Before heading to the framing shop, determine whether you can handle the job yourself. If the piece has value (monetary or sentimental), if the job requires customization or if you are not detail-oriented and comfortable with DIY projects, you should absolutely use a professional, says John Clark, a professional framer with Frame By Frame in Denver.
Both big-box and independent retailers have pros on staff. When purchasing unframed pieces, you might even ask the artists where they go for framing, says Philadelphia artist Dafna Steinberg, who focuses on photography. If it’s the first time you’ve used a particular framer, start with something small and see how they do before having them work on a big piece.
A framing professional or business should be insured and have a clear policy on handling damage to your art. Ask for proof of insurance, especially if your piece is valuable. If the question upsets the framer, you should leave.
How to buy real art, even when you’re on a budget
Decide how much you want to spend and communicate your budget up front to help the framer choose products and techniques. “Any good framer will see art, know how it should be framed and can help you with pricing,” Steinberg says. “Think of it as a collaboration instead of just a service.”
You will probably have to choose three basic components: frame, mat and glass.
The frame. There is no universal rule when it comes to materials, Clark says. Solid, natural wood tends to be the most expensive, but not always. Metal is often less expensive, and, unlike wood, it doesn’t warp. For the look of wood at a lower price, check out frames with a fiberboard (reclaimed wood) core wrapped in a faux wood finish or veneer. These may be as much as 75 percent cheaper than solid hardwood.
The amount of material affects the cost, so a narrower or shallower frame will be less expensive than a wider or deeper one. This can reduce the price, as long as it’s still proportionally right for the design and can support the size of the piece, Kuehn says. Ask about in-stock options for both wood and metal, because those may be discounted.
The most economical option is to buy a premade, over-the-counter frame or to find one at a thrift store. Then have the framer swap out the guts (mat and glass). And if you have a painting on canvas, you may be able to have it stretched over wood, then hung directly on a wall.
The mat. Mats are decorative, but they also add space between the art and the glass, preventing damage from direct contact. Adding a mat increases the size of the object, though, as well as the cost. Mats can also be used to make your art fit a standard-size frame. Even if the dimensions of the item being framed are not standard, a mat can be cut to fit a ready-made frame with an opening sized for the art, Kuehn says.
Fabric mats typically cost 50 percent more than paper, Clark says. Some paper mats come with patterns that add the texture of fabric at a lower price point. Kuehn says a color core — a contrasting color visible in the beveled edge of the opening — is also an option. It can add a layer of color without the expense of a second mat. As for choosing the right color, you can’t go wrong with simplicity, Steinberg says. “I use white mat on a white frame or black mat on a black frame for most of my work.”
If you don’t want a mat, or if adding one will make the piece huge, consider inexpensive spacers placed between the glass and the artwork. This option works well for collages and drawings, Steinberg says.
The glass. Professional framers are particularly helpful at walking customers through the various types of “glass,” including the real deal and acrylic options. Acrylic weighs less and is shatter-resistant; glass is generally much more affordable.
Either glass or acrylic may have UV (ultraviolet) protection, which will add to the cost but can keep your art from fading. Clark says pieces will be vulnerable to damaging UV rays even if you don’t hang them in direct sunlight. “Frame for the art, not where you will hang it,” Clark says.
Glass and acrylic can also have a surface treatment to prevent glare. Traditional “non-glare” glass has a slightly frosted, non-shiny texture that helps soften the appearance of glare. There are also anti-reflective coatings that can improve light transmission to minimize glare on the surface and improve clarity.
Conservation glass is clear and shiny, like regular glass, and filters out about 99 percent of UV rays that cause light damage. Museum glass filters out UV light but has the added feature of being clear and virtually non-reflective when viewed from any angle because of a special coating. Conservation glass is more expensive than plain glass because of the UV coating. Museum glass is the most expensive option.
Clark ran the numbers on a standard 24-by-36-inch piece of glass. Plain glass without UV protection was $24. Conservation clear glass with UV protection was $48. Premium clear acrylic was $65. Non-glare glass with UV protection was $69. Museum anti-glare glass was $158 and museum acrylic $478. In his opinion, conservation clear offers the greatest savings with UV protection. And you may not need glass for oil or acrylic paintings.
Using a professional framer is an investment in your art. These people take pride in their work and want you to be happy with the result. “You get what you pay for,” Clark says. “At the end of the day, you have to live with it. We don’t.”
Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.