DIY Canvas Stretchers: Step One, Plant a Tree

Simple Technology

I love that painting is simple technology. A blank artist’s canvas is so much less complicated than the screen you are reading this on right now. A painting is technology. But it’s knowable. Simple enough to fully wrap your arms around as a maker or a viewer interested in how things are made.

I hope this humane simplicity is part of everything I make here in the studio. Three years ago I had the brainstorm that I could get way closer to this goal by taking on the manufacture of my own wooden canvas stretcher bars.

Using trees that I helped plant.

Tree Poaching

When I was a teenager, my father Omar Stoltzfus decided to plant a tree farm. One of his reasons was that one particular type of tree had gotten so valuable that tree-poaching had become an actual thing in rural Virginia. The tree causing the fuss was Paulownia, and he’d heard of lumber mills paying several thousand dollars for one log. (Here’s a 2002 New York Times article confirming those numbers.) Being an ex-Amish farmer type, it’s not too surprising that it made sense to him to just plant some of those trees.

Experimenting ensued, and many pots of young paulownia trees were added to the summer watering routine that I took my turn at. A few years later this dream grew to include a nearby plot of land where there was room to let plants become trees. I remember not being thrilled with the work of clearing land. But I enjoyed learning how to run a chain saw. Also a plus was that the tree farm was in a beautiful spot, with Blue Ridge Mountain views.

Fast Forward 20 Years

Fast forward 20 some years, and I’m in my studio here in Brooklyn shopping for a new batch of stretcher bars online.  I notice a supplier listing paulownia wood as one of the available options. Remembering how valuable the wood was, I was surprised to see it being used this way. But I also remembered that the Chinese market in particular valued the wood for it’s light weight and stability. And it turned out that lots of farmers all over the world had planted these trees when the price got so high. So the wood was now inexpensive and widely available. And pretty good for making stretcher bars with.

So I called home. My father agreed to cut a few logs from the stand of trees I had helped him plant two decades ago. He thought he’d be able to get them to a lumber mill if he cut them when the ground was frozen. I’d just need to find a sawmill willing to work with a few special logs like that. With some help from Doug Lantz we found Justin Schweitzer at Willow Run Lumber who understood exactly what was needed. And so my parents loaded a chainsaw in a pickup truck and went looking for trees to cut down for my next batch of stretcher bars.

To be continued…