking of taking up painting, you might find it both more cost efficient and rewarding to stretch your own canvases, and if that's the case, here's how you get it done:

  1. A piece of canvas one foot longer than the width and height of your frame
  2. Stretcher bars, or a pre-built frame
  3. Heavy-duty staples, or carpet tacks

  1. Hammer
  2. Heavy-duty staple gun (if you decide to use staples)
  3. Canvas pliers (optional, but they do make the job a little easier)
  4. Sharp cutting instrument (Exacto knife, utility knife, razor, etc.)


If this if your first time stretching a canvas, expect it to take a while (1 or 2 hours). After you get the hang of it, you should be able to stretch a medium-sized canvas in under an hour. The key, however, is to take your time and make sure you're pulling the canvas as tight as possible. A well-stretched canvas is the result of patience and care rather than speed.

  1. If you don't already have a pre-built frame, assemble your stretcher bars by connecting them at the mitered edges. Most store-bought stretcher bars will fit snugly together without the use of nails or glue, but if you cut your own, you might want to consider using a couple small nails.
  2. Make sure your frame is square by either measuring both diagonals (the measurements should be the same), or by using an actual square.
  3. Roll your canvas out on a clean flat surface, and center your frame on top.
  4. Cut the canvas so you have between five to six inches of excess beyond the edge of the frame.
  5. After ensuring that the grain of the canvas is lined up with your frame, fold one edge (doesn't matter which) over the frame and secure it with your staples or a tack.
  6. Once the first side is secure, move to the opposite side of the frame and pull the canvas as tight as you can manage without losing your grip.
  7. A straight crease should appear across the canvas as you're stretching the opposite side. After making sure the canvas is tight (again), secure the second edge to the frame.
  8. Now move to one of the side edges and repeat steps 5 and 6.
  9. After securing the second side edge, the creases on the canvas should form a diamond shape.
  10. Moving from the center toward the corners, continue pulling the canvas and securing it.
  11. After you've moved out several inches and secured the canvas, switch to the opposite side and do the same.
  12. Continue moving around the canvas in this fashion (moving opposite to opposite) until you've made it all the way to the corners.
  13. The corners are the last and most important part of the canvas to be pulled, so make sure you stretch them as tight as you can without ripping the canvas on the edge of the frame.
  14. Secure each corner by folding it over and stapling or tacking it to the frame.
  15. When you're finished stretching the canvas, turn it around and inspect it for any creases or looseness. If you find problem spots, you might be able to correct them by sticking shims into the corner joints of the frame, but it may be best to remove the staples or tacks and re-stretch the affected area.
  16. If the canvas passes inspection, use your hammer to hit the staples or tacks until they're flush with the wood.

So that, in a nutshell, is how to stretch your own canvas. If you're just starting out and want to practice on a cheaper material than painting canvas, try muslin or calico. If you remove the imperfections, and use enough gesso or primer, both materials should work as a generic canvas alternative. Artists have been stretching their own canvases for hundreds of years, so variations on the process have inevitably sprung up, but the basic points still remain: take your time, get it as tight as you can, and whatever you do, don't let your cat walk across the canvas when you're stretching it. Trust me, it's not a good thing.

[photos and additional info via Rex Art and]


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