Framing Options

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March 18, 2018

I want to make this as easy for you as I can, but I also want to try to ensure that each of my prints is framed in a way which does it justice. Unfortunately I just can’t do it myself. Since there are surely about a billion different ways that a photograph can be framed, and since there are a number of issues which can impinge on an optimal decision, this can get complicated.

Essentially what we need to do is find the answers to these three questions:

Which framer should mount and mat the picture?

Where should the frame come from?

Which glazing is needed and from which framer will that come?

I basically have five options for you but before I get to those, the five main variables in a framing job are:

1) The method and materials used for mounting the print;

2) The nature and dimensions of the overmat around the image, if any;

3) The nature of the frame;

4) The nature of the glazing;

5) And the nature of the moisture barrier used behind the artwork

Here goes:

There are two major ways of mounting a print which are worth considering. The first is cold mounting onto a superior substrate, preferably an aluminum composite material such as Dibond or e-panel or AL-LEADER. This uses an acrylic adhesive roll material with a polyester core if possible, or in one case a fine, archival paper (never a PVC core!) which is like giant double-stick tape to attach the print, very carefully and quite permanently, to the substrate. This not only yields stunningly perfect flatness and ideal appearance, but the mount and the adhesion to it is likely to last essentially forever on indoor display, and the substrate will then also be completely impervious to water and thus help greatly to stabilize the relative humidity inside the frame. The problem is that most framers can’t do this process or might instead use an inferior approach to accomplish a similar result, such as using a spray-on adhesive or an inferior, less-flat, less sturdy or less archival mounting substrate. My framer does a beautiful job of cold mounting as well as over-matting, and I offer this “Mounted & matted” combination, described as option #2 below. We might be able to find a framer near you who is also experienced in doing this and doing it right.

The second mounting method is called archival mounting, and uses a single T-hinge at the top center of the print to attach it to a substrate (and has often been done with two T-hinges across the top, but one is often best), which should, I think, be 8-ply lignin-free mount board, either purified alpha cellulose made from wood or 100% cotton, which is naturally pure alpha cellulose. Archival style (removable) attachment can be done in many ways, but it has the advantage of keeping the print not wedded to the mounting substrate (for a theoretical future replacement in case something happens to the mount which ruins the mount but not the photograph) as well as the advantage that essentially any framer should be able to do it, though I’d still want to trust one of the better ones to do so. As would be the case with a cold mounted print, an overmat would then be added. The overmat should have a 'reveal' (a window larger than the image dimensions) which allows the signature to remain visible, not be cut so as to cover the edges of the image. For the time being, my recommendation for the maximum print size which should be mounted this way, on the fine art papers I'm using, would be one with an image area equiavalent to 30" wide by 24" tall.

Another sheet of backing material, e.g. a 2- or 3mm sheet of aluminum composite material, which many framers will not have on hand, or perhaps a sheet of Sintra, should be used behind the mount as a moisture barrier to again stabilize the rH. The FomeCor materials are not very effective as moisture barriers. A thin (1.5 to 2.5 mm) sheet of acrylic (plex) is an option to consider as a moisture barrier.  Heavy-duty aluminum foil, taped with high-quality tape at any required seams can be super waterproof.  A disadvantage of archival mounting is that the print cannot be counted on to lay entirely flat in the frame over years on display, though if the absolute humidity inside the frame is stabilized well, this will work out much better, despite there being some significant amount of fluctuation in the ambient rH with changes in the weather and the seasons.  A fluctuation from 60 to 20 or even 30% would be problematic.  But with a heavy, fine art, cotton paper like the ones I now use, and especially when it’s a matte surface paper like the one I currently like the best, the moderate waviness of the print in the frame over time should not be particularly bothersome on the wall. With matte papers it will be less noticeable than with glossy papers at very oblique viewing angles. The main problem is that changing weather means lowering or increasing rH and with it the size of all things made of paper or cotton, if they are exposed to the ambient air and its moisture. Wood, glass, polyester and aluminum are on the order of 10X less prone to size change with changing temperature or rH than paper and cotton boards are. (Changing rH alone has no effect on the size of glass or aluminum but will slowly affect all kinds of plastic.)  When the overmat is 8-ply museum board made of cotton and the print is essentially 1-ply of cotton and the mount behind it is also 4 to 8 plies of cotton or purified wood fiber, and especially when there is a moisture-proof barrier behind the print like the aluminum composite material, and glazing over the front, the three layers of cellulose will tend to move minimally, and in unison, growing and shrinking with the seasons but not so quickly as to move with short-term changes in the weather. This should minimize the lack of flatness which may develop over time, just as the matte surface should minimize your chances of noticing that the print isn’t perfectly flat.  Likewise, avoiding exposure to direct sunlight is important for a number of reasons, including that it can cause a print to wrinkle, fog up the glazing a lot and experience a spurt of greatly accelerated fading (e.g. 100X faster).

