How to Stretch a Canvas for Painting

Updated on July 9, 2018
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Marian (aka Azure11) has been working as a professional artist since 2006 and has sold over 600 paintings in that time.

Why Should You Stretch Your Own Canvas?

Working as an artist, I sometimes create paintings I don't like anymore. If it's not possible to paint over them, I remove the canvas from the frame and reuse that frame.

It can be cheaper to stretch your own canvas on stretcher bars bought in bulk and shipped to you. Otherwise, it's easier to get the products shipped and make them up as you need them. For those reasons, it is good to know how to stretch a canvas.

Personally, I find that you can buy very cheap ready-stretched canvas from plenty of shops these days that saves the time in stretching your own, so I will only really do this when I have a frame that needs a new canvas on.

Stretching canvas over a frame does take a bit of practice. It is easy enough to do, but to get the canvas really tight does take work and often sore hands! The bigger the canvas and frame are, the harder it is to get the canvas tight. If you are doing this for the first time, try it out on a smaller frame until you are confident that you can get the canvas tight on larger frames.

What You'll Need

  • Canvas on a roll: You can buy pre-treated canvas that is ready to paint or else you can prime your own canvas with gesso, rabbit skin glue etc.
  • Heavy-duty staple gun
  • Sharp scissors
  • Canvas pliers: This is optional, but you can use it to stretch the canvas a bit tighter than you would otherwise but they can be a bit fiddly to use.

You will need a good flat and clean surface to work on. Ideally, this would be a kitchen or hard floor.

Make sure the canvas is big enough to fit all they way round the sides and onto the back of the frame.
Make sure the canvas is big enough to fit all they way round the sides and onto the back of the frame.

1. Cut the Canvas

The first thing you need to do when stretching a canvas is to start by rolling out the canvas and cutting a piece that is at least 5 cm (2 inches) wider than the size of the frame.

  1. Roll out the canvas on the floor. I find it best to use a soft carpeted floor to stretch a canvas.
  2. Place the frame on top so that you can cut around it.

Cutting a bigger canvas is best, as you can always trim off the excess canvas afterward. You need enough canvas to stretch around the sides and onto the back of the frame, so it may depend on the depth of the frame itself. Make sure to leave a decent amount of canvas so it stretches over the sides and the back of the frame.

Put the first staple in at one side of the canvas in the middle.
Put the first staple in at one side of the canvas in the middle.
Where to put the first 4 staples
Where to put the first 4 staples

2. Staple the Canvas to the Frame

Make sure you have the canvas with the front side facing the floor before you start. There is a bit of an order that you should following when stretching a canvas on a frame so that the canvas is as tight as you can get it.

  1. Start at the center of one side (it doesn't really matter which side), and staple the canvas to the back of the frame.
  2. Go to the opposite side of the frame and stretch the canvas as tightly as you can against the previously stapled side. Ensure you are directly opposite your first staple so that the canvas does not twist.
  3. Go to one of the other sides of the frame, in the middle. Don't try to stretch the canvas too far when stapling this side, as you will only twist the canvas. Just keep it as taut as possible and at the same time keep the canvas straight. This is probably the trickiest one to get right and takes a bit of practice when learning how to stretch a canvas.
  4. Go to the last side of the frame (once again in the centre), and pull the canvas as tightly as possible. The way I do this without using canvas pliers is to hold the canvas down with the flat of my hands and push the frame against the third side with my thumbs. Then keep the canvas tight whilst you staple that side.

Hold down the canvas and push the frame to stretch it against an already stapled side.
Hold down the canvas and push the frame to stretch it against an already stapled side.

3. Complete the Canvas Stretching

Once you have the first four staples in, go from one side of the frame to another to add more staples. When you staple on a side that does not already have an opposing staple, do not pull the canvas too tight. Make sure you pull it tight on the next staple.

Keep stapling around until you have stapled the canvas at around 2-inch intervals, leaving space at the corners to tuck them in. You have nearly completed the process of stretching a canvas, so make sure the canvas is tight at this stage before you complete the stretching process by completing the corners.

Staple up to, but not right in to, the corners.
Staple up to, but not right in to, the corners.

4. Finish the Corners

There are a couple of ways that you can finish the corners of the canvas. You can cut the canvas and tuck the 2nd edge underneath or you can do what I will show here, and fold in the corners. If you are folding in the canvas on the corners then this makes it a bit easier to stretch again if you ever have to take the canvas off the frame later.

  1. Fold the edges of the canvas over and staple them in place. Try and give the canvas a sharp fold so that it does not stick out too much. It's a little bit like making the bed!
  2. Cut off any excess canvas at the back so that there is no spare canvas flapping around. You can also use a sponge to damp down the back of the canvas, and this will slightly tighten it even more.

Once you have tried this a few times, you will get the hang of how to stretch a canvas and exactly which bit of the canvas that you need to pull tighter and each canvas will get better than the last. I have also used this method to stretch existing paintings for people who bought a rolled-up canvas from art markets abroad.

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