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Framing Device: Tips for displaying your original artwork

There are a lot of options when it comes to framing original art. We break down the pros and cons of each method.

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By Sean Z.

Congrats on getting that new piece of convention artwork – it looks great! But what are you going to do with it when you get home? Are you going to place it in an art book? Or are you going to frame it?

Understanding framing can be confusing. There are many unfortunate gotchas that will needlessly raise the cost of framing, or result in your artwork’s premature death. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to get easy, cost-effective framing that won’t destroy your artwork. It just requires a little planning.

What do you want?

This is the most important question when you decide you want to have something framed. The first thing to consider is: Why do you want to frame it? Are you doing it because you want to display it on your wall? Are you doing it because you want to protect it?

Blu-Tack or push-pins will get the job done for some art. If you have a free poster from a con that you like but don’t necessarily want to preserve long term, why spend the money to frame it?

On the other hand, if you have a commission, signed work, or anything of value (emotional, monetary, etc), you may want to protect it while also displaying it. That’s when it’s a good idea to look into framing, rather than simply tacking a piece up on the wall with whatever is handy. When you think about framing, ask yourself two questions:

  • How unique do I want this to look?
  • How long do I want this to last?

These two factors will control your cost. You can get simple frames that you assemble yourself on Amazon, but your artwork will last longer (and likely will look better) by using better materials.

We’re going to walk through the options, going from the most inexpensive to the most expensive, and explain the tradeoffs along the way.

The Cheap Frame, Assembled By You

If your artwork is a standard size, you can easily find frames online. Places like Craig Frames will even sell you frames in packs if you get several, similarly sized pieces. You also purchase premade frames from many craft shops and framing stores.

This is often the easiest and cheapest option for framing. You get the premade frame and install the artwork yourself. However, this isn’t the best option for archiving artwork, for several reasons.

First, the glass on cheap frames is (almost) never UV-treated. Artwork will fade. If you’ve never seen this effect, here’s a book from my bookshelf that received direct sunlight for a few hours each day.

The book used to be vibrant yellow from edge to edge. You can see where it was protected against the sun by another book. This will happen to your artwork if you frame it without UV-treated glass or plexiglass.

This might not bother you if you don’t expect to keep the piece for more than a year or two, or if you have the ability to get a new copy. But if you can’t, this is a risk, especially if your living space gets lots of direct sunlight.

Next, there’s artwork size. If your artwork isn’t a standard frame size, things get a bit more challenging. While some online framers will let you order weird sizes (like 11” x 16”), if your artwork is 8.75” x 9.5”, you’re going to either need to use a mat (which will provide a border to fill the missing space), or have a custom frame cut (which can be pricy).

Finally, almost every cheap frame relies on a compression fit, which presses the artwork against the glass. This isn’t safe for artwork you want to archive.

Jessica, a framer from Artform in Seattle, explained that if there is moisture in the air, it can condense on the glass within the frame. That moisture can cause the poster or photo to adhere to the glass. “You see it a lot of times with old photos, where it’s been pressed up against the glass for years.” But, she added, “if it’s just a poster that you don’t really care about, then it’s probably fine.”

However, we can fix this with our next option, for only slightly more money.

The Cheap Frame, Assembled by a Framer

Some framing shops will place your art in a frame not purchased from them. If you go this route, you’ll have to pay for the time and materials, but this is usually cheaper than doing everything through a professional.

Spacers

First, ask the framer to add in spacers. Spacers are small bits of plastic that allow the glass to sit above the artwork, instead of against it, which eliminates the problems with the art touching the glass. Many frame shops only charge a nominal amount to put spacers in, and if you care about the work, this is a simple way to extend its life. As long as there’s enough depth in the existing frame to accommodate the spacers (which can be as small as 1/8 of an inch), a framer can likely modify an existing frame to add them.

Mounting

Next, you can ask the framer to mount the artwork to the backing board. However, this can be a landmine on its own, so we need to talk for a moment about how your artwork sits in the frame when it’s not pressed against the glass. There are three basic mounting techniques:

  • A hinge mount, where very small amounts of framer tape to adhere the artwork to the backing board. Depending on the tape used, this can be fully reversible without harming the artwork.
  • A dry mount, where a heat-activated glue is applied to the backing board, and the work and the board are placed in a heat press, fusing them to form a permanent bond. Because heat is applied, this might not work for certain materials.
  • A wet mount, where a liquid glue is applied to the back of the piece and it is pressed against the backing board, forming a permanent bond.

This hinge mount is the only method that is reversible without damaging the piece, and is the preferred method for valuable works.

