Saturday, January 14, 2012

Make Your Own Watercolor Stretcher Board 2

Ever wished you can order gator boards in custom sizes?  Love those boards but they come only in fixed sizes.   I have cut some of them to make it more convenient for me when painting in smaller, non-standard sizes which I find myself repeatedly favoring.  But how to add two or more together to get a bigger surface to stretch on, that is a challenge.  The problem is you would get a ridge where two board edges meet and that might cause a permanent indentation on your watercolor paper.  These boards also have more noticeable bending or bowing the bigger you go (due to the paper pulling as it shrinks) so added support will be needed if you plan to make bigger stretcher boards out of them.

I have been experimenting over the last months using whatever materials I have around.  I dared not use the gator boards for the experiment because they are a bit expensive here so I used instead foam core boards.  At first I used illustration board as a backing to the foam core boards with the result that the first time I tried stapling paper on it, I ended up yelping.  The staple ends poked through the foam core board and the illustration board and into my palm.  Back to the drawing board.  Well, after trying on different supports and testing them out, I have come up with this final design.  So far, so good.  Will give you my review on how it performed at the end of this article.

Materials for this watercolor stretcher board:
  • Plywood (at least 6 mm thickness).
  • Paper tape.
  • Elmer's glue (carpenter's glue).
  • Foam core board.
  • Acrylic Gesso.
  • Brush for gesso application.


Cut the foam core board and the plywood that you will be using as backing to your desired specifications.  I find it best to measure and cut the plywood first and then use that as a template for cutting the foam core later.  Easier to trim foam core than to trim excess plywood.

This is optional but I like giving the plywood backing some finishing.  You can use paint, sandpaper or treatments you can buy from the hardware to give the backing some finishing but my preference is paper tape.  One reason is when you do a double layer of it at the back, it sort of softens the backing.  I have appropriated our seldom used dining room at the main house as my studio because I get good lighting there.  I'm very conscious of abrasive, hard, sharp surfaces because they may scratch the glass top of our dining room table.  With the paper backing, I am not so afraid to rotate the board while I am working on it.  I like how the paper backing also prevents me getting splinters from the wood

Shown in the picture (above,right) strips of paper tape applied side by side onto the plywood. I cut them longer than the length of the plywood so I can fold them over and get a neat paper covered edge. After this layer dries, I place another layer of paper tape but position them perpendicular to the first one so I would get paper covered edges also on the last two bare sides. (If first layer is lengthwise, apply the second layer crosswise). Allow the paper tapes to dry completely and then turn the board over.

Put a liberal amount of glue on the inside surface of the backing board

Spread the glue evenly.  One reason why I keep some of the used prepaid phone cards.  They are very handy when you're spreading glue.
Place the foam core board onto the backing board and let dry overnight.  For better adherence, I would turn the board over, making sure that the surface I am putting on has nothing that will mar the foam core board's surface.  Then I use heavy books to weigh it down.  I forgot to take a picture when I did it so I recreated the scene but used fewer books.  There were a lot more books than these but they were heavy to lug around and I have already put them back.  But you get the idea.

Last, put several coats of gesso on the surface of the foam core board and on its side to seal it and make it water resistant (depends on how many layers of gesso you put on).  Do not forget the sides.  Gesso acts as a protectant or buffer against the elements and your foam core board would last longer if its inside is not as exposed to air and water.  It also is acid-free so even when you place wet paper over it, you will not be exposing your watercolor paper to acid you normally do when you get your paper in direct contact to wet wood.

Close up of the board's side showing why you need to cover it up with gesso too.  The exposed part will turn yellow and brittle over time.  The gesso will hopefully delay this a bit.  The board should give you extra years of service when you take precautions.

Tada!  With paper stretched on it.  Ready for painting.  (Of course, I let the gesso dry completely for several days before stretching on it.)

The review:

What is good about it:
  • You can custom make it almost any size.  Foam core is available at size 30 x 40 here so you can make a stretcher board as big as that.
  • With the plywood backing, it is not as prone to bowing.  This board I just made is 40 x 18 inches. When paper I stretched on it started drying, I only got slight bowing... almost negligible.
  • It is reusable.  You only need to invest time in it once, when you make it.  Although I did put another coat of gesso on a previous one I've just taken a painting off to plug the holes left behind by the stapler.  Still it looked pretty much intact and the surface was even despite the holes.
  • Not so expensive although quite time consuming.
  • The foam core layer took in the staples better.  I did not get that much shock on the wrist stapling on it.
What needs improving:
  • It is heavier with the plywood backing.
  • Not sure if it is due to the wet weather last month but I noticed that I needed a longer drying time in between sessions of painting.  Clay surface versus gessoed.  The clay surface of gatorboards seems able to dry the underside of watercolor paper faster.  This needs investigation.  I'm hoping maybe if the correct thickness of gesso is achieved, this will improve.  
I still favor using the commercially prepared gator boards when the painting I'm planning to do fits its dimensions but for the unusual formats, I think I did good with my DIY board.

Now if all of these seem very labor intensive and you have money to spare, you can always get thicker paper that will not need stretching.  :D

Thank you for reading.


  1. Thank you, Karen! This is a great idea, and very well explained. I have previously tried making myself a larger support board by gluing together two pieces of foam board. It obviously wasn't very durable! I will have to try your way. Thanks for the detailed instructions and photos!

  2. Hi Laura, always welcome and very glad to hear from you. Tried gluing two foam boards too I noticed that the "bowing" was more pronounced as you go bigger with just the foam core boards. I also used paper tape on the base foam core and whenever the stretched watercolor paper pulls as it dries, I try countering by spritzing the paper tape at the back. Funnily enough, when the paper tape does its own pulling or shrinking, it kind of straightens the top portion too. I kept some of the smaller prototypes. Good for small demos and very lightweight.

  3. Thank you very much for sharing the process. And most important of all, thank you for sharing your life experiences. Your flower paintings are incredibly beautiful and elegant, and the story of you pursuing your dream is so inspiring to me, someone who is just starting that scary journey of trying to support myself by doing what I love -- paint and sell paintings. Thank you for being an inspiration.

  4. Hi Arena,
    The life of an artist is not always an easy one but has its own rewards. I take strength from the support of fellow artists too and also am inspired when I hear my efforts are appreciated like with what you have done here. Thank you very much and we just have to keep following our dreams. I've seen your work and they are breathtaking.

  5. It is only now that i come across your blog. Thank you very mucho for guiding wannabes like are really a wonderful person...
    Will try this DIY

  6. I have been using a Ampersand clay board to stretch my paper. Seems to work fine, so far.

  7. I just came across this. Thanks for sharing! I might try this.