Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gator Boards: The Stretcher Boards That Don't Bite

If you constantly find yourself pressed for time when painting in watercolor, then an upgrade to gator boards may just be what you need to reduce your paper preparation time.

For those still not familiar with gator boards, a Gator Board or equivalent is a lightweight, sturdy foam core board with hard eggshell-like surfaces on either side used for stretching watercolor paper.  The hard eggshell-like description is just my observation.  For the sound it reminds me of when I punch through it with staples. It produces a very soft cracking sound but unlike an eggshell, the surface of the gator board is hardier.  Gator boards come in several sizes (for full sheets, half sheets, and quarter sheets) but may be cut easily to your preferred size with a regular cutter aided by a metal ruler.  It comes in white and also in a light brown color for those who do not like the glare of white seen from the sides when they work on their painting.

gator board with stretched paper in place  

While it does get holey after you have stapled paper on it several times, it can take a lot of abuse.  The holes are self-contained and will not radiate cracks unless you really have a heavy hand.  Best also to get rid of the giant staplers you try to make do with (the office kind where you crack it open 180 degrees) and get yourself a gun tacker (you don't need the industrial kind) to lessen the likelihood of damaging the board.  The surface may also stain with paint but will not pose any problem if you get get most of the loose paint off when next you use the board.  Not advisable to use any chemicals to clean the surface itself as this may get absorbed and affect the next paper you stretch on it.  It it takes in paint stains, it may mean the surface is porous.   You can wash off surface dirt easily by running it under water and using your hands to disturb the particles.  Just take care not to get any oil on it as gator boards do not seem to have any built-in protection against oil.  Oil will not affect the sturdiness of this board but it may transfer to any paper that you stretch on it.

Best thing about foam core boards is that no matter how many times you wet and re-use it, it will not leech acid on your watercolor papers.  The gator board surface also dries with the paper so you will not have the prolonged damp, paper problem.  And because both sides are usable, you can flip over and use the other surface once the other one croaks.

Gator boards, being lightweight and less rigid than wooden ones, have a tendency to bow or distort slightly under the pull of the paper.  Noticeable when you stretch full sheets.  Paper still dries flat and I have not had any problems with framing gator board stretched paper yet.  It might be advisable to use alternate sides to straighten your boards back to flatness again.

I highly recommend gator boards specially if you are a busy person and if you are starting to have wrist pain problems common with aging.  Gator boards will cut down your preparation or stretching time considerably because it is always ready for use, easy to staple and tape papers on.  Because the surface yields easily to staples, your wrists and hands will not be subjected to jarring trauma as happens when you staple on wooden stretcher boards with hard spots on them.

If you have children in the house or family and house guests you think might have failed the marshmallow test in their childhood, it is highly advisable to warn them about the presence of your gator boards.  Failing that, hide your gator boards when expecting company.  The temptation to try Karate chopping it in half may prove too great for some.  I know because I sometimes get the urge to see what would happen.  It is only the knowledge that each of the boards may cost around 17 to 35 dollars that is stopping me.

Gator boards are a good investment that will give you years of excellent service.

And no, I'm not a stockholder in the company.  :D   I just love the product.

One nice thing about using facebook and blogging is you get to meet fellow artists and exchange ideas.  For the same reason, I very much welcome viewer comments and experiences because their advices not only add more knowledge but most often prove very beneficial to our pockets as well.

I'm reposting Judy's comments below:
1.  In the US I can buy 4 x 8 ft sheets (half-inch thick) at a sign company, and cut them to various sizes.  Tricky to cut, use box knife and heavy metal straightedge.  Much cheaper this way than buying from art supply places.
2.  The cut edges can be sharp enough to cut you; best to file the edges so they aren't so sharp.
3.  Rather than stapling, I like to use water-soluble kraft paper tape to stretch the paper.  The adhesive easily washes off the Gatorboard after removing the painting, and leaves the G'board surface undamaged.  (I have never done whole or even half-sheets this way; might not hold as well as staples).

Also a good thing Judy mentioned paper tape as I have forgotten to elaborate on that.  Using paper tape instead of staples would prolong the life of your Gatorboard.  It works very well on the surface of the gatorboard because once you activate the glue and allowed the stretched paper to dry, the paper tape really has a firm hold and will not lift unless you get the paper really really wet.  It holds even for bigger sheets. (Paper tapes do not work as well on plastic covered boards though.)  Care should be taken when removing the watercolor paper once you are finished with the painting.  Once anchored, you either have to rewet the tape to get it to lift off the gatorboard (which can cause warping problem with your watercolor paper) or you can use a cutter to cut it out of its taping.  You have to be very careful though and cut just the paper without damaging the board.  There is also the matter of adhesive residue. I will repost Judy's solution and mine afterwards.

