DIY: How to Stretch a Painting

It’s a fun, easy, and quick project that can save you money.

Below, you’ll find instructions for stretching a painting using stretcher bars that you order from an art supply store online.  They’re inexpensive and easy to use.  Be sure to read the “First Things First” section, which gives you important information and tells you where to find the stretcher bars and the few tools you’ll need.

First Things First

What does “stretching” mean?

A “stretched” painting has been pulled tight and stapled over a wooden framework.  It’s not the same as “framing” a painting.  A frame is a decorative part that shows, while the wooden framework on the back, which is made of four or more “stretcher bars,” is what literally stretches the painting flat and holds it in its final shape.  Stretcher bars aren’t visible, but a frame is.

Do paintings from Deep Urban come with stretcher bars?​

You can order your painting with or without special patented stretcher bars.

Are there different kinds of stretcher bars? Which should I use?​

You can buy traditional stretcher bars from an art supply store and stretch your painting the traditional way yourself, using the easy instructions in the box at the bottom of this page.  If you order your bars the same day you complete the purchase of your painting, the bars and the painting should arrive at about the same time.

Or, you can order special patented stretcher bars from us.  These bars allow you to hang your painting within minutes.  If you go this route, you do not need the stretching instructions below.  Your painting will ship in a tube along with the special, patented bars, and setting up the painting is quick and easy.

Why would I want to do it myself?​

Stretching a painting yourself using traditional stretcher bars is a quick and easy one or two person project that saves you a money.  

Is it really that easy?

Sure is.  One person can do it with minimal tools in about an hour.  A staple gun, a small hammer, and a piece of string are all it takes.

Can I get someone else to do it?

Sure thing.  If you don’t feel comfortable tackling the job yourself, you can take your painting to a local frame shop or try asking at a local art supply store to see if someone there might do the job for you.  An artist, art student, or art teacher are also good bets for inexpensive service.  If you do decide to let a professional frame shop handle the job, shop around.  We’ve found estimates ranging from $50 to over $1000 for the same piece, but having someone else stretch your painting after you receive it is almost always much less expensive than having it shipped pre-stretched.

What does it cost to stretch a painting yourself?

For a hypothetical 60 x 48 inch (finished size) painting, you’ll spend $80 to $155, depending upon the size of your painting and your choice of tools.  We’ve broken down the costs for materials and tools below:

  • 4 stretcher bars and 3 cross braces – cost: $80-130, depending upon the size of your painting. 
    You need cross braces if one of your finished painting’s dimensions will be over 36 inches (one every 18 to 24 inches is recommended).  For our hypothetical 66″ x 54″ (un-stretched) canvas, you’ll need one horizontal cross brace and two vertical cross braces.  We like these heavy duty bars and these cross braces, which we’ve found to be inexpensive and of reasonable quality.  They may be a little more expensive than some other brands, but they come with brackets, a savings of $7 per brace, while other brands may not come with brackets.
  • A staple gun with staples  – cost: $16-$28
    If you don’t have one already, this is a must.  They’re inexpensive and handy to have around the house after your stretching project is finished.  We like the this one, because it’s easy to squeeze the trigger.  It costs about $16 and comes with 400 staples, way more than you need.  This electric model is even easier to squeeze, at about $28.
  • Canvas pliers – cost: about $10
    These are a luxury, and they’re strictly optional, but they’re inexpensive and make the job easier.  However, they can also tear the edges of your canvas if they’re not used carefully, so we recommend them with caution.  Cheap ones are okay for one-off or occasional jobs.  We like these.  They cost about $12.

What if I start the project and run into trouble?

We’re available by phone in case you need extra help, but it’s such an easy project, that you probably won’t need us.  In fact, fewer than 1 in 150 of our collectors ask for help. Stretching a painting yourself really is fast, fun, and easy.

Instructions

About Purchasing Stretcher Bars

Stretcher bars are the four pieces of wood that make up the the wooden framework on the back of the painting.  If you purchase stretcher bars from an art supply store, you’ll stretch your painting over them and staple it onto the wood.  

Unless otherwise noted, the dimensions we list in our gallery store for our un-stretched paintings include the entire length and width of the painted canvas.  This is because stretcher bars come in different depths, typically between 1/2 inch to 3 inches, and the depth you choose will affect the final dimensions of your painting.  stretching reduces the effective dimensions of a painting by the depth of the stretcher bars plus another 3 inches.  

For instance, a 60″ x 48″ painting stretched over bars of 1 1/2″ depth would have stretcher bars that were 54 and 42 inches long, and your finished painting will have final dimensions of 54 x 42 inches.

