How to Stretch a Canvas in 7 Easy Steps (Quick Guide)

how to stretch a canvas

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Need a customized canvas but don’t know where to start?

Don’t worry! We’ve got your back!

In the article below, a quick tutorial on how to stretch a canvas has been laid out for you to follow along with:

Why Stretch Your Own Canvas?

Okay, but before we start the tutorial, let’s first clarify the importance of stretched canvases:

Canvas stretching is crucial for preparing a painting for display and preservation. A poorly stretched canvas can result in cracked paint and increases the risk of tearing.

And so, many artists find it necessary to stretch their own canvas so that they can create their art with peace of mind.

why stretch your own canvas?
Stretched Canvas

Is It Better to Buy Pre-Stretched Canvas or Stretch It Yourself?

It depends on your needs as an artist.

Think of it this way … If you’re a beginner oil painter or one that doesn’t have a big budget. In terms of money and time, you may find it more cost-effective to buy cheap pre-stretched artist canvas for oil paint from a nearby store.

On the other hand, stretching the canvas yourself is the better choice if you’re an experienced painter with special needs — for example if you like to paint BIG paintings. Learning how to stretch a canvas will allow you to fully customize your painting surface and save you money on things like shipping fees.

How to Stretch a Canvas?

Now that the basics have been straightened out let’s get straight to the tutorial!

Step 1. Gather Canvas Stretching Materials

The first step in canvas stretching is to gather and prepare your materials. It’s better to have everything at hand before working so that you won’t have to run around for them later:



Canvas comes in various sizes and qualities. The most common types used for artist’s canvas are cotton and linen.

Cotton is cheap and easy to prime, but it’s also softer and not as tightly woven. Meanwhile, linen offers a stiffer (not easy to stretch) and smoother painting surface but is more expensive and harder to prime.

Stretcher Bars

Stretcher bars is the term used to describe the wooden canvas frames used by artists to stretch their canvas. Like canvas fabrics, you can buy stretcher bars of various sizes and qualities from most art supplies or craft stores, which most artists opt to do.

stretcher bar
Stretching Frame

Note, canvas stretching bars are not necessarily crucial to the process. Some artists also use basic picture frames to do their canvas “stretching” (for example, this is a common practice for those who do canvas prints. Canvas prints aren’t painted on. So, the requirements for stretching a canvas print are not high — it’s fine as long as it can hold the printed canvas).

In that case, the staples or tacks they use to pin the canvas on the wood can provide enough tension for stretching canvas.

However, the results will definitely not be as good as using a stretcher bar — which ensures that the canvas is perfectly smooth and flat at all angles.

Staple or Tacks

Staple Gun

Although stretcher bars provide solid tension for stretching loose canvas, you’ll still need staples or tacks to secure the canvas.

Most artists these days will opt for staple guns, which are quick and easy to use. However, some also prefer the classic approach and use mallets to pin the canvas with tacks in place bit by bit.

Canvas Pliers

Canvas pliers are used for pulling canvas tight and removing slackness. It’s also useful for providing tension during the stapling or tacking process.

There are various plier types and sizes available in the market. You should purchase a set of them in various sizes if you’re the type that likes to play around with the size of the canvas you paint on. Otherwise, you can pick out one that most suits your needs.

canvas pliers
Canvas Pliers

Other Tools

For those who want to take their canvas stretching job to the next level, here are some other tools that you may need:

    • Iron & Ironing Board: Useful for ensuring that your raw canvas is free of wrinkles or creases before stretching.
    • Spray Bottle: One of the steps in the following tutorial is optional for those who want to ensure tightness in their stretched canvas (especially necessary for those working with cotton). For that step, a spray bottle will be required to complete the job.
    • Rubber Mallet: If you’re working with a stretcher bar, a rubber mallet should help you combine the frames more smoothly while lowering the risk of damaging the wood or canvas.
    • Scissor/Utility Knife: Used for cutting raw canvas and clean-up after it’s been stretched. Fabric scissors can be found in most art supply stores and will get the job done better than regular household scissors. But you don’t have to be too picky if that’s all you have.
    • Ruler: A straight edge is important for neat work. It would be best to have at least a yard ruler; even better if you have a large T-Square Ruler or L-Square Ruler.

