This post is a step by step tutorial on how to construct a painting cradle.
A painting cradle is the wood bars that support your canvas.
Are You Ready to Start Building Your Own Canvases?
Awesome! I am SO stoked for you! I really hope you’re as excited as I am.
I personally love building my own canvases for a multitude of reasons:
- I actually really enjoy woodworking. There’s just something about the smell of wood and working in a shop that makes you feel capable.
- It makes me look better as an artist. Building your own frames shows that you don’t cut corners (hah, that’s ironic…you actually will be cutting corners! Literally!), and that you really care about your work. If a party commissions a work from you and you tell them your canvases were made by you, from start to finish, they’ll probably be pretty impressed.
- A properly built canvas looks hella good. Just sayin’. Your clean, sturdy canvas that you built and stretched by hand will look impressively professional.
Another argument I’ll make for building your own canvases…when I was studying at Texas State, waaay back in Painting 1, one of the things they show you how to do is build a cradle and stretch it. There was a local guy with a shop right by campus, and we got a full tour. Throughout the Painting course series, they continue to encourage you to build your own.
Basically, I can’t stress enough how important this skill is.
Learning to build your own cradles is a vital part of being an artist. While you can purchase pre-made, stretched, and gessoed canvases at most arts and craft stores, they are not very high quality and can be overpriced.
Building your own canvases takes time and know-how, but it’s worth it! You finish with a beautiful, sturdy, high-quality, professional canvas – plus a great feeling of accomplishment. Also, out the door, it’s usually cheaper than those flimsy canvases you get at Hobby Lobby or Michaels.
(Please don’t shop for professional art supplies at craft stores! Read my guide on Where to Buy (And Where Not to Buy) Professional Art Supplies.
Are you pumped to learn how to build a cradle?? Ohh yes. Let’s get started!
On an important note, and before you read through this entire tutorial, there are a few things you’ll need. This tutorial requires some planning, and some heavy machinery, so it’s a lot to get through! But don’t worry, once you get through the first time, it’s easy to understand and repeat.
Have the Proper Equipment
To build your cradles, you’ll need to have access to (or own) some heavy tools/machinery:
- A miter (chop) saw
- A nail gun and air compressor
- An electric staple gun
- Corner clamps
- Optional: A table saw
This tutorial uses these tools. If you don’t have them, ask around and see if you can get access to some! If you’re attending a university, they most likely have a woodshop on campus somewhere.
If you aren’t able to build your own cradles, you’ll have to go with the pre-made canvases. Now, I did just mention that they aren’t high quality and pricy at arts and craft stores, BUT. You can purchase decent quality canvases at an art supply store, and those hold up pretty well. See my article on where to purchase art supplies. Another great option (instead of buying from Hobby Lobby) is to find someone locally who makes cradles. There are usually quite a few small-business type suppliers you can order a cradle/canvas from.
Have the equipment you need? Great! We can keep movin’ on here! Now, we can’t completely dive in without some prep, so here’s some intial steps and know-how before you get to cutting and nailing.
Know Your Size Dimensions
Before you start building, you need to know what you’re building. Once you know your size, you can plan for materials and cost. Below, I’ve provided a chart to approximate the amount of wood you’ll need to build your cradle. This chart includes more common sizes and approximate costs.
|Size (")||Total Feet|
(Includes cross bars and corner braces)
|Approximate cost of wood (for an 8-foot beam @ $6.00)|
If your size isn’t on the chart, follow these guidelines for measuring the total feet of your cradle.
Four Sides + Cross Bars + Corner Braces = Total Inches
Divide your total inches by 12 to get Total Feet.
I want to paint a city skyline, and build a frame that looks like a panoramic. I’m going to make my dimensions 18″ x 48″. My equation will look kind of like this:
18+48+18+48 (Sides) + 18+48 (Cross Bars) + 24 (Corner Braces) = 222/12 = 18.5 feet
If I know I need 18.5 feet of wood, that means I’ll need to purchase at least three 8-foot beams, or two 8-foot beams and one 6-foot beam.
