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There's much to see here. So, take your time, look around, and learn the "How to..."  of picture framing.  We hope you enjoy our new page that was 40 years in the making..

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PICTURE FRAME SCHOOL FOR starving ARTISTS

I was an art major in college during the hippy days and tried to make a living as an artist, so I have a soft spot in my heart for struggling artists. Since I am not getting any younger, I decided to pass along the tricks & tips that I have learned over these 40 years that make framing your own art fun and affordable.

Hi, my name is Mike Ellingson. Here is a photo. I am the one on the left.

I wake up every morning happy to have another day to see and hear and walk and talk and think and frame pictures and visit with customers and annoy my wife and play with the dogs.  


I believe each day is a precious gift.   My wish is that everyone, including starving artists, also have a wonderful life:


 Years ago I tried making a living as an artist.  I had great  joy in making art, but trying to pay rent and make a living from selling art was exasperating.   I remember not being able to afford to frame my art, so I would take a portfolio of my work around to banks and insurance companies and other businesses and offer my artwork for sale.  


After getting nowhere trying to make a living as an artist, I gave myself 3 months to find a job related to art and if not, I was going to drive a cab...  The day I was going to drive a cab the employment agency called and had a job for me in a custom frame shop!   I took to it right away and had the added bonus of saving lot of money using my own labor to frame my own art.   


After 6 years of working for the frame shop, I opened my own shop in 1979.   When I first opened, I displayed my “Hippy Art”  around the shop.   At that time signed numbered wildlife prints were all the rage.   I would often have customers in with their “ducks flying over water in sunset” prints for me to frame and they would see my weird hippy art and ask: “What the heck is that suppose to be?”   I would explain that I did the art and most customers were very polite and felt bad that they cast aspersions on art I had done, so I eventually took pity on my customers and placed my art out of sight.   (One art series I did by putting myself under hypnosis with a pen or pencil in my hand and see what art would happen.   Someone described them as “floating guts”.   Not a big seller!)


I have set up a framing workshop, with duplicate picture frame equipment (mat cutters, miter vices, nail guns etc...) in my basement.  I am renting out the space and equipment to starving artists for only 10 cents a minute ($6.00/hr) per person.   I also sell framing supplies like 32 x 40 mats, cases of glass and frame lengths to artists so they can use their own labor to frame their own art at a fraction of the cost.   Artists are also welcome to bring their own supplies.  (If the artist has no money, I might even consider trading their time to clean, pull weeds or whatever, for space rent.)    Since our little frame shop is lucky enough to be buried in work and I just don’t have time to be with artists one on one,  I will pass along the information here in writing with photos and eventually videos. As I write this, I am almost 2 months behind in framing my customers projects.  We usually work on about 8 to 25 projects at a time.   We first cut the block size of many different customers' mats, then mark those mat openings, then cut the mat openings and foam-core backings and secure the art in the mat.   Next we cut the frames and check the size to make sure the frame fits the mat.   Then we glue and nail the first half of the frame corners together and after the glue has set, glue and nail the other half together to create the completed empty frame with nail holes filled.  Once we have the whole group of art with mats, backing and frames completed then we start cutting and cleaning the glass and installing the individual projects.  This “mass production” makes for an efficient use of time to complete each framing task.


I have broken down the aspects of custom picture framing into 20+ categories.   If you have any requests email me at phonomike@aol.com and I will see if I can add the information.   Remember these are all “my opinion” and this is how I do it.   Others experts may have differing opinions. 






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1. How to select mats and frames

Here in our little mom and pop frame shop we have over 4,000 frame styles and 1,000 mat samples to choose from.   It may seem like a daunting task, but if you can answer just a few questions you can eliminate 90% of the choices:  Do you want a minimalist gallery look or do you want the frame and mat to relate to the color and style of the art?    If you want a minimalist gallery look, most of the time this is accomplished with a white mat and simple black or white frame.   The frame and mat become more about just separating the art from its surroundings and having a relationship to other simply framed art in a gallery setting than what makes each individual art “sing” on it’s own.  My favorite way to select mats and frames is to pick a top mat that matches the more overall color of the background of the art, which is usually a lighter color.  And pick an inside mat that matches a color in the focal point, which is usually a darker color... and then to select a frame that matches the color of the inside mat.   This creates a visual progression from the frame - to inside mat - to focal point and makes the viewer look at the art without distracting from it.  If you keep this technique in mind you will almost always have an aesthetically pleasing result.   I first select mats and frames for color, then I choose the frame size and style to relate to the size and style of the art.   The trick is to make the art look special without making the viewer look more that the framing than the art.


