A few years ago Ralph Cooksey-Talbott of Cooksey-Talbott Studio in Fremont, Calif., put together a detailed step by step article for LexJet’s In Focus eNewsletter about how to create inkjet canvas gallery wraps, a.k.a., museum wraps. The information is still very helpful today.
By Ralph Cooksey-Talbott
I have been doing quite well with prints made on canvas materials. People seem to like them much better than framed photographs. The glassless canvas prints have a vastly superior viewing experience to traditionally framed and glazed prints.
However, as a photographer used to paper, stretched canvas was all a great mystery when I started with it. I have gone through a distinct learning curve to be able to produce canvas prints in-house. Once all is said and done it is a very realizable goal and well worth the small investment in tools, time and practice.
Setting up the Master and Making the Print
Canvas images for stretching must have a certain amount of overwork. I make prints for 3/4 in. shallow or 1 3/4 in. deep strainers. The shallow strainers are for framing and the deep strainers are for frameless presentation.
Gallery wrapped prints are stapled on the back so that the staples are not visible. The print has overwork that covers the edges of the strainer bars, plus a little extra. The image is extended, if necessary, using the clone brush to provide the desired amount of overwork. This is a simple process in most cases.
For 1 3/4 in.-deep strainers allow for 2 in. of image overwork and 1/2 in. of clear canvas on each edge. With shallow strainers the image is set up to be 1/2 in. oversize with 1 in. of clear canvas on all sides. This allows 1/4 in. of image and 1 in. of clear canvas to overlap the strainer, or stretcher bars, on each side.
My print masters have marks that define the cropped image area. Crop marks are invaluable for getting the print on the strainers with exact cropping. I also include a studio chop mark and show my copyright and edition type on the border of the image.
I set my masters up for 180 DPI at the output print size and find this resolution to be quite acceptable. Canvas, because of the texture, supports much less detail than smooth papers. I have tried masters with higher resolution and don’t really see that much difference in the print. This is especially true when the comparison is made at the normal viewing distance for larger prints.
See Spot Inspect and Coat
After a print is completed, let it dry for a short time and then inspect the print closely for flecking. This is quite rare but will occur more frequently if you do not inspect the print. It’s Murphy’s Law.
If there is a fleck, retouch it using Marshall’s Color Retouching Dyes and a 00000 (5 ought) brush where half of the bristles have been removed. Use distilled water to re-constitute the dyes, which are dried from their liquid bottled form onto a plastic palette. Mix several colors into a dot of water until it is the right color. Test the color and brush on a piece of the same material as the print.
When the print has passed inspection, roll it up with a piece of white butcher paper completely covering the surface. Prints stored this way prior to spraying and stretching will be cleaner and more dust free. Write the print name on the paper so that it can be identified without unrolling.
I spray all of my canvas prints prior to stretching with 3-5 coats of Glamour II Giclee varnish. I prepare a 1:1 solution of the varnish and distilled water and apply it with a Wagner Control Spray HVLP sprayer. This spray gun is an excellent, easy-to-clean, low cost way to apply the varnish. I tried using rollers and the result was poor compared to the spray method, which greatly enhances the print’s appearance.
My spray booth is in an isolated area. I have masked off the end of a storage room with plastic drapes. The spray surface is illuminated by a couple of four-foot fluorescent fixtures. I generally spray a number of prints at once to get a decent production rate. The spraying process takes hours even though only minutes are spent actually spraying.
Wear goggles and a respirator at all times when spraying. I strongly advise proper safety gear. It is often all too easy to overlook these measures in your own workplace.
The prints are hung vertically on the wall of the spray area with art tape on the corners. Use a draftsman’s brush on the surface of the print and inspect it closely to be sure that it is clean. The butcher paper interleave pays off here because the print is more dust free than a print not stored with one. If there is surface dust it will be glued on by the spray in the next step.
Spray is applied using a back and forth motion about 18 inches away from the print. The object is to always maintain the same distance from the print with the gun and move at a constant rate.
The spray strokes begin and end out of the print area. This is important because the point where direction is reversed will get a heavier spray buildup and drip. Look for a light orange peel-like texture of wet spray on the print; this will dry perfectly smooth. Do not overspray as this will cause dripping and ruin the print.
