Want To Make Your Own Plein Air Canvas Panels?

Want To Make Your Own Plein Air Canvas Panels?

with 37 Comments

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from other artists asking how I make the canvas panels that I use for plein air painting. Some of the reasons that I use canvas panels rather than stretched canvas for plein air painting include:

• Light can travel through a stretched canvas, but not a canvas panel (this is most noticeable in situations when the canvas is set up so that the sun is behind it).
• Canvas panels are easier to pack and transport than stretched canvases.
• Because of their 1/8″ thickness, canvas panels can be easily transported in a “wet box” to protect finished paintings.
• Painting on canvas panels greatly reduces the risk of cracking later in the life of paintings because the surface is much more stationary than the surface of a stretched canvas and doesn’t move with vibration or changes in temperature.
• Paintings on canvas panels take much less room to store than paintings on stretched canvas (although you can remove paintings on stretched canvas from their stretcher bars and roll them up for more efficient storage).

Hardboard / Markerboard: smooth wood on one side, white surface on the other side.
Hardboard / Markerboard: smooth wood on one side, white surface on the other side.

I used to buy canvas panels already made from companies like Ray Mar and Source Tek, but I decided that it would be more cost-effective to make my own. I was already buying large rolls of oil-primed linen for my studio paintings anyway. Plus, making the panels myself allows me to make whatever sizes I want. Both Ray Mar and Source Tek make great products (I still purchase other items from them), and it’s definitely more convenient to just buy the panels from them. But with a little extra work it’s pretty easy to make my own.

Gatorfoam 1/2″ natural face with white core.
Gatorfoam 1/2″ natural face with white core.

Any type of linen or even cotton canvas can be used to make panels, but I use Claessens #15 double-oil-primed linen (since I paint with oils and prefer the behavior of linen compared to acrylic-primed cotton). The #15 is a tight weave and considered to be a portrait-grade surface. (There are many different weaves of linen — some rougher and some smoother.) I generally buy the 82″ x 6-yard roll of the linen from whichever company is offering it for the lowest price. It has often been cheapest at Jerry’s Artarama, but I always shop around a bit online to find the best deal.

Miracle Muck Glue
Miracle Muck Glue

The next item that I use to make my panels is 1/8th-inch hardboard (sometimes called “masonite” or “marker board”) onto which I mount my linen. I currently buy it from Home Depot or Lowe’s and can usually find it in the paneling section (although both stores seem to change the products they carry from time to time). The hardboard is very resistant to warping and is smooth wood on one side and coated with a smooth white surface on the other side. (I like the smooth white surface because it makes a nice clean back for my finished paintings where I can write my title and other information.) I usually buy it in 4-foot by 8-foot sheets, which a friend of mine generously cuts on his table saw to whatever sizes I need. (Home Depot and Lowe’s can cut the panels, but they charge for each cut. Actually, maybe I should figure out how to keep my friend from reading this post….)

Hardboard white side down on a piece of linen with an extra 1/4″ of linen on each side.
Hardboard white side down on a piece of linen with an extra 1/4″ of linen on each side.

(On a side note, I generally make panels for my larger studio paintings as well, but instead of using hardboard I use 3/16″ or 1/2″ Gatorfoam®. It’s easy to cut to any size I need, resistant to warping and lighter than hardboard which makes it cheaper to ship. I glue linen to it just like I do when making panels on hardboard.)

The glue I use to adhere the linen to the hardboard is a product made by Raphael’s called “Miracle Muck.” It creates a strong flexible bond and has a neutral pH when dry. It’s also heat-reactivatable if it ever becomes necessary to remove the linen from the hardboard. I buy it by the gallon from Raphael’s or from Source Tek.

Spreading Miracle Muck glue with a small piece of hardboard.
Spreading Miracle Muck with a small piece of hardboard.

Once I have all the materials and I’m ready to make some panels, I have to gather a few other things. I use a pair of scissors to cut the linen, something to spread the glue with (I just use a small 3″x5″ piece of the hardboard), a rolling pin and something to use as weight on top of the glued panels while they dry (I use a stack of nice hefty art books).

The next step is to cut the linen so that I have a piece for each panel that I want to make. I cut each piece of linen so that it has about 1/4″ extra on each side of the piece of hardboard. For example, an 8″x10″ panel requires an 8-1/2″x10-1/2″ piece of linen (the linen will shrink a bit with the wetness of the glue).