Step 2. Cut Your Canvas to Fit the Frame

cut your canvas to fit the frame
Canvas Cutting

Although seemingly simple, cutting canvas to size can be troublesome if not done carefully.

You’ll need to consider the dimensions of your stretcher bar and make sure that there’s some allowance so that you can stretch more easily later. The recommended allowance is 1-2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm).

When cutting, lay the canvas on a table (or the floor, if you don’t have a table big enough), and mark it with a straight edge to ensure neatness. Also, when cutting, make sure to take your time. The neater you work, the better the result will be later.

For good measure, measure twice before cutting to minimize the risks as much as possible.

Step 3. (Optional) Dampen Canvas

Now is the time for the optional step that was mentioned earlier. You’ll need a spray bottle to cover the fabric’s surface with a fine mist. Of course, you shouldn’t overdo it.

Just mist the fabric lightly and wait for the moisture to be absorbed. Doing this will relax the fibers and make them more flexible — which helps with the canvas stretching process and reduces the risk of tearing or developing wrinkles.

Step 4. Stretch and Tack

stretch and tack
Stapling Canvas

Finally, it’s time for the canvas stretching part of our how-to-stretch-a-canvas tutorial.

To stretch canvas, you’ll first need a stable surface. Find a place to lay down your canvas before you begin securing the canvas to your stretcher bar.

Next, it’s time to start stapling. So, get out your heavy-duty staple gun and all the staples you have (or tacks, if that’s what you’re working with).

When stapling, staple the middle of one side, then use the pliers to stretch the canvas on the opposite side to ensure even tension. Once those two sides are done, work on the adjacent sides — again, staple the middle of one side before stretching the opposite side.

Only after these four center staples are done should you start working toward the corners.

Once all 4 sides have a staple in the middle, begin placing 2 staples at a time on either side of the staples already there, one to the left and one to the right.

stapling canvas
Stapling Canvas

After each set of 2 staples, move to the opposite side and repeat for all 4 sides.

Continue adding 2 staples per side until you reach the corners.

sttretch canvas over frame

Step 5. Fold the Corners

Although you already have a stretched canvas at this stage, the difficulties are not quite finished. At this time, you’ll have to deal with the awkward corners.

For this troublesome matter, experienced artists have fortunately developed a folding solution.

Allowing you to get a canvas that looks neat both inside and out:

Step 6. Check Canvas Tension

check canvas tension
Stretched Canvas

After your stretched canvas has been cleaned up, it’s time to let the canvas rest and then double-check to make sure that the tension is appropriate for canvas painting.

If you’ve been painting for a while, then you should have some reference for how tight your stretched canvas should be. The rule of thumb is that there should be no waves and that the tension is perfectly even. Just remember, too tight may put too much stress on the canvas, while too loose can result in tearing and wrinkling in the future.

If, at this stage, you notice that your canvas has sagging or rippling areas, you can use wedges to add extra tension (a set of wedges should have been provided if you bought ready-made stretcher bars).

Step 7. Trim Excess Canvas

trim excess canvas

With your canvas properly stretched, it’s time to clean up any excess overlapping canvas. In this case, you can cut a straight line slowly or cut the more straggly bits and then fold to reduce the risk of sprayed fabric.

Once you’ve cleaned everything up, you’re pretty much done! It’s just … if you want to start painting, you have to prime your unprimed canvas first:

(BONUS) How to Prime Stretched Canvas?

Priming stretched canvas is pretty simple. In the extra tutorial below, we’ve skipped the more advanced details on how to prime a canvas, but it should still help get you started:

Step 1. Let the Canvas Rest

let the canvas rest

To prepare for canvas painting, you must let your canvas rest.