The example photos are of an artwork I did about 10 years ago.  It has a broken sculpture in the upper right.  I drew a nude lady, that looks like the sculpture, and had her pour a building out of the urn she is holding.   Titled " If God were a Women would she look Like Marilyn Monroe."   It's hard to see in the photo, but I used a copper pencil to draw on the tan suede mat.  I started by drawing on the whole suede sheet knowing I was going to use the outer edges as the top mat and an inside mat that matches the copper/rust color of the pencil.  The frame is my "Topnotch" frame that I had a patent pending on.   It is an extruded metal with a 3/4" channel at the top.   You can slide anything in the channel.  The 3/4" insert was made from the same mat as the inside mat, so the viewer has a progression from the frame color to inside mat color to focal point color.  The other photo showing a white mat and back frame was photoshopped, but you get the idea.   As a side note,  I made about 3,000 feet of my frame and sold all but a few hundred fee in our shop.   I tried getting other shops to offer it,  but no one did.   The advantage was the one frame could become a million frames.   Beside matching the color of the inside mat an insert could be chosen dictated by the theme of the item being framed.  For example, I printed up overlapping money and slid it in the channel for a frame for bankers.  With the frame I could match team colors when framing sports Jerseys.  I framed record albums using sheet music in the channel.  The disadvantage was that the channel covered 3/4" of the edge and if the insert was a little too wide it would not slide in the channel and if a little too narrow the insert would fall out of the channel.  Oh Well,  It was fun to play! 



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2. How to make a mat marker

I use a simple wood marking gage with ruler on the side and nail at zero.   (A Stanley number 61 marking gauge works well.)  I pound out the nail and drill a tapered hole so a pencil can replace the nail: Use about 4 different sizes of drill bits.  The largest bit should be the diameter of a pencil, then use graduated smaller sizes and kind of tilt the smaller bit in a circle until the hole is tapered like the end of a pencil.   Then I drill small holes in the sides and use a couple screw eyes to hold the pencil. 

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3. How to cut a mat

Start by carefully measuring the art to determine the inside dimensions of the mat and add double the width of the mat border.   For example:   for art that covers a sheet of a 22" X 30" paper, I would usually make the opening 21&5/8" X 29& 5/8" This 3/8" difference means the mat will cover 3/16" of the edge of the paper.   I like this coverage because  this “fudge factor” makes the chances of problems much less. (Many art papers have deckle edges that are not perfectly even .)

I almost always add 1/4" to the bottom mat to kind of weight the art at the bottom.  (Frames are cut an eighth inch bigger than the mat to make room for expansion and contraction so the mat does not warp.   If the mat eventually sinks to the bottom of the inside edge of the frame, the bottom of the mat will not look smaller than the top and sides since it is a little larger.   The outside dimension of this example is 27 5/8" X 35 & 7/8".    (21 & 5/8" + 6" )   (29 & 5/8" + 6 & 1/4") assuming the art is vertical with 3" border top and sides and with 3 & 1/4" at the bottom.)   If you are an artist who wants to reuse the mat and frame and offer the art for sale framed or unframed, you could opt for an even border so you could orient the next piece of art horizontally or vertically.

Now that you have the outside dimensions of the mat calculated,  cut the block size of the mat using the wall mounted 60" mat cutter.   (The standard size uncut mat sheet is 32" X 40".)  Next...  On the back of the mat, mark the mat border with your handy mat marker (see above).  To cut the mat opening, I use and recommend a mat cutter that has a block that holds the blade at an angle and rides down a bar.    I have 3 mat cutters available in the workshop space: a 40" C & H, a 40" Keeton and a 48" Fletcher mat cutter. (Use of the mat cutters is included in the space rental.) Place the mat in the cutter with the border closest to you.  Place a scrap mat under the mat you are cutting so the blade will be going into the under-mat so you will get a nice sharp bevel edge.   Do not push down or lean on the bar.   With one hand hold the mat in place.  Use your other hand to position the block that holds the razor blade over the intersection of the lines.   Dive the blade into the mat by pushing the block head forward and down, ideally splitting the pencil line.  Slide the blade down the line cutting the mat, then pull the blade out of the mat at the end of the line where they intersect.   When to dive in and pull out the blade takes some practice.   Ideally you don’t want any over or under cuts.   There is no fixing an over cut.   If you have an under cut you can carefully take a loose razor blade and hold it in the bevel to “clip” the inside of the mat free from the mat border.  

