How to Hand Stretch Your Own Canvas

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Paint Love artist Morgan Corbett gave us our lesson in canvas stretching. She lives on a beautiful property in a barn that she transformed into an adorable home with the help of her husband. The artistic touches she's added to every space make it feel like one giant, highly-Pinterestable DIY project! This seems like an ideal space to find inspiration and be creative. Morgan herself is sweet, talented, and a wonderful teacher. She has been teaching art to high schoolers for the past 4 1/2 years, and will begin teaching grades K-12 this year.

Before we began our canvas stretching tutorial, we bought our supplies at Binders Art Supplies and Frames in Atlanta.

What You Need:

  • 4 Stretcher Bars of desired length and thickness (in our case all four were 20" x 1.5")
  • Canvas-blank, or a print (we used a 20" x 20" print of Julie Ann McKevitt's piece, "When Pigs Fly")
  • Staple gun & heavy duty staples
  • Canvas pliers
  • Mallet
  • Canvas Keys or Wedges (Optional + free at Binders)

If using a blank canvas, you will also need:

  • Gesso
  • Paint brush
  • Water

How To:

Step One
Link stretcher bars
by interlocking the corners to form a square or rectangle, depending on your stretcher bar lengths/the desired canvas shape. Be sure all the beveled sides of the bars (with the curved ridge on the edge, as opposed to the smooth side) face the same direction, as this is the side you will need to stretch the canvas over. Use the mallet as needed to ensure the bonds at the corners are tight. I found it was easier to form a U-shape out of three bars, and then attach the fourth, instead of my original attempt to form two corners then force them together.

Step Two
Center the wooden square
on the canvas. Lay the canvas face down on your table or other surface, then lay the stretcher bar square with the ridged side down. Center the square to the best of your ability, and check that there will be an even amount of canvas to wrap around each side of the frame. If you have excess canvas, cut as desired, but be sure to leave enough to wrap around the stretcher bar and over the back.

Step Three
Wrap the canvas
tightly around each side, using the canvas pliers to help pull tightly if needed, and put one staple in the middle of each side to secure the canvas in place.

Step Four
Continue stapling
 the canvas to the bars, working outwards from your middle staple, but be sure to leave a several inch gap from the corners on each side, as this will make it much easier to make the corners look nice in the next step.

Step Five
(Optional) Jam the canvas wedges
into the spaces in the corners to secure and support the links, if you so desire. With our fairly small canvas we did not find this step necessary, but with a larger one these supports or even an added wooden beam in the middle could be necessary. You may find similar small wooden bits to these with canvases you purchase and if, like us, you previously had no idea what they were for, now you know!

Step Six
Fold and secure the corners. 
I found this to be by far the hardest step-to do and to explain.

On this corner the canvas forms a V-shape. Take the right part of the V and tuck it under the left part, like stuffing a handkerchief in a pocket.

Once you have it tucked it will look like the photo below. There will be excess canvas on the right side, fold that in a triangle, and fold the remaining left side on top. The purpose of these folds it to create the cleanest, smoothest staple possible, and tuck as much of the excess as you can underneath the staple. See the photos below.

Holding the fold in place with one hand, place a staple near the row of staples you previously made to secure the fold in place. Then, staple over the fold as many times as needed to hold it in place.

Now repeat on the other three corners. If you're stretching a print, you're done! If you're stretching a blank canvas, carry on to step seven.

Step Seven
(Only for blank canvases!) Prep the canvas to paint
using gesso. Mix gesso with water until you achieve the consistency of melted chocolate. Choose if you would like to paint your first coat vertically or horizontally, and apply one coat of the watered down gesso using strokes only in this direction. Don't forget to cover the edges! Let this coat dry for 1 hour.

Once you've let the first coat dry for an hour, apply a second coat of watered down gesso, using strokes going only the opposite direction of the way you went the first time. This coat will also need to dry for an hour.

Finally, apply a coat of regular thickness gesso, without added water. Allow it to dry for an hour and you're ready to paint!

Thank you, Morgan!