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16x20 Canvas Stretching Tutorial
by John O'Keefe Jr.

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As Featured in Digital Paint Magazine
Published in the
July 2012 issue of
Digital Paint Magazine

STEP BY STEP CANVAS STRETCHING

16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 1 - Assemble all materials

Step 1

Assemble all materials and tools before starting.

  1. Cloth Work Surface
  2. Giclee Print
    (not shown)
  3. Pre-Made Stretcher Bars
  4. Square Ruler
  5. Mallet
  6. Small Hammer
  7. Flathead Screwdriver
  8. Staple Gun
  9. 1/4" Staples
  10. Tape Measure
  11. Canvas Pliers
  12. Pencil

16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 2 Optional - Elmer's Carpenter's Wood Glue

Step 2


(Step 2 through 4 are optional)

     We will use Elmer's Wood Glue to bond the stretcher bars ends together. Because we are using pre-made stretcher bars that come ready to assemble we may need to sand rough edges that have resulted from the cutting tools used during the manufacturing process.

16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 3 Optional - Apply Elmer's to stretcher bar corner

Step 3


(Step 2 through 4 are optional)

Apply a small amount of glue to each end as shown. Repeat this for each of the stretcher bars before continuing to the next step.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 4 Optional - Spread glue using fingers

Step 4


(Step 2 through 4 are optional)

Using your finger, spread the glue around the surface of each of the cut ends as shown. Repeat this for the remaining stretcher bars.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 5 - Assembly first two stretcher bars

Step 5

Begin mating the stretcher bars.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 6 - Ensure stretcher bars have a snug fit

Step 6

Make sure that you fully seat the stretcher bar ends. If you see a gap along the seam where the ends meet, then you have not fully mated the two bars.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 7 - Assemble remaining stretcher bars

Step 7

In this view all four stretcher bars are mated together. However, we need to ensure that all four corners of this assembly are square before the glue sets. (i.e. A, B, C, & D)


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 8 - Wipe off excess glue if it was applied

Step 8

If you used glue (as shown is steps 2 through 4) wipe off any glue that has squeezed out during the mating of the stretcher bars.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 9 - Measure diagonal corners (A-B)

Step 9

Measure the distance between corner A and corner B.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 10 - Measure opposite diagonal corners (C-D)

Step 10

Measure the distance between corner C and corner D.

Compare the two distances against each other. If the distances AB and CD are equal... then you are square. If they are not equal... you are not square.

(In our example distance AB was .125 inch larger than distance CD. We now need to make an adjustment following steps 11 and 12.)


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 11 - If not square adjust using mallet

Step 11

While firmly holding the stretcher bar assembly, tap the corner with a mallet that had the largest measurement.

(In our example we will tap corner A.)


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 12 - Recheck squareness using a square

Step 12

Recheck all corners to make sure they are square. We can use the tape measure method shown earlier or we can use a square ruler method as shown here. Hold the square ruler as shown and check that both inside edges of the ruler run flush along the surface of each stretcher bar. If the ruler lifts off one side (not running flush along one surface while being fully flush on the other) then your not square on that corner. Repeat this check on all the remaining corners. If your stretcher bar assembly is square then you are ready to start the canvas mounting process.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 13 - Sand stretcher bar corners

Step 13

Using a light grade sandpaper, gently remove any jagged or broken wood from corners.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 14 - Inspect that no jagged edges exist

Step 14

Ensure the corners are sanded thoroughly and no jagged edges are remaining.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 15 - Clean work surface and inspect canvas print for damage

Step 15

Before laying down your giclee canvas print make sure there is no debris or wood pieces (that may have fallen off during stretcher bar assembly) which could damage the printed surface. A soft cloth work surface is preferred which further minimizes the chances of causing small scratches to your giclee canvas print.


