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Canvas Stretcher Preparation and Shipping Crate

I’ll be starting a “boardroom portrait” soon. The finished painting — 24″ x 30″ — will hang in the Daniel Library at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a famous military college, and my client is the Citadel, honoring an alumnus of the Citadel (1963) and a local-to-me business man who personally located me and asked that I create his portrait.

The college has a history going back to before 1850, and many (maybe all) of the past presidents and a few other important alumni have had their portraits hung in the Daniel Library. Since this painting will be around for a very long time, I wanted the canvas to be sturdier than what standard stretchers would provide, and didn’t want to order the beefier stretchers online and wait for them to arrive, so here’s what I did instead.

Standard stretchers backed with 1 x 2 furring pine.

If you look closely, you can see the two layers of wood.

I started with a stock, pre-stretched canvas. The canvas is usually very generic cotton duck on ready-mades, so I removed the staples and set that canvas aside for practice paintings later. I’ll stretch Claessen’s #166 Belgian Linen over it for the final painting. Very high quality, and a wonderful weave for portraits.

Bostitch Nailer

I bought this refurb at Amazon for about $60 and it works great.

I used the existing dimensions to mark my 1 x 2 furring strips. 1 x 2 lumber in the USA is actually 3/4″ x 1.5″ and they call that “nominal.” Whatever. The ready-made canvases often have the benefit of having only one side bevelled, unlike stretcher bars that are user-assembled and have “goof-proof” double-bevelled surfaces. (The bevel is there to lift the canvas off the remaining wood, so that the artist doesn’t keep hitting it while painting, as the canvas flexes downward. It also provides airflow behind the canvas which helps preserve it from environmental problems, like mildew.) Since these pre-mades have a flat, not-bevelled back, they are appropriate for gluing and tacking on furring strips. I use a small compressor and this Bostitch 18-gauge pneumatic nailer I got at Amazon to drive 1-1/4″ brads. It requires 35-60psi pressure and shoots a variety of nail lengths from 5/8″ to 2 1/8″.

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Flipped on its face, I added a cross-bar between and in the middle of the long sides from the same furring material (battens, in the UK) and inset it slightly to reach more toward the middle of the double-thickness. Glued and nailed with a brad. This will add strength to keep the 30″ span from bowing when I tighten the canvas.

Before stretching the linen, or even beginning a painting, I build the shipping crate. Even though the subject of my painting is local, after his approval, it will be shipped some 2500+ miles away. I want it to get there safely.

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I want the crate to be sturdy but light. So I build it from 3/8″ plywood and more furring strips. The painting will sit down into the box, resting on 1 x 2s that act as spacing and a structure to which I can attach the back panel.

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The crate allows for 1/4″–3/8″ “breathing room” around the perimeter of the finished canvas. I do this all now, because I don’t want to be doing trial-fits and measuring with a finished painting! For one thing, there’s a lot of sawdust. Sawdust and fresh oil paint are not friends, in my book.

Not shown — yet — are the item I will use later to secure the painting in place for shipping. This extra breathing room is just enough for some dense, spongy padding, and the painting is held securely down with some mounts I have created for this purpose. Stay tuned, I’ll post another article with those details.

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Since the back is fixed (unlike the lid which must be easily removable), I piece it together from some leftover plywood from previous crates and reinforce the seam inside, glued and nailed with brads. A proper-size full panel would have been better, but I didn’t want to run to the hardware store, and this will do fine. Plenty strong.

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I vacuum out all the sawdust. Then I paint a coat of exterior varnish on the entire interior. I don’t want any sawdust coming loose in shipping and adhering to my finished painting — which will be naked inside this crate.

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I don’t do anything special like sanding. I’m just using it as a sealer. It’s water-based varnish and the brush cleans easily with soap and warm water — and there are no heavy fumes. Nice stuff. About $15 per quart. And no, I would never use it on an oil painting.

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It will be dry in under an hour.

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I painted the finished work over several days at my uStream Channel

You can “subscribe” to my channel on uStream.tv to be notified when I click my camera on. Or watch from the Show page on my other website: Dave the Painting Guy.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Dave! Congratulations on this wonderful commission. What a great idea to make your crate ahead of time. I am hoping to catch your broadcast part of the time and thanks for the tip.

  2. As the stretcher is fixed, without the traditional keys, how can it be adjusted when the canvas sags and stretches out over time? And what about abrasions during shipping, with the painting up against the wood with space to move around? Or will there be padding or something?

    • Thanks for catching my omission, Kevin. I have added some of the details into the article to cover that, but other parts of the answer will come later. I do use padding and special “cleats” to secure the painting inside the box for travel. No scuffing. No shaking.

    • Kevin, I have not had problems with sagging. Sagging is not inevitable, and is more likely the after effect of inadequate canvas prep (sizing) and weak stretching to begin with. The linen I use is double primed with acrylic, and when I stretch my canvases, I put a lot of tension in them, to the point where thumping them in the middle produces a low bass-drum sound. Unlike the ready-mades, mine are quite tight. A hundred years from now, they can remove the staples and retighten, if they’d like.

  3. Congratulations on your Commission David! I hope I can catch you while you are painting it live, Been trying to catch you as you are streaming ever since I found your channel. 🙂

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