To practice when to dive a blade in and out of a mat to get a perfect cut, I recommend cutting a “telescoping” mat.   Step 1.  Using a full 32 x 40 sheet of mat, mark a 4" border and cut the opening.  Then using the 24 x 32 “fallout” from the center of the 32x 40 mat, mark a 3.5" border and cut another mat.   The fallout from that will be 17 x 25  mark that mat with a 3" border and you will have an 11 x 19 mat to mark 2.5" border.  Next you will have a 6 x 14 mat you can mark 2" and end up with a 2 x 10 inch mat strip.   So you will have made 5 mats from one 32" X 40" sheet!   (Of course you could use any combination of borders to get more or less mats out of one sheet, but you can quickly see how to save a lot of money doing art in a variety of sizes keeping in mind the most efficient use of a sheet of mat.) 

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4. How to cut a frame

The equipment used to cut a miter can be as inexpensive as a simple wood miter box and hand saw or as expensive as a double miter saw, with two 12" carbide blades that cut both miters at once.  Some artists use a table saw with a jig set up to hold the frame in a miter position.   Also the usual power miter saw used by carpenters also can work, but often the miter is not as perfect as needed for a picture frame.

Whatever equipment you use to cut the miter, I like to have the project I am framing on a table, with the edges of two sides extending over the edge of the corner of a table.  As I cut, I like to hold the mitered frame rail up to the outer edge of the mat (or the art if there is no mat) to make sure the frame fits before I glue it together.

I cut the frame a 1/8" larger than the mat so it has room to expand and contract in the frame.   If the frame is too tight to the mat, it will wrap with humidity and temperature changes.  After the frames are cut, color the cut edge of the frame with a marker that matches the color of the frame surface.

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5. How to join a frame


The standard of the framing industry for 100 years has been a heavy table miter vise.

These work great and I have them at my workshop frame stations.   I also have available small corner vises that come in sets of 4.   The miter is glued, positioned in the vise with corners flush at the top and outside edge.   Wipe off excess glue that squishes out of the corner as you tighten the vise.   Run your fingers over the top and back corner of the frame to make sure they are perfectly flush.   Adjust the frame in the vice until the top and side is flush.   Next, hold the corner together with you fingers while the frame is in the miter vice.   Shoot a nail or two into the frame to hold the corner together while the glue is drying.  Note: some woods are softer than others and you don’t want to push the tip of the nail gun too hard into the frame or it will dent the frame around the nail hole.    My favorite glue is “Cornerweld” made by Framerica.  This glue is so strong that it is not easy to pull a glued frame apart once it has dried.   Any glue you missed wiping from the frame when it was wet can be wiped off with a damp rag even after it has dried.

I usually put many frames together at one time.   I line up the long members on the right and short members on the left of the table so as I am gluing I don’t put together two longs and two shorts. 



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6. How to cut glass

This is where I really need to do a video, but I will attempt to explain it here.   Remember you are not really cutting glass, you are breaking it along the line of least resistance.   I usually just lay a sheet of glass over the back of the completed frame, grab the glass cutter in my right hand and push the glass cutter wheel along the inside edge of the frame rail to the end.   (I just eyeball it and do not use a straight edge.)  Once the score has been made, I just pinch it off with my fingers at the end of the score and the waste breaks free from the glass I am using.   If the sheet of glass

hangs over the edge more than a couple inches, I make a preliminary rough cut so that I don’t have the weight of a lot of waste glass hanging over the edge of the frame.   This weight can cause the glass to break before the score is complete.   I suggest you practice cutting glass by laying a scrap piece on the table and just start scoring the glass in lines about 1" apart.  As you score, pinch each piece apart.   At this point you are just trying to get a feel for the cutter.   For me the sound of the score as the cutting wheel scratches into the glass is very important.   With some practice you can tell if you have a good score down the glass by the sound.   If the frame is out of square or warped I do not cut it into that frame.   I lay paper on the table, under the glass, to use as a straight edge and measure with a tape measure the size I need.  Sometimes I tape the glass to the sheet of paper to make sure the glass does not slide on top of the paper and result in a bad score.


