DIY Conservation Framing: A Tutorial

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.

Conservation Framing Stack Illustration

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.

1779 Ireland map

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.

Cutting the window mat

Making the bevel-cut opening on the window mat with a mat cutter

Window mat, mouting board, and backing board

The window mat, mounting board, and backing board cut to 15″ square. The decorative lines on the window mat are an optional, extra flourish called French Matting. I’ll have to save that discussion for another time.

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.

hinging the window mat to the mounting board

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.

weight on the map

A toast rack with clean, smooth feet was a perfect weight to keep the map in place

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.

open the window mat

Flip up the window mat while the weight keeps the artwork in place

affixing the first hinging tissue 2

The first half of the T-hinge: affix a piece of hinging tissue to the back of the artwork

affixing the second hinging tissue

The second half of the T-hinge: Use a second piece of hinging tissue to paste the first piece down to the mounting board. The “tight” hinge is on the right, and the “loose” hinge on the left (see notes).

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.

fold the frame sealing tape

Crease the frame sealing tape to fit the rabbet before removing the white paper backing

push the frame sealing tape into the rabbet

Remove the paper backing and use a bone folder to press the frame sealing tape into the frame rabbet

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.

secure the framing package

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!

frame sealing tape to keep dust out

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.

adding the hanging hardware

Add the hanging hardware about one third of the way down from the top of the frame, and bumpers to the bottom corners

And that’s all! Step back and admire your handiwork!

the finished map

 

 

Don’t forget to check out the Tools and Materials page for more information.

Further Reading:

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.

Matting and Framing for Art and Artifacts on Paper

Preservation Matting for Works of Art on Paper

Framing Myths Explained: Tapes and Hinges

Art Hinging Tips

The Benefits of Archival Matting and Framing

Book: Mat, Mount, and Frame it Yourself

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    So helpful! Great article, Lauren! A few months ago I read a bunch of articles on framing and archival conservation, but yours is much more well-organized.

    I have a question though.

    There’s a lot of information about how to frame something, but I couldn’t seem to find any information on how to un-frame something. Like, how to identify different kinds of tapes that may have been used on the back of my art, and how to remove them. How do I tell if something can be removed by heat or by water or whether I have to hack at the tape with an x-acto knife? Can I tell just by looking? If I can only tell by doing, how do I know that I’m doing it (the removal) right? I have a feeling I just horribly bungled everything by jumping straight to the hack-at-it-with-an-xacto-knife approach, but I can’t tell.

    • says

      This a great question, Nancy. I think even conservators don’t always know which approach will be best to remove old tape simply by observation. In my experience re-framing some old artwork recently, the old tape was sometimes so brittle that it flaked right off. But if you aren’t so lucky, use caution, patience, and common sense when trying to remove it. If it doesn’t peel off easily, I would try gentle heat from a hair dryer. If this doesn’t work, the next step would be to figure out which kind of solvent (water, or one of many different organic solvents like naptha, acetone, alcohol, etc.) might help. But this can be tricky. You want to make sure the solvent isn’t going to harm your artwork, not to mention that many solvents are too dangerous to use at home without a proper fume hood. Even if you get the tape itself off, you may need a solvent to remove residual adhesive. A thin spatula, rather than an X-acto knife, is a more conservative choice of tools to help you gently lift and remove the tape bit by bit. Ultimately, you may want to leave this all to the professional conservator though, especially if the artwork appears fragile. Besides invaluable knowledge and experience, conservators are also equipped with professional equipment, solvents, and techniques not available to the DIYer.

      Check out these articles written by others more knowledgeable than I on this subject. Good luck!

      Tape adhesive removal
      Tying up loose ends
      Pressure-sensitive tape and techniques for its removal from paper
      Surface cleaning of paper

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