BIG CANVAS – A Gallery Wrapping Primer

When you grow up in a newspaper family that thinks 16 x 20s are snapshots your notion of print size is admittedly a little distorted. Until now my Epson 9890 has been happy fed a steady diet of 24 x 30 Exhibition Fiber sheets but I've wanted to try a roll of canvas in the beast for some time. When I finally decided to make a series of large gallery wraps I realized the process was going to be a little more involved. What do I mean by large: how about 71" x 38"*. Here's how I went about creating the gallery wraps and what I learned along the way.

VeloDramatic 71" x 38" canvas gallery wrap

FRAMING

I built my own frames from 8' lengths of 1 x 2 poplar (actual dimensions .75 x 1.5 - the 1.5" deep profile is a standard for stretcher bars). I mitered the frames on my Bosch 5412L which makes really accurate clean cuts with a Forrest Woodworker II blade. Corners were glued and screwed together with the whole frame secured by four Bessey Angle Clamps. When the glue had fully cured I reinforced each corner with a diagonal and then added a center support spanning the short dimension. The center bar was aligned flush with the back surface of the frame so that it would not come in contact with the canvas. All frame edges were chamfered to avoid splitting or snagging the canvas during stretching.

PRINTING

Given that some users report surface flaking on Epson Exhibition Canvas I tried advancing the canvas to allow me to blow off the surface before printing but I detected very little dust coming off the 44" roll. It took a fair bit of research to confirm print settings for Exhibition Matte Canvas and for a time I wondered if a satin finished canvas that utilized photo black ink would have been a better choice. Eventually I felt I'd made the right choice with matte canvas, accepting the fact that the printed piece would have to be coated with a sealing, protectant. I set the Platen Gap to WIDER, paper type to Radiant White Water Colour and found what seemed to be a definitive post on calculating the cryptic "thickness" measure in the Epson dialog. It determined that dividing the media thickness by 4 (in this case 23 mil/4) to yield a dialog value of "6". With these values I had no issues with head strikes or rubbing. Epson Exhibition Matte canvas also requires matte black ink. Don't forget to save all these settings as a preset for future use in print prefs.

Image preparation in Photoshop involved up-res'ing to final print size @ 180 dpi using bicubic smoother then sharpening with Pixel Genius output sharpeners. On one of the images I used a layer mask to tailor sharpening.

The most challenging problem was determining print length. As a woven fabric, canvas is not as dimensionally stable as paper or apparently as linear in it's feeding behavior. Epson suggests a paper feed adjustment of +70 to compensate for this, but based on experienced advice on the Luminous Landscape forum I opted instead to leave the setting at zero and allow an additional inch in the length of the print. For measurement purposes I appended a 20px band of alternating black and white .5" bars along the top edge of the print. The band was hidden behind the frame allowing me to accurately predict the necessary dimensional compensation (on this stock) in future.** The images I chose also allowed me to use actual image data for the wrap edges (as opposed to mirroring). In two cases I organically cloned additional imagery for the wrap edges. Finally I added very thin "fold" key lines beyond the profile wrap area to help align print to frame.

In spite of warnings to avoid dulling the 9890's cutter I chose to stay with auto cut for two reasons. First of all, handling a 77" x 44" print without an output table makes it very awkward to manually cut; and secondly, I print sheet paper so the cutter is seldom used.

* Final print length = 71" + 5" (wrap) + 1" (length issue) = 77"
* Final print width = 38" + 5" (wrap) = 43"
** Print length compensation – I found I needed to add 0.25" for every 20" of expected length. Print width is unaffected and accurate without compensation.

FINISHING – ECO Print Shield Coatings

Premiere Art Eco Print Shield

Naturally there are many different products to seal the porous surface of canvas. The coating is necessary to provide UV protection and prevent cracking when stretching. After a good deal of research I selected Premier Art's aqueous Eco Print Shield products for the job. Following their application instructions I needed to apply two or three coats of their gloss formulation first before spraying a final coat with matte (my desired final finish). Spraying the product with a Wagner Control Max HVLP system proved to be relatively straightforward but I was apprehensive that one quart of gloss wouldn't be enough to cover all three canvases with the requisite coats. I sprayed a fairly light first coat and watched the milky white liquid (it looked blue white on the canvas) dry back to transparent. While I waited I called Premier Art to inquire about Northern California dealers carrying the product in the event I ran short. That conversation with rep Greg Spitzer lasted almost 30 very informative minutes. Greg confirmed that my basic approach was sound but that I could dilute the product up to 20% with distilled water if necessary. Initial gloss coverage is key because the gloss formulation includes none of the dulling agents that produce the satin or matte finish. Spraying three coats of matte, for example, would significantly compromise the depth of the image if that's all you sprayed.

