Various frames with portraits inside

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Framing solutions are equally important to both the art collector and to the artist. Framing and properly protecting artwork is critical to maintaining a work’s value.

Everyone has had something framed at one time or another: a work of art, a needlework sampler, a certificate or diploma. With works of art, the frame is extremely important. I am pretty sure that you know several professional framers in your area. As with any other profession, some are good and some lousy.

I have seen people buy the most hideous paintings because they, unlike anyone else in the room, knew something about the picture frame. Many people purchase works of art only for the frame.

Many works of art just happen to be frames. For instance, European baroque frames (produced from about 1600 to 1700), highly ornate and decorated Louis XVI style frames (produced during the late 1700s), and Stanford White’s famous Gilded Age frames (early 1900s) are all highly regarded and collectible works of fine art themselves. These frames often bring high prices.

Look to purchase a frame that complements your art while offering protection from dirt, particles, dust, insects, etc. Professional framing can be the best friend or the worst enemy of any work of art. In terms of value, if something is not framed properly, it can do significant damage. In some cases, the framer’s carelessness could result in a valuable piece decreasing in value.

What is professional framing?

FramesMost frame shops are dedicated to archival, museum quality framing. This sounds very good but what does that really mean?

A professional, standard archival, quality frame shop will only use 100% cotton rag or other all natural and reversible materials in their mats and appropriate archival protective processes for framing. Framers who offer archival framing services will use linen tape, for example, to secure the work of art to the mat so it does not shift in the frame. They should never use cellophane tape or masking tape or another adhesive such as basic glue to hold down a work of art within a frame. Linen tape is reversible and can be easily removed with low heat from a blow dryer.

What about drymounting my art?

Don’t let anyone drymount a work on paper or anything else of value to a mat when framing it. Some framers may tell you that it is easier to drymount the work or that the work is too big to be secured with linen tape and that the piece has to be drymounted to foam core board to secure it within a frame. Don’t do it!

Although linen tape is more tedious to use and more expensive than drymounting equipment and tissue, you don’t have to drymount pieces to frame them. The size of the piece doesn’t matter. The quality and respectability of the framer does.

With pieces of lesser value, you don’t have to stick to your guns on the linen tape issue. For instance, when framing a poster or other inexpensive work, drymounting is fine since the piece is just meant for your enjoyment rather than for investment.

Drymounting is fine because it will keep the poster flat and prevent it from buckling. When you are framing a work of fine art or an original work on paper, however, drymounting is a no-no. Remember, if a work of art is permanently secured to its mat or frame by drymounting, regular tape, or glue, it decreases significantly in value — I mean significantly! Like to nearly zero. You are literally attaching a foreign object to a work of art and as such, you have manipulated the piece with no recourse.

The process of drymounting uses heat to attach the artwork to a foam core board or cardboard backing forever. Using regular adhesive (cellophane or masking) tape could result in leaving damaging adhesive marks and if not careful and lucky, damaging rips and tears to the artwork. When you try to remove tape, you run the risk of ripping the work of art and completely devaluing the work.

Glue is a horror story, plain and simple. Glue removal usually requires professional conservation studio experts to save the work of art. Glue can promote the growth of mold and mildew which can damage a work on paper permanently. Damage equals a reduction in value.

Simply, ask the framer to explain the framing process to you before getting your piece framed. Don’t leave a work of art with a framer who has not convinced you that the work will be cared for properly. Most good framers will happily explain their process.

Which type of glass should I choose?

A professional framer will give you the choice of ultraviolet or UV blocking glass (to protect your work of art from the sun’s harmful rays), regular glass (a simple, old fashioned, heavy but good option), or non-glare glass (a product that is pretty expensive and not always necessary). I don’t recommend putting any work of art in direct sunlight even if you have UV glass on the work. The UV glass won’t completely prevent fading but it will give some protection.

If you are concerned about the cost of framing (and who isn’t?), select regular glass because it is a cheaper option. Remember, regular glass is heavy. For those of us who wear eyeglasses, we remember the big difference we felt on the bridge of our nose when we had the option of buying lightweight plastic lenses. It’s the same principle in art framing.

Regular glass is heavy so make sure you have a strong picture hanger or wall hook so your framed work is secured to the wall. Wall hangers or picture hangers are designed by the weight of the picture (e.g., 10 lbs., 30 lbs., 50 lbs.) If you choose regular glass, remember that it is heavier and that it will not protect your work from UV rays or glare.