For this, nothing too complicated is needed. Just let your stretched canvas rest in an area free from excess moisture and humidity. Doing this will help your canvas tighten up — preparing it for priming and painting.

Step 2. Apply Primer or Gesso

Now it’s time to apply your primer or gesso. There are many types of primers and gesso in the market. You can choose whatever suits your needs best. What’s important is application.

Gesso and primer are used to protect the canvas and provide a smooth surface that paints can adhere to. Most primers in the market will be able to do this much. It’s just that some are slower drying, easier on the budget, more absorbent, etc.

This is why the application is what you need to pay attention to most. This is pretty simple, however. Just coat your stretched canvas evenly. Let it touch dry, and then apply a second coat.

Apply Primer or Gesso e1690472244867

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Stretch an Already Painted Canvas?

Yes, you can stretch an already-painted canvas. However, it may cause damage to your painting if you’re not careful. For example, cracks or rips may occur if you pull too tight.

If, despite all this, you still want to stretch your painted canvas, it’s recommended that you approach a professional art framer and ask them to do it for you. They have the experience needed to avoid risks and the tools required to take care of other inconveniences — for example, if your canvas doesn’t have excess fabric, they can add it for you to facilitate stretching.

How Much Does It Cost to Stretch Your Own Canvas?

How much stretching your canvas will cost depends on the materials you use and the canvas size you want to make.

For reference, a roll of 100% cotton canvas 63” wide and 6 yards long will cost you around $60. With that roll, you can stretch more than 200 canvases that are 5 x 9 inches. OR, if you prefer larger paintings, you can stretch 4-6 canvases around 36 x 48 inches.

how much does it cost to stretch your canvas?

Can You Put an Unstretched Canvas in a Frame?

Yes, you can put an unstretched canvas in a frame. However, the process is difficult. You must glue your artist’s canvas to a supporting surface to prevent tearing and wrinkling later. For this, a wooden panel and strong adhesive are needed.

What Is the Best Type of Canvas for Oil Painting?

The best type of artist canvas fabric for oil painting is cotton duck canvas. It mixes the benefits of cotton and linen by being more tightly woven than regular cotton.

How Do I Choose Canvas Stretcher Bars?

To choose the right canvas stretcher bars for your needs, you need to pay attention to two things: the estimated size of your canvas and the materials you want to use for the wood bars. Most art supply stores have ready-made stretcher bars for sale. However, you can also make your own stretcher to customize your stretched canvas fully.

What Kind of Wood Should I Use to Stretch a Canvas?

Pine, cedar, and paulownia are the most commonly used woods for stretching a canvas. Cedar, especially, is strong and inflexible, reducing the risk of damages later on.

what kind of wood should i use to stretch a canvas

Is It Necessary to Prime a Canvas?

Although it is unnecessary to prime a canvas for you to paint on it, it’s very harmful to the fabric itself if left unprimed. The painting experience also will not be as smooth without primer acting as an absorbent ground.

Can Canvas Be Glued to Wood?

Yes, canvas can be glued to wood. Many classic oil painters used rabbit skin glue to do the job. However, these days, remoistenable PVA is the more popular choice — if only because you can remove the painting from the wooden panel cleanly by wetting it with water.

How to Stretch a Canvas Without Pliers?

If you don’t have pliers, you can stretch the canvas using the method described in step four of our How to Stretch a Canvas tutorial.

Just place a staple on the center of one of the bars, flip the canvas to the other side to staple it on the center, move on to the adjacent bar, and then flip it over again to add another staple. Doing this should help you keep an even tension without pliers.

Conclusion: Stretch and Paint!

Hopefully, you’ve found all the answers you’re looking for regarding stretching your canvas. Next, you can check out these oil painting schools and learn some master techniques while testing your finished products.

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