Framing Techniques and Options

Glassless Framing: When you look at an oil painting in someone's home or in a museum, it's usually not framed with protective glass because oil paints are very durable, often because they have been coated with a clear varnish finish. As a result, colors are very deep and so you can really see what the artist had in mind while applying paint to the canvas.  Also, the underlying paint is protected. For a variety of reasons, most photography isn't displayed this way, but it can be.

The first thing to explain is what a huge benefit glassless framing is. When I first started to frame images for display I used a traditional approach with nice-looking gallery frames 3-inch mats and UV-filtering glass. I never felt that the mats surrounding the images really added anything, so I experimented with the idea of “float” frames where the image appeared to float in space inside a sort of shadow box with UV-filtering acrylic to protect the print. I had a small show at a local gallery with eight images from the Death Valley Gallery, one of which I sold to a man from a nearby town. I delivered it to his home and hung it for him in the location of his choosing which was above a dresser in the master bedroom. He loved the image but later complained that the acrylic glazing was reflecting light from large windows in the wall next to the dresser. Meanwhile, I had already been thinking about and researching ways to do archivally responsible framing and mounting without glass or acrylic of any kind (more on that below). So I ended up reprinting the image on heavier paper and finishing it in a different way. The two images below tell the tale. On the left is a photo of the original print as it hung on the wall in the man’s house. The glare is pretty obvious, particularly on the left side closest to the windows. On the right is the same scene with the new “glassless” print. See how the reflections are gone? Also look at the right side of the two images. See how much more presence and punch there is in the glassless version? While it’s less obvious, the glazing picks up reflections from everything in the room and diffuses the light coming off the print. 

Standing in the room, it was remarkable how much more depth and texture the glassless image had. Then, for a more demanding test, I moved the camera further to the right so the window reflections would be more pronounced. Here are the results:

The glazed print is worse but the glassless one still looks fine. There is a small amount of reflection and diffusion on the left side where the light is brightest, but even an oil painting would reflect in light this bright. Also note that the frame width and float space are slightly smaller on the glassless version which makes for a lighter, more image-focused look. If an image this size was framed traditionally with glass and a 4-inch mat, it would take up quite a lot more wall space.


Printing and Mounting: Now on to the details of the printing and mounting techniques I use for every image. First I make a finished print, usually with a slightly textured paper like Epson Cold Press Natural or Somerset Velvet. These are heavy, fine-art matte papers that are acid free, pH buffered and 100% cotton rag (no wood pulp). The texture is similar to that of watercolor paper. They absorb the pigment inks very well, and the texture, which is subtle, helps to further reduce reflections. My Epson printer uses ten different ink colors, including three shades of black, all at once. The graphic to the left is from the status monitor that shows how much ink is left in each of the cartridges. There are actually eleven carts because there are two kinds of full black, one for matte papers and one for luster/glossy surfaces. Each image is fine tuned for tone, color saturation and sharpness based on size, so an extra printed proof or two is often needed. 

2. Once the ink is dry (overnight), the print is rolled with a water-based polymer print varnish. This material is a marvel because it is environmentally friendly, dries clear, will not yellow or crack, provides UV light protection and can even be wiped with a damp cloth to remove dust or fingerprints from the surface of the image. According to Wilhelm Imaging research, prints made with Epson archival inks and papers and coated with this kind of varnish have permanence ratings similar to those protected with UV-filtering glass, all more than 100 years if kept out of direct sunlight. This coating is like the clear varnish that is often added to paintings, both to protect the paint itself and to enhance its color. The coated prints are again left to dry overnight.

3.  Next, the prints are laminated to a thin sheet of clear acrylic using a permanent adhesive that is pH neutral once dry. One of the surprise benefits to using acrylic is that once mounted in a frame, its edges refract the color of whatever frame it's mounted in, so they really disappear. The idea is to have the laminate layer be as invisible as possible while also giving the edge of the print more rigidity and protection. After the lamination is done, the print is trimmed to remove only the white border around the image. Last, I use a very sharp file to round the corners slightly so they won't catch on dust cloths.

4. Frame Finishes: I currently use three different molding finishes, all with the same dimensions as the natural maple frame shown here. Additional options are white maple and ebonized (black) walnut. All are true hardwoods with visible grain, not gesso-coated.  They are 2" deep (1 5/8” float depth) with a 3/16” edge profile. The inside of the frame, the part below the print, is more than 1 1/2” wide so that so neither the inside edge of the frame nor the mounting hardware is visible behind the print. As you'll in the quote request form, custom moldings are available. 

5. The moldings come in long lengths so I cut each frame section to size with a fine miter saw. The corners are positioned and glued to make them square and flush so the front edge is smooth. Once the glue drys (stronger than the wood itself) each corner is "dressed" by hand with a file. Ask any framing shop and they will tell you that the glued frames are best, second only to bisquit joinery which is only feasible or necessary with much heavier moldings.

6. Once the frames are assembled I can begin the mounting process. The system has evolved recently so I don't have up-to-date photos yet, but I will add them soon. But to summarize, it starts with two or more (depending on image size) pieces of square acrylic tubing. These are attached with screws to the inside edges of the frame.  To these I attach two cleats (long, flat strips) of 1/4" acrylic. These are mounted across (perpendicular to) the lengths of tubing using stainless steel machine screws. The last step is to position the image in the exact center of the frame and permanently bond the laminated print to the cleats. The point of the cleats and machine screws is to make it easy to remove/replace the print in the event the frame needs cleaning or repair. 

A few other details are worth mentioning. First, I used to deliver framed prints with hanging wire attached, but I've learned that it's often easier to use two D-rings without wire. It means using two picture hooks, but because the D-rings are always mounted exactly the same distance from the top of the frame, the frame will always be level as long as the picture hooks are level. This way you don't have to make adjustments every time the frame is dusted. It also makes hanging two or more images in a row much easier. Last, the lower corners have clear bumpers attached to hold the frame in a true vertical position.