Improvised spray station in the garage

Using nearly maximum air pressure on the Wagner and light trigger pressure I was able to lay down two coats of un-diluted gloss on two canvases and one slightly heavier coat on the third before my quart of product ran out. By my calculation that was 90 sq. feet of coverage for the $38 quart. In a few places the overlapping strokes produced wetter areas which I helped dry back with a small hair dryer set on low blowing warm (not hot) air from 6 inches away. I kept the hair dryer constantly moving and the added air flow worked perfectly. It was fun to see the milky white film dry back particularly over solid black areas on my B&W prints.

Between coats I carefully exchanged the Wagner's plastic cup containing the Eco Print Shield for the metal cup containing distilled water. I blew out the gun to avoid any blockage while waiting for the coating to dry. By doing this I had no problems with the gun clogging while spraying the product.

One coat of matte was all I needed on each print, and per Greg's advice that coat needed to be light as it would have been easy to flood the surface over the gloss base coats. Again I used the hair dryer to accelerate the dry back a little. It took half a quart of matte to cover the three canvases. The single finishing coat of matte definitely cut the gloss level back to something with less sheen than satin. I don't think I'll be able to quantify the effective matte level until the prints are stretched and hanging in their final lighting environments. In any event I was very happy with the look of all three with the Eco Print Shield coverage. Eco Print Shield is a great product from a helpful company. I just ordered more Eco Print Shield gloss.

STRETCHING

This was definitely the hardest part of the process and the one where practice and repetition pay real dividends. I purchased a pair of specialized canvas pliers from John Annesley. These are 6"- wide modified sheet metal seamers with a protuding stub that allows for leverage against the inside edge of the canvas wrap frame. They work well but I found the jaw surface a little slippery and something like thin silicon tape would give them more purchase. Canvas stretching machines grab and stretch the entire side of a canvas in one move, the manual operation moves more slowly and it's tough to replicate the uniform tension of the machines (until you've stretched your first 100 canvases I suppose). My third canvas was better than my first, with the major problem being that the pliers are trying to tighten the canvas over two 90 degree edges. My next frames will have router radiused edges to ease the stretching process; merely breaking the edge is insufficient.

I persevered with a lousy Stanley electric staple gun but won't do that again. When you're holding tension with the pliers the last thing you want is the stapler misfiring, bending staples or shooting multiple staples at once. The electric staplers are junk. It's a compressor and a Fasco long-nosed, air-driven stapler next time. I'll only add that corners are a challenge and figuring out how to trim and undercut excess canvas for the neatest result takes thought and more practice.

MOUNTING

I'm using countersunk super magnets (sold in matching North/South pairs by K&JMagnetics.com) screwed to frame and wall to mount the wraps. Each 0.75" diameter magnet can hold 9 lbs. The finished frame weighs about 5 lbs, so four magnet pairs pulls the canvas wrap to the wall with a healthy margin of safety. The process is so straightforward it puts any other hanging system to shame. I might even try larger magnets on framed artwork with glass (with a backup safety wire).

velodramatic_magnets-6994 velodramatic_magnets-7003Magnetic mounting; it's actually easier if you follow these steps with the bare frame before stretching. Carefully screw four of the North-oriented magnets to the back of the frame a few inches from the corners on the long dimension. Insert a flat-head screw into the matching South-oriented magnets and allow the pair to snap together, capturing the screw. This yields a frame with four projecting "marking" screws off the back. Using a laser level and with the help of a second set of hands position the canvas carefully where you want it, check it's level against the laser line, then tap on the front of the frame so the projecting screws mark the drywall behind.

It is then a simple matter of decoupling the magnets, drilling pilot holes where the screws marked the drywall, inserting anchors then screwing the Southern-oriented magnets into the anchored holes. Remove the magnets from the frame for stretching, carefully marking the position of the holes on the frame (to make finding the holes easy afterwards). The best part comes next when you "snap" the artwork to the wall. The perfect alignment of the magnet pairs ensures the canvas wrap will not only stay on the wall but it will never need to be straightened. The only caveat during assembly is that super magnets are brittle. Use a light touch with a manual screwdriver to snug the magnets to frame and wall. A power screwdriver will over tighten the screw and shatter the magnet. Also take care when "snapping" the canvas to the wall to make the click as gentle as possible, then marvel at how strong the hold is.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Canvas and frames this large are unwieldy until they are on the wall. I had to improvise a drying rack and a spray booth in the garage. No doubt smaller canvas wraps would be a much simpler proposition, but what's the old adage… go big or go home. If you've got a large-format printer take a shot at big canvas. It's worth the effort.

A vertical canvas wrap above the stairs

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