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How to Prepare a Canvas

How to Prepare a Canvas main article image
Posted on August 8, 2022 by Lyndsey Drooby

If you’re interested in creating and prepping your own canvas for a painting, it is a time-honored process that will be a foundation for a completely custom work of art. You are making the frame from scratch, stretching and stapling the canvas to the frame and finally adding gesso to create a seal that will prevent any paint from soaking through the canvas. If you’re interested in creating and prepping your own canvas, this article is for you. 

Let’s get into the steps that will guide you along the way, shall we? 

Building the frame

It takes a few supplies to make the frame, which you can acquire at any hardware or art store. You will need:

Wooden profile pieces with a ledge

Wooden profile pieces, also known as stretcher bars are wooden pieces, consisting of two horizontal and two vertical slats which make up the frame. The size is up to you and the profiles need to have a ledge so the artwork does not touch the frame. If you’re looking at a hardware or home improvement store, you can always opt for moulding pieces or something similar that is typically used for interior trim work. 


Chipboard will be used in pieces that are cut at an angle to reinforce the corners of the frame. 

Additional items you will need:

  • measuring tape
  • pencil
  • handsaw
  • sandpaper
  • wood glue or any other industrial strength glue
  • canvas fabric
  • scissors
  • staple gun and staples
  • gesso

Getting started with the frame

If you’re making a square frame, obviously the four pieces of wood you have will be the same size. Whereas, for a rectangle, your wooden pieces will consist of two long pieces and two shorter pieces. Measure the pieces and mark them where they need to be cut. Use a handsaw to make the appropriate cuts. 

Keep the ledge of the wooden profile pieces positioned together as the outside of the frame. Make a pencil mark at each end of the pieces at a 45-degree angle. This is to create the angles that will come together to create the frame corners. Use the handsaw to cut the pieces at the angles. Finish using sandpaper to smooth out the edges. 

Next, measure out chipboard pieces according to your frame corner size. Measure them out as squares then cut them on the angle to make four equal triangles that will sit at each frame angle to reinforce and strengthen the frame from the painting’s weight. 

Glue the four wooden profile pieces together and make sure they set well and the pieces don’t shift away from each other. Take the chipboard pieces and affix them to the corners. You can use wood glue or something with similar adhestive strength to assure the frame does not fall apart. 

Attaching the canvas

Now it’s time to stretch the canvas and get it ready to be attached to the frame. Start out by measuring and cutting the canvas material so it is one-to-two inches larger than the frame. This will guarantee that the canvas can wrap around the wooden pieces. If there is any excess, you can always trim away the fabric. 

Place your canvas material underneath the wooden frame. The chipboard corners should be facing you. Begin by working at the center of the piece closest to you, start wrapping your canvas around the wooden profile pieces. 

Turn the frame to the opposite side that you were working on and use the staple gun to attach the canvas to the frame’s backside. Once stapled, work on the direct opposite side and pull the canvas taut. You want to be painting on a firm surface and not one that will move around. Fold any excess material at the corners and continue stapling around the entire frame until you are complete. 

Prepping the canvas

Store-bought canvases are already prepared and ready to go for painting, but as we know now, creating your own canvas requires primed fabric. The primer, or gesso, provides a smoother surface on the canvas that will be easy to work on by allowing the brush to glide across. An unprimed canvas, especially when working with oil paints will just soak through and with the additional chemicals used, the canvas will simply rot over time. You can use acrylic paint on an unprimed canvas but the surface would be too absorbent, sucking up the paint and not creating an attractive piece of art. 

Priming a canvas with gesso

What you will need for this step: 

  • the canvas you made
  • sponge, brush or squeegee
  • plastic or metal stirrers
  • acrylic gesso 
  • plastic container
  • paper towels

With a sponge dipped in water, lightly wet the canvas and the sides. Then take the gesso, give it a thorough stir and pour some of it into a plastic container. Use smaller amounts at a time because working with gesso can start to dry while working with it so when you start to run out, you can always add more to the container. It’s better to work that way than with too much because you won’t want to return the excess to the original container. So with that in mind, gesso can dry quickly! Close the container and work efficiently. 

You can add water to the gesso, a one-part water to two-parts ratio is good enough. This thins it out a bit allowing the gesso to penetrate the canvas fibers easily and allow it to spread. Since the canvas was wet down, the fibers are softer and will hold onto the gesso. Wash any brushes used because the gesso will dry face and ruin them. 

Once that layer dries after an hour or so, check the surface and smooth out any bumps with a fine-grit sandpaper. Dust away any debris and get ready for another layer. 

Add another layer of gesso, this time you don’t have to have it as thinned out as the first layer. Continue to use a brush or a squeegee to create a smooth layer spread across the canvas. Work in the opposite direction, in terms of brush strokes, of the previous layer. Make sure there are no brush lines on the surface. Once you’re satisfied with the fibers being covered and the surface looking smooth, allow the canvas to fully dry overnight. 

The canvas is now ready for paint! What will you create on it?

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