Allow 30-45 minutes for drying and return for successive coats. It is not necessary to clean the gun between sprayings. Leave it there with the varnish in the reservoir for the duration of the spray session.
The more coats of spray you apply the better the print looks when finished, so it is well worth the effort to spray the print a number of times. The spray prevents flaking and cracking of the emulsion when the print is folded during stretching.
Prints that are already stretched can also be sprayed with good results. However, spraying the print prior to stressing it with the stretching process is best. Also, make sure you know the rules and regulations pertaining to spraying and spray booths in your location since they vary considerably from place to place, from very restrictive and exacting to relatively lax.
Strainers or Stretchers?
A stretcher bar has a milled inset and bead with a mortise-and-tenon on the ends. Some of the premium stretchers have a wedge in the corner to allow re-tightening of the canvas. A strainer has an inset and bead with a blunt 45-degree cut on the end.
A well-formed strainer has a raised bead around the outer edge that supports the canvas. If you simply stretched a print on raw 1×2 you would see the inner edge of the 1×2, making a faint line where it touches the print on the back. This is why the bead is necessary.
A wide variety of pre-made stretcher bars are available from the major online art suppliers. Pre-milled strainer is available for about $2 per foot from the local framing supply in 8 ft. lengths.
Store-bought stretchers can be assembled as indicated for their individual construction. This is a very easy process that is good for the occasional canvas piece. Plus, you can automate the stretching process with a machine like the Tensador II, which is available at LexJet. Below, I’ve included instructions on how to stretch the canvas manually.
For production of many larger pieces, either buying the pre-milled strainer or milling it in-house makes sense. I mill my own for about .20 a foot from round edged 1×2. I’ve detailed the process at the end of this article.
Stretching the Canvas
- Electric T50 staple gun
- 6mm T50 staples
- X-ACTO knife with #11 blade
- Cork-backed metal ruler
- Cutting surface
- Soft blanket
- Picture wire
An electric staple gun with 6mm T50 staples and a pair of stretcher pliers are used to stretch and affix the print onto the strainer bars. Trim the print to have 1/2 in. to 3/4 in. white borders prior to stretching. Trimming is done with an X-ACTO knife with #11 blade, a long cork-backed metal ruler, and a cutting surface.
If the print is to be signed on the front or back I do it at this point. The work area is then covered with a soft cloth. I have a fleece blanket on which I stretch prints. This is important as the canvas can be easily damaged during stretching.
The print is gently marked on the back with a soft lead pencil to indicate the crop marks. Hold the print up to the light to transfer the crop mark to the back. Light lines are drawn from the crop marks with the print face down on the fleece blanket. Be gentle!
Orient the assembled strainers, inset down, on the back of the print. Align them with the marks. Make sure the top of the strainer is at the top of the print. The screw eyes are closer to the top. Gently fold the canvas up on each side to check positioning.
With the print in position fold up one side of the long dimension and place a single staple in the middle on the back of the bar. Go to the other side of the long dimension and pull the canvas in the middle with the pliers until it forms a distinct ridge down the middle. Place a staple to hold it taut. Don’t go overboard with the tightness, but there should be a noticeable ridge in the center of the canvas running from staple to staple.
On the short dimension, gently pull in the middle until the ridge flattens out some, and place the first staple. Go to the opposite side and pull with the pliers until there is a cross-shaped ripple in the middle of the print and place the opposing staple.
Working on the long dimension, pull gently on one side and put a few staples on either side of the center staple about one inch apart. Then go to the other side and pull with the pliers opposite the staples you put in the other side until the canvas is tight and smooth. Place staples opposite the staples you added to the other side. Repeat this process on the short dimension of the canvas.
Pull with your fingers if there is no opposing staple. If there is an opposing staple then use the pliers to tension the canvas. Repeat this tightening process, going back and forth until you come to within a few inches of the corners on all sides. Do not staple any closer than two inches from the corners yet…
If you have a nice amount of tension you will hear a tympanic musical sound when you tap the middle of the print. In other words it will make a drum-likebungggggg when struck gently. If it goes thud with no musical ring then it is too loose.
Folding the Corners
There are several different corner folds. I have been using the diagonal fold and, while it can catch dust or snag, the corner appears smooth and perfect looking from the side.
