|In the spring of 2010, I took part in a local “tweed bike ride” (Velocipede & Tweed Indeed). For the event, I purchased a used beach cruiser which I’d been eyeing at a local bike shop for almost 2 years; for me, the event was the perfect excuse to finally buy the damn thing rather than just ride it around their floor and their parking lot – and for the manager, it was the perfect opportunity to clear some floor space that had too-long been dedicated to an apparently hard-to-sell item. I walked – or rode, rather – out of the store with the bike for a song and a Benjamin.The local newspaper – The KC Star – did an 8-shot photo-spread of the event, and low-and-behold, my brand new beautiful bike was the cover photo! On a side note, another of the 8 pictures was of me – taking a picture, go figure. Somehow, I managed to comprise 25% of the presentation, but I digress – back to the picture of my bike, shall we? Not only was my orange beauty the subject of the cover photo, but the image itself was gorgeous. I had to have it – I had to have it printed, the print had to be large, it had to be framed, and it had to be hanging on my wall.I e-mailed the photographer and asked him what my licensing options were – and he sent me the full-size JPEG and carte blanche in response. Woohoo!! I ordered a 16 x 20 print from Kodak’s online print service (which, by the way, farms their work out to Miller’s Professional Imaging, aka MPIX; tip of the day: bypass the middle man and save a few bucks). A few days later, with print in hand, I was off to the local print shops for quotes!3 shops later, for a 26 x 30 simple black frame with white 4-ply matting, I had 3 different quotes ranging from $98 to $220. Not knowing any better, I went with the $98 frame job. I was pleased with the results – the frame and mat look really nice, and given that the print is on Kodad’s 100-year-rated metalic pearlescent paper, I probably came out OK; even if they didn’t use archival materials, the print will probably outlast me.
And then several months later, I took another – smaller – print to the same shop and asked them to prepare it in exactly the same way they’d done the first one – only smaller. ~$80 and a few days later, it came back – with a black mat instead of a white one. I should have taken them to task immediately, but I decided to hang it on the wall to see what it looked like first. I decided I didn’t like it – but not enough to actually haul it back into the shop.
After that, I had 3 prints – an 11 x 14 and two at 5 x 7 – that I wanted framed. Having learned my lesson with the “cheap” shop, I committed to spending the extra cash to “have it done right.” $400 later, I had 3 beautiful wall-hangings. Huh?!? There has to be a cheaper – and maybe better – way, right? As it turns out, there is – frame your stuff yourself.
So over the past couple months, I’ve undertaken a couple of my own framing projects – and so far with acceptable results and a large savings in cash outlay. The journey, however, has been fraught with frustration. I hope that by sharing my experience and knowledge, perhaps I can save you some of your own money – and maybe some blood (literally), sweat, and tears, too.
|A friend of mine proofed this article for me a few days ago and asked a very valid question: “If I have the digital image, and if I can get a replacement print for a couple bucks, why the hell would I spend more than $10 to hang it on the wall? Who cares if it sticks to the glass or turns yellow?”With few exceptions, people don’t generally make consistent and regular backups of their digital images. A (different) friend of mine had the hard drive in her laptop fail about a year ago; the laptop was almost 5 years old, she had gigs upon gigs of photos stored there, and she’d never once backed-up the system. Not once. She was able to recover many of her pictures from Facebook – but those weren’t the hi-rez versions. For many more of her pictures – by no coincidence, her most cherished images (as evidenced by the fact that she cared enough about them to order prints) – she was left with only the hard copies in her photo album.So I suppose that if you’re one of those anal types who backs-up on a regular basis and stores at least one copy of those backups in a fire safe and / or off-site, then archival framing may not be for you. A $10 frame from Walmart, so long as you’re happy with the way it looks on the wall, is fine – and this article is not for you.
On the other hand, if you’re a typical computer user, or you give a damn about what your print looks like on the wall (or both), then read on.
Right, so now you’ve decided that a $10 frame from Walmart isn’t for you – and you have to decide what is for you. At the one extreme is museum framing with specific aesthetic features (e.g., framing and matting custom coordinated to match the print) and which will preserve the print for literally hundreds of years while still allowing the print to be viewed on display (as opposed to dark storage, which can conceivably preserve a print for thousands of years – but nobody gets to see it). At the other extreme is the aforementioned cheap framing from your local variety store; often, these cheap frames will actively deteriorate your prints.
You have to balance asthetics, cost, and the degree of protection – and somewhere in the middle is the flexibility to mat and mount your print as you see fit (e.g., off-center or in a non-standard frame) with archival materials which will both sufficiently preserve your print and look good on the wall. It’s this middle ground for which I strive.
