How to Stretch a Painting

 

Stretching a painting DIY style is an easy, fast, and fun project.  Here we show you how to do it, step-by-step.  But before we begin, let’s answer some questions you might have:

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.

Why would I want to stretch my painting myself?
Stretching a painting is a quick and easy one or two person project that saves you a ton of money.  And even having someone else stretch your painting after you receive it is usually much less expensive than having it shipped pre-stretched.

Is it really that easy?
Sure is.  One person can do it with minimal tools in about an hour.

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 $100 to $600 for the same piece.

What does it cost to stretch a painting yourself?For a hypothetical 60 x 48 inch 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 60″ x 48″ 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: about $15If 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 $15 and comes with 400 staples, way more than you need.
  • Canvas pliers – cost: about $10These 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 $10.

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. Fewer than 1% of our collectors have asked for help.  Stretching a painting yourself really is fast, fun, and easy.

So let’s get right to, then!


How to Stretch a Painting:
Step-by-step Instructions

 

Step One: Gather Your Materials.

You’ll need:

  • a blanket or sheet
  • a staple gun and staples
  • a hammer
  • a set of stretcher bars (and center braces, if needed)  (See “A Note About Stretcher Bars and Dimensions” at the bottom of this page.)
  • 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.

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 Five: 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 $10 online (versus $20 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 Six: 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 a corner of the canvas over and staple, so that you have two flaps of canvas, one on either side of your staple, like this:

 

Next, fold one flap up and over, and staple it to the stretcher bar.  Then fold the other flap over the first one and staple. Make the folds run straight up the corner of the wooden stretcher bars. It should look something like this when this step is done:

Corners: Step Three

 

This is what it looks like from the front:

 

Step Seven: 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 Eight: Take care of wrinkles.

If you’ve been careful, there shouldn’t be many wrinkles in your painting at this point.  But if there are, it’s time to employ our hot water trick.

First, 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.

 

Step Nine: Give your painting a tune-up.

If your painting’s canvas is nice and taut, you might be able to skip this step.  If not, 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.  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).  The key aren’t 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 you need to see a video of this process, here’s a good one.

Even if you skip Step Nine, keep the keys.  A good place to keep them is stapled to the back of the painting’s stretcher bars, so that they don’t get lost.  Your painting may loosen up months or years from now, and you can either repeat Step Eight or employ Step Nine to tighten it back up again.

That’s it!  All that’s left is to hang your painting on the wall and enjoy it!

 


 

About Dimensions and Stretcher Bars

 

Stretcher bars are the four pieces of wood that make up the the wooden framework on the back of the painting.  The canvas of the painting is stretched over them and stapled onto the wooden stretcher bars.

If you are going to stretch a painting yourself, you’ll want to pay attention to the painting’s “un-stretched dimensions.”  Those dimensions represent the entire length and width of the un-stretched, painted canvas, not the finished, stretched size of the painting.  After stretching, the dimensions will be smaller.

Depending upon how you want your finished painting to look, you can use a “gallery wrap” or a “studio wrap.”

With a gallery wrap, the painting is stretched around the sides of the bars and is stapled on the back.  A gallery wrapped painting doesn’t need a separate, decorative frame. Using a gallery wrap, you’ll lose up to 6 inches of the painting’s un-stretched dimensions, depending upon how deep the bars are.  Most gallery wrapped paintings are stretched on Stretcher bars range from .5″ deep to 6″ deep, but most gallery wrapped paintings use stretcher bars that are 1.5″ deep.

A “studio wrap” is where the painting is stapled to the sides of the stretcher bars, rather than to their backs.  The painting is then surrounded by a decorative frame that conceals the stapled sides of the painting.  With a studio wrap, you’ll lose 1 to 2 inches from the painting’s un-stretched dimensions.  Most studio wrapped paintings use stretcher bars that are .5″ deep.

Let’s look at an example.  Let’s say you’re stretching a painting that is 60″ x 48″ before stretching.  And let’s say you want a gallery wrap over 1.5″ deep stretcher bars.  Here’s the math:

2 x the depth of the bars = n
and
n + 3 = the final dimensions of your painting.

So,

2 x 1.5 = 3
and
3 + 3 = 6

With this example, the  un-stretched dimensions would be reduced by 6 inches, so the finished painting would have final dimensions of 54 x 42 inches.  If you were ordering stretcher bars, you’d have to order two 54″ bars and two 42″ bars, plus a single 54″ cross brace.