In either case, I can supply you with a drawing in printed and/or electronic form with detailed suggested dimensions for your framer to use, to get what I think are the perfect proportions for your mat, to flatter the image in an ideal way. (These days I prefer somewhat slender mats.) If you elect to have me mount and mat, or mount, mat and frame the print, I will use my standard mat dimensions and standard frame profiles for that size, in the color category that you choose, as well as my default glazing material, 3mm CYRO OP-3 fully UV-filtering acrylic sheet. The mockups on the purchase pages are generally suggestive of my preferences for mat proportions for typical (4 x 5 and 3 x 4) shapes, but not for the pano images, where the margins are shown being too wide. My standard overmat is 8-ply Rising white museum board, a fine, 100% cotton, buffered material of the highest quality. It is adhered to the face of the mount outside the area of the print’s margins with ATG adhesive, but it can be removed if that should ever be needed, so as to be replaced in case of damage to the mat.  My signature is on the print margin, so it would be preserved in such a case.

As for frames, as you’ve suspected if you’ve ever walked into a frame shop, moldings come in thousands of types. It’s a dizzying array of choices, to which a similarly dizzying array of matting choices can be added. What’s dizzying squared? It’s a big number. My favorite frames for fine photographs are few in style, color and material, however, and I am happy to steer you in their general direction. The mockups on the purchase pages are suggestive of the fairly narrow, simple profiles that I prefer: for wood, either a simple rectangular face or a similar one with a rounded outer edge. For metal, I have just two favorite profiles, used to make stunningly fine, custom-ordered, welded aluminum frames. The first of those two profiles would be either bare (gleaming, subtly curved, polished face) or powder-coated a lovely neutral gray (ideal for B&W prints). The second profile would be for the powder-coated option only. More on all of that later. For color prints I generally prefer a fine-looking wood of good color and shape, but the bare aluminum frame can also be quite elegant and a big step up from the ubiquitous and more cost-effective sectional aluminum frames.

The wood frames I offer here are all rectangular profiles and are assembled and sold by my local framer. These are a high-quality, moderate-cost solution which I offer as a convenience to you. I offer them in each of four or five color schemes, depending on the size of the piece: Light wood, Dark wood, Whitewash, Gray wood, and Black. As this involves fourteen different moldings, a detailed description of each would be a bit much. They are all solid wood, high-quality moldings, no veneers, made of maple in most cases but some are walnut, ash, or poplar.

Should you prefer to take a bare print to a local framer, you can then choose any style of matting that they can provide, which may complement your decor or tastes more than what I would provide, though you may not be able to get the cold mounting locally and would instead opt for archival mounting done however your framer likes to do it. You are also then in a position to make alternative choices for the glazing and the frame. Some glazing choices exist which cut reflections a lot, either a sheet of expensive glass (e.g. Tru-Vue Museum Glass or Groglass Artglass UV 99) or a sheet of even more expensive acrylic (Tru-Vue Optium Museum acrylic). There are many choices of glazing materials on the market, but whatever you do, I would strongly urge you to make certain that a great majority of the UV is absorbed by the glazing, which will increase the useful life span of the photograph by a substantial amount, probably roughly double, compared with plain glass, though that factor is highly dependent on how much UV light would be present where the print is to be displayed. It is a commonly-held myth that protecting color works on paper from all UV light will stop them from fading entirely. It certainly will not, as visible light also causes fading, but photon for photon the UV light not only causes a good deal more fading but is also useless for viewing the art. Thus getting rid of it by the glazing absorbing it is a good deal and itself not much of an extra cost.

Glazing which is anti-reflection coated (I do not mean “non-glare” glass or acrylic, which merely uses a microscopically bumpy surface on one or both sides to diffuse the reflected light into a fuzzy fog) is particularly important when bright windows would reflect in the glazing as you are trying to enjoy the picture. My favorite choice is the Optium, but it is quite expensive and one must be very careful to avoid fingerprinting it, as it’s not so easy to clean and fingerprints really stand out because of the way the coating stops working to eliminate reflections when it has a super thin layer of oil on it. It’s a wonderful combination of break-resistant, UV-filtering, and stunningly transparent, making it the best glazing material on the market in the United States, with little competition anywhere else for that matter. The only real problem is the extraordinary cost. There is one exception to this rule that I am aware of and so far, only one. There is a West Coast (mostly) chain of framing stores, Aaron Brothers, which offers a heavily discounted upgrade to Optium glazing as part of a framing package. If you bring a bare 24 x 30 print to them for mounting, matting and framing, you will have the option of upgrading the 32 x 40 (for example) glazing to Optium for only $200. A typical retail for an upgrade of that size from ordinary acrylic sheet would be more like three times that much. Aaron Brothers can do a very high quality job, if you choose the right options, with guidance from their employees, and I can help with that as well, but they cannot cold mount a print for you, and I don’t think they would offer the Optium upgrade discount if you were to bring a cold mounted and matted print to them for only a partial framing job. Perhaps they would go for it if one were to bring them a print which was only mounted and not matted. I have yet to inquire about that. If so, we could make arrangements for that to happen.