Rolling out air bubbles using a rolling pin on the linen side of the panel.
Rolling out air bubbles using a rolling pin on the linen side of the panel.

Next I apply the Miracle Muck® to the smooth wood side of the hardboard and spread it around to evenly coat the surface. Then I flip the panel over so that the linen side is up and use a rolling pin to roll out any air bubbles between the hardboard and the linen.

Trimming excess linen with a utility knife after Miracle Muck has dried.
Trimming excess linen with a utility knife after Miracle Muck has dried.

Then I flip the panel over again (so the linen side is down, which will keep any excess glue from dripping off the edges of the panel onto the table) and stack books on top of it to weigh it down as it dries. It usually takes a few hours to dry before it’s ready to trim. Trimming is quite easy and only takes a few cuts with a utility knife to remove the excess linen from the edges of the panel. Then it’s ready for a painting trip! It’s quite convenient to have a stack of panels made and ready to go whenever I have the opportunity to paint outdoors, so I like to keep at least eight or ten panels in various sizes ready at all times.

(An added bonus: A canvas panel can be flung much farther than a stretched canvas when you’re not satisfied with your plein air attempt!)

37 Responses

  1. Julia Evans
    | Reply

    Hey Dan, thanks for posting this!! Tim brought home some masonite that was used for spacers in some school project, then discarded. We trimmed them, got out the Miracle Muck (I love that stuff) and some Frederick canvas, and have a nice stash of panels to work with. AND we’re repurposing/recycling, so I feel good about that.

    I’ve been using Miracle Muck to glue 300# watercolor paper pieces to gallery-wrap canvases, which is a cool way to avoid framing contemporary mixed media pieces. Leftover pieces of illustration board or matte board make good spreaders, too.

  2. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks for the comment, Julie — I’m glad you found the post helpful! And thanks for the info about using Miracle Muck for watercolor paper too!

  3. E. Melinda Morrison
    | Reply

    Dan, love that you posted this. I have been doing this for several years and like you, still buy items from SourceTek and RayMar but it is easier to adjust sizes if I make them my own. A quick tip: since i live in Denver, it is a drier climate. Glue tends to crack over time in dry climates so i went to Denver Bookbinding here and bought their glue. It is used for acid free paper and it has polymers in it that helps hold together and will not crack over time. It is half the price of Miracle Muck. I take a jar and fill it up, so a gallon is about $30. So, artists can check and see if there is a book binding factory in their area. Most will sell their glue.

  4. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks, Melinda — what a great idea to buy glue from a bookbinder!

  5. […] down on panels. (I’ll save that reasoning for another post. By the way, if you would like to learn how to make your own linen panels, click the link see my earlier post about […]

  6. […] you may know, I’ve been making my own linen panels for several years. (Click here to learn how.) But you might not be aware that I paint almost exclusively on panels. Here are eight reasons […]

  7. Hans Eric Olson
    | Reply

    Hey Dan,

    I just bought a roll of Classens Oil primed linen and want to use your method for mounting the linen on masonite board. One question I have…I want to do a 30″x 40″, would you suggest using the gator board for this size? I’m going back and forth between larger stretcher bars or gluing the linen to a surface.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated!
    Thanks…H O

  8. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Hans,

    In my opinion, you’ll definitely want to avoid using Masonite at that size — the panel will end up being quite heavy. The Gatorfoam will be much lighter in weight, but still rigid. I’ve used both the 1/2″ and the 3/16″ Gatorfoam at that 30″ x 40″ size and haven’t had any problems.

    Good luck!

  9. Sandra Bos
    | Reply

    I like this idea and will try it, but, I used to just gesso the board, and it worked just as well.

  10. Adele Earnshaw
    | Reply

    Dan, thanks so much for this information – exactly what I needed!

  11. Mike
    | Reply

    Hi! Dan, thanks for a great article, just a question, do you paint on linen just taped to a board and then glue onto Gator Board when finished, being careful of course not to get glue on the painting, or do you always do your boards first. I have paintings on linen but feel stretching them would cause cracking later, love your opinion thanks

  12. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Mike — I glue virtually all of my panels before I paint, but I have mounted a few canvases after painting on them. I think you mostly just have to be careful to avoid squashing any thickly painted areas when using a rolling pin to secure the canvas to the panel. I’ve found that the paint remains fairly pliable though. I don’t think you’d have to worry about any cracking. Good luck!