Lay down your print (face up) and make a final close examination to ensure its not damaged from the print supplier.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 16 - Put canvas print face down onto work surface

Step 16

At this point turn over your giclee print so the image is face down. You are now ready to position your stretcher bar assembly.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 17 - Place assembled stretcher bars onto canvas print

Step 17

Place your stretcher bar assembly over your giclee canvas print as shown.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 18 - Align stretcher bars with image outline

Step 18

Starting with the right side, carefully lift up the canvas print and ensure that the image is wrapping around the front face of the stretcher bar. Repeat this on the opposite side, moving the stretcher assembly left or right as needed until you see the image wrapping equally around both side bars.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 19 - Mark canvas with pencil along stretcher bars

Step 19

Once you are sure the stretcher bar is centered in relation to the printed image, draw a reference line along each side as shown. This reference line will come in handy later if the stretcher assembly moves out of position and you need to realign it.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 20 - Check that pencil mark aligns with image

Step 20

As we did in Step 18 for the side positioning, we now want to center the stretcher bar assembly along the top and bottom bars. Carefully lift up the canvas print and ensure that the image is wrapping around the front face of the bottom stretcher bar. Repeat this for the top stretcher bar, moving the stretcher assembly up or down as needed until you see the image wrapping equally around the top and bottom bars.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 21 - Mark remaining canvas on all side with pencil along stretcher bars

Step 21

Once you are sure the stretcher bar is centered in relation to the printed image, draw a reference line along each side as shown. We have now centered the stretcher bar assembly in both the vertical and horizontal directions with respect to the printed image. We are now ready to begin the canvas stretching, wrapping, and stapling processes.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 22 - Wrap canvas around first stretcher bar

Step 22

Starting with the top stretcher bar, wrap the giclee canvas print around the stretcher bar as shown. Be sure that the stretcher assembly has not moved out of the reference lines we drew earlier.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 23 - Staple canvas in center of first stretcher bar

Step 23

Holding the staple gun squarely on the canvas and stretcher bar, staple the canvas to the stretcher bar in the center of the bar as shown.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 24 - Inspect staple and ensure it seated into stretcher bar

Step 24

Check that your assembly looks like this - having one staple in the center of the top stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 25 - Wrap canvas on opposite side and grip with canvas pliers

Step 25

While firmly holding the canvas pliers, grip the canvas in the center of the bottom stretcher bar opposite from the first staple that was inserted in the center of the top stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 26 - Apply tension using canvas pliers

Step 26

Using the stretcher bar as leverage, rock the canvas pliers forward (compare images from step 25 and 26) until canvas has stretched - notice the canvas tightly wrapped around the stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 27 - Firmly hold canvas in position with thumb

Step 27

Before releasing the canvas pliers, press your thumb onto the canvas. Holding your thumb in this manner will maintain canvas tension during staple insertion.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 28 - Staple canvas to center of stretcher bar

Step 28

While maintaining tension by firmly pressing your thumb on the canvas, insert one staple. Hold the staple gun squarely on the canvas and stretcher bar and staple the canvas to the stretcher bar in the center of the bar as shown.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 29 - Inspect second staple to ensure its properly seated

Step 29

Check that your assembly looks like this - having one staple in the center of the bottom stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 30 - Look for canvas tension ridge between first two staple points

Step 30

Once you have inserted the first two staples into the top and bottom stretcher bars as shown you should notice a slight tension pull on the canvas between the two staple points (i.e. points A and B.)


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 31 - Using canvas pliers stretch and staple canvas to center of third stretcher

Step 31

Using the canvas pliers, stretch the canvas starting on the left side and hold tension using firm finger pressure. (...I am holding the pliers away from my body and this provides less stretching and leveraging control. Because I'm not applying strong tension for the first side staple, I chose to use the pliers in this way. However, when you are stretching opposing sides it is recommended to hold the pliers so that they are facing toward your body as shown in images 25 through 28)


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 32 - Inspect that staple is fully seated in stretcher bar

Step 32

Insert one staple in the center of the side stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 33 - Stretch and staple canvas on fourth side

Step 33

Repeat stretching and stapling process as shown in steps 25 through 28. Be sure to firmly hold canvas with your thumb before removing the canvas pliers prior to inserting the right side staple.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 34 - Inspect canvas for droops and sags

Step 34

Be sure that when stapling opposing sides you stretch the canvas so that it does not droop or sag. Our assembly should now have one staple placed directly in the center of each stretcher bar as shown.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 35 - Ensure canvas image is square with stretcher bar assembly