About the paper tape, I just cut my paper off the Gatorboard with a box knife at a very low angle along the edge of the paper underneath, so as not to cut the Gatorboard surface, then trim off the tape and the paper it covers with a rotary paper cutter.  I lose the nice deckled edge of the paper that way, but unless you mount your painting on top of a matboard or something, it doesn't show anyway, and you don't have any of the tape adhesive fouling up your paper. (This also gives me many scrap strips for testing colors/values and practicing signatures, etc.  Also, the strips work nicely for laying over finished painting to visualize various crop options.) Then you can just use a very wet sponge and soak the tape off the Gatorboard. Get the tape really wet and let sit for several minutes; it comes right off, and the adhesive is also easy to wash off after soaking.  

We use the same method.  Cut away from the painted side.  You can usually tell where the watercolor paper is under the tape.  It will have a contour pressed on the tape.  This is where it is most advisable to insert the cutter, working at a very low angle, almost flat.  Just a small slit that would allow you to insert the blade in between the paper and the gatorboard.. Once the blade is in (insert only an inch or less (make sure way beyond the painted surface) and filet the paper off the board.  One danger is, you can cut your painting accidentally.

Once the painting is off the board, be sure to trim away the parts that still has paper tape on it.  I trim an extra centimeter off.  Sometimes, the adhesive of the paper tape can go beyond the taped area.  You can tell if you view your paper at an angle, the glossy film you see on the paper is the adhesive.  It is advisable to cut off the paper tape because although it may be acid-free or are of neutral pH, over time, it may still cause discoloration on your watercolor paper because the paper tape's natural color may leech onto it.

Once the painting is off, you can use a sponge to moisten the tape for lifting off the board.  Just make sure to use a clean sponge.  Another alternative is to use clean tissue instead of a sponge.  You may also just wet the paper under the sink which is what I do because I sometimes I just cannot help but think the sponge may be contaminated with algae.  Whatever your method, make sure to rinse off the adhesive from the board.  You can tell the presence of adhesive because these areas would have a slimy feel to it.  Because I noticed I was spending too much time cleaning after using the paper tape, I switched back to stapling.  But that is only because I am an obsessive compulsive and something like this seems to trigger it.  You might find paper taping a better option though.

The gatorboard from the sign shops may be available locally.  When Judy mentioned that the edges of this gatorboard can be very sharp, that somehow triggered a memory.  I think I may have come across such a board.  But probably, because this board's surfaces was twice as thick, (the outside layer that reminds me of eggshells) I had misgivings whether it would function the same.  But it seems to be doing well as a stretcher board for Judy so I think I'll go and hunt for its like again.  I could use a gatorboard for oversized paintings.

One concern that arises though, is this alternative board also of neutral pH?  We'll see.  Time for a science experimentation again.  At least, once I get a sample of the material.  More feedback on this appreciated specially from local artists who find it.  I'm interested about the size it is available in, the price and your feedback on its performance as a stretcher board because we may get a kind slightly different than what Judy has access to.  If it proves to be very affordable, this sturdy material even has potential as shipping protection for our watercolors.

Many thanks to Judy Waller for her contribution to the discussion.  You may view art works by Judy on her site linked below.
Watercolors by Judy Waller

Gator boards are not yet popular items where I am at (Philippines) and may still not be as readily available locally as elsewhere.  But for those interested in obtaining them, most online art supplies company carry the item.  If you are a bit short on the budget though but need a waterproofed stretcher board badly, you might want to try out my waterproofing solution for wooden boards.  Easy to do and very kind to your wallet.  Follow the link below
Affordable and easy solution for unprotected wooden boards for stretching watercolor paper

Other related articles:
Troubleshooting watercolor paper discoloration
Additional protection you can do yourself for your framed watercolor paintings
Paper stretching guide: understanding watercolor paper weights
Understanding Sizing: guide to wetting your paper


  1. I fully agree. I have used Gator Board for 15 years. Light and water proof. I just use masking tape and paint right on the board. Just be careful to pull the tape towards the outside edge so you do not tare off some of your paper.

  2. Hi Karen, thanks for the post. Can you share which online shops we can order gatorboard?

  3. I find 1/2" gatorfoam board at Cheap Jo's and Dick Blick. I'm looking for 3/4" thick so it won't bow when I stretch my wet watercolor paper onto it. Jerry's Artarama is the only place I find it by the sheet 24x32 @ $48. Does anyone know of a different source for 3/4" ? I had to paint gesso onto the 1/2" sheets to avoid bowing.