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Framing for the Future: Conserving Artwork

Aug 13, 2009

by michellearnold handmade and vintage goods

Since I work for a frame store, I have a lot of opportunities to see the “How-to’s” and “How-NOT-to’s” of framing. We often reframe work that was purchased from artists. Sometimes it is a bit painful to see how the artist has framed or matted their own work, and in the process made preserving their art more difficult, costly, or even impossible. They have damaged their own artwork by framing it themselves! So I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with all you Etsy artists out there (and art buyers) a few of the basics of conservation as it relates to framing artwork. The beauty of original art is that it is one-of-a-kind; as something that can never be replaced, it deserves the very best treatment from creation to presentation.

First of all, “archival” means using materials and methods that will not harm or alter the artwork and that are completely reversible. For example, you can use photo corners to set a photo in place on the backing. Then you don’t need to use any adhesive at all. But if photo corners won’t work for your pieces of art, and so you are going to use tape, it should be labeled “acid-free” or “archival quality” or preferably of a “natural cellulose-base” (this means rice paste or wheat paste which activates with water). This means NO masking tape or scotch tape.

So we hear a lot about acid-free — for paper, scrapbooking, photo-storage, adhesives: what is all the hype about? Acid occurs naturally in the lignin of wood pulp, which is what most paper is made of, and this acid will cause it to turn yellow and disintegrate over time. Using tape, matting, or backing which is not acid-free will damage an artwork, even if the artwork itself was made with archival materials. The best fine art papers and “museum-quality” matboard for framing, are made from cotton, a naturally acid-free material. Cotton papers and ragboard will last much longer than wood pulp products labeled “acid-free”, which have been processed to neutralize the acid.

Be sure to protect your art from both the back AND the front. Both the mat AND the backing should be acid-free. If it isn’t, the acid can leech from the backing into the artwork, so backing your artwork with cardboard is NOT a good idea.

See what happens when backing a document or photo with cardboard — damage to the document AND the mat!

Another important conservation purpose the mat serves is to separate it from the glass. Since glass condenses with changes in temperature, over time this condensation can damage the artwork, as seen with the photograph below.

This photograph was framed without a mat — the photo emulsion is now stuck to the glass and disintegrating.

For more information on the aesthetics and technical info on designing and cutting a stunning archival mat, see TheSeed’s post.

If you really don’t want to mat it? That’s okay — just make sure that you have some sort of spacer in the frame to separate the artwork from the glass. Another good way to frame a work on paper without matting is to use clear acrylic/plexiglass in the frame instead of glass. Because Plexiglass is plastic, it doesn’t condense the way glass does, and is safe to lay directly on top of your artwork. Whether you choose glass or acrylic for your glazing, look for UV protection. UV protective glazing acts like sunscreen for your artwork to prevent it from fading, which can occur even under artificial lights.

As long as you understand the basics of conservation, you don’t have to pay a pro in order to take good care of your work; just plan ahead, and invest in some good materials to guarantee that your collectors can have your works of art for generations.

Further Resources:

  • For guides on caring for everything from videos to books to textiles:

Michelle Arnold Paine is a painter and art teacher living in Massachusetts. Add to that experience her part-time job as a custom framer — isn’t she the perfect author for a post like this? Leave any questions you might have in the comments below. Stay tuned for Part 2!
Did you know we’re doing a community vote on which art work gets featured in the Members’ Choice Gift Guide?
ATC \/ ACEO Blanks - 20 Cards and Sleeves, Crescent Matboard (Assorted Colors)
ATC \/ ACEO Blanks - 20 Cards and Sleeves, Crescent Matboard (Assorted Colors)
Moda Recess Rulers Fabric Fat Quarter FQ in Red
Moda Recess Rulers Fabric Fat Quarter FQ in Red
5x5 black stacked handmade picture frame . . . glass included
5x5 black stacked handmade picture frame . . . glass included
Purple Upcycled Metal Filigree Frame Made in Italy
Purple Upcycled Metal Filigree Frame Made in Italy
Custom House Portrait, Watercolor Painting, Housewarming, Personalized gift for Parents, House Illustration, Vacation Home Memory
Custom House Portrait, Watercolor Painting, Housewarming, Personalized gift for Parents, House Illustration, Vacation Home Memory
$450.00 USD
10 each Custom Cut ACEO ATC 5x7 Color Mix Mats with 2.5x3.5 or 3x5 opening
10 each Custom Cut ACEO ATC 5x7 Color Mix Mats with 2.5x3.5 or 3x5 opening
Pair of Vintage Metal Picture Frames
Pair of Vintage Metal Picture Frames


  • BlueShoeStudio

    BlueShoeStudio said 8 years ago

    This makes me want to apprentice at my local framing shop! Another fun entry on my Big To-Do List. :)

  • spacejam

    spacejam said 8 years ago

    great article andpicks!! check out my vintage frames.

  • UglyBaby

    UglyBaby said 8 years ago

    Wow, I had no idea there was so much to consider about framing and preserving artwork.