Step 35

Flip over the assembly so that you are looking at the printed image on the front. Check that the image is centered both vertically and horizontally - you should see the image wrapping equally around all sides and no 'white' border should be visible along the front face. Check that the image has not rotated clockwise or counter-clockwise so that it is no longer square with the stretcher bars. Also, check that the printed image is not overly loose or sagging. In the next steps we will tighten the canvas as we stretch, wrap, and insert the remaining staples, but now is the time to remove the staples and make adjustments if the position of the image is off or the canvas is very loose and sagging.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 36 - Using canvas pliers stretch from first staple

Step 36

Beginning with the top stretcher bar (1), stretch canvas using canvas pliers and hold tension by applying pressure with thumb.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 37 - Stretch and staple to end of first stretcher bar

Step 37

Insert staples starting from the center staple and moving left with each new staple until you reach the left stretcher bar as shown. Use canvas pliers as needed.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 38 - Stretch canvas around second stretcher bar

Step 38

Moving to the bottom stretcher bar (2), stretch canvas using canvas pliers and hold tension by applying pressure with thumb.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 39 - Stretch and staple to end of second stretcher

Step 39

Insert staples starting from the center staple and moving right with each new staple until you reach the right stretcher bar as shown. Use canvas pliers as needed.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 40 - Stretch and staple to end of third and fourth stretchers

Step 40

Repeat the previous step for the left (3) and right (4) stretcher bars... in that order. Remember to start from the center staple and move in the direction of the arrows (as shown) as you staple the remaining two sides. Use canvas pliers as needed.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 41 - Stretch canvas and staple at other end of first stretcher

Step 41

Now we begin applying more tension when stretching the canvas using the pliers. Always have the canvas pliers facing away from your body during the final stretching and stapling steps for maximum tension and leveraging control. Starting closest to the center staple on the bottom stretcher bar (1) stretch the canvas, hold tension with thumb, and insert two or three adjacent staples starting from the center staple moving left.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 42 - Moving toward end, stretch and staple

Step 42

Move slightly to the left of the staples you just inserted in step 41, use the canvas pliers to pull the canvas tight, apply thumb pressure to maintain canvas tension, and insert two or three more adjacent staples moving in the left direction toward the left stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 43 - Moving toward end, stretch and staple

Step 43

Reposition the canvas pliers closer to the left stretcher bar, pull canvas tight using canvas pliers, hold tension with thumb, and insert several adjacent staples.


Repeat this process until you reach the left stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 44 - Inspect that all staples are fully seated

Step 44

This is how your assembly should look after inserting staples along the bottom (1) stretcher bar.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 42 - Repeat stretching and stapling on remaining sides

Step 45

Repeat steps 41 through 44 for the top (2), left (3), and right (4) sides - in that order until your assembly looks like this.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 46 - Test tension by tapping canvas listen for drum sound

Step 46

A good test to see if you stretched the canvas enough is to tap the center of the canvas with your finger and listen to hear a drum-like sound. If the canvas was improperly stretched and is to loose it will not have this sound and will flop around as you tap it. Also, if you see ripples in the canvas then you have an uneven tension problem - the canvas should be pulled tight throughout.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 47 - Fold and Wrap canvas around corner

Step 47

Now we must fold and secure the four corners. Hold the corner of the canvas material as shown.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 48 - Ensure canvas print is stretched tight over corner

Step 48

While applying tension, wrap the corner around the stretcher bar as show so that the fold is on the side of the assembly. The fold should run at a 45 degree angle as shown.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 49 - Hold wrapped canvas print tightly on back

Step 49

While continuing to apply tension on the canvas material, fold it around the back face and hold securely in the position shown in preparation for stapling.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 50 - Staple folded corner to stretcher bar

Step 50

While holding the corner in position, insert several staples as shown.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 51 - Staple folded corners on remaining sides

Step 51

Repeat steps 47 through 50 on the remaining three corners. Be careful that your folded edges are always on along the side stretcher bars. Your finished assembly should look like this when viewed from the back. Now use your hammer to ensure that all staples are fully inserted.


16 x 20 Canvas Stretching - Step 52 - Inspect and Finished

Step 52

Finished!

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John O'Keefe Jr.
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About the Author...
     John specializes in landscape oil painting done in a style similar to the famous Hudson River School and Victorian era artists. He also specializes in reproduction painting frames, framing supplies and Giclee prints of his landscape paintings.
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