See what I’m saying here? Cool 🙂
Next, purchase the materials you need.
Some of these you’ll probably only buy once, like your corner clamps. If you’re going to buy corner clamps and such, I absolutely recommend purchasing the better quality items. It is so worth it to buy the better item, even if it’s a little bit more expensive, because it will last longer and make your life easier. I’m a huge believer in quality, and honestly, it will save you money in the long run. It will also save you some serious stress.
So where should you purchase your materials?
I’m a huge fan of Lowe’s. They have better prices, and their staff has always been more helpful. At least, that’s been my experience. I’ve gone into Home Depot several times and it’s usually just frustrating. They don’t have what I need, or they’re out of stock, or the price is several bucks higher. If you’re a Home Depot fan, then absolutely stick with Home Depot. But I’m just saying. That’s my two cents. Okay, I’m done with that rant. If you don’t have either of those stores, try your local hardware store.
So when I go in to get my wood, I’ve done this a million times and know exactly what I’m looking for. Your first time buying wood might be a bit of a hassle, but I’m here to help make the journey easier. If you walk into a hardware store and tell them you need wood for painting cradles, they’re not going to have any idea what you are talking about. They’re not an art store. So I’ll give you some tips on where to look and what to buy.
I’ve also added some recommendations for each, and why I buy them. At the end, there’s a simplified list in PDF format for you to take with you!
Pine Wood Beams
I always buy pine. It’s a really strong, clean wood at a good price. You’ll find it on the aisle with all the long wood beams that are roped back. This type of wood is usually used for indoor remodeling. Look for 1×2 pine beams. It should come in lengths of 6′ or 8′. Pine has a pretty, light color and holds up really well. It’s functional and aesthetic.
When choosing your beams, make sure you check for knots and warping. You don’t want knots because they spread over time (and they just look bad). You don’t want a warped beam because it affects your measuring and stretching, and will look bowed when you’re finished. Unfortunately, the way the hardware stores stack their beams exacerbates warping. What you want to do is pull one out and tilt it at a diagonal. One end should be on the floor away from you. Hold the other end at eye level and close one eye. Look down the beam. If it has an excessive curve to it, it’s warped. It could curve in an arc, or off to one side. Either way, it won’t be any wood for a cradle. Some beams will be so warped it’ll be obvious, and you won’t have to check it that way. Set any warped ones aside and go through their pile. You might feel a little ridiculous, but trust me. You really don’t want warped wood. Sometimes it’s hard to find a good beam because they’re all warped. Just go with some that have the least amount of warping. As long as it’s not extreme, you’ll be okay.
A few notes to add:
- DO NOT buy wood treated with formaldehyde. It is poisonous. It’ll have a greenish hue. Avoid it like the plague.
- Do not buy cheap wood. It will bow when you stretch your canvas.
- If you’re unsure of how much wood you need, always buy extra to be safe. Buy extra anyways, just in case you make a wrong cut.
- If you can’t find pine, follow the guidelines for choosing high-quality wood: no knots, no warping, strong, clean wood.
- Make sure your wood will fit in your car! I can fit the 8-foot beams in my little Elantra, but it’s a tight squeeze. I have to put the back seats down and feed them through the trunk. Please don’t go get your wood in a Fiat or something. It won’t fit.
Try to find Gorilla Glue. That stuff works really well. Have some paper towels handy to wipe off excess glue. Don’t don’t don’t use craft glue. Make sure it is wood glue. I’d also recommend getting one that has a good spout.
Buy metal ones. Do. Not. Buy. Plastic. They will break, and you’ll have to get new ones. The plus with these is the hardware store staff can help you find them. Oh, and buy all four. Get one for each corner. It’s so much easier. If you’re on a tight budget, buy at least two.
A ruler is not going to cut it for measuring your wood. Get a good tape measure, and have a few pencils handy, too.
Sandpaper or sanding blocks
Get a medium-grade sandpaper for sanding down the sharp edges of your wood. I usually buy the blocks because they’re easy to hold (I usually get a pack of two).