Non-glare glass is not necessary most of the time. The basic thought on this point is if you are concerned about glare then there is probably too much light coming into the area where you have the piece an display anyway. If you have a piece of artwork in this situation, then you should move the piece to another spot or buy UV glass.

What are mats and spacers?

Selecting mats for works of art can be problematic and a little scary. It is not as easy as it looks. Framing a print or work on paper differs significantly from framing a painting or other type of work of art. Paintings usually do not use glass to cover their surface while works on paper or prints typically require mats or spacers with a piece of glass covering its surface.

The purpose of a spacer (and a mat is basically a type of spacer) is to provide an area of space between the work of art and the glass. You do not want any work of art to touch the glass of a frame. Condensation, dirt, dust, and tiny particles can build up and adhere to the glass in your frame. This could result in damage to the work of art.

For those pieces that just wouldn’t look appropriate with a mat surrounding them, professional framers offer methods to keep the work of art away from the framed piece of glass without using mats. These framing components are called, simply, spacers. They do what their name says they do, they give space between the work of art and the glass. These spacers are usually little plastic elements that are placed within the area between the art and the frame (you can’t see them in a completed frame as they are hidden). They provide space so the work of art doesn’t touch the frame or the glass. The result is that the work on paper or similar 2-D piece looks as if it is floating in the frame. This is often a desired framing method for contemporary works of art.

What about prices for framing?

In addition to a specific skill set, framers must have experience in the field. Most frames are custom or nearly customized to fit your work of art. Solid woods are a rarity and the price is usually quite high for frames and rarely are they made of solid wood.  You should be aware, completely aware, of the materials that you are purchasing. Shop around for the best prices and ask questions. The framers who don’t want to spend time answering your questions or help you make smart decisions about frames, don’t deserve your business.

You may want to print out these questions (and some of my hints) and bring them with you when you go to the frame shop. It is a good little cheat sheet for fine art framing.

What questions do I ask my framer?  
(My hints are in parentheses)

1. Do you offer and provide acid free mat board when framing?

_ Yes  _ No
(Most framers do!)

2. Is there an extra charge for acid free mat board?

_ Yes  _ No
(The answer is typically Yes since acid free mats are usually more costly, but they are worth it.)

3. Is this frame solid hardwood?

_ Yes  _ No
(Solid hardwoods are expensive, but worth it in terms of protection. This is a cost and personal preference issue.)

4. Is this a molding made from another material? If so, what material?

_ Yes  _ No
(This is a cost question and you should know what you’re getting. Are you getting glued together sawdust? plaster? something other than solid wood?)

5. Is it ok to drymount my valuable antique or work of art?

_  Yes  _ No
(drymounting is fine for inexpensive pieces like posters, if you are sure you only have a poster, but for valuable or original works it is a No-No as it reduces value significantly.)

6. Is that gold frame that I selected a gilded frame?

_ Yes  _ No
(Make sure you are not getting a gold frame and paying for gilding. A gilded frame is one which has had pieces of gold leaf applied to the frame. This is usually done by highly skilled artisans. A gold frame that is not gilded may be a very good frame at a competitive price, but it just may not be a gilded frame.)

7. How do you secure the work or piece to the mat?

_ Yes  _ No
(An excellent option is linen tape.)

8. Will there be space between your object and the frame?

_ Yes  _ No
(You do not want your object right up against the glass.  A mat or invisible spacer provides the necessary space you need between your object and the glass.)

9. Are you using glass with a framing project that includes a textile or fabric like a sampler or sports jersey?

_ Yes  _ No
(Although you see it done everywhere and it may keep the dust out, the glass creates an environment that traps heat and moisture which will ruin your piece over time.)

10. How much is the mat?

(Depends on size of the piece being framed and archival qualities of the mat.)

11. How much is the labor cost?

(Depends on frame size, number of cuts in the mat, quality of the products)

12. How much is the frame itself?

(Wood frames are usually more expensive than metal frames or composition frames. Size impacts cost as does details, form or style, gilding, handcrafted frames, specialty stains, carving techniques.)

13. What is the difference in price between UV glass and regular glass?

(Typically, UV glass will cost about 40% more than regular glass.)