So this can all be an argument in favor of framing being done local to you. (More flexibility of choices in how it’s done, except perhaps for the cold mounting option) Also, the packing and shipping is tremendously simpler when I ship you a rolled print, and I offer that packing and shipping for free also, as an incentive for you to make my life simpler. The other side of the coin is ensuring that the job is done right, which may happen at any of many framers, but I have confidence in my own, based on prior experience.

Another local framing option for you is to bring a sheet of instructions that I can provide you to your local framer and to have them custom-order an assembled frame from my favorite frame maker of one of the beautiful wood or welded aluminum frames which they make for many high-end clients including museums. This would take over a month to get, once ordered by your local framer, but the results would be wonderful.

Once you’ve reviewed the color and profile options, your framer would place the order and you would wait 4 to 5 weeks for the frame to come, then the frame, your choice of glazing and any sealing used (to keep bugs out of the frame), hanging wire and so on would be assembled by your framer, for a wonderful result. These frames use small, recessed, flat-head screws at intervals along all four sides of the frame to attach the frame securely to the wooden strainer in the back which provides the primary structural strength and to which the hanging wire is also attached.

So, if you want to: A) Choose your own matting style, B) Choose your own matting proportions, C) Choose a different frame, i.e. not one of the ones I can have my framer provide for you, D) Choose a different glazing material than the regular UV-filtering acrylic sheet (resembles plain glass but isn’t as rigid, breakable or flat), or if you just want to make my life easier and save on shipping, then choose the “Print only” option and the large, sturdy tube will appear at your door a few days after I finish making it.

But if you want the very best mounting if and when we can’t find anyone near you who can do first-class cold mounting onto aluminum composite material using acrylic sheet adhesive, then have me get the photograph cold mounted and matted for you and packed up and shipped to you by my framer. This is another option if you want the very best in glazing materials because you still get to choose the glazing this way (as well as the frame, but nothing about the method and style of the mounting).

Again, those three questions were:

Which framer should mount and mat the picture?

Where should the frame come from?

Which glazing is needed and from which framer will that come?

Perhaps I can sum this up as the following four options (assuming you’ve not fallen asleep by now or gone home for the day):

1) Purchase a bare print, which I will ship to you rolled in a sturdy tube, which you will then take to a local frame shop of your choosing to have framed with their help, your preferences, and tips that I will provide you. If you like what your framer can do, I’m glad because this is the easiest for me. If you get a print this way, please, please resist the temptation to open it until the moment it’s going to actually be framed. Even the act of rolling a print can damage it fairly easily. They’re quite fragile until they’re safely framed.

2) Do the same, but take ordering information that you will get from me so that your (willing) local framer can make a special order for a frame made (fully assembled) from my favorite frame maker in the world, and wait for them to fill that order and then have your framer assemble and finish the job with your choice of glazing and matting.

3 & 4) Add mounting and matting to your print order, then take the artwork to a local framer for either of the options in 1) and 2): local framing with a locally assembled frame or local framing using a custom-ordered frame from my recommended frame builder.

5) Add framing (complete) to your print order instead of the mounting and matting option, select one of my default four or five frame colors right here on the site, let me take the print to my framer to have them do the job, then make a big, custom, sturdy shipping box or crate to ship you the finished, framed print. This way, you only have to get the hanging hooks and hang it in the right place.

My absolute favorite? For myself, I would have the print cold mounted and matted by my framer or someone equally competent, then have a local framer order one of the frames I am most enamored of (pictures of some of the corner samples here) and I would use Optium Museum acrylic for the glazing. That’s the best possible result, but many other ways also can work just fine and will be perhaps substantially less costly and/or easier and a little quicker. Unfortunately framing is a pretty expensive product in general as well as one which is rife with choices to be made. That cost is just one reason that I put so very much effort into making each print be something extremely special, and I’ve never been as happy about the original prints I can make as I am now. After 49 years of working on this, everything is finally at a point where it’s hard to see how it could possibly improve, in either color or black & white. The medium feels tremendously mature and the results exceed the wildest dreams of my youth. The prints really are stunning and their permanence on display should be too.

—Joseph Holmes

Kensington, California