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What to Know About Professional Framing Before You Get It Done

BY: Sean O'Toole | Jun 22, 2017

Maybe you just got back from a Caribbean vacation with dozens of postcard-worthy shots. Or maybe your phone's full of adorable photos of your new puppy. Or perhaps you're just tired of that one empty wall in the living room looking so lonely. Whatever the case may be for adorning your wall with prints and photos, you'll need to be ready to make some decisions in the picture framing process. From cost to materials to colors, our guide breaks down everything you need to know for your next big framing purchase.

How much does picture framing cost?

It's no secret custom framing can get pricey. Proper professional framing is time consuming, requires great skill and care, and makes use of high-quality framing materials such as fine woods and special protective glass. A number of variables affect the ultimate cost, but the biggest two are the size of the artwork and the choice of materials. It's rare to custom frame even a small piece for less than $50 or so (unless you have a Groupon for framing), while on the high end of the cost spectrum, museum-quality framing of a large work can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

A good rule of thumb is to keep the cost of the framing in proportion to the cost of the piece. So if you're framing a $60 poster, skip the mat and use standard glass to keep costs down. If you're framing a high-quality painting, you'll want to choose materials that are going to protect your investment and make it look its best.

What will the framer ask me to decide?

There are four main parts of a frame you'll have to select:

  1. The actual frame
  2. The mat
  3. The mounting board
  4. The glass

How do I choose a frame?

Aside from your budget, the primary factor in choosing a frame is its appearance. Typically you'll want to select a frame that complements the artwork in some way. For instance, for a landscape painting of a forest, you might choose a wood frame that roughly matches the color or type of wood depicted in the scene. A black-and-white photograph of a skyscraper, however, might look best in a modern-looking metal frame.

You can also consider the decor of the room where you'll be hanging the piece, but beware—an attractively framed work tends to mesh with its surroundings better than you might think.

Pro Tip: Prioritize matching the frame to the artwork over matching it to your couch.

 

How do I choose a mat?

Matboard is the part of the frame that's probably least understood by the general public, and with good reason—there are a lot of options here, and their meaning is not always self-evident. Let's start with the purpose: by adding a border between the artwork and the frame, you draw the viewer's eye in toward the work and improve its presentation. Picture mats also keep the glass from touching the piece, which is necessary for allowing air circulation and preventing moisture from building up.

That said, matboard is not strictly necessary in all cases, as in the poster example above. But if you choose to add one (or two, or three—you can always layer the mats), there are two main choices you'll have to make.

Grade

One thing to know about mats is that if they're made from untreated wood pulp, they'll eventually release their acidity into surrounding materials, potentially causing the artwork to yellow or degrade in what's known as "acid burn." So instead of plain paper mats, you can ask for acid-free mats that have been chemically treated to reduce this effect. An even safer (and more expensive) option is what's known as "RagMat," a cotton-fiber material that's naturally acid-free. On top of that, you can get matboard of either material that's been "buffered," meaning it has calcium carbonate added to actively neutralize acids from other sources, though this isn't advisable for all pieces.

Color

An off-white or otherwise neutral shade is a safe choice for most works, though you can also select a color that matches some element of the piece. As with the frame, you generally don't want to worry too much about matching the mat to your decor. It's more important to choose a mat that makes the work look its best.

How do I choose a mounting board?

This part's pretty simple. Adhering the mat to a mounting board keeps it stiff so that it doesn't bend or wrinkle, which means standard foam core works fine in most cases. For more sensitive works, you may want to upgrade to a 100% acid-free mounting board for preservation purposes.

How do I choose a glazing (AKA glass)?

"Glazing" is the term for the top cover of the frame, and it comes in either acrylic or glass. What you're really deciding here is the level of protection you want to purchase for your artwork. Standard acrylic glazing works well for most posters and photographs you don't anticipate handing down to your children's children's children. Beyond that, you can invest in various forms of glass that feature UV protection, anti-glare coating, or both. For truly important pieces, you can invest in "museum glass," which is optimized for long-term preservation—and is priced accordingly.