What Happens if You Don’t Use Stretcher Bars?

If you’re thinking about making your own canvas, you may be tempted to use some flat looking 2×2’s or so, cut out four of them to fit your rectangle (or square – with maybe a few pieces across the middle sections), attach them together with some staples and glue, and you’re off to the races!

Yeah! You just spent $20 to make a squar-ish frame!

Go you! That’s great…

…If you want that bad boy to warp…

…Or not have the ability to be tightened later…

…Or you want your painting to “ghost.”

Lemme esplain.

First off, stretcher bars (or at least decent ones worth buying) are made of kiln-dried, knot free wood.

What this means is that they have been dried out as best as possible, taking out most – if not all – of the moisture in the wood that would otherwise cause it to warp later on.

It being knotless also means less likely of being wavy, instead of straight.

Of course, these pieces may have SOME knots or moisture, but considerably less than a normal piece of wood that you’d buy at a lumber yard or hardware store.

There’s a reason you pay a premium for a stretcher bar or cross brace and a few bucks for a 2′ x 2′.

Another advantage that stretcher bars have is that they are LITERALLY MADE TO BE ADJUSTED.

Stretcher bars have gaps in the corners to allow for tension wedges or “canvas keys.” This allows the canvas to be tightened later on, should the frame slightly warp or canvas sag a bit.

There are arguments that if done correctly, a canvas should never need to be tightened, but IMO it’s nice to have the option, should it ever happen.

Finally, canvas stretcher bars prevent “ghosting.” Ghosting is when the shape of the frame emerges underneath the canvas (painting) itself.

This is a problem for two reasons:

  1. It detracts from the piece. Sometimes it makes it look cheap or tacky, being able to see the frame underneath. There will be this giant square within your painting. Certainly less professional.
  2. It’s harder to correct sagging. On a flat frame, the painting will often rest on the flat surface of the frame itself, and if it does, you’ve got to get it tight enough to pull up off of that frame. The more surface its resting on, the more work you’ve got to do.

This becomes a real problem if the frame is flat, with a sagging canvas resting on that flat frame that ALSO does not have any room for canvas keys.

Stack this on top of warping wood later on, and maybe you can see the problem with using regular wood to make a frame as opposed to stretcher bars.

I have actually seen this on cheaper, flatter canvases. Usually on student grade canvases, where the depth is only 3/4″ (or .8 inches). I’ve have also bought them handmade, from a local dealer, and these pieces too had this issue.

Even using braces, these pieces are still warped TO THIS DAY.

Stretcher bars almost always have a beveled edge so that only the very edge of the corner gives the frame its shape, and the rest of the frame fades away under the canvas, leaving a nice flat canvas with crisp, clean edges.

Obviously, the choice to use regular wood is yours, but I’ve found that by cutting these corners, you run the risk of the piece suffering later on.

My parting advice would be this:

If you’re creating it for yourself – sure. Go for it. Try it out. See if I’m wrong (wouldn’t be the first time).

But if you’re planning on selling those pieces later, my suggestion is to invest in the stretcher bars.

The power is yours.


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