Equipment and Workspace
Miter (chop) saw
You’ll use this to cut your wood at 45° angles. Make sure it has a safety guard and is secure on a steady surface. Know how to use it a follow safety guidelines. Buy and wear safety glasses or goggles when using a miter saw. Chips and splinters fly when you’re cutting wood, and you don’t want to lose your eyesight. Wear them when using the nail gun as well.
Nail gun and air compressor (18-gauge)
Nails for your nail gun (1 ¼”)
You don’t need really big nails for your cradle. The 18-gauge gun with 1 ¼” nails will work perfectly. You have to have an air compressor for a nail gun to work properly. Don’t skimp and think you can use a staple gun or something. It won’t hold together.
Large table or working surface
You’ll need plenty of room to lay out your wood. A large folding table works fine. If you’re building a very large cradle (more that 4 feet on any side), it might be best to work on the floor. Make sure you have enough room. More than anything, you need a flat surface. Otherwise, your cradle won’t set right.
Electric Staple Gun
While you’re at Lowe’s (or wherever), purchase a good electric staple gun. You’ll need it later for stretching your canvases. Grab some ½” staples. You can get a manual stapler, but it’s a lot easier to just get the automatic one. Personally, I have pretty bad knuckle pain (and I’m pretty small and don’t have much muscle), so I prefer the electric. I have a Power Shot Pro stapler. (Get an extension cord while you’re at it, too.)
Lowe’s should have everything on this list. Walmart or a similar store might have a few things for cheaper, like a table or staple gun. Buy all your small things first, and get your wood last. You don’t want to carry your wood around the store!
Here’s a simplified checklist for you to take with you!
Print out my checklist!
Set Up Your Work Space
Once you have all your materials, you’ll want to get your work space ready.
- Set up your miter saw. Make sure it’s on a steady surface and has a safety guard. Plug it in and set it at 45°. You’ll end up switching sides a few times, but have it ready. Test it to make sure it’s on and working properly. Wear your safety glasses!!
- Set up your air compressor and nail gun. Warning, an air compressor is loud. Set it to about 100 PSI. Put some nails in your gun. Once your air compressor has reached the correct pressure, attach your nail gun. You’ll want to test it out to make sure the pressure is good. Put your glasses on, grab a couple spare chunks of wood, and nail them together. Adjust your pressure as needed. You don’t want the nails sticking out – if they are, increase the pressure. You also don’t want the nails to disappear into the wood and leave a hole. If this happens, decrease the pressure.
- Set up your table. Have your clamps, wood glue, tape measure, paper towels, and pencils ready.
Absolutely, absolutely be safe and smart when you are working. You’re using some very dangerous equipment constructing your cradles, and misuse or poor judgment could result in serious injury. Here are some safety guidelines to follow.
- Don’t work alone. Work when someone else is around in case of emergency. Let them know what you’re doing, and even ask them to check on you occasionally to make sure nothing happened.
- Be cautious when using the miter saw. Keep fingers and hands a safe distance from the blade. Wear safety glasses or goggles when using the saw. Make sure the safety guard is on. When making a cut, place your wood, bring the blade down (without turning it on), and adjust as needed. Pull the blade back up, turn on, and let it come to speed before bringing it down. After the cut is made, remove your finger from the button and let the blade come to a stop before pulling it up. If you pull it up while the blade is still spinning, it may snag your wood and toss it. When you’re done using the saw, be sure to unplug it and lock it.
- When using the nail gun, never point it towards yourself or others. Set it at the correct pressure, and test before using. Keep hands and fingers clear when nailing. Also stay clear of nails that may come through the wood. Always wear safety glasses or goggles to protect your eyes.
- Keep long hair back and out of your face.
- Wear close-toed shoes and avoid loose clothing.
- Do not operate machinery if drowsy or fatigued. Poor motor skills and lack of clear judgment could result in accident and injury. Do not operate machinery if you are on a medication that prohibits use of heavy machinery. Do not operate machinery if under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- If you have concerns or questions, stop. Ask for help.
