If a piece of art is worth framing, it is worth framing well. Good framing is not just about aesthetics - a quality frame should protect the work inside for a lifetime and beyond. This is known as conservation framing. Here is a detailed description of what constitutes conservation framing, what distinguishes it from other standards of framing, and why it is important.
As the name would suggest, a conservation frame is one which protects the artwork from the environmental influences which might cause it to become degraded over time. These influences include moisture, ultraviolet light and any chemical pollutants used in the construction of the frame itself. It is usually stated that a conservation frame will preserve the artwork for around 20 years, but this is highly dependent upon the materials used in the creation of the work itself and the environment in which the frame is hung.
Conservation framing is thus the preferred option for displaying any pieces of value, be it financial, historical or sentimental and is the base standard I set for all the frames I make. But what exactly goes into making a conservation frame?
It stands to reason that the construction of the frame itself should be sound and free of defects. The moulding must be deep enough and have a sufficient internal rebate to comfortably house the contents of the frame. The mitres (or corner joins) need to be accurately cut and firmly fixed to ensure the structural integrity of the frame. Foil-backed tape should be used to seal the internal wall of the frame if the artwork is likely to touch the moulding.
Window Mats, Undermounts and Backing Boards
Although many people assume the window mat is purely an aesthetic option, it actually serves a vital function in that it keeps the surface of the artwork from touching the glass.
Window mats must be at least 4ply in thickness, which equates to 1.4mm. The mat must be made of conservation or museum grade board which are acid and lignin free. Museum grade boards are made of cotton, which is naturally free of acids and lignins. Conservation boards are made of alpha cellulose (wood pulp) fibres which have been treated to remove all traces of acids and lignins.
The undermount sits between the window mat and the backing board, forming the rear part of the “sandwich” which houses the artwork. Undermounts made from cotton mat boards are an essential component of a museum frame but are optional when working to conservation standard, provided the backing board is made from acid-free foamcore.
Glass or Perspex may be used provided it offers protection against at least 95% of UV rays. Tru Vue Conservation Clear and Museum glass both protect against 99% of UV rays. With the Museum glass also offering exceptional clarity.
Under no circumstances should the glass touch the surface of the artwork. If a window matt is not used, spacers should be fitted to ensure the artwork is held clear of the glass.
Fitting the Artwork
The artwork should be t-hinged to the backing board (not the window mat) using starch paste or gummed paper tape with a water-soluble adhesive. The hinges must be attached to the rear of the artwork and should be of a material weaker than the artwork. The goal here (as in all aspects of conservation and museum framing) is that the process should be fully reversible with no damage to the artwork.
The contents of the frame should be held in place with rigid framing points (and not the flexible points often found in prefabricated gift frames) and the back should be sealed framer’s paper tape.
Hanging the Frame
It goes without saying that the hanging system used should be strong enough to support the weight of the frame. For most frames, simple d-rings and wire should be sufficient. For heavier frames it may be necessary to use something stronger. Wires and hangers are available in a variety of strengths. For anything over 5kg, hangers with multiple screws are recommended. Very large frames, may require hanging.
Ideally the frame should be hung away from direct sunlight in an environment free from dramatic fluctuations in temperature or humidity.
For complete piece of mind, it is recommended the frame be inspected every five years to ensure the integrity of its components.
Although conservation framing can be a dearer option as it requires high quality materials, the cost is insignificant compared to the heartache of having an irreplaceable piece damaged by cheap framing components. For artists and photographers selling framed pieces at exhibition, it is essential that your frames will protect the investment your buyers have made in your work.