However, that doesn’t mean you should hinge mount every piece. Jessica at Artform said, “Once [a piece] is adhered down, that’s it, it’s been devalued. But if you have a poster that’s wrinkled or has been rolled up for quite a long time, and you want it to flatten out, dry mounting can work for that. Unfortunately, “there are certain papers that you can’t put into a heat press,” because some types of paper contain plastic, and plastic can melt – and it’s not always immediately obvious to a framer which type of paper was used for a print.

Jennifer also explained that if the dry mount isn’t tacked down properly when placed into the press, it’s possible to get bubbles between the piece and the backing board. “There’s always a risk [with dry mounting].

“If it’s something that’s particularly valuable, go to a shop that handles art, actual higher-end art, because the handling at some shops is not as specific as in others,” Jessica cautioned. She said even a poorly done hinge mount can still damage a valuable piece, despite its reversibility. “If you have something valuable, take it to a shop that knows what it’s doing.”

Mat Board

If your piece isn’t a standard size, mat board is a simple solution to allow you to fill a standard frame. You also might want to add a mat board because you like the way it looks – a well-chosen mat board can make colors standard out, and can draw more attention to a piece.

Your local frame shop can help you chose a mat board, and can install the mat (and your art) into your frame. This also eliminates the need for spacers, since artwork often rests under the mat.

Upgrading the Glass

UV Protection

This is the first big price jump. Even if you’re using an inexpensive frame, upgrading the glazing — the clear glass or plastic — is pricy (especially if the piece is large).

This is where you have to start asking yourself, “Where will this piece go? Will I remember if it had UV glass or not and accidentally place it in sunlight? If I do and the piece fades, will I care?”

Your local framer will likely swap out glass in any frame, but this also adds cost. Jessica suggests visiting a shop and getting a quote before committing, so you know what to expect.

Plexiglass

Jessica said plexiglass is used more often than any other glass type at Artform. Plexiglass is a clear plastic that has a 70-75 percent natural UV blocking rate. While glass has a slight green tint, plexiglass is completely colorless, and does not have the same issues of breakability (or weight) as normal glass.

Glass is heavy. On a large poster, it’s going to be VERY heavy. This can impact both the frame and how you hang it. You can purchase museum-grade hangers for heavy pieces, but these will increase your out-of-pocket cost as well.

Shatter resistance is also important, especially for people with small children or active pets. Plexiglass is much harder to break than glass. If there’s risk of your artwork falling, plexiglass (also called acrylic) will likely be safer for you (because there won’t be glass shards on your floor), and your artwork (there won’t be glass shards sticking through the piece).

Plexiglass is often slightly more expensive than UV glass, and UV-coated plexiglass is more expensive still. However, there is one more option to consider.

Museum Glass (and Museum Acrylic)

Museum glass combines UV protection and an anti-glare treatment to make a glass that is remarkably clear while also being non-reflective. Museum acrylic is a similar offering, but made from plastic, combining the benefits of plexiglass (lightweight, shatter-proof) with museum glass (low-glare, UV protection).

But this is where we enter “extremely expensive.” You should really only go this route for pieces that will take pride of place in your home.

Custom Framing and Other Options

The final thing you can do is start from scratch and work with a framer to build a custom frame for your piece. This gives you the most control, enabling you to choose colors, patterns, embellishes, and build something that truly makes your piece shine.

But, it’s also the most costly, and prices will vary wildly depending on what exactly you want done, what materials you choose, the size of the piece, etc.

Jessica’s advice is to ask questions: “Just ask questions. Any frame shop that knows what they’re doing will be able to answer any concerns. For example, red is a very fugitive color – it likes to fade,” she said If you have a piece with vibrant reds, you may want to invest in heavy UV protection, and a good framer can explain that.

Jessica also warned that chain stores often will use premium materials on everything (like upgrading to a museum glass), even when it’s not required for the piece. She recommends asking questions like, “What do you plan to put on this? Is there something less expensive? What is the plexiglass cost?”

Finally, she suggests shopping around. “The cost of materials is high for frame shops. There’s a lot of waste, especially in frames. A new molding could come in and have twists and flaws, so they have to be cut out.” Jessica warns that framing is often going to be expensive, and to “be wary of 50 percent off sales.” If chain stores are spouting “low prices” for framing, it’s likely because they artificially increase prices when outside of a sale, and the sale price is closer to the “normal” price.

It might take some work to find both a frame shop (and a framer) that you like, but for works you want to preserve long-term and display, the research is worth it in the end.

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