  13. Mike
    | Reply

    Thanks Dan appreciate your input.

  14. Ana lee
    | Reply

    Do I need to gesso or prime both sides of wood panel before adhering the linen?

  15. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Ana — you just need glue on one side of the panel before adhering the linen. No need to prime or gesso.

  16. Angela Holland
    | Reply

    I have been doing mixed media collage on wood panels and want to start working larger. Would a linen surface hold up to a lot of glued paper as well as acrylic paint when subsequently attached to a Gatorfoam panel? I’m thinking 4×6′ size, which gets too heavy in wood. Looking for a workable alternative. Any advice appreciated!

  17. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Good question, Angela. I’m thinking it would work to do your collage idea on a linen gatorfoam panel. You could probably even use a cheaper cotton surface mounted to gatorfoam as long as the canvas is well-sealed with gesso. Then you don’t have to pay for more expensive linen.

  18. Juliana
    | Reply

    Hi Dan. Great post thanks. What is the largest size board I need to worry about before seeing warping? Also do you know or notice if the marker board warps less than hardboard/Masonite because of the white backing? Last does it matter if it’s tempered or non-tempered hardboard that will better adhere the glue to linen better? Some other blog posts have suggested using rubbing alcohol on the surface of tempered first before glue as well as painting the other side to avoid moisture/warping. But maybe warping has to do with size of board? Thoughts. Thanks so much.

  19. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Juliana. I’ve made linen panels as large as 18″ x 44″ using hardboard. At that size the panel didn’t really warp as much as just flex when moved because of the weight of the panel which became significant. It was quite heavy. Once it was secured in its frame there wasn’t any sign of warping, though it was definitely heavy to hang. (Which is why I decided to start making my larger panels on much lighter Gatorfoam instead.) I’ve never really experienced warping with hardboard the way I’ve seen it with birch plywood. The marker board seems to be even less prone to warping because of the stiff backing.

    From what I’ve read, untempered hardboard is the way to go since it hasn’t been treated. Tempered boards are treated with oils that may eventually harm the wood and possibly a canvas attached to it. I think this choice is most critical when gessoing a board and painting directly on it. However, since we’re gluing linen to a panel, an acid-free glue provides a barrier between the board and the canvas which helps protect the canvas from any acids or harmful elements in the wood. For the same reason, it’s unnecessary to gesso the back of the panel since we’re not painting directly on the wood. This is why I like the heat-reactivatable glue, Miracle Muck. If a problem ever arises with the wood panel, the glue can be heated and the linen removed from the panel and attached to another support.

    I hope this helps!

  20. Juliana
    | Reply

    This helps answer any doubts. You are very thorough in your answer and I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to post this blog of step by step and answer everyones questions for 4 yrs. Especially mine ;).Thank you. I know this will help others with these little nagging doubts we have as well.

  21. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Glad to help, Juliana.

  22. Diane
    | Reply

    Have you ever tried Beva 351 film as an adhesive? It is heat activated (150F), and you can iron it on. I’ve used my oven (was worried about ruining the painting with an iron- it was already done before I mounted it)for smaller panels but have not tried larger ones with the iron. Wondered about your thoughts glue vs. film, if you have.

  23. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Diane,

    Thanks for your question. Sorry to say, I don’t have any experience with film adhesive. I’ve never had any problems with Miracle Muck as mentioned above, so I keep using and recommending it. It’s a good product.

  24. Noel
    | Reply

    Dan, thank you for this thorough explanation. I’ll be trying it as soon as I get the glue! One question, though, do you prime your surface after the board dries? Or will it shrink or warp? I don’t use pre-gesso’d canvas, and had planned to gesso the canvas to the board before reading this. No idea if that would have worked. Thank you for your years of answered questions!

  25. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Noel,

    I always buy pre-primed linen so I don’t do any priming once I’ve mounted the linen to the panels. Linen or cotton canvas will shrink a little from the wetness of the glue so I always allow some excess canvas around the panel, then trim it off once the glue is dry. I haven’t had many warping problems with 1/8″ masonite or MDF, but I stay away from birch plywood since I’ve seen more warping with it. However, if your panels get larger than 16″ x 20″ you may see more warping. As I mentioned above, Gatorfoam is a great alternative for larger panels since it doesn’t warp much and is very lightweight.

