Using Canvas Stretcher Bars To Stretch Watercolor Paper

You may, like I do, have stretcher bars normally used for stretching canvas waiting to back your next canvas. But have you ever considered using those bars to stretch paper instead?

A sketch of a wooden stretcher bar
A corner of a wooden 20” stretcher bar

Here’s an easy technique for stretching watercolor paper with those bars—a technique that has many advantages over other ways. One, it avoids the awkward weight of a solid board. Two, the paper will dry faster because both sides are exposed to air. Three, you’ll have to be gentle while painting (which is what watercolor painting is about). And four, the clean-up time consists of simply removing pushpins from the frame. Afterward, the frame is ready for you to attach a new sheet of paper.

  • To begin, you will need to assemble your four stretcher bars into a frame. (I use 16”x20” because they’re easy to assemble and carry.) I glue my frame together and allow the glue to dry overnight before I begin attaching watercolor paper to the frame. This makes the frame permanent, but you can choose not to do this.
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
  • You will also need a box of pushpins and a soaking tray filled with room temperature water. My soaking tray is a shallow 24”x30” Formica baking tray that I bought from a bakery, but a large aluminum baking tray or a clean bathtub work just as well. Fill the tray or tub with a half-inch of water (I use the distilled kind).
  • The dimensions of your watercolor paper should be two or three inches longer than the height and width of the stretcher frame, which means I use 20”x24” sheets of paper.
  • Before attaching your paper to the stretcher bars, draw any information you intend to use in your painting on the paper’s front side. Do not draw on the paper after you have stretched it.
  • Next, soak the paper for a minute or two by submerging it in your water. Do not soak the paper too long. You may end up washing off the sizing and your pencil drawing.
  • When both sides of the paper are completely wet, drape the paper over the stretcher frame so about two inches overlap the edge on all four sides. (The frame should be laying flat on a tabletop or workbench, with the stretcher frame’s front facing up.)
  • Once the paper covers the frame evenly, attach the paper to the sides of the frame using your fingers GENTLY, and your pushpins to wrap and fasten the paper around all four edges. The stretching sequence goes:
  1. Wrap and pin the paper at the top center of each length (the side that would sit flush inside a picture frame). Start with the top bar. Place a pushpin in the paper and bottom bar, then the left side, and finally the right.
  2. Return to the top bar and place a pushpin half an inch to the right of the first pushpin. Then place a pushpin half an inch to the left of the first pushpin. Proceed to the bottom bar and do this until you have three pushpins on all four sides.
  3. Return to the top bar and pin again until you have five pushpins half-an-inch apart on all four sides.
  4. Continue until you reach the corners.
  • When attaching the watercolor paper to the frame it is best to gently tug the paper taut while pinning. If the paper is not taut, you may end up with a warped surface to paint on.
  • After you have attached the paper, allow about three hours for it to dry. Or, you can use a portable hair dryer to speed things up. Just don’t scorch your paper in the process. Keep the frame lying flat in a horizontal position—resist the urge to lift the frame and chance knocking it out of alignment (even if you glued it earlier) and warping the paper.
  • Once the paper is dry, you’re ready to paint. Use gentle touches when applying your paint so as not to tear your paper.

Give it a try, happy painting, and let me know what you think.

Published by

Steven Leo Campbell

I am an artist and indie-author. I draw and paint wildlife, draw cartoons, and write mostly paranormal fiction featuring Vree Erickson and a strange Pennsylvania town called Ridgewood.

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