What’s in a frame

Vintage frame and Framing Design? WHAT’S IN A FRAME

The first step of picture framing is design. This is when choices are made about how best to present and preserve the art. Done well, framing design is a thoughtful process. Your art deserves the effort.

The following offers information about the materials and methods used in picture framing. With this information, you will better understand what goes into a good custom picture frame and thus avoid common mistakes.


Matting separates glazing (glass) from the art surface This is important because moisture will condense where there is no air gap, inviting mildew and mould. If fugitive media is used (such as charcoal, chalk, pastel, etc.), a gap of at least 1/4″ is needed to keep static electricity from pulling the medium from the substrate (surface material) and onto the glass. Multiple mats increase gap depth, as needed.

Matting provides a visual background. For this purpose, the wider the mat, the better. If the mat overpowers the art, then the mat colour is wrong. Mat width affects the visual importance of the finished piece.

Matting coordinates colours. You can emphasize certain colours in the art and help it fit into the chosen surroundings.

Colour choice

The top mat should be somewhat neutral in colour. It should also be of less colour intensity than the art. If the top mat dominates, it can distract from the art.

Additional mats beneath the top mat can be used to provide accents for colour coordination with surroundings or to emphasize certain colours in the art.

Mat width

  • Narrow mats are usually more of a distraction than an enhancement.
  • Wide mats create focus toward the art.


  • Mat decoration can enhance or detract from art. Common techniques include ink lines, marbled paper, V-grooves, watercolour or fabric panels. Be imaginative, but also conservative with mat decoration.

Cutting Methods

  • Rectangular openings are typically made with a bevelled edge, showing the mat’s core board. Professional framers use expensive mat cutting machines. The bevelled edges can be cut in reverse, so they do not show.
  • Oval or round openings can also be cut with bevelled edges, as above. Special mat cutting machinery is required. Some framers do not offer oval/round cuts others contract them out.
  • Hand cut mats are now uncommon, because most needs are met with specially made tools. Like hand lettering, hand cutting of mats is an old skill which stands out today. Done well, they are visually effective.

Matboard Types

  • Wood pulp paper is the standard matboard material. It is now buffered with calcium carbonate to retard acid burn. Low price. Not suitable for long term preservation.
  • Alpha-cellulose paper is highly purified wood pulp (all lignin removed). It is higher in price than standard matboard. It is suitable for preservation, if buffered.
  • 100% Rag paper has no wood pulp and is usually made from all-cotton fibres. It is also buffered, but has no inherent acid content. The core is usually pure white and will not discolour with age. This is the best matboard available. It is highly suitable for preservation.
  • Specialty matboards such as black core, coloured core, fabric-covered and textured surfaces are usually made with standard wood pulp paper.



Preservation mounting is the ultimate. This is the only method endorsed by all preservation authorities. The art paper is hinged at two or more points along its top edge using special Japanese paper and starch paste attached to 100% rag board backing. Other preservation-grade mounts may be devised as needed, but must meet the following criteria:

  • No permanent changes to the artwork. The mount must be completely reversible with non-destructive methods and materials.
  • All materials in contact with the artwork must be 100% rag or alpha-cellulose board. Minimum acceptable barrier is 4-ply (standard matboard thickness).

Hinge mounting uses linen, paper, or special tape to fasten top edge (only) of artwork to backing. This is usually reversible & causes little damage to artwork, but adhesives and materials are not always preservation-grade.

Wet mounting uses a water-base adhesive (similar to wallpaper paste) to glue paper down to a backing board. This is considered permanent but might be reversed by soaking artwork in water. Wet mounting is best done with a vacuum press.

Dry mounting uses heat activated adhesive tissue and a heated press, with or without vacuum. Dry mounting is considered permanent but is sometimes reversible with heat or solvents.

Spray mounting uses solvent-base aerosol adhesive. Spray mounting is considered permanent but is sometimes reversible with solvents. This mounting is best done with a vacuum press.

Sink mount is a “nest” beneath the mat. It is meant for art that is thicker than normal. Usually, adhesives are not in contact with artwork. This may be an acceptable preservation-grade mount if 100% rag boards are used to make the sink.

Photo corners may be purchased or custom-made to fit. It is good for photos and other rigid-paper art. Gravity works against these mounts. The art paper may sag and wrinkle horizontally.

Mounting Boards

Matboard is often used as a backing board for mounting. It may be standard wood pulp, alpha-cellulose or 100% rag, depending on quality requirements of the project. For large pieces, added backings may be needed for stiffness.

Foam-centre board is Styrofoam with paper covering on both sides and has smooth white surface with limited acidity. This board is also available with acid-free or 100% rag paper covers, but is never preservation-grade because of out-gassing problems.

3X board is heavy cardboard (similar to illustration board) with smooth white surface and acidic wood pulp paper.


Preservation mounting should be used for all original art, collectible prints and items of sentimental value that you want to preserve.

Wet mounting under vacuum is recommended for porous paper which has no significant value, such as posters & maps. Most stable over time. NOTE: backing board may warp, if not supported in a frame.