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7. How to clean glass


We all know how to clean glass, but here are a few tips:   I like Kimwipes and Sprayway glass cleaner.  Kimwipes are used to clean scientific instruments and work great for frame glass.   I spray one side of the glass with the cleaner then vigorously wipe it off, making sure to get to all the outside edges of the glass.   I do this almost more by feel than looking.   Once it feels like I have it clean I use an air compressor to blow any particles off the glass.  I usually work under a 48" led light so I can bounce light off the glass and examine its reflection so I can more easily see if there are any streaks or water drops.   Once I am satisfied it is perfectly clean, I lay the matted artwork at the edge of the glass and blow it off. Then I lift the opposite ends of both the glass and art, laying on the table, so they are now a vertical “sandwich”.  If there happen to be a particle on the top of the mat or on the glass, gravity might cause it to fall off as they are brought into a vertical position.  Lay the project flat again on the table and lightly spray glass cleaner on the top of the glass to clean it before installing it in the frame.   (If you spray the cleaner on too heavy it could wick into the mat if drips off the edge.   If you clean one side of the glass and turn it around and clean the other and then lay the glass over the art there is a chance any residue from ATG tape or dust might be on the glass and you don’t want that in contact with the art.   If you think the glass and art are perfectly clean and install it in the frame and upon further inspection find a speck under the glass you can sometime fish it out by pulling up some of the point driver arrows near the speck and bend the mat back to get at the speck.   If you are driven nuts by specks falling between the glass and art, one trick is to tape the edge of the glass and wrap tape all around the outside edge of the glass ( So the lip of the frame hides the tape and nothing can get under the glass.)   

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8. How to install your art in frame

I like to lay the project on the table face up, then lay the frame over it and carefully flip the whole thing up-side-down to expose the back so I can shoot a few points in the back of the frame to hold it in.   Then I flip it face up again and make sure there are no problems, like specks or streaks.   I turn it back side up and finish driving in more points until they are about 3" apart all around the frame.   (The reason I work with it face up is that I can more easily see if there are any specks that fall from the edge of the frame in-between the glass and matted art.  If there are specks it is easier to take apart when there are few points holding it all together.)   

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9. How to seal frame with paper back and install hangers


I use ATG tape all around the back of the frame, about 1/16" away from the edge.   Next I pull a much larger sheet of paper off a paper roll and press the paper into the ATG. Then I run my fingers along the frame edge over the excess paper so it creases around the edges.   Next I pinch a razor blade in my fingers while using one finger as a guide along the edge and cut the paper free from the back of the frame.   If you have trouble using a razor blade you can also use sandpaper over a block of wood and sand off the edge of the paper.   Next I make sure the top of the frame is towards me and measuring down about a third of the way, I drill holes in the frame and screw an eyelet or “D” ring to string wire across.

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More to come later...

... More Advanced:


10.  Butterfly hinge

11.  Wood fillets in mats and frames

12.    How to “float” art using spacers in frames and/or mats

13.  How to mark and cut double and triple mats and multiple opening mats

14.  How to make stretcher bars and stretch canvas

15.   How to frame 3 dimensional objects

16.  The least expensive ways to frame and/or display your art

17.  How to install security hangers

18.  How to alter mats by chalking or covering with fabric

19.   How to safely pack framed art (with glass) for shipping

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Under construction

Additional Information to come

10.  Butterfly hinge

11.  Wood fillets in mats and frames

12.    How to “float” art using spacers in frames and/or mats

13.  How to mark and cut double and triple mats and multiple opening mats

14.  How to make stretcher bars and stretch canvas

15.   How to frame 3 dimensional objects

16.  The least expensive ways to frame and/or display your art

17.  How to install security hangers

18.  How to alter mats by chalking or covering with fabric

19.   How to safely pack framed art (with glass) for shipping

20.  Suggestions on how to make a living as an artist

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