  • peppersprouts

    peppersprouts said 8 years ago

    i used to work fulltime as a framer. Oh the stories i could tell you. Frame your art right the first time. It's worth the money i promise! Oh and be careful with the power drills drilling through a finger is not fun.

  • MeghanT

    MeghanT said 8 years ago

    Thanks for this article! For Christmas last year my boyfriend ordered me a GORGEOUS painting from an artist here on etsy. I still need to get it framed so this was quite helpful.

  • Vanessa Admin

    Vanessa said 8 years ago

    peppersprouts, you drilled through your finger? Ouuuuch!

  • PravinaStudio

    PravinaStudio said 8 years ago

    As a museum curator, it warms my heart to see good preservation advice. Thanks for sharing this! Another tip-Try to hang your work in darker rooms to reduce the amount of light exposure and always always keep your work out of direct sunlight. The sun (or any UV light) will not only fade the piece but will speed its overall degradation.

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 8 years ago


  • soule

    soule said 8 years ago

    Love that pattern tape from theseed!

  • framergirl

    framergirl said 8 years ago

    Great article. You can find archival matboard / backing board and other framing options on our site. Convo us for more options, too. We do this full time.

  • SpringtreeRoad

    SpringtreeRoad said 8 years ago

    good stuff. i have lots of old pics that are stuck to the glass, unfortunately.

  • JessicaTorrant

    JessicaTorrant said 8 years ago

    Excellent tips! I've recently set up a framing station in my studio so I can utilize the tools and tricks of the trade I picked up in my ten years framing. SO GOOD to know that I can find supplies right here on Etsy! (ATG from TheSeed and custom cut plexi from InTheZone - how cool is that!?).

  • SimpleTraditions

    SimpleTraditions said 8 years ago

    Very cool article. Thank you!

  • JessicaTorrant

    JessicaTorrant said 8 years ago

    There was some magic solvent we used to use to remove glue, ATG and sometimes peel photos away from glass - with mixed results, but it's worth a shot. Anyone know what I'm talking about? It came in a can like the tin man's oil can and it had that potent "solvent stink". hmmm... It wasn't linseed oil or anything like that.

  • travellingcircus

    travellingcircus said 8 years ago

    Very useful article...thank you!

  • FrillyButts

    FrillyButts said 8 years ago

    I THOUGHT I knew how to frame! I never realized there was so much to consider. Thank you for enlightening us!

  • GimCarry

    GimCarry said 8 years ago

    Thank you so much for great article + + + + + Thank you for share(* v *)

  • workingforpeanuts

    workingforpeanuts said 8 years ago

    Very good advice! Thanks. (Can plexi really be flat against artwork?)

  • SusanFaye

    SusanFaye said 8 years ago

    What excellent information for both the artist and the art collector! Thanks!!

  • thestapeliacompany

    thestapeliacompany said 8 years ago

    Neat article and good advice. I think about archival supplies all the time with my photography, but I still learned some new tips. Thanks!

  • irisschwarz

    irisschwarz said 8 years ago

    Thank you so much for this informative article!

  • foxmountain

    foxmountain said 8 years ago

    Love the ink drawing!!!!!!

  • aprilmist

    aprilmist said 8 years ago

    Wow, I had no idea what a science it is to frame a work of art. No wonder it's usually kinda pricy to get a great frame job! thanks for sharing your expertise!

  • littletank

    littletank said 8 years ago

    frames make ANY picture look more elegant

  • GollyBard

    GollyBard said 8 years ago

    This is great information to share with customers! Thank you!

  • rosybird

    rosybird said 8 years ago

    Thanks for the info :)

  • heidiburton

    heidiburton said 8 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing your useful advice and information. Am interested in all matters of framing, from a design perspective (Mount? Colour schemes? How framing can be used sympathetically to accentuate the piece?) & aesthetic placing of framed works in different settings (studio? Kitchen? Outside toilet? Stairway?). Also I'd love to know a method of creating simple picture frames (perhaps from recycled materials) for the most basic of us DIY enthusiasts ;)

  • Fairyfolk

    Fairyfolk said 8 years ago

    Gosh, kind of makes me look at art differently... not just the artwork is art but so too is the frame! Blessings and magic.

  • MinceCo

    MinceCo said 8 years ago

    that's a very important topic, i mean it!! ***I'm having a cracker of a sale starting this weekend***details to be on site soon***

  • michellearnold

    michellearnold said 8 years ago

    thanks for the additional tips, everyone - what's fun about framing is the Problem Solving of every piece -- every piece has different needs -- never the same problem twice!

  • jamieribisi

    jamieribisi said 8 years ago

    WONDERFUL article!! Thank you, Michelle, for writing it! One of my favorite framers on Etsy is:

  • SecondHandNews

    SecondHandNews said 8 years ago

    Great tips, thanks for the article!

  • ScribbleShop

    ScribbleShop said 8 years ago


  • evihan

    evihan said 8 years ago

    thanx for sharingggg:-)

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 8 years ago


  • RoyalPrincess

    RoyalPrincess said 8 years ago

    OMG, very useful advice

  • MintyFreshFusions

    MintyFreshFusions said 8 years ago

    Nice! And there are too many items on Etsy with description claiming to be sealed under/encased in "archival resin", drives me batty!

