Six Steps to Stretch Linen Successfully


Ah, the feeling of painting on stretched linen! Artists' linen is nice and smooth but still has just the right amount of "tooth" to accept paint from your brush (Learn which types of linen we use in Our Favorite Painting Surfaces).

When you stretch linen, the material reacts to each brushstroke with a nice "spring." Furthermore, stretching your own linen allows you to work in any size you wish.

Today, I'll share how I stretch linen evenly and without ripples—nearly every time.

Step 1: Gather Materials


Here's what you'll need:

  • Linen
  • Stretcher bars (also called stretcher strips)
  • Long square ruler
  • Pencil
  • Strong scissors
  • Canvas pliers
  • Staple gun
  • Heavy duty staples (I use 5/16" T50 staples)


Step 2: Secure Stretcher Bars

After fitting your stretcher bars together to form a frame, ensure the frame is square by using a square ruler or by comparing the diagonal measurements of the frame (if both diagonals are equal in length, your frame is square).

Now, secure the frame by sinking a couple of staples in each corner.

Note: If your artwork is larger than 18" x 24" or so,
I recommend using thicker, heavy duty stretcher bars
like these from Blick. Otherwise, the tension of the
stretched linen can cause the frame to twist. On very
large frames, I add a cross brace for added support.


Step 3: Cut Linen


Cut a piece of linen generously larger than the size of your artwork. For standard-duty stretcher bars (about 3/4" thick), I add 3" to each length of my artwork (1.5" extra all the way around). For heavy-duty stretcher bars (about 1.5" thick), I add about 7" to each length of my artwork (3.5" extra all the way around). Obviously, if you use even thicker stretcher bars, such as the ones intended for gallery wrapping, you will need an even larger border of extra linen.

As in the photo above, place the linen face down with the frame face down on top. Make sure the frame is centered and straight.

 
Quick Tips
  • Don't step or kneel on your linen, as this can create bulges or dimples. Clean your work area, as even a small piece of debris can emboss a divot into your linen.
     
  • Ensure you cut a piece of linen that is square. First, draw pencil lines on the linen where you intend to cut. Before cutting, make sure the pencil lines are square by checking them with a square ruler or by comparing the diagonal measurements.
     
  • I find using scissors the easiest way to cut linen.
     
  • To ensure even tension when the linen is stretched, make your cuts parallel and perpendicular to the weave of the linen.


Step 4: Find a Diamond

Wrap the linen over one side of the frame and secure the linen with a staple. Place the staple directly in the middle of the stretcher bar (below).
 
 
Note: I place my staples along the side of the stretcher bar
rather than along the back, because this allows a better angle
for the canvas pliers to stretch the linen tighter. However,
with a gallery wrap, you have to staple along the back
of the stretcher bar to keep the staples unseen.

Using canvas pliers, firmly stretch the opposite edge of the linen over the opposite side of the frame. Staple directly across from the first staple (below).
 

Now, stretch and staple in the middle of the third side. Do the same on the fourth side. Once you have a staple in the middle of each side of the frame, the linen should have creases in the shape of a diamond, like this:
 


Step 5: Continue
Stretching and Stapling

Next, add two staples to each side of the frame—one staple on either side of the middle staple. Place these staples about 2 inches apart. Each time you add two staples to one side of the frame, add another two directly across from them on the opposite side of the frame.


Continue adding two staples at a time to each side, working from the middle outward, toward the corners.
 

Helpful Tips
  • As you stretch the linen, pull at a slight angle away from the middle staple. This will help prevent ripples.
     
  • The goal is to create even tension over the whole surface of the linen, so try to use the same amount of force with each pull of the canvas pliers.
     
  • I pull the linen with quite a bit of force, but nowhere near enough to rip the linen.


Step 6: Fix any Ripples

Normally, I don't encounter those pesky ripples along the edges of the frame when I use this method. However, they do still happen occasionally. Hold your canvas at different angles to the light, and any ripples will become evident.

To eliminate ripples along the frame edge, use a screwdriver to pry up the staples that span the length of the ripples. Then re-stretch the linen, pulling at an outward angle to flatten the ripples, and re-staple.

Once your linen is stretched evenly and without ripples, gently hammer in any staples that may be raised.

 
Helpful Tips
  • If your linen slackens over time, you can tap stretcher strip keys
    into the corners of your frame to re-tighten the linen.
     
  • Lightly wetting the back of your linen can flatten ripples once dry.
    However, water can be harmful if your linen contains a
    water-soluble substance such as rabbit-skin glue.

•••

Stretching a smooth piece of linen is one thing. Creating a compelling painting is another! In my online video course, I'll show you how I communicate the beauty of portraits and figures from start to finish.

The course will launch in Fall 2018, but you can start the course today for free! For more info, please click the button below.

Learn More About Online Video Course

Unfortunately, rippling is not the only nuisance when stretching linen. The excess linen at the corners can be so bulky that the artwork is prevented from fitting nicely inside the picture frame! Next time, I'll show you my method for making the corners of your linen slim and professional-looking.

See you then!
—Adam

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