With that in mind, a couple notes…
|Before diving in, I should share some general notes on “archival framing”. As I note above, if you’re opting to “do it right” versus spending $10 at Target, you should be using archival materials and employing “archival technique”.
|The Frame (aka Moulding)|
|The frame should be metal or aged wood. New wood can off-gas chemicals which will harm your print.In my research, I found that it’s not economical to build my own frames. The cost of the required tools – if you don’t already own them – is prohibitive, and buying moulding in sufficient bulk to make it cost-effective presents two problems:
Make sure you buy a frame with a sufficiently deep rabbet to hold the whole stack pictured at the top of of this page (as of this writing, PictureFrames.com has a good definition of “rabbet” if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Basically, you’re going to have to measure the width of all the components you’re going to stack inside the frame and make sure you get a frame that’s deep enough that all the pieces will fit with room to spare.
Some of the sites and at least one book I dug into recommend that wooden frames should be sealed. This is usually done with tape (check out this picture at Blick’s to get an idea) or by painting the rabbet with clear acrylic sealer. The idea is to keep the wood – especially younger wood – from off-gassing acids and other harmful things into the frame’s interior. And that said, several of the sites I ran across indicated that such sealing is only necessary for the finest artwork being given the museum treatment, and even then it may be not be necessary. As always, and as I’ve stated elsewhere in this article, the truth is probably somewhere in between, right?
Go ahead and order a custom-sized frame. As of this writing, the half dozen or so online frame retailers I’ve checked charge at most a couple bucks (literally) more for custom frames than for standard-sized (presumably already built and in-stock) frames. My favorite retailer, in fact, charges less: $21.71 for a standard 20 x 24 frame of my favorite moulding vs. $21.60 for a custom 19 x 22 frame of the same moulding (yes, I know that’s more per inch of moulding, but the example still illustrates my point beautifully, so STFU).
Skip the hanging hardware kits offered up by the online retailers and head to your local hardware store instead. Not only will you save money, but you’ll quite possibly avoid ruining your frame. All of the online retailers I’ve checked put the same-size screw (the screw size varies from retailer to retailer) in all their hanging kits; the only thing that varies from kit-to-kit is the length of the included wire. If they ship you screws that are too big for your frame’s width, you’ll split the wood if you try to put them in – and if the screws are too long, the points will come through the front of the frame.
|Ultimately, what glaze you use will be a combination of personal preference, budget, how large the framed image will be, and where you’re going to hang the print. Here are my notes on the matter:
I’ve looked at the glazes at 2 local frame shops. At one shop, the UV, anti-glare, and UV + anti-glare glass were all unacceptable. At the other (more expensive) shop, these same types of glazes had less impact on image viewing – but were still not acceptable. This week, however, I ordered glaze samples from my favorite online supplier and looked at them all against a white 4-ply mat and both black & white and color prints. Frankly, I was shocked. All 4 Acrylite(R) samples were acceptable. The 2 UV blocking glazes had a noticable yellow-green tint when I held them up to the light, but when put against the mat and print, I had to look hard to see it. The lesson learned? Get a sample before out-of-hand dismissal of UV-protecting glaze, and if you don’t like the way it looks, try another brand. If you can find a UV-protecting glaze with which you can live, your print will love you for it.
Finally, the most important thing to remember when selecting a glaze is that your goal is to preserve your print for maybe a couple decades and to make it look good on the wall while doing so. If you put the frame together correctly, you can always quickly and easily replace the glazing. If the glaze stops meeting your criteria for clarity or print protection for some reason (e.g., it shatters, clouds, or becomes scratched), simply replace it.
|The (front) Mat (aka Matboard aka Window Mat)|
|From an archival perspective, the matting (front and back) comprises arguably the most important pieces of the frame. The matting comes into direct contact with the print, and if it’s not acid- and lignin-free, it will damage your print; cheap matting material will degrade your prints with alarming and amazing rapidity.
|The Print and The Mount|
|The print will need to be mounted to something in some fashion so that it remains stationary within the frame. Exactly how it’s mounted will depend on the type and size of print as well as personal preference.
