How to mount and mat a print for framing

Elizabeth Graves instructs us on how to cut a mat for your prints and mount a print in a nice way.

Writer and Photography / Elizabeth Graves

a mounted and matted cyanotype printIf you are lucky enough to participate in a gallery show, your alternative process prints should be mounted, matted, and framed. Mounting is the way a print is attached to a support board. Matting is the paperboard window that surrounds the print. Framing is putting the mounted, matted print into a frame, preferably behind glass.

“Mounting, matting, and framing your prints and putting them under glass (or a glass substitute) not only protects your prints from dust, pollutants, and fingerprints: it also makes your work look more professional and valuable.”

Framing is an expensive service, which ensures better longevity for the work, and saves a client the trouble of having a purchased print framed on their own. Artists routinely charge significantly more for a custom-framed print.

Artists also have to pay a premium for custom framing services, which is money that would be better enjoyed on buying photographic supplies, film, and maintaining cameras. Extend your photography budget and get the look you want for your framed and matted prints by doing the work yourself.

Planning and Materials

You must make several decisions in advance about your print framing project.

The main decision is the size of your frame, which determines the proportions of your image to its mat. There are a variety of “standard” frame sizes in each country, and you should choose one that is large enough to accommodate your print AND a mat at proportions that please you. Look at matted images in galleries and catalogs and see which proportions appeal to you. If your prints vary in size, consider using the same size frame for all of your work (for a consistent look on the wall), while simply changing the opening size of the mat.

The next decision is the frame itself. It shouldn’t distract from the work but should enhance it. If you intend to prepare a set of prints with matching frames, acquire ALL of the frames in advance. There is no guarantee you will be able to acquire additional matching frames later.

handheld bevel cutting tool for cutting mounts for photgraphsOnce you’ve made those decisions, you can acquire your supplies and tools.

  • One frame for each print.
  • Two archival-quality boards that will fit into the frame for each print (one for the front, and one for behind). Choose your boards carefully for compatibility with the chemistry of your print: cyanotypes must be mounted on boards without alkaline buffers (which are used to make archival boards “acid-free”); most other processes are compatible with buffered, acid-free, “museum board.” For cyanotypes, the best board to use is often called “conservation board.” Ask at your art shop for information to choose wisely.
  • A mat cutter OR a bevel-cutter and a non-slip ruler. (Bevel cutters are inexpensive, but must be used with care.)
  • A pencil, a ruler, and a piece of drafting tissue or tracing paper that is the same size as your mat or larger, plus some masking or drafting tape to hold it in place.
  • A t-square or triangle, to ensure that you’re drawing your window opening along right-angles to the edges of your boards.
  • Acid-free tape.
  • A Safe surface to cut on, such as a self-healing cutting mat.
  • A few strips of paper, the same as your print was made on, and some archival paste or archival glue.

Measuring and cutting a mount for a print

Put the board that will have the window cut into it onto your cutting surface or in your mat cutter, and put the drafting tissue or tracing paper over it. Tape both down, so they’ll stay in place.

Align your ruler so that you can make a line between the opposite corners of the board. The two lines you make will define the perfect center of the board where they cross to make an x.

If you are centering your mat opening, use the triangle or t-square to draw vertical and horizontal lines through the x. Measure out your opening by putting half the window measurement above and half below, then draw horizontal lines extending to the X to define your window boundaries, repeating this step for the vertical dimensions.

mat cut board taped together as folderIf you are not centering your opening, use the X to measure the appropriate distance up from the center where you’d like to start, and then perform your vertical and horizontal measuring and marking from that point.

If you are using a conventional mat cutter, adjust the blade depth, align the board in the cutter so that the blade will follow the lines you have drawn perfectly, cut along the lines you’ve marked out on tissue as you ordinarily would. Be very careful to cut all the way to the boundary lines you have marked on the tissue. If you are using a hand-held bevel cutter as I did, adjust the blade to the appropriate depth, and carefully align the blade with the drawn lines, using the same care to take the blade EXACTLY to the boundary line, and not the slightest bit beyond.

When you’ve cut all four sides, carefully remove the center. The cut edges and bevels should be clean and smooth. You can clean up any rough paper edges at the bottom with a sharp cutting tool, but it is better to have cut properly the first time. If you are not satisfied, cut another board: it is better to do that now and waste a board then to be dissatisfied with the results when your print is framed.