Dry mounting is recommended for photos and other non-porous paper artworks which have no significant value. Over time, drymount tissue may deteriorate and loosen the mount in spots.

Other mounting methods and materials should be chosen when most appropriate for the art.

Avoid the use of mounting materials unsuited for the purpose.



  • Lengths usually manufactured and factory-finished for framing.
  • Enormous variety of sizes, shapes and colours.
  • Prices range from $4.00 to $300.00 per foot. A typical price is about $8.00/ft.
  • Methods of joining corners:
    • Glue & nail with brads; mitre-vice needed – results vary.
    • Glue & V-Nail; special machine needed – very secure results and most recommended. We use this method exclusively at Atelier Daniel.
    • Glue & plastic inserts; ends must be routed with special tools (Final assembly can be done without tools). Secure results.


  • Extruded in limited shapes and sizes.
  • Finished by anodizing or painting; many colors & finishes available.
  • Prices range from $2.00 to $30.00 per foot; typical price about $6.00/ft.
  • Corners joined with steel compression-type hardware.

Plastic (not offered at Atelier Daniel)

  • Usually polystyrene.
  • Moulded or extruded; usually smooth finish.
  • Prices range from $1.50 to $15.00 per foot; typical price about $5.00/ft.
  • Corners joined with special glue (very strong bond); nails optional.



  • Clear picture framing glass is the most common and the least expensive for general glazing purposes. It is often called “regular” glass but shouldn’t be confused with lower quality window glass.
  • Non-glare glass is about twice the price of clear glass. The etched surface blurs the image when viewed from side angles especially when the glass is properly separated from the art surface. The greater the separation, the more the image will appear blurred.
  • Ultraviolet-filtering glass is available clear or non-glare. It is recommended for all preservation projects. It is coated inside to filter out more than 95% of harmful UV light, which causes fading. UV rays are in all forms of light but strongest in sunlight and fluorescent light. The charge for UV-filtering glass is about the same as for non-glare glass.
  • Reduced-reflection glass is available with or without UV-filters. It is not etched like non-glare glass, but is coated on one or both sides. The metallic coatings disperse reflected light and allow better clarity that any other glazing. In some conditions, it looks like there is no glass at all. Its availability is relatively new to the framing industry and it also available with UV filters. The charge for this type of glass is 4 to 10 times that of regular glass.


  • Acrylic looks similar to glass but costs more. It requires more labour for the framer. It is light weight & shatter-resistant. The disadvantages are that it scratches easily and makes static electricity (deadly for fugitive media such as pastels). It is more flexible than glass and tends to distort in large sizes. Available in several thicknesses, with or without UV filters.
  • Styrene is a cheap substitute for acrylic, with similar characteristics. It looks the same when new, but turns yellow and brittle with age.

Flexible laminates

These may be used on posters, photos or other easily-replaced, disposable or temporary art. Laminates are thin vinyl with adhesive on the back, and come in several textured, matte or glossy surfaces. Some kinds have pressure-sensitive adhesive, which can be applied with a brayer. Others have a heat-activated adhesive, designed for application in a drymount press. Laminating is permanent and should not be considered for any preservation project.

About Size

  • Framing costs vary by size of the frame. Framers use a measure called “United Inches”(UI) for calculating prices. United Inches refers to half of the frame’s perimeter. In other words, UI = height + width of frame’s rabbet perimeter (where frame’s contents fit). For example, 16″ x 20” frame = 36 UI.
  • Most sheet materials come 32″ x 40″. Anything over this is called oversize. Cost is higher for oversize materials. Mat colour options are greatly reduced for oversize items. Larger items are more difficult to handle and store so labour cost is higher.

Fitting (assembly of all parts)

  • Wood and plastic frames – To hold all the parts in we use glazier’s points, small brads, or staples driven partially into the inside of the moulding. If the frame is over-filled, you will need offset clips (see your framer).
  • Metal Frames – Parts are retained by the moulding itself, but will be very loose. To hold parts tightly against the front of the frame we use specially-made spring clips.
  • Dust cover should be provided for all frames. We cover the entire back of the frame with Black heavy gauge paper. This improves the appearance but more importantly it seals the frame against dust and insects.
  • Bottom corners of the frame should have small bumpers in order to: A) Keep frame edge away from wall providing air circulation; B) Keep the frame from sliding easily on the wall; and C) Protect wall surfaces/coverings.

Hanging Hardware

  • Saw tooth hangers are OK for very small frames but are inadequate for frames larger than 5″ x 7″.
  • Wire is best for frames up to a weight of 30 lbs. Stainless steel or coated wires are stronger, will not rust or corrode and will avoid marks on walls. We make sure that the ends are securely fastened to hangers and that these are securely fastened to the frame. Use proper size picture frame hangers, two per frame spaced apart to avoid tipping, not just a nail in the wall.
  • For frames over 30 lbs. we use separate hangers on each side of the frame back and no wire. If a wire is used on a heavy frame, the sides may pull toward the center and the corner joints will be strained. The top and bottom rails of the frame tend to bow.