|The Back Mat (aka Mountboard)|
|The back mat is optional, especially if the print is T-Hinged to the window mat, and I’ve seen some tutorials that recommend simply pressing the front mat and print against the back board. In the name of protecting the print, however, a back mat is highly recommended.As noted above, the mat doesn’t have to be museum-quality, but you should make sure that the stuff is both acid- and lignin-free.Also as noted above, to prevent any surprises in the case of a frame tear-down, the back mat should be hinged to the (front) mat with acid- and lignin-free tape along one (the top) edge.|
|The (Mysterious) Impermeable Layer|
|Very few of the resources I found even mention this part of the frame stack, and none of them mention the exact nature of the material. A friend of a friend who does occasional work for The Smithsonian (no kidding) says that this piece is normally “mylar”, but that he has “used aluminum foil in a pinch”. He’s the kind of guy that I don’t want to pester – so I haven’t.The few references I’ve found on the topic say that it’s primarily a humidity-control mechanism; this layer helps keep the humidity inside the frame from changing too rapidly. As an example, here in Kansas City, the average relative humidity in the winter will drop to about 30%; in the summer, it will climb to over 90%. As the humidity in the room around the print changes, the humidity inside the frame will change too – and this is OK, just so long as the change doesn’t take place too rapidly: rapid humidity change inside the frame will cause the print to curl.In spite of the lack of specific information, given the purpose of this layer, the little bit of what I do know, and what I know about collecting comic books, I can take some educated guesses…
I did a lot of searching for thin mylar film or other material designed for this specific purpose (think search terms like “print framing impermeable layer thin film mylar”) – and came up almost dry. I did find a few plastics and photographic supplies retailers who will cut mylar to order or sell you rolls – but all are out-of-this-world expensive (hundreds or even thousands of dollars for shockingly very little of the stuff). After some thought, it occured to me that you can buy over-size print mylar and polypropylene protectors from literally hundreds of online retailers (not to mention your local comic book shop) – and these (polypropelene) protectors are dirt cheap, inert (for the most part – see below), acid-free, and easy to cut.
I found these cool 24 x 36 ClearBags(TM) which work perfectly. My favorite format is the 11 x 14 print in a 19 x 22 frame, so this size will cover the vast majority of my applications. Conceivably, for larger frames, you could pop the big bucks (they’ll sell you a roll of 42 x 42 bags for $176) or you could use ATG (see below) to knit a couple of these “smaller” pieces together.
One last note on this topic: if you go the route I’ve described here, be aware that these bags are made of polypropelene, not mylar. Similar mylar protectors are available, but are significantly more expensive. The reason that I’m noting this is that while polypropylene is exceptionally stable in – and recommended for – dark storage, mylar is more chemically stable and UV-resistant than polypropelene (in fact, Mylar-D is exceptionally UV-resistant). Polypropelene, on the other hand, is particularly susceptible to UV radiation – and releases acids as it breaks down under exposure (and, on a side note, will do the same thing at high temperatures). Since this layer is deep inside the dark bowels of the frame, however, polypropelene should work exceptionally well for this application. You would be well-advised to be mindful of how you store the stuff outside the frame.
|The Back Board (aka Backing Board)|
|The back board is the load-bearing piece in the stack, and should be stout enough to hold everything stacked in the frame when the frame is held back-to-the-ground.Typically, this piece is a slab of 8-ply mat, foamcore / foamboard, or gatorboard. Of course, it should be acid- and lignin-free. On a related note, I’ve read on some sites that “acid-free foamcore” isn’t really acid-free; only the outer paper / rag shell is acid-free, and worse, the inner foam is prone to crumbling. On the other hand, I’ve found numerous sites that claim that their archival “foamcore” and “mountboard” products – especially the ArtCare foamboard products made by Lodima Archival Materials (previously known as Superior Archival Materials, Inc) – are acid-free through-and-through, and are rated for museum framing. The truth – as always – probably lies somewhere in the middle. I’ve decided it’s OK to use archival foamboard, and that I’ll keep an eye on my framed hangings. If it looks like the foamboard is degrading, I’ll just tear-down the frame and replace it.Don’t skimp on this piece; if you ever need to pull the inserts (aka points, see below) out for frame disassembly, you’ll be thankful for the extra layer of protection between your pliers and your print.|
|The (Almost) Final Assembly|
|To hold the whole stack together, you need something to wedge the stack against the front glaze. With a wooden frame, this is most commonly done with small sharp metalic shims referred to as “points” or “inserts” which literally get shot into the frame’s rabbet.Before taking on my first project, I had no idea what a “point driver” is. Basically, a point driver is a sideways stapler that fires points instead of, well, staples. A couple quick notes:
|The Backing Paper (aka Dust Cover)|
|Backing paper covers the back of the frame, serves as a barrier to dust, and keeps bugs out of the frame. Amazingly, a lot of the local shops use standard “brown kraft paper” for this piece – which bothers me for a couple reasons:
Right, so I went on a search for archival backing paper. This endeavor was almost as frustrating as trying to find suitable mylar for the impermeable layer. As it turns out, The Big Boys use Tyvek(R) and Tyvek-based products – and I, for one, can’t afford the stuff.