  • Millow584

    Millow584 said 8 years ago

    Just a note - "Archival Quality" does not guarantee that the materials are acid-free, lignin free, PVC free, etc. There are currently no standards applied to the term so any manufacturer can put it on their packaging. Look a little deeper than the claims on the packaging!

  • justlikeyouimagined

    justlikeyouimagined said 8 years ago

    as an artist myself selling my art in frames this is very helpful, thanks!

  • michellearnold

    michellearnold said 8 years ago

    Thanks Millow 584 for pointing out there aren't universal standrads for "archival quality". For example, all pressure-sensitive tapes (even if they are labelled archival) have a small amount of acid in them -- the only guaranteed acid-free adhesives are the natural ones (rice paste, wheat paste, methyl cellulose), and the best mats/papers are those naturally acid-free, like cotton or rice paper.

  • jbeaudet

    jbeaudet said 8 years ago

    Thanks for this informative article Michelle! There are a lot of details to cover when framing art work! I'm selling mine without a frame because it makes them much more affordable, easier to ship, and let's the buyer choose the style and color.

  • pinkbuffalo

    pinkbuffalo said 8 years ago

    Great article, very informative. I hadn't even thought of using those scrapbooking photo corners when matting/framing!

  • beachhouseblues

    beachhouseblues said 8 years ago

    This really is a great and helpful article!

  • glasfaden

    glasfaden said 8 years ago

    Thank you for the useful infos! I'm going to follow your tips and re-frame the photos and art.

  • TheNightjar

    TheNightjar said 8 years ago

    good basic information that is great for beginning artists ; )

  • anticovalore

    anticovalore said 8 years ago

    wonderful information! Thank you! simona

  • jennidy

    jennidy said 8 years ago

    I work in an academic archive and I HIGHLY recommend ordering supplies from Light Impressions, as the author, Michelle, suggests. They may be a bit more costly, but good supplies will last you the rest of your life and will make for quality heirlooms. Light Impressions can be trusted for high quality products.

  • shantishanty

    shantishanty said 8 years ago

    i love this article! thank you!

  • steinschmuckdesign

    steinschmuckdesign said 8 years ago

    Wonderful, thank you!

  • treasuresupplies

    treasuresupplies said 8 years ago

    Reminds me that I have a few pics of my own to hang.

  • rowenamurillo

    rowenamurillo said 8 years ago

    Thanks for the informative article. Some of it I already knew, but there was enough that was new to me that I'm glad I read it. And it is always good to have this reinforcement to be careful with our art that we make and our art that we buy.

  • 1AEON

    1AEON said 8 years ago

    never stop learning..

  • tinycharm

    tinycharm said 8 years ago

    Great information

  • TheSeed

    TheSeed said 8 years ago

    Wow, just got back from vacation to find my items featured here, thanks!!! I too have seen lots of unfortunate damage caused by poor framing/matting. Artists- stop using cheapo foam or cardboard! The acid free is not that much more expensive! Also in case anyone isn't familiar with the spacers mentioned here they are plastic spacers made specifically for framing, very easy to use. I've never seen them for sale in craft stores but you might be able to buy some from a frame store. They come in about 5 ft long sticks and you'd probably have to buy the whole stick but it shouldn't be too expensive.

  • nelsongallery

    nelsongallery said 8 years ago

    As a professional framer for the past 20+ years, well said. I wish I'd thought to submit, Michelle. So often we think everyone knows these things,then someone brings in a nice piece of art that was framed poorly resulting in damage or even total ruin. If a framer offers to save you a few $$ by using "regular" mats, then you need to run.

  • caitlinjenkins

    caitlinjenkins said 8 years ago

    Michelle, I am a paper conservator and I thank you for a great post. It is nice for people to know how to properly frame their own works on paper. Most conservation treatments I do are because of improper hinging, matting, or framing. You gave very good comments.

  • metrostation

    metrostation said 8 years ago

    love the information don't forget about framing textiles here is an example of how I do it :

  • metrostation

    metrostation said 8 years ago

    Here is another example

  • metrostation

    metrostation said 8 years ago

  • trulyana

    trulyana said 8 years ago

    Thank you so much, in these tips! I have been wondering how to conserve my own paintings, without spending a fortune and I thank you for your tips.

  • Furiousdreams

    Furiousdreams said 8 years ago

    I hope these articles are being saved somewhere in an archive- this particular one is so helpful and relevant to my work in protecting archival documents for my township's Historic Commission!

  • Forkable

    Forkable said 8 years ago

    Thank you for this great article! I work for a art restoration firm specializing in paper and 50% of what we work on is reversing damage done by poor framing techniques. Great pics too!

  • Forkable

    Forkable said 8 years ago

    Oops meant to include this link in my comment. Check out this slide show of damaged art. Many of these were damaged by bad framing materials:

  • Google said 1 year ago

    Google Usually posts some incredibly intriguing stuff like this. If you’re new to this site.

  • Google said 1 year ago

    Google Sites of interest we've a link to.

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