My Best Strategy for Affordable Custom Framing: How to get some of your print collection on your walls finally!

Today I want to show you my favourite hack for how to frame art affordably. If you can afford custom framing, honestly, go for it. As a person who worked as a custom framer for years, it’s expensive for a reason. It can be fussy, aggravating work, and professionals will make sure that the art you are framing gets a preservation and display method that matches its value/fragility. As a person who fully knows how to do bespoke framing, I still occasionally pay another professional to, just because it feels worth it.

But! You might be here because you’re building your collection with gorgeous, original artworks by emerging artists, and it’s a bit of a bummer to spend $150 on a print, and $450 on a frame to house it. Believe me, the artists feel the same way!

Disclaimer, this tutorial is for works on paper! A canvas can go on the wall without a frame anyways. 

Disclaimer no. 2, there is math and careful measuring involved. You’ve been warned.

Disclaimer no. 3... this whole thing is in imperial because that is how my brain does framing (and almost everything else... Canada is weird about measurements). Elsewhere in the world there are different standard frame sizes so all the approximations will be less helpful, just note that when I say ¼" think 5mm and when I say 4" think 10cm.

Okay, here it is:

  1. Buy a standard size frame off the shelf.
  2. Get a custom cut mat to fit your artwork. 
  3. Put it all together yourself.

Buy a standard size frame off the shelf

You’re going to want to watch for size and ratio. Ideally, look for something that is at last 4” bigger than your artwork in both directions. 

For this sample print “Come and Sit a While” the printed area measures 7.5 x 5” and I want to show ¼” of the paper all around so that the editioning and signature are visible. So 8 x 5.5” is the area that I want to show. I originally planned to add 4” on top of those measurements which equals 12 x 9.5” and then expand into 11 x 14” but I found a really cute 8x10 frame at Winners so I'm doing this with a narrow mat border.  

10 - 8 = 2    2 / 2 = 1 (border width on the sides)

8 - 5.5 = 2.5     2.5 / 2 = 1.25 (border on the top and bottom)

If you’re getting a custom cut mat, the framer will do this math for you, but it’s good to practice so you know if things will be a good fit. Your safest bet is to bring both the frame and the artwork to the framer so they can measure where they want and make sure things will fit.

Measuring tips:

  • The mat needs to overlap at least a ⅛” of paper all the way around. So your mat opening max size is the size of your paper minus ¼”  in both dimensions.
  • If you're framing a print with editioning along the bottom edge of the image, best practice is leaving 1/4" of paper exposed beyond the borders at the top and sides, then a little more on the bottom, so you can make sure you don't cover the signature.
  • Your off-the-shelf frame will tell you how big the moulding is. This is what I keep referring to as a standard size. 4x6, 5x7, 8x10, 11x14, 16x20, 18x24, 24x36, 36x48. Some places will have more sizes but those are the most basic. If you take out a ruler and measure them, you will almost certainly find that the moulding is a tiny bit bigger than those dimensions.The moulding is a tiny bit bigger than everything else just to make sure it fits.
  • If you thrift a frame to use for this purpose (get one with glass!) you need to measure the area inside the lip that your glass and paper and backing fit into, and then subtract between an ⅛” and ¼” . Again, this is just to make sure everything fits nicely.
  • Best case scenario, you want to have an equal mat width all the way around the image, but a ¼” is negligible, and most people won't notice that it’s not equal. So long as the mat opening is centred, it will look professional and considered.

Get a custom cut mat

Go to your handy dandy local framing shop! Bring your art and your frame. 

My go to mat style is a single layer white mat that matches the white of the paper (warm/cool is very important here). 

Another classic style is a double mat with a sliver of accent colour (probably pulled from somewhere within the artwork) on the inside and a matching paper white mat on top. 3/16” exposure between layers (your framer will know what I’m talking about!)

If you are curatorially confident, go with your gut! 

Ooh, ps, an 8 ply mat is more expensive but looks super swanky. Standard is 4 ply.

Have your framer double check your measurements!

Put it all together yourself

A clean, flat space to work is essential. 