Stretcher bars come in different thicknesses. “Gallery Wrap” bars are meant to be stapled on the back, with the painting stretched around the sides of the bars.  Using a gallery wrap, you’ll lose up to five inches of the painting’s un-stretched dimensions, depending upon how deep the bars are (they range from .5″ deep to 6″ deep.  Normally, we recommend either If you want to maximize your finished painting’s size, you can use a “studio wrap,” where the painting is stapled to the sides of the bars rather than to the back. The bars are then covered by a decorative frame. Using a studio wrap, you’ll lose 1 to 2 inches from the painting’s un-stretched dimensions.

Next, we’ll see exactly what’s involved as we take you through the steps.

Let’s get started!

Step One: Gather Your Materials.
You’ll need:

a blanket or sheet
a staple gun and staples
a hammer
some string or a measuring tape
a set of stretcher bars, including a center brace or two, if your painting is over 30″ wide
canvas pliers (optional)

Step Two: Assemble the stretcher bars.
The bars simply slides together to form a rectangle with the braces (if your painting is large enough to need them) placed in the center.  If you match up all four corners of the stretcher bars carefully, the framework you’ve created will be square.  To be sure, use your string or measuring tape to measure corner to corner each way.  The measurements should be equal.  If not, adjust.

Stretcher bars, assembled.

Step Three: Staple the corners of the stretcher bars.
Still working on the back of the assembled framework, place three staples where the blue lines are in the picture below.  Do this on all four corners.

Step Four: Lay out your painting and assembled stretcher bars.
Spread your blanket or sheet out on a level, flat surface larger than your painting. Put your painting right-side-down on top of the blanket or sheet. Put your stretcher frame on top of the painting. Be sure your frame is centered on top of your painting.  If your stretcher bars are 1.5 inches deep, you’ll need at least 2 inches of extra canvas on each side of the stretcher bar framework.  If you need to put in a cross brace or two, do it now.

Step Four: Begin stapling your painting to the stretcher bars.
Staple once in the middle of each side, pulling tight, and then simply follow the stapling diagram below.

Stapling Diagram

As you move toward the corners, take care to smooth away any large ripples in the canvas.  Pull tight, and take breaks; it’s a workout for the fingers!  Stop stapling an inch or so from each corner.

NOTE:  Canvas pliers are a real finger-saver. They are inexpensive—about $12 online (versus $25 in an art & craft superstore). If you don’t have the pliers, you’ll probably need a friend to help you: one person pulls with the fingers while the other staples.  An electric staple gun (versus a manual one) is also big help.  If you can’t borrow one, do consider buying one.  It’ll cost you about $30 and usually shoots brads as well as staples, so it’s great for all sorts of home-dec projects.  Those two tools truly make this an easy and enjoyable one-person project.

Step Five: Wrap up those corners. When you get to the corners, handle them just like you do when wrapping a gift. There are a couple of different methods used, but we like the one we show you here:

First, as we said above, stop stapling an inch or so from each corner.  

Fold one corner of the canvas over the corner and staple.

Next, fold one side up and over, and staple it on top of the corner flap.  Make the fold run straight up the corner of the wooden stretcher bars.  Fold over the other side the same way and staple it on top of the first one.  It should look like this when this step is done:

Corners: Step Three

Step Six: Wrap up those corners.
Turn your painting over, and check to see if you’ve gotten rid of any large ripples.  If you haven’t, you may need to pull out some staples and redo that part.  Small ripples are okay.  You’ll take care of those in the final step.

Step Four: Tap in the keys.
Your stretcher bars will have come with “keys,” four small, pointy wooden pieces.  Slip them into the holes on the inside corners and lightly tap them in with a hammer, stretching the canvas to the desired amount of tension, being careful not to overdo it (which could tear your canvas).

Step Seven: Making the surface of the painting taut:
If there are no ripples at all or the ripples are very small, it’s time to employ our hot water trick.First, find the little wooden wedges that came with your stretcher bars (they’re called “keys”) and insert the pointed ends of the keys into the slots in the inside corners of the stretcher frame.  Lightly tap them in.  They’re not supposed to go all the way in; they’ll stick out, but that’s okay, as they’re on the back of the painting and won’t show.  If the keys push the stretcher bars slightly apart where they meet, that’s okay; it’s what they’re supposed to do.

Next, spray the back of the acrylic painting (Don’t try this with an oil painting!) with very hot water (Not hot enough to burn your skin, please!).  As the water dries, the canvas will shrink just a little, and the painting will develop a smooth, taut surface.  If, after a few months or years, the painting loosens, you can repeat Step Seven to tighten it back up.

You’re finished, and your painting is ready to hang.  Enjoy!