Only one company that I could find makes an affordable archival backing paper – Lineco. They sell the paper in 4 packages: three at 16″ x 72″, 20″ x 72″, and 24″ x 72″ and – get this – 36″ x 300′. That single quote isn’t a typo. 36 inches x 300 feet. The small packages (good for one to three frames) go for about $12 + tax and shipping from various online retailers; on average, they work out to about 0.8 cents per square inch. The 300′ roll goes for about $60 – which works out to about 0.04 cents per square inch. The 300′ roll is a no-brainer – and the smart guy would cut the stuff up and resell it in smaller sheets. In fact, Framing4Yourself.com appears to be doing just that. I ordered the 25-sheet package, and the stuff appears to be identical to the paper in the 20 x 72 package I found at the local hobby shop.
Once you have your paper, you need to attach it, right? This is most commonly done with 3M’s 908 acid-free adhesive and an Adhesive Tape Gun (ATG). Basically, you apply the adhesive to the back of the frame around the 4 edges (or however many edges your frame has) and overlapping at the corners so that when the paper is applied, a good seal is formed all the way around. Once the adhesive is down, you lay down the paper and then trim off the excess.
A couple notes:
Finally, they make special knives for trimming the excess paper. I found a video that shows how to use the knife – it’s basically a beveled carpet knife that uses the outer edge of the frame as a guide to make the trim nice and straight. I also found a handful of sites and videos that mention the existance of such a knife. None of these sites and videos, however, mention the official name of the tool and neither do they tell you where you can buy one. The good news is you don’t need it; an XACTO knife, some patience, and some care will work just fine. Just be careful that you trim to the inside if the frame has an outer shell or treatment. Remember also that this is the back of the frame, and your trim doesn’t have to be perfectly straight; in theory, nobody will be looking at it, right?
|The Final Assembly|
|The final piece in the frame – not pictured in my illustration – is the hanging hardware, which is usually comprised of two screws, two hinges, some wire, and a couple bumpers. Many web sites and tutorial videos speak to hanging frames, so I’ll only make a few quick points.As noted above, skip the hanging hardware kits offered up by the online retailers and head to your local hardware store instead.Use screws that are sized correctly for your frame; if in doubt, take the frame with you into the hardware store (before you frame the print, right?).
And to be perfectly clear: yes, the screws go through the backing paper.
Finally, the bumpers are typicallly small pieces of rubber, silicon, or felt glued to the bottom corners of the back of the frame. These keep the frame from damaging the wall and, in the case of rubber or silicon, keep the picture from swaying off level.
|General framing information and tips from the AIC (PDF warning!)
Marketing information on ArtCare(TM) products by Lodima.
Frames by Mail – Custom and standard frames and framing supplies on the cheap, but they say little or nothing about the archival qualities of their products, and they do not appear to offer UV-protective glazing. I have not ordered from these folks, so cannot speak to the quality of their products.
MatShop – Standard-sized frames, mats, glaze, and backing via web site, custom sizes over the phone. Pricing seems reasonable. I have not ordered from these jokers, so I cannot speak to the quality of their products.
PictureFrames.com – Custom and standard frames, mats, glaze, backing, and more – and boy, do they seem to be proud of their products. These guys were the most expensive of any retailer I researched. I have not ordered from PictureFrames.com, so I cannot speak to the quality of what they sell – but for the prices they’re asking, the stuff had better be f’ing fantastic…
American Frame – Custom and standard frames, mats, glaze, backing, and more. Pricing seems reasonable, and they sell good archival mats from two reputable manufacturers. They claim their backboards are acid-free, but don’t name a make or brand. I have not ordered from these guys, so I can’t speak to their product quality, but on the surface, it looks like exceptional product at great pricing.
Frame Destination – Custom and standard everything except dust covers. Reasonable prices, fantastic product. I’ve done business with these guys on several occasions, and not only do they sell a good product line, they also have an ace customer service department.
Framing4Yourself – Custom and standard everything. Great for hard-to-find pieces that other retailers don’t carry, like non-kitted hanging hardware and acid-free backing paper. Prices are all over the place by comparison to other vendors, but they have good customer service, order-fulfillment turn-around, and shipping times.
Logan Graphics – Information on mat cutters, point drivers, and more. Particularly useful for how-to documentation and videos.
Blick’s – Massive and highly respected art supplies retailer, good source for misc art and framing supplies, like Lineco tapes.
3M ATG Product Page – Information on 3M’s ATG products. Two quick notes:
How to hinge a print into a mat. This YouTube video is perfect!