How to Frame a Canvas Painting Unstretched: A DIY Guide

A lot of artists have gotten used to painting on pre-stretched canvases, and while that’s fine, painting on an unstretched canvas also holds a lot of charm.

It gets a little bit trickier, though, when you’re thinking about how to frame a canvas painting unstretched.

You don’t have to worry though since, today, we will teach you how to do it.

We will also explore other framing options that you probably want to consider.

Painting on Unstretched Canvas

Before we move on, allow us to list down some of the benefits of painting on unstretched canvas, as well as provide you some tips on how to paint on unstretched canvas.


Here are the top three advantages of painting on unstretched canvas that might convince you to try it out:

1. Affordable

Generally, unstretched canvas is significantly less expensive compared to a stretched canvas.

On that note, don’t think that painting on an unstretched canvas is a reason to stop priming.

That is why we suggest getting a pre-primed piece if possible. Nonetheless, it won’t cost you that much as well.

2. Freedom

Let’s face it: stretching and priming take considerable amounts of time and effort.

If store-bought, it can cost a pretty penny, so there’s no wonder why some of us can be a bit intimidated to paint on one.

We’re too scared to mess it up because of those resources we’ve spent on.

You’ll find that there’s no such pressure on unstretched canvas, though.

In fact, in our experience, we find that it’s more enjoyable to paint on one, and because of that, we end up with better works and we have more freedom to express our artsy ideas.

We hope that you find the same experience liberating as well.

3. Portable

Lugging around a stretched canvas is simply impractical.

This can even be more problematic for artists who specialize in painting landscapes or those who enjoy painting outdoors.

Must you really restrict yourself to painting in a confined studio?

Not really. Paint on unstretched canvas instead.

That is because it’s effortless to tape them onto a lightweight panel.

We’re sure that those who enjoy painting on unstretched canvases like us also have their own reasons aside from the ones we listed above.

You probably have your own that motivates you to explore this method.

Important Tips

If it’s your first time to do paint on unstretched canvas, here are some useful tips to keep in mind:

1. Always Leave a Margin

Leave a margin of two inches all around your planned painting area.

Doing so will leave you a lot of empty canvas space to stretch and wrap around the wooden frames later on.

It would be more helpful to mark these lines with tape.

In this way, you have a clear boundary on where you should or shouldn’t paint.

2. Choose the Right Painting Panel

You can choose from a variety of different painting panels to work with.

There are aluminum and linen ones, but the ones we use in particular are sanded wood.

They’re flat, smooth, and easy to carry around.

With these tips in mind, you can already start painting!

How to Frame a Canvas Painting Unstretched by Yourself

Once you’re done painting, you’re probably gearing up to stretch that canvas and frame your work.

While we will teach you how to do that yourself in a bit, we still recommend bringing your work to a professional framer instead, especially if:

  1. you have no experience doing it, and you don’t have a grasp on the tools you need to use;
  2. and you have created a valuable piece that you don’t want to get ruined with a few mishaps and experiments.

That said, there certainly is a learning curve when it comes to stretching and framing unstretched canvas.

If you’re prepared to take that risk, though, here’s a guide for you:

Things You’ll Need

Before we start, here are the tools and materials you’ll need:

  • Your finished piece
  • A pencil
  • 1×1 wooden sticks
  • Staples and a staple gun
  • A ruler and a measuring tape
  • Nails
  • Hammer
  • Wood glue
  • Saw
  • Your chosen frame

Steps to Follow

Once you have your materials ready, we can begin!

1. Measure and Outline

Measure the sides of your canvas with a measuring tape.

If you have followed our tips about marking your margins with tape and allowing two inches of empty space all around, then you can skip this step.

Next, flip the painting over and outline your painted area with the help of your ruler.

That will serve as a guide later on when you’re already positioning your stretching frame.

how to frame a canvas painting unstretched

2. Cut and Assemble

Using the measurements of your painted surface and margin area, begin to cut down your lumber pieces.