Mounting a print, photograph or image

Lay your freshly cut window mat face down on your work surface, and lay the board that will support the photo face up against it along a short edge. Use archival tape to attach them together, forming a hinge. This step keeps the window and backing boards perfectly aligned.

Use the small strips of paper and glue to make four small tabs that protrude from the edges of your print. These small tabs are glued to the back of your print with nonreactive, archival glue. The tabs that protrude will be attached to the board with either another tab, glue, or a piece of acid-free tape. Using tabs this way prevents you from attaching the whole back of the print to your mounting board, allowing future conservationists to remount your print easily and without damaging it.

print with mounting tabsPut your print on top of the backing board, and fold the window board on top of it. Align the print to your satisfaction.

Open the window, and tape or glue down the tabs. Check again to be sure you are satisfied with the alignment.

Once this assembly is dry, you can slip it into your frame.

With practice, this process is fast and efficient. Once you are in the habit of mounting and matting your own prints, you will have greater control over the presentation of your work, and will be able to provide a professional presentation in every situation.

Elizabeth Graves is an artist working with cyanotype, vandyke and collodion and a keen experimenter with all sorts of alternative photographic processes.

7 thoughts on “How to mount and mat a print for framing”

  1. Charlie,

    Acrylic sheet (“Plexiglas”) is lighter than glass. It scratches easily, but won’t break easily, so is a good way to protect the work. A print should never be framed so that it touches glass or acrylic directly (thus the mat).

    You may want to try 100% cotton mat and backing inside a plastic presentation bag. The image will safe from dust/dirt in the bag, and with only 100% (unbuffered) cotton touching the image edge, it should be fairly safe. The frame and the glazing (glass or acrylic) are really the heavy parts. Look at these presentation bags

  2. Thanks for the great article and comments!

    I am interested in light weight matting, framing, and preservation because I have lived most of my life traveling overseas, and, as a consequence, so have most of my friends, so I would like information on light-weight materials to protect the surface/pigment layer of the prints, i.e. an alternative to glass, and light-weight materials for protecting/sealing the edges of the hanging mat.

    Any ideas on Stateside (I have stuff sent to me; and Stateside sources are most convenient) purveyors/sources of materials for matting/preservation of prints would also be appreciated.

  3. I have a print i would like to have matted. I would like to do it myself the measurement is 47×47 could you tell me how to begin and any steps on how to and the supplies needed.

  4. Hey, that was some really useful information! I had no idea that matting was done that way; it actually seems quite simple. I am only curious as to how big my print should be if the frame is A3, for example. Is it okay to put an A4 print into an A3 frame as long as it’s matted? I’m just trying to find the best way to display my digital artwork, that is, when there’s something decent to display 🙂

  5. a word of caution about the term “archival” and “acid-free”. They are thrown around too loosely in the framing world and it gets confusing.

    The only way to be 100% sure the mat itself is up to archival minimums for museums is to get one that is 100% and NOT buffered. (this was mentioned regarding cyanotypes in the article. I would extend this recommendation to all photography).

    “Acid-free” just means that enough buffering agent has been added to the usually paper) mat that it tests as acid neutral. It is really a misnomer because paper contains plenty of acid. The acid content is not read during testing (because of the buffering) and is marketted as “acid-free”. The problem is that the acid will eventually come into play and slowly effect the photo itself.

    “Archival” is even more mysterious. “Acid-free” does not mean that anything is archival. Even using the non-buffered 100% cotton (rag) mat does not mean that the overall framing is archival in the eyes of a museum. You need to use the 100% cotton/rag mat, AND a 100% cotton/rag backing, with special mounting tape. Then, the frame assembly must meet certain requirements. It’s too much to get into here. If you really want to know, then I suggest contacting a local museum to see if they will give you a way to ask questons of their conservators.

    The good news is that if you use 100% cotton/rag mat and backing along with an “acid-free” framing tape, then you have done 75% of the big work. The frame assembly and glass won’t (typically) have a negative impact on your photo for a couple of decades (whereas a poor matting job can do acid damage in just a couple of years)

Leave a Comment