- Make sure your workspace is properly lit and ventilated.
- Do not have flammable materials nearby. Sawdust and wood are highly flammable.
- Do not cut wood with metal with the saw. Nails, staples, et cetera in the wood can spark on contact with the blade.
- Do not use wood treated with formaldehyde. It is poisonous.
- Clean your workspace when finished. Use a vacuum to clean up sawdust, as it is highly flammable.
Please use discretion when operating equipment. Your safety should be your priority.
Disclaimer: Acrylic Pines is not liable for injury or damage sustained in these activities. Readers are advised to use caution and discretion when executing the advice in this tutorial.
Alright, we are past the nitty gritty, have all our materials, and are ready to build these frames! Below is the step-by-step instructions for building your cradle.
Measure and Cut Sides
Take your first beam and cut the corner off at a 45° angle.
From the far end of the angle, measure your first side.
Make a mark with your pencil. When you make the next cut, be sure to compensate for the width of the blade. It takes an extra ¼” of your wood.
Cut at 45° again.
Make sure the second angle mirrors the first.
After cutting, re-measure the section.
Set aside and repeat for your four sides.
When you’re finished cutting, hold the equivalent sides together to compare.
Adjust as needed. You want opposite sides of the frame to be exactly the same, otherwise your frame will be uneven.
2. Glue, Clamp, and Nail
Lay out your sections so they form your square or rectangular frame. Lay flat, and spread glue on each end.
Press together and clamp tight with a corner clamp.
You want your corners to be clean and even. It’s easiest to glue and clamp opposite diagonal corners, and then the other two corners. Give them a minute to dry.
Grab your nail gun. Nail three in a row on each side of each corner.
Once everything is nailed and secure, you can remove your corner clamps.
3. Cross Bars
Cross Bars are going to prevent your frame from bowing when you stretch your canvas. Certain sizes may only need one cross bar, or even just need corner braces. I’d recommend cross bars on any side 16″ or longer. Also, sometimes you can do cross bars and no corner braces, but it’s safer and sturdier to include both.
Cross bars are the trickest to measure. You need to measure from the bottom of one section to the bottom of the opposite side. It should be the length of the other side minus the width of each beam, but the cross bars need to be exact. Too short and they just fall off, too long and they bow your frame the wrong direction.
When you go to cut your cross beam, err on the safe side and cut extra, then adjust. You can fix it if it’s too long, but not if it’s too short.
Measure and cut your first cross bar. You should make the longer one first. Meaning, you’ll want the bar that has to bear more weight/tension from stretching to be the full beam. Your second cross bar will be split into two parts.
Glue your cross bar in. You don’t want the cross bar to be flush with your edges, you want it to be evenly between your sides. While holding it steady, nail it three times from the opposite side of your side section. Repeat on the other side.
For your second cross bar, measure the two distances between the sides and the first cross bar. Again, leave extra so you can adjust. Cut, glue, and nail in. There isn’t a good way to nail the middle together, so make sure it’s glued and sturdy. (Another way to do your second cross beam is to shave a divet with a table saw. The divet fits over or under your first beam so they can sit securely together.)
4. Corner Braces
If your canvas is small, it may not need both cross bars and corner braces. If you’re using corner braces, you don’t want them to be flush with your sides. You want them to fit between.
You can use the leftover pieces of wood to make your corner braces. Measure and cut them in even lengths (about 4″ for average – large sized cradles). Use the flat side of the beams, and cut at 45° angles. Fit evenly into your corners, glue, and nail.
Last step! Use your sanding paper or blocks to smooth those sharp edges and corners.
And there you have it! A beautiful, hand-built cradle. It’s sturdy, high-quality, and looks professional! I hope you get that same sensation of pride and satisfaction that I do when I build my frames 🙂
Now that your cradle is finished, you’re ready to move on to the next step: Stretching Your Canvas!
I know that was a TON of information to cover. If you’d like a simplified version, here’s a PDF with an easy, step-by-step outline!
Have any questions? Leave a comment below!