Give their ends a 45-degree angle.

After that, assemble your frame by attaching the 45-degree angles together.

Secure them with your wood glue, and then nail the angles together after the glue has dried to strengthen your frame further.

Place your frame on top of your flipped painting, using the penciled outline as a guide.

3. Stretch

Now, you’re ready to stretch.

Begin the stretching process by gently pulling on the middle of the longer side.

Pull it over your stretcher frame and staple it.

Do the same for the other side.

Things to Remember:

Keep in mind that pre-primed canvases are harder to stretch than unprimed ones because they have less give.

That is natural. Don’t force them. It is enough to have all the ripples removed and that your surface is smooth and taut.

Also, too much stretching can crack or damage your painted surface, especially for oil paintings, but acrylic paintings can crack too.

Older paintings are more prone to cracking as well.

Lastly, stretching a painting will expose it to constant handling, so do so with the utmost care to prevent any damages.

4. Staple and Frame

Go back to the first side and staple 1.5 inches away from your first staple towards the top of the painting.

Do the same, 1.5 inches away below it. You will now end up with three staples on one side in the middle of your painting.

Repeat on the opposite side until you reach the corners of your painting.

Fold the first corner in, as if you’re wrapping a present or a book, and staple it.

Repeat this step for the other three corners.

Pull the top part of the canvas over the stretcher bar and staple it in its middle part, and then on the bottom part of your canvas.

Now, just like we did in your painting’s sides, staple 1.5 inches away on both sides of your first staple.

This will leave you with three staples at the top of your frame.

Repeat on the bottom part of your frame until you reach the corners.

Finish your stretching by reinforcing the corners with another staple each.

Congratulations! You may now place your work in a frame.

If you have been very careful, then you should have landed with a smooth work without any ripples and cracks.

As mentioned above, though, it is normal for beginners to produce a less than perfect job during the first few times.

Other Framing Options You Can Consider

So, how was your first stretching experience? We hope it went well.

For those of you who are considering other framing options, we still have two more options to share with you.

1. Matting

There are works of art that need some breathing space within the frame.

This can allow the eyes of your viewers to rest and even accentuate the piece.

If this is the effect you’re going for, then you should consider matting your work before framing it.

It’s effortless to do, especially for smaller pieces that lay flat.

To do so, all you need is a matting board.

Steps to Follow

  1. Measure your painted surface and take note of the dimensions.
  2. Outline the dimensions on the matting board. Make sure that it is centered.
  3. Cut out the area where you want your painted area to be.
  4. If it’s not centered, then carefully reduce the wider panel to size.
  5. Lay your matting board face down.
  6. Position your work on top of it, also facing down and secure it with painter’s tape.
  7. Flip your board to check if everything’s in place.
  8. If so, then you can go ahead and frame it.

2. Mounting

Another great alternative, especially to all the stapling earlier, is to mount your work on a board with glue.

For the materials, you will need a mounting board, a neutral-pH adhesive, a small piece of board to help you spread the glue, a clean brayer, and of course, your finished work.

Steps to Follow

1. Cut and Glue

Cut the material according to the size of your painted surface.

Apply your glue on the board. Make sure that it’s not too thick.

Start by applying a bit since it will be easier to add more later.

The adhesive layer we’re going for is just a thin film, enough to hold your unstretched canvas in place.

2. Spread and Lay

After applying the adhesive, spread it with your smaller piece of cardboard, making sure it is even and that it covers the entire surface.

We like spreading it in a single direction and pushing the excess adhesive over the surface.

Once done, you can lay the board aside for now.

3. Attach

Get your painting and place it on top of a clean newspaper.

This will make sure that your painting won’t get stuck on the drops of excess glue we have pushed away earlier.

Flip your painting upside down. It should have the penciled outline of the painted surface that we marked earlier.

