Background In two-channel competitive genomic hybridization microarray experiments, the ratio of the two fluorescent signal intensities at each spot on the microarray is commonly used to infer the relative amounts of the test and reference sample DNA levels. This ratio may be influenced by systematic measurement effects from non-biological sources that can introduce biases in the estimated ratios. These biases should be removed before drawing conclusions about the relative levels of DNA. The performance of existing gene expression microarray normalization strategies has not been evaluated for removing systematic biases encountered in array-based comparative genomic hybridization (CGH), which aims to detect single copy gains and losses typically in samples with heterogeneous cell populations resulting in only slight shifts in signal ratios. The purpose of this work is to establish a framework for correcting the systematic sources of variation in high density CGH array images, while maintaining the true biological variations. Results After an investigation of the systematic variations in the data from two array CGH platforms, SMRT (Sub Mega base Resolution Tiling) BAC arrays and cDNA arrays of Pollack et al., we have developed a stepwise normalization framework integrating novel and existing normalization methods in order to reduce intensity, spatial, plate and background biases. We used stringent measures to quantify the performance of this stepwise normalization using data derived from 5 sets of experiments representing self-self hybridizations, replicated experiments, detection of single copy changes, array CGH experiments which mimic cell population heterogeneity, and array CGH experiments simulating different levels of gene amplifications and deletions. Our results demonstrate that the three-step normalization procedure provides significant improvement in the sensitivity of detection of single copy changes compared to conventional single step normalization approaches in both SMRT BAC array and cDNA array platforms. Conclusion The proposed stepwise normalization framework preserves the minute copy number changes while removing the observed systematic biases.