panelstretcher_00Since writing my Notes from the Painter’s Handbook series of posts about a year ago, I have continued to experiment with different painting surfaces. I much prefer to paint on hardboard panels and for many years, primed them myself with acrylic “gesso”. But a recent purchase of the product (in this case, Liquitex) left me with the feeling that the formulation (or something) had changed. I now had much more trouble sanding it down to the precise surface texture I wanted; it was like sanding rubber. Even after several days’ drying, a course grit sandpaper would tend to clog up in areas – something I don’t remember happening in the past.

So I decided to try gluing a fine, smooth canvas to the hardboard panels instead. This works pretty well at smaller sizes (up to 11″ x 14″ or so) but can be a real pain in the posterior when working with larger dimensions. It’s difficult to get good contact with no air pockets, and I always have to re-glue at least some sections along the edges. “Universal” primed polyester canvas (like this one) turned out to be much easier to work with than the sample of Claessens oil-primed linen I ordered, but getting a really good flat panel wasn’t simple with either one.

So. What to do?

Enter the “panel stretcher”. Although I’d painted on stretched canvas for many years before switching to panels (and had nearly always stretched my own), I had never heard of a panel stretcher before running across a brief description of it in The Painters Handbook.

Panel stretchers are actually pretty simple: you build a braced panel, and then stretch your canvas over it. According to the book, panel stretchers are a variation on conservators’ “lining” techniques, except that no adhesive is used. To make one, you can either fire up your carpentry skills and build a braced wood panel support, or you can assemble a set of commercially available stretcher bars, and attach a piece of quarter-inch thick plywood (cut to size of course), using headless brads.

I took a slightly different approach. I used stretcher bars, but instead of a plywood or hardboard panel, I substituted a piece of 3/16″ Gator board. I glued the Gator board to the raised bead on the outside edge of the stretchers using Elmer’s all-purpose glue, then put weight on it overnight. The resulting panel is lightweight but still very strong and rigid. I then stretched my canvas over the whole shebang in the usual manner, using  canvas pliers and a staple gun to get good tension.

The stretcher bars are assembled and a piece of Gator board has been cut to fit. These stretchers are older and no longer true to size (wood shrinks), but I cut the board to the exact size I wanted: 20" x 30", hence the slight overhang that you can see here. I then ran a continuous line of Elmer's all purpose glue along the canvas offset bead on the stretchers, positioned the board and then placed a couple pieces of drywall on top as weights.

The stretcher bars are assembled and a piece of Gator board has been cut to fit. These stretchers are older and no longer true to size (wood shrinks), but I cut the board to the exact size I wanted: 20″ x 30″, hence the slight overhang that you can see here. I then ran a continuous line of Elmer’s all purpose glue along the canvas offset bead on the stretchers, positioned the board and then placed a couple pieces of drywall on top as weights.

Canvas is cut about 4-1/2" larger than the panel (shown) and then stretched over the braced frame in the usual manner, starting at the centers of each side and working toward the corners.

Canvas is cut about 4-1/2″ larger than the panel (shown) and then stretched over the braced frame in the usual manner, starting at the centers of each side and working toward the corners.

From the front, the finished panel stretcher looks like any other stretched canvas.

From the front, the finished panel stretcher looks like any other stretched canvas.

From the back, the white Gator board is visible instead of the unprimed canvas back.

From the back, the white Gator board is visible instead of the unprimed canvas back.

I’m now half-way through a painting on this, my very first panel stretcher and it’s just like painting on a glue-mounted canvas panel, except there are no tell-tale bumps or small bubbles. It is, as my high school art teacher would say, “smooth as a baby’s behind”.


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