Corners are done so that the excess folded canvas is on the top and the bottom of the picture, as the sides are what are generally visible. First, gently fold the corner excess going straight out from the corner. Smooth the fold to create a gentle crease.
Fold the resulting triangle toward the top or bottom of the picture and press it against the stretcher to gently bend it in that direction. Fold the end of the triangle over on the inside. While pulling on the corner fold it across the back of the stretcher. Use a staple to hold it in place.
Fold the edge so that it has a 45-degree crease and press it against the back of the bar. Use a staple diagonally across the fold to hold it in place. One more staple completes the corner. Pull the canvas with the pliers and staple it in the two inch area between the corner and the part that is already stapled. This process is repeated for all four corners, with the folds going onto the top and the bottom of the piece.
Straight Edge Fold
This fold is not a dust catcher but it does not make a perfectly smooth corner. It’s a trade off… First, pull the canvas taut across the corner and then carefully find the fold points without making the folds. Hold it tight across the corner.
Gently make the folds. Even though the print has been sprayed, be nice to it as this makes it fragile. Fold the excess in the corner over at a 45-degree angle, grab the fold with the pliers, pull it taut, and staple it with one staple across the corner. Use the pliers to finish the inch or so of unstapled canvas leading up to the corner on each side.
When the canvas is fully stretched, the picture wire is affixed and any staples that stick up are pounded down with a little hammer. Be careful not to mar the front when tapping in the few errant staples.
Making Your Own Strainers
There are two common types of raw 1×2. One type has sharp corners and the other has mildly rounded corners. The rounded corner is critical; the sharp corner will cause the emulsion to become distressed when tension is applied.
- Table saw with dado blade or tabletop router
- Miter chop saw
- Handheld orbital or tabletop belt sander
- Hot glue gun
- 4 pony clamps
- Drill with 1/16 bit and 1/8 bit
- 1×2 Douglas Fir with rounded corners
- 4d finish nails
- Small screw eyes
I will tend to mill several hundred feet of stock at once so that I have a pile of 8 ft. lengths of pre-formed strainer on hand.
A table saw with a dado blade is used to rout out the inset. This can also be done with a tabletop router. After cutting the inset, I sand the raw routed stock to smooth and lower the inner edges of the raised bead. The milled stock is then cut with the miter chop saw to be the correct lengths for the given image with 45-degree mitered corners.
The pieces of milled and mitered 1×2 are held together with 4 Pony clamps and the corners are liberally hot glued. After the glue has cooled slightly pull the excess off, often as a single piece.
Corners are drilled with the 1/16 bit and nailed; two nails in the long dimension for smaller pieces or three nails crossed for larger works. Larger rectangular pieces need cross braces to prevent the strainers from bowing inwards from the pull of the canvas. Strainers 30 in. or larger need a cross brace. This is especially true with deep strainers as they are more susceptible to bending.
Use one brace for a 30-48 in. print and two for a 72 in. or larger print. Braces are cut from raw un-milled 1×2. A 30×40 requires a brace going in each direction as both strainers are 30 in. or over. If the braces cross they are notched using the table saw and dado. Braces are glued in place then drilled and nailed.
Screw eyes are set in 1/8 in. pre-drilled holes 30 percent down from the top in either side of the vertical bars.
There is a tool that allows screw eyes to be driven with a drill that is really worth getting. The screw eyes hold the picture wire that supports the image on the wall.
It is awkward to install the screw eyes once the canvas has been applied so this should be done when the strainers are assembled. Once the strainer is assembled go over the front carefully with the sander to ensure the bead and corners are smooth where they will touch the canvas. This is an important step.
Article and photographs ©2007 Cooksey-Talbott Studio, all rights reserved
Ralph Cooksey-Talbott Thomas has been working as a photographer since 1972 when he moved to California from Michigan. He is the owner of Cooksey-Talbott Gallery in Fremont, Calif. During the 1970s he studied under Ansel Adams in Yosemite. Ansel published one of his photographs in the portfolio section of his book, Polaroid Technique Manual. Ansel and Orah Moore, another of Ansel’s students, suggested that he shorten his name to Cooksey-Talbott, and that is the name he has worked under since. Cooksey also studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and the San Francisco Academy of Art. He has lectured in photography at the U.C. Berkeley Extension, Studio One in Oakland and at Santa Barbara City College.