  26. Portrait Painting Workshop
    | Reply

    […] Claessen’s #66 linen canvas panel to each student. (They also make the Miracle Muck glue that I’ve recommended before for making canvas panels.) • Rosemary & Co. supplied a free #2 Series 279 brush to each […]

  27. Charles Smith
    | Reply

    I too have made my plein air painting panels for years. I typically paint a lot of 9 x 12’s and 11 x 14’s.
    My process is much like yours but I found what I think is a better way to get my Gatorfoam panels.
    A company called Harbor Sales in Maryland has a website where you can designate the number and size of panels you want cut from a 4 x 8′ or 5×10′ Gatorfoam sheet. (And they offer a complete range of gatorfoam products). The panels are uniformly computer cut and there is an on-screen algorithm to allow you to get the maximum number of cuts with minimum waste.
    You can optimize how many of each size you want and how they best can be cut from a single sheet with least waste.
    They do charge for cutting and shipping but I find it worth it because I don’t have to pay for shipping for oversized gator foam boards, and I can store my package of uniform sizes conveniently until they are needed. And I don’t need a large table on which to set up my own cutting. And finally there’s no risk to my fingers from my box cutter.
    This may not be a solution that works for you but I thought I would offer it if you haven’t already checked into it. I’ve ordered from them a few times and have always been pleased with their service and their product.
    Thanks for the discussion and for your great paintings.
    Charles Smith
    PS I’m in Louisiana and have no relationship at all with Harbor Sales, other than being an occasional customer.

  28. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thank you for your great recommendation, Charles. I think a lot of people will be glad to know that Harbor Sales can cut the Gatorfoam to the sizes they need.

  29. Faith
    | Reply

    Wow. THANK YOU. So glad I stumbled upon this! 🙂

  30. Patricia Mooney
    | Reply

    What brand of gatorfoam do you use? I understand there is a difference in archival quality? Is gatorfoam and gatorboard the same? Is there a reason you do not roll the Miracle Muck on to the linen and prefer to roll on the board? Would rolling on both be too much?I have a painting on Classens oil primed linen I want to glue down that is already finished except for some fine details; it is 14×20. It does not have thick paint . What major mistake should I be aware of in applying the Miricle Muck? I do not want to mess this up. Thanks so much for your post and continued replies. They are extremely helpful.

  31. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Patricia,

    First of all, to my knowledge, Gatorfoam and Gatorboard refer to the same thing. Gatorfoam is the proper name for it. But I’ve also used a product called Mighty Core, which is similar but slightly less rigid. I don’t think that either is acid-free, but I don’t worry much about it because the archival Miracle Muck glue creates a barrier between the board and the canvas.

    I apply the glue to the board rather than the linen because I cut the linen slightly larger than the board. If I applied the glue to the linen, the excess around the edges would end up sticking to my workable when I would flip it over onto the board. Hopefully that makes sense. The glue only needs to be applied to one surface.

    Just follow my process above for your project and it should work fine. Use a rolling pin to roll across the canvas several times after gluing, then stack books or something similar on it to weigh it down as it dries. Good luck!

  32. Mark
    | Reply

    I make my own panels also but I will cover the entire wood panel with canvas first, and let it dry to get good adhesion. Then I cut the canvas vocered panels to the size I want on my table saw. Quicker, easier, instead of fussing with a number of individual panels.

  33. […] down on panels. (I’ll save that reasoning for another post. By the way, if you would like to learn how to make your own linen panels, click the link to see my earlier post about […]

  34. anon
    | Reply

    Gatorfoam and Gatorboard are not the same. See, for example– http://www.displays2go.com/Article/Gatorboard-Foam-Core-63

  35. Katherine Martinez
    | Reply

    If we are okay with never removing the painting from the panel would using bookbinding PVA glue be okay to use as an alternative to the Miracle Muck?

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Katherine: as far as I know, yes. I know some artists who use PVA glue for their panels.

  36. amy
    | Reply

    OMG. I’m not the only one who flings paintings out the front door and into a culvert. And then goes back out and flings it at the garage. Than goes back out and runs over it.

    Thank you for the step-by-step. This sounds like something I can do.

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