Tools and Materials for Conservation Framing

The main two principles to keep in mind when selecting materials for a conservation framing project are archival quality and reversibility.

Archival quality means the material is inert, and will have no damaging effect on the antique artwork/document it comes in contact with. The main problem is the acidic lignin in wood-pulp-derived paper products. Wood pulp can be treated to remove the acid, resulting in an acid-free paper product. But the best, most conservative products are made with 100% cotton rag, which is naturally acid-free. Cotton rag products are more expensive than those made with acid-free paper.

Reversibility is a very important concept in modern conservation science. The basic premise is: avoid doing anything to an antique object that you can’t easily reverse. This prevents causing permanent damage or even seemingly innocuous changes to the object we may later regret. As far as conservation framing is concerned, this is mostly applicable to the hinging tape used to fasten the artwork to the mounting board. If you’ve ever taken apart an old framed artwork taped down to a mat with masking tape, you know very well that this outdated method is neither archival nor easily reversible!

Almost all of the tools and materials I obtained from Dick Blick Art Supply, Talas conservation supply, and/or Amazon.com. Hyperlinks below will take you to suggested product sources, but all of these tools and materials can be obtained from multiple places.

Tools:

– Mat Cutter

  • If you’re just going to do one or two framing projects, you might want to get a mat cut at your local frame shop. Or if you’re lucky, your project may fit into a pre-cut mat, which come in standard sizes.
  • If you’re serious about doing most or all of your framing yourself, you should invest in a mat cutter. The major brand name is Logan. They make everything from a completely hand-held device (difficult to use) all the way up through huge professional grade machines (too fancy for DIY purposes). Here’s a comparison chart of all their models.
  • I have the entry-level Compact Classic mat cutter, which works fine, but I would also recommend considering one with a guided straight cutter (like the Compact Elite) rather than just using the mat knife against the straight edge, which takes some practice to do well. I haven’t found that I miss the squaring bar, but I’m sure it’s handy to have.
  • Another feature in fancier models is a larger width capacity. A full sized mat board is 32”x40”, so on my mat cutter I can fit the 32” side through, but not the 40” side. This means I must always cut the shorter side first, but I can handle any project up to 32”x32” with no problem.
  • Make sure to practice both straight and bevel cutting before you start your main project. It’s not difficult, but it is a new skill that takes a couple of tries to get the hang of—especially straight cutting without a guided cutter.

– Utility knife, mat knife, or Exact-o-knife

  • The Compact Classic mat cutter comes with a handheld mat knife. You use the edge of the mat cutter to guide your straight cuts. The Compact Elite comes with a rail-guided straight cutter, which is easier to use.
  • You can also use a utility or Exact-o knife and a cork-backed metal ruler for a guide.
  • Either way, I found that cutting this straight line actually took more practice than making the bevel cut for the mat window opening. You must cut firmly and steadily, neither too slow nor too fast. The knife can wiggle easily, resulting in a less than perfect cut.

Cork-backed metal ruler
– Pencil
Self-healing mat or plenty of scrap cardboard for making straight cuts
– Scissors
– Any clean, heavy-ish object to use as a weight
Bone folder
– Non-ammonia glass cleaner and a lint-free cloth
– Pressurized air canister for dusting
Point pusher (for glazing points)

Materials:

– Frame

  • If you need help selecting a frame, you may want to visit an expert at your local frame shop (Avoid big chain stores—find an independent shop run by a framer that’s been doing this for decades). This will be the most pricey route (aside from having the framer do the whole project for you!), but you can get nearly anything you want cut and assembled to your specifications, not to mention the expertise of a professional designer’s eye.
  • If you’re more confident in your ability to choose for yourself, check out eBay, my go-to source for frames. There are many sellers out there doing custom frame work for very competitive prices. Plus you can shop in your pajamas.
  • Budget-Watch: If your frame size is somewhat flexible, check out local auctions and thrift shops. I’ve found several high-quality, solid wood frames using this strategy, for pennies on the dollar.

– Glass

  • Regular glass is inexpensive—it even comes with the frame in most cases. Special UV-filtering museum glass, on the other hand, is awesome but quite expensive. If you decide to spring for it, I used a great seller on eBay who custom cuts museum glass to size. If you need custom-cut regular glass, check out your local Home Depot.
  • Budget-Watch: This is an opportunity for significant cost savings, since the difference between regular and museum glass is so drastic. Just make sure you protect your framed object in a darker part of the house, maybe in an interior or north-facing room. If you can afford it, the museum glass is really nice. Not only does it protect the artwork from UV damage, it also cuts down on glare, providing a clearer view of your artwork.

regular glass glare

UV filtering museum glass

Compared with regular glass (top), the UV-filtering museum glass (bottom) also cuts down on glare. It’s difficult to demonstrate in a photo, but I think you can see the difference in these reflections of a direct overhead light.

 – Window mat

  • Earlier, I discussed the importance of choosing acid-free materials. Like I mentioned, acid-free matboard comes in paper (the wood pulp has been treated to remove the acid), and cotton rag (naturally acid-free) varieties.
  • Budget-Watch: Cotton rag board is more expensive, but it’s the gold standard for a museum-quality job. However, the acid-free paper mat is a fine and affordable choice.

– Mounting board

  • Arguably, the mounting board (and the hinging tissue too) is the most crucial component, since the entire back side of the artwork will be in contact with the mounting board. It’s absolutely essential that this board be acid-free. The most common mounting board material is the same type of matboard as for the window mat. You have the same choice of acid-free paper or cotton rag.
  • Budget Watch: Depending on the size of your project, you’ll probably be able to get your window mat and mounting board out of a single 32”x40” matboard (the standard full size that they come in). In a pinch you could even make your backing board out of this too, but it’s nice to have something a little sturdier for the backing board if possible.

– Backing board

  • Ideally, the backing board should also be acid-free. In the past, a common choice for the backing board in a basic framing job has been corrugated cardboard. However, corrugated cardboard is highly acidic and should be avoided at all costs. Talas conservation supply makes a special acid-free “corrugated cardboard” substitute specifically for this purpose. Acid-free foamboard is also a good choice.

– Hinging tape

  • I used a clear archival tape called Framers’ Tape for this purpose. Some framers use an archival linen tape.
  • Budget Watch: You could also use the frame-sealing tape (see below), to avoid adding another type of tape to your shopping list, but the frame-sealing tape is overkill for hinging the mat and mounting board together, so in the long run it makes sense to use the less expensive Framers’ Tape.

– Hinging tissue

  • Along with the mounting board,  the hinging tissue is a priority you shouldn’t skimp on. Since you’ll be using this to actually adhere the artwork to the mounting board, you want to make sure to choose a reversible, archival adhesive. The hinging tissue should be more delicate than the artwork, so that in case of accidental tugging, the hinging tissue will give way and rip before the artwork does. Museums use Japanese mulberry tissue with moisture-reversible wheat paste as the gold standard method. I used a similar but simpler product from Lineco—a roll of Japanese mulberry tissue pre-treated with a moisture-activated, moisture-reversible adhesive. Just tear to size, moisten, and stick!

– Frame-sealing tape

  • This tape is really sticky and heavyweight. Make sure it’s positioned where you want it when you stick it down, because it’s hard to get off! But a strong adhesive bond is exactly what you want to prevent dust getting into the frame.

– Glazing points, D-rings, Picture wire

  • You can pick these up at any hardware store or art supply in the framing section for a few dollars each.

– Rubber bumpers

  •  You can probably get these at the hardware store or art supply also, but I especially like these bumpers I found on Amazon.

To go back to the conservation framing tutorial, click here.