How to stretch a canvas at home

Written by chris pink on June 20, 2014 in Picture Framing

Canvases are so popular nowadays that an entire printing industry has grown up around this unique art-form. The attraction is obvious, of course: canvases look great, they’re affordable and they don’t require glass or framing. On top of that, it’s now very simple and affordable to order printed canvases online. It is this list of unique attributes that makes them a firm choice for anyone looking to hang both photographs and oil paintings on the walls.

It’s worth saying, before we go any further, that this particular how to is aimed not at enthusiasts with all the specific canvas stretching equipment, but at amateurs who’d like to have a go at stretching a canvas at home. Because of this, you won’t necessarily need all the professional equipment usually associated with canvas stretching.

One last note: we’d advise anyone following this tutorial to practice with a blank canvas first. Stretching is a skill which takes some time to perfect. But that’s OK. You can always tear the staples out and start again if you need to.

 Step 1: what you’ll need

How to stretch a canvas

To stretch a canvas at home, you will need the following things:

A wide wooden frame over which to stretch your canvas (we’d recommend sticking to something no bigger than 24 inches by 24 inches to begin with).

Some wide, heavy duty, metal pliers.

The canvas itself (this can be low or high quality, but for the sake of learning, we would suggest some mid-range stuff which will at least hold its tension).

A sturdy table which you can move yourself around fairly easily.

Someone to help you, should you need an extra pair of hands!

A staple-gun of some description.

Some scissors capable of cutting canvas.

 Step 2: how to prepare

Firstly, ensure that you have staples for your stapler and that it works when you flip the bottom back on itself and staple down on wood.

Now, take your frame and lay it over your canvas. The key with preparing canvas for stretching is that you must have enough left over at the edges to be able to pull on it with the pliers and create tension. Leave at least enough space to cover the side of the frame, and preferably the same again, making it double the width. Ensure, when you cut, that you have left an even amount of canvas all the way around the frame.

 Step 3: how to do the stretching…

Stretching a canvas is one of those things. There are a few ways to do it, but you must stick to the same method as you go along, and you must be systematic about it as you do so. The reason for this approach is obvious: you want to create the same level of tension all the way around the frame, so that it isn’t baggy on one side and overly tight on the other.

A: Lay the canvas down and then place the frame on top of it, as you did when you initially cut your canvas. Your next move is to take the top edge of the canvas and pull it down towards you (you may need someone else to put their hand on the frame to stop it from moving). Now, take your stapler and staple the canvas to the back of the frame. Ensure that you staple as close to the top edge of the frame as you can.

B: Next up, turn the canvas 180 so that the opposing side is now at the top, and you are still working on the back of the canvas. Take the canvas in one hand and pull it just as you did before – and staple in the same way.

C: A common mistake at this stage is to keep on stapling all the way round on one side. Do not do this! Instead, turn the canvas 90 degrees and pull that side taught, stapling as before. Now repeat the process with more staples, one at a time. By this point, you should have stapled all four sides of the canvas down. You will notice that the canvas is in no way tight, but don’t worry, there’s no way it can be at the moment!

D: It’s at this stage that your pliers will begin to come in handy. Start at whatever side you like, and pull the canvas as you did before, placing a staple an inch or so along in the same way. Now repeat this process on the other three sides, stapling on the same side each time. By the end of this, you will notice that the canvas is beginning to tighten. Be sure to pull the canvas with the same degree of strength as you go around, keeping the canvas nice and even.

E: Repeat this process until you have put five or six more staples in each side – or until you are within 3 inches of the corners (you will notice that you have to pull harder each time on the canvas to keep it taught). And here’s a very important tip you should take note of. Instead of blindly pulling the canvas and stapling, keep a close eye on how the canvas feels, and turn it over to look at the front of it. Is it tenser one one side and not on the other? If so, you may need to position your staples more closely together to compensate.

Stretched canvas tutorial

This illustration gives an idea of what the canvas should look like as it nears completion, before the final staples are put in at the corners


F: Struggling with getting enough tension? Try getting someone to hold the frame in place, while you allow your body weight to do the work. You’ll be surprised at just how effective this technique can be.

G: Now you’re close to the corners, it’s time to take a good look at the canvas to decide whether or not you are happy. If you’re not, now would be the time to remove the staples from one side (with some scissors) or put some more in. Another way to ascertain the tightness of your canvas is to bang it gently like a drum. Does it sound right to you? Is it too baggy? If it’s too tight, you probably don’t have much to worry about, but if it’s too loose, you could well end up with a canvas that will sag significantly over time.

H: Why did I ask you to wait when you came close to the corners? Now you can probably see! If you’ve been following this tutorial correctly, you will see that you now have some material gathered in each corner. The key to getting rid of this is to fold the material in a triangular fashion so that it lays against the side of the frame. Do this by pressing one side of the canvas and allowing it to fall naturally where it wants to. It will soon become obvious how to fold it neatly into a triangle, doubling it up as you go. You need to do this part now, because when you start stapling very close to the frame, you will need to staple over two layers of canvas in certain places.

I: After successfully stapling one corner down, you should have a good idea about the end result of your canvas. If it feels good, chances are that the other corners will feel the same. Keep going with the other corners you have left to finish, being careful to pull hard with the pliers where necessary. And don’t forget to tuck that canvas in so the triangular edges are nice and neat!

J: After you’ve done all the corners, you should notice a significant difference in the tension of the canvas. This can happen very suddenly, and is a great surprise to beginners who didn’t know what to expect! And don’t worry too much if you have some canvas overhanging. You can always trim that off with some scissors or a craft knife, leaving you with a canvas that looks good and feel great to work on.

K: A word of warning: we’d advise you leave your canvas to settle before you start painting or working on it in any way. The reason? After becoming initially very taught, some canvases lose a small amount of tension. This is particularly true of cheaper/thinner canvases which aren’t as easy to staple to the frame. Give it 24 hours and you should be good to go…or you may have to start again…especially if you’re looking to get a really professional finish!

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