Picture Framing Basics | The Anatomy of a Picture Frame

The first rule of picture framing is that the frame package which you create should look good to you, the framer.  After all, the finished piece will most likely hang in your home or office and will probably be viewed mostly by you.  Furthermore, if something looks good to you, the chances are it will look good to others as well.    

Having said that, knowledge of the basics, as well as a few rules of thumb, can be very helpful in shopping with greater confidence. With this in mind, to give you more familiarity with frames and the frame buying process, we will discuss the various components of a picture frame.

Four Decisions: Frame, Mat, Mounting Board and Glass
When purchasing a frame, whether on-line or in a store, you will be making four separate decisions. These are selecting the 1) actual frame, 2) the colored matting, 3) the backing material to which the artwork is attached and 4) the glass. Figure 1 shows each of these components in the order in which they are placed into a frame.  Each of them has unique characteristics that are useful to understanding when buying a frame. We now cover each of these in detail.

Decision 1 - Selecting the Actual Frame
The best quality frames are made of either metal or wood.  Wooden frames usually have a warmer, more inviting and traditional look. This is desirable for certain pieces of artwork such as a painting, a rich color photograph or an heirloom piece.

In contrast, metal frames, with their straight edges and sharp corners, tend to portray a bolder and more contemporary, even industrial look. Metal frames are commonly used for black and white photography and other modern media.

To illustrate the differences between wood and metal, can you imagine the Mona Lisa set in a metal frame? Would this masterpiece not look awkward and out of place in such a modern and contemporary frame?  On the other hand, the black and white photograph of the Brooklyn bridge looks like it would be right at home in a metal frame.

Brooklyn BridgeIn most framing projects, the very first question you will ask yourself is whether you are looking for a metal or a wood frame. To accommodate this decision, we have organized our products into two broad categories, namely metal or wood frames.

Step 2 - The Mat Boards
The second, and probably most complex step in purchasing a frame, is making a decision about the matboard to use. The matboard is the colored material which is placed between the artwork and the glass.  Its primary purpose is to put an air space between the glass and the artwork so that the two do not stick to each other over time. A secondary purpose of matting is to create a border between the frame and the artwork, thereby drawing the viewers eye inward, towards the piece.

There are 3 distinct decisions to make with regards to matting. These are deciding upon a quality grade, the number of layers and which color(s) to use.

Selecting the Grade - Grade refers to how well the mat materials will preserve the artwork over time. Preservation is measured by the acidity level (pH-value) in the mat.  The more acidic the material the quicker the mat and the artwork will deteriorate over time.

The good news is that all grades of modern matting materials are greatly less acidic than their ancestors of 20 years ago. Matting is made either with wood pulp (trees) or with cotton.  Wood pulp is naturally acid rich and therefore needs to be coated or chemically treated to either remove acidity or at least slow the process down.  Cotton in comparison is naturally acid-free and these mats provide the very best preservation quality. Their downside, as you might have guessed, is that cotton mats are double or sometimes triple the cost of wood-pulp based mats. 

At the Picture Frame Guys, we sell three grades of matting: Decorative (good), Select (better) and Ragmat (best). 

Decorative is considered a minimal level of artwork protection.  It is made with wood-pulp and is coated with special chemicals to slow the damage caused by acidity. However, this mat will unlikely last over 5-7 years. It is suitable for replaceable art such as photos, or art that is not required for the long-term, such as the presentation of school projects.

Select grade is a much better level of conservation matboard and it is the workhorse of the framing industry.  Although it is also made from acidic wood pulp, it is chemically treated to reduce acidity when the pulp is still in liquid form.  This grade of matting is suitable for a basic level of conservation framing for items such as limited editions and reprints. Best value!

Ragmat, is the best level of matboard from a conservation point of view.  It is made from 100% cotton and therefore naturally acid-free. Cotton is a time tested material (the Egyptians used cotton) that will preserve any piece for generations to come. The drawback of cotton-based mats is that they are fairly expensive.

How Many Mats? - Quantity refers to the number of mats that are layered inside of the frame.  For starters, nowhere is it written that a frame must have matting.  It is quite acceptable to not use any matting at all.  The only consideration is that some kind of spacer will be needed so that the artwork does not touch the glass. Over time, any contact will result in the two sides sticking to on another when natural moisture and temperature changes occur.

In a vast majority of framing projects, a single mat works quite well.  In fact, if this is your first framing project on your own, we would recommend using only a single mat. Framers sometimes like to layer different colored mats to create a visual border.  This is done by placing one mat over the other, the bottom one being slightly larger than the top one in order to create a small border.  The Picture Frame Guys enables customers to use up to 3 layers of matting.

Color Options - Mats are available in numerous shades of every color in the rainbow, including gold, silver, white and black. As we have mentioned before, the best color is the one that looks good to you.

If you hare having a hard time deciding, it may be useful to know that many professionals simply use an off-white color as a border. Such neutral colors will not overemphasize the matting and distract the eye from the artwork.

Step 3 - Mounting Board
Once you have selected the matting, the decisions become much more straightforward.  Mounting board, also called foam board, is the back of the frame and it is what the artwork is attached to. Sometimes cardboard is used as a mounting board, but many framers recommend against this because cardboard is very acidic and will quickly yellow the artwork. Our high-quality mounting boards have a polystyrene core which is bonded between two paper covers. They have a smooth surface, resist warping and will cut cleanly. Of course, we do the cutting for you.

Mounting board is available in three types:

The first is a standard 1/8 inch foam board, which has small amounts of wood pulp acid in it.  This will be suitable for most framing projects as the acidity is kept very low.

If you would like a totally acid-free mounting board, the second type may be more useful as it is totally acid-free.  As with matting, this option is useful if framing a piece of significant value that you would like to preserve for many decades.

A third type of foam board is one that has a self-adhesive side which allows the piece that is being framed to be permanently attached.  This is a real convenient option for posters or digital pictures.  We would not recommend this with anything of significant replacement value or that can not be easily reprinted because it is quite impossible to separate the adhesive backing once everything is put into place. 

Step 4 -Glazing
The last step is to choose what kind of glass or glazing, you would like on your frame.  Glazing is the cover that protects everything in a frame. As with matting, glazing is optional and certainly not required. Of course, without glazing the artwork will be readily exposed to any temperature and humidity changes, but this is more important for some pieces than others.

At the Picture Frame Guys, we sell four types of glazing. While technically called acrylic, many people will know this under its trade name, Plexiglas. We offer:

Standard framing quality acrylic which is great for the average framer.

Anti-glare glazing which will reduce glare from light bulbs or natural light.

UltraViolet reducing glazing which will prohibit UV rays from penetrating the glass.

Both anti-glare and UltraViolet reducing glazing. 

Currently, we do not sell museum glass. We are researching how to package and ship it without breakage.

That’s it!
After following these 4 shorts steps, you will have completed the frame building process.  Each page or our website will walk you through this process step-by-step.  As you follow the steps, there will be links which you can click on for more information to help you make an informed decision.

If you would like to read more about any of the framing components, please click on any of the links below.  And of course, you can always call us with any questions – even on the weekends. 

Happy Framing!

Additional Resources on PictureFrameGuys.com:
1. Watch a Youtube Video about Purchasing Frames on Our site
2. How to Accurately Measure Artwork
3. Picture Framing Glossary