You will need: 

  • Your print
  • Your mat
  • Your glass
  • Glass cleaner
  • Some acid free framing tape, nothing you have to wet to activate, don’t mess with that.  (get it from your local art supply store) Please, for goodness sake, do not use masking tape. Scotch tape is acceptable if getting actual framing tape is inconvenient. (me, in the photos that go with this tutorial)
  • Some acid free foamcore if your frame has enough depth to accommodate it, or some acid free paper to go between your art and the original backing if it doesn’t.
  • You can probably re-use the backing and fastening that came with your frame (those little pins you twist around, or bendy tabs usually), but if you thrifted it and there’s no obvious way to hold everything in, the simplest, cheapest way is using glazing points. You can insert them with a flathead screwdriver and a hammer, it just takes a little coordination. If you’re not coordinated and/or you see yourself doing this a lot, you can invest in a point-driver (get the one that does flexible points).
  • Some hanging hardware. I like sawtooth hangers for anything 8x10 or littler, but you have to measure the centre really well. D-rings and wire are good for almost everything else. Don’t get screw-eyes, they just make your art sit off the wall.
  • A clean rag that doesn’t shed fluffs, or paper towel.
  • Maybe double sided tape (read instructions)

  1. Rule of thumb: assemble everything with the art facing up. It is really, super important to assmble everything with the art facing up. I can't tell you how many artists I see in framing tutorials on instagram, putting in the paper upside down! You can't see the dust! You can't see if it's straight! If you take away nothing else from this blog post, please start assembling your frames face up.
  2. Affix your art to a support. If everything is small and your mat is sturdy, you can tape directly from the back of the mat to the back of the art. Put a little tape overlapping the back of the paper, sticky side up, in two places across the top edge (seriously, only two places, ever!) and then, with the art facing you, place the mat on top with all the borders equal. Press down gently where you know the tape is, and then flip it over and use your fingernail to make sure the tape is stuck well to the mat. If your mat is flimsy compared to the weight of your print, you need to stick the print to the backing. If you’re using acid free paper between your art and the backing, you need to stick the acid free paper to the backing first, probably with double sided tape. Once that is done, do the little tape hinge again, with half of the sticky part facing up above the top edge of the paper, and then position it on your backing so that the mat opening and the art all line up. Then using more of the acid free tape, tape the hinge to the backing material in a T-shape. Sandwich your mat on top (you can use double sided tape here (sparingly!) so long as you make sure it doesn’t come in contact with the art. 
    You might be able to tell from looking at these photos that I ran into a weird sizing issue. My frame was a 8x10 frame in that it "fits an 8x10 photo" but the actual glass size was 8.5x10.5. So since I had already cut my top mat, I used a backing mat cut to the large size, and double-sided taped one to the other (watch yout for the art!) so that the top mat and art would stay centred, and you can't tell that the mat is too small from the finished frame. This is why you should measure our frame before you get the mat cut. Do as I say, not as I do!
  3. Clean your glass. Both sides. Try to eliminate streaks. This has the potential to be the most time consuming and frustrating part of the process, so just do your best. You don’t have to wear gloves, but try to handle the glass by the edges.
  4. Place the glass on top of your mat-art-backing sandwich. Check for dust. Take your time. You don’t want to have to take it back apart. This whole layered cake is called the “framing package”
  5. Place the frame on top of that.
  6. Holding the whole thing together, flip it upside down so you can secure the package to the moulding. This is where you use your glazing points or use your point driver if there isn’t existing hardware. 
  7. Check that everything still looks good on the front of the frame.
  8. Add your hanging hardware, if needed. Tips: if you're using a sawtooth hanger, triple check that centre point or it will hang crooked. If you're using d-rings and wire, use an awl or pre-drill holes in your wood frame, especially if it's narrow, before putting in the screws. Make sure the d-rings are mounted the same height on either side of the moulding. When adding wire, pull it tight, right across the back fo the frame. You don't have to leave any loose. It will loosen up on it's own from the weight of the frame probably, and most importantly: a tighter wire means your art won't lean off the wall at the top, it will sit more flush. Super important esp for gallery walls.
  9. Done!

I really think working in batches is useful here. If you do three frames in one afternoon, it will feel pretty straightforward by the third one.

As always, drop any questions in the comment section! 


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