Flip the board with the glued side down and very carefully, place it on top of the outline.

Press it down to allow the adhesive to start sticking.

Flip everything over. Roll your brayer on top of the painting, starting from its center outwards.

Be firm yet careful at the same time to avoid damaging your piece.

This will remove any air bubbles that might have been trapped in between your board and your painting.

It will also reinforce the bond between them.

Now, replace the newspaper again if you suspect any drops of glue on it.

Flip the painting again with the backside of the mounting board facing up.

Excess adhesive will squeeze out at the edges of your painting, so wipe them off with a paper towel.

This will allow your work to dry evenly and prevent any ripples that might stem from too much moisture.

4. Dry

You now have your piece solidly attached to your board. The next step to do now is to let it dry.

We usually use a big heavy book to serve as a weight to push down the mounted piece as its adhesive dries.

For larger works, though, you can create makeshift weights of heavy objects in cardboard boxes.

Arrange them on top of your work as if you’re putting on some tiles.

Carefully cover every part of the surface with their weight.

Plus points if you can get them to weigh, more or less, equal to each other.

Leave your work to dry overnight.

5. Cut

Once dry, the only one step left now is to grab an Exacto knife and cut off the excess unmounted, unpainted surface of your canvas.

We recommend using a ruler as a guide for a straighter, cleaner cut.

Check the edges of your painting after cutting to make sure there are no gaping holes that need more adhesive.

Otherwise, you’re all set to frame your work already.


We hope that we have presented you with enough options on how to frame a canvas painting unstretched. Painting on unstretched canvas is definitely an experience that we suggest any new artist should try.

There is also a sense of fulfillment that comes in getting to frame your work on your own.

Sure, while these methods may seem daunting at first, we still believe that you will eventually enjoy doing so.

Who knows? This might be that push you need to try out more exciting stuff.

FAQ about framing a canvas painting unstrenched

1) What paint to use on unstretched canvas?

Acrylic paint is the best choice for painting on unstretched canvas. It is water-soluble, dries quickly, and is flexible, which is important for canvas that may be rolled or folded. Oil paint can also be used, but it takes longer to dry and can crack if the canvas is rolled or folded.

2) How do you store unstretched paintings?

Unstretched paintings should be stored flat, with acid-free paper or cardboard between each painting to prevent them from sticking together. They should also be kept in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and moisture. If possible, it’s best to store them in a protective sleeve or portfolio.


3) How do you prepare an unstretched canvas for painting?

To prepare an unstretched canvas for painting, you will need to stretch it onto a wooden frame or mount it onto a board. First, dampen the canvas with water and let it dry. Then, use a staple gun to attach the canvas to the frame or board, pulling it taut as you go. Finally, prime the canvas with gesso to create a smooth surface for painting.

4 thoughts on “How to Frame a Canvas Painting Unstretched: A DIY Guide”

  1. I’m a bit confused. I assumed all the canvases you buy in the shops that are on a wood frame are stretched. Could you include some pictures of unstretched canvas and one that is stretched?

    1. I’m learning too… you can also purchase canvas in rolls, and as canvas pad– basically sheets of canvas. And as canvas panels. So there ends up being different considerations for framing & presenting for each type.

  2. Why are there no pix to illustrate each point?
    If you haven’t previously stretched your own unprimed canvases it is suggested that you work with a framer—then it will actually cost you more than if you bought a prepared canvas. Note to newbies, better to use the mounted or matted version suggested. I think the main advantage to working on unstretched canvas is that you can store them more easily as they take up less space.

  3. I also can’t see any pictures. For that matter on any of the articles I read from you. I have been building my own frames and boards and mounting, matting, etc, for many years. One thing I do is to turn over the wood panel board, laying the piece face down on a soft, thin towel and putting the heavy weights on the back of the panel box to glue them together. I use the Golden Gel Medium to glue my work down onto the panel. It doesn’t dry out over the years.

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