In this post I will share with you the fruits of my research and practice on DIY conservation framing, which has been a great success with professional quality results. To help you achieve the same, I have written an illustrated tutorial, with a separate page discussing sources for tools and materials and how to select them.
Of course, as much as some enjoy DIY for its own sake, another point of the exercise was to see if I could save money over a professional conservation framing job. I’ll discuss this cost comparison in detail in the next post, but the sneak peak answer is: if you plan to frame several items, the DIY route can produce significant cost savings, even after the initial investment in tools and materials. If you’re just doing one or two projects though, take it to the framer and spend your weekend hunting for more antiques instead. Or lounging.
Below is an at-a-glance look at the conservation framing project. We’ll be sandwiching our antique document/artwork safely between several layers called the “framing package.” Under the frame and glass, a window mat serves both as a decorative border for the artwork and also to protect it from touching the glass. The mounting board (not the window mat) is the surface to which the artwork is actually attached with tissue hinges. Finally, the protective backing board fills out the framing package and provides the point of contact for the glazing/framing points and frame sealing tape securing everything in the frame.
In this tutorial, I’ll describe the most rigorous version of the project. On the Tools and Materials page, I offer some tips to cut costs at various steps. Only you can decide if and where you want to take it down a notch to save money. Okay, let’s dive in.
Step 1: Identify the document/artwork for framing. I’m going to be using a 1779 map of Ireland to demonstrate. It’s beautifully engraved and vibrantly hand-colored on laid paper.
Step 2: Choose the dimensions of your frame and window mat. My map is a little odd, in that it’s a 7” square map printed on a rectangular piece of paper about 14” wide. Obviously, I don’t want to damage the map by cutting it down, so I’ll use the full width of the paper to dictate the size of my frame. I’m going with a 15” square frame and a 7.5” square opening in the window mat.
Step 3: Gather all tools and materials needed. Check the Tools and Materials page for advice on what to choose and where to get it.
Step 4: Measure and cut the boards. Use a mat cutter or utility knife to straight-cut a backing board, mounting board, and window mat to the frame size. In my case, this is a 15” square.
Step 5: Cut the opening in the window mat. I’m not going to discuss in detail how to do this, because if you decide to invest in a mat cutter (see Tools and Materials), it will come with its own written and/or video directions on how to make the bevel cuts for a mat window. I also recommend the book Mat, Mount, and Frame it Yourself for more complex applications, such as the double mat that I’ve cut here. Or, if you don’t want to invest in a mat cutter, you can get a mat cut for you at a frame shop or on eBay.
Step 6: Hinge the window mat board to the mounting board. Position the window mat on top of the mounting board as they will be in the final framing package. You can leave the artwork aside for now. Flip up the window mat as if you were flipping a wall calendar to the next month. Use framers’ tape across the seam where the window mat and mounting board meet. This tape hinge will stabilize the position of the window mat over the artwork, preventing it from shifting in the frame.
Step 7: Position the artwork. Flip the window mat back down, and position the artwork under the window mat. Place something clean and heavy (ish) on the artwork to hold it in place while you flip the window mat back up.
Step 8: Hinge the artwork to the mounting board. With the weight in place making sure it doesn’t move from that spot, you will now tape the artwork down to the mounting board with hinging tissue. The type of hinge you’ll be making is called a T-hinge. First, stick the end of a piece of hinging tissue to the back of the artwork. The hinge should contact the document with as little surface area as possible—maybe up to ¼ inch. Repeat with a second hinge on the other side (heavy items may need three). For the second half of the T-hinge, take another strip of tissue and use it to paste down the first piece to the mounting board (see pictures). Hint: when tearing pieces of hinging tissue, tear with your hands rather than cutting with scissors—it will create a nice feathered edge that lays very smooth on the artwork and mounting board.
A few notes: We use delicate hinging tissue rather than strong tape, so that if the artwork was accidentally tugged, the tissue would tear before the artwork did. Also, the point of the hinges is to let the artwork hang freely, so that if it expands or contracts with humidity changes, it won’t buckle or tear. Therefore, only put hinges on the top of the artwork. Never tape an entire edge of the artwork to the mounting board, or put hinges on the sides or bottom. For the same reason, make the first hinge “tight” (hinging tape pasted down near the artwork) and any others “loose” (hinging tape pasted higher above the artwork—see picture). This aids the free movement of the artwork. For more on hinges, check out this article.
Step 9: Line the frame with frame-sealing tape. The point of this extra-conservative step is to protect the artwork from any acid in the wood that might seep through the framing package materials (See Tools and Materials for more discussion on acid). I found that it was helpful to pre-fold the frame sealing tape to fit before peeling off the backing. Use a bone folder to press the tape down into the frame rabbet. Note: Some framers put tape around the edges of the framing package instead, which accomplishes the same goal of protecting the framing package from touching the wood, in addition to protecting the framing package from dust particles getting in. However, professional framers debate the pros and cons of this practice. As long as the jury is still out on what’s best, I figured I would opt not to do it for now.
Step 10: Secure the frame package in the frame. Now it’s time to put the framing package in order, cleaning and/or dusting each piece before it goes into the frame. Start with the glass. Use a non-ammonia glass cleaner and a lint free cloth to give a final cleaning to both sides of the glass (traces of ammonia left behind can damage your artwork). A pressurized air canister (like you use to clean your computer keyboard) is a helpful tool for blowing away any residual dust as you lower the glass carefully into the frame. Next, make sure the window mat, artwork, and mounting board assembly is dust free (again, the air canister is awesome) and place it face down into the frame. Finally, do the same with the backing board. If your frame came with little metal points installed, use them to secure the framing package in the frame. For extra security, I added a few more glazing points with a point pusher.
Step 11: Seal the gaps with frame-sealing tape. To protect against dust entering the framed artwork, seal all four sides with the same frame-sealing tape. Make sure the tape is well adhered by pressing firmly with a bone folder all the way around. An alternate way to seal the frame from dust is to glue a paper dust cover over the back of the frame. Different framers prefer different methods, but many argue that the tape creates a better and more lasting seal. Plus it’s simpler, and you avoid adding one more thing to the materials shopping list!
Step 12: Add the hanging hardware. Attach D-rings on either side, about a third of the way down from the top of the frame. Cut a piece of picture hanging wire, and twist onto the D-rings. Finally, add bumpers to the bottom corners of the frame. The bumpers serve to protect the wall from the frame and vice versa, in addition to promoting air circulation behind the frame and helping the frame stay in place on the wall.
And that’s all! Step back and admire your handiwork!
Don’t forget to check out the Tools and Materials page for more information.
Here are some of the articles I found helpful in learning DIY conservation framing. They contain much more in-depth discussion than I could have possibly included here in one tutorial.