I've just finished making about 40 linen painting panels of different sizes and shapes from some newly prepared linen. I thought it might be a good time to go over how that's done.
If you're not yet convinced that preparing your own linen is worth doing for the quality of your painting surfaces alone, here's a breakdown of costs for making 40 panels (which range in size from 24" x 24" to 5" x 7"):
Linen: 5 yards at $11 per yard $55 (this is a cheap grade)
Primer, gesso, adhesive $45 (I only used half the primer and gesso)
The average size is about 9x12. Using a cheap grade of linen this comes to about $3.50 per panel - which is less than 1/4 the cost of retail. When using a good quality portrait grade linen the cost is about $4.50 per panel.
Preparing the Panels
The plywood that I use for my panels varies depending on availability and cost, however I always use furniture grade plywood. For large work I might use ½” seven-ply furniture grade board and for small panels I use ¼” birch.
(Some artists prefer baltic birch which you'll need to buy from a mill shop - it's thick, has more plys, and has fewer defects in the faces than regular plywood.)
After measuring out the panels and drawing cut lines with a pencil, straight edge and set square, the panels can be cut to size. I prefer to cut my plywood by hand (cutting 1/4" plywood is easy), but you can use a table saw or reciprocating saw instead if you have one.
If you do this regularly it's a good idea to keep a template for each size panel. To make the cut lines you can simply draw round the edge of the template panel.
Once the panels are cut, clean up the edges by hand with a small edge planer. Then sand the edges to remove any splinters. Once you've done that both faces need to be brushed and wiped with a paper towel to remove the dust.
Before gluing on the linen I recommend that you size the face to which it will be glued. It makes the plywood less absorbent and stops the glue sinking in to it. When applied to both sides it may also help prevent warping due to moisture absorption.
The best way to size the plywood is to apply a thin coat of shellac. This type of varnish dries quickly and doesn't give off overpowering fumes. Since it's alcohol based it won't cause the plywood to warp.
Alternatively you can use a thin coat of polyurethane varnish, or make your own size from a mix of 30% wood glue, 70% water.
Applying size to a panel using a foam brush
Mounting the Linen
Cut a piece of primed linen or canvas slightly larger than the panel, at least 3/4" bigger all round. It is better to use canvas that is sized with polyvinyl acetate (PVA). Rabbit skin glue (RSG) size absorbs moisture during this process which causes it to wrinkle at the edges (and it will often shrink too).
Make sure the back of the canvas (the unprimed side) is free of loose threads, lumps and bumps. Sand it gently if necessary and remove the dust.
I recommend using acrylic matte medium to mount the linen to the panel: it's easier to apply than any other type of adhesive that I've tried. Apply it straight from the container using a large paintbrush to get an even coat.
A long handled sash brush makes it easy to get to the medium in the bottom of the container
You need to use enough medium to fill in the back of the weave, but not so much that you cause globs to form under the canvas. It takes a little bit of practice to get this right. It is not a good idea to thin the acrylic medium (I speak from my own experience) as too much water can break up the existing size on the canvas and affect the adhesion of the primer.
An even coat of acrylic medium
Immediately place the back of the linen on the glued face and smooth it out with the palm of your hand. You want to make sure that you don't have any bubbles of air or big, uneven lumps of medium underneath. Some artists use a veneer roller or cold mount roller to get the linen nice and flat, but you're unlikely to have one unless you're an avid woodworker or photographer. A rolling pin will do nicely for your largest panels. The threads of the canvas should be aligned in the same direction as the edges of the canvas.
A well-primed linen should lay flat on the panel and be easy to smooth out
Finally, place the panel canvas-side down on a piece of cloth (an old table cloth, for example) or clean paper laid over a flat surface and evenly distribute some weights on it. For a 9x12 panel you need at least 20-30 lb of weight. When making more than one panel of the same size they can be stacked, face down, on top of each other and the same weight will do for all the panels in the stack.
You can also stack panels of different sizes providing they are close in size and shape.
After you've finished make sure to wash the glue brush to remove the acrylic medium.
Let the panel dry overnight then remove the weights and trim off the excess linen around the edges of the panel with a box cutter.
The edges of the panel should look clean like this
You can also mount the linen after you've painted on it, but don't attempt this until you've had plenty of practice. You need to be careful to line up the painting with the edges of the panel and take extra care not to get bubbles trapped under the canvas. You should avoid doing this with fresh paintings or those with heavy paint texture as the paint can be flattened by pressure from the weights.
Mounting Unprimed Canvas
Instead of using weights to apply pressure during drying, wrap the canvas around the edge of the panel and stretch it out with your hands (no need for stretching pliers) while stapling down the edges. Allow it to dry face-up. The acrylic medium will cause the canvas to shrink and the staples should keep it in place as it dries.
When dry you can follow the normal procedure for priming the canvas.
The main benefit of avoiding weights and external pressure is that the acrylic can't seep through the unprimed canvas and stick to the table. You tend to get flat spots in the weave when this happens.
For raw canvas use a thicker panel so you can staple the edges
Inspect Your Work
Once the panels are made you should look over them carefully. Try to identify any panels that have obvious defects in the canvas: air bubbles, lumpy texture, etc. Put those to one side and keep them as practice panels to use in the studio for sketches and studies.
Finally, inspect the painting surfaces and make sure the canvas is smooth enough to work on. Canvas glued to a panel may have a different texture from stretched canvas. If you think the surface is too rough, take one panel, lightly sand it, and apply another thin layer of primer to see if that creates a better painting surface.
Document Your Process
Once you've ended up with panels that you like, it's a good idea to document the way in which you made them. This might seem like a silly thing to do for such a simple process, but preparing linen and making panels is something that's done infrequently—it's easy to forget to size the panel before applying the adhesive, for example.
Since first posting this article I've added more images to make the explanation clearer.