Mat Cutting & Framing: Presentation is Everything!


When I exhibit my work in galleries and museums, the viewer sees more than just my photograph. The style of the matting and framing influences how they experience the image, and the quality of the presentation influences how they perceive me as a professional artist.



What do I mean by 'style' and 'quality'?

Quality is easier to define, so I'll start there. This is a technical issue, rather than an aesthetic one. The mat must be cut perfectly, with perfectly straight cuts, no overcuts in the corners, and no jagged edges. The measurements need to be correct so that the opening is perfectly centered; the image must be perfectly positioned in the mat, so that the image doesn't look off center in the opening. The frame must be free of nicks and scratches and has to be assembled carefully so that the corners fit properly. If you use wood frames, they should be finished nicely with no uneven stain or paint. The highest quality materials should be used, both for appearance and for archival quality.


Style is an aesthetic choice, and you have a lot of freedom there. The framed print illustrated below shows one of my prints framed with a black aluminum sectional frame, matted with white cotton museum board. This is my usual choice, and it has been the traditional presentation style for photography in the United States since the modernist period began in the early 20th century. Silver almunimum frames have also been commonly used, and they remain popular today. I like black, but that's a personal choice.

While metal section frames are the traditional choice, wood frames have also been, and still are, commonly used. Wood frames used for photography are usually simple in design and usually painted white or black, or colored with a wood stain and varnish. Some photographers like to build their own frames, but you can have wood frames custom cut by frame suppliers like American Frame and Graphic Dimensions.

Matting is usually white or cream colored. Colored mats can be distracting, while a white or cream toned mat simply isolates the image from the frame, creating a space for the viewer to experience the image alone. This is not simply my preference, it is virtually required in the art world. Look at photographs in museums and galleries; how many are presented in colored mats? A big reason for the overwhelming preference for white and cream mats is that these are usually the only colors that you can find in Museum Board. Museum board is 100% cotton mat board, which I'll discuss further when I talk about materials.



A photographed framed in an aluminum sectional frame with white cotton museum board mat.

This is darkened slightly to make the edges of the mat easier to see on screen


Materials and Tools

Mat Board

As I mentioned above, the standard mat board is 100% cotton musem board. It is made in different thicknesses: 2-ply, 4-ply, and 8-ply. The 2-ply is very thin and is really like thick paper. I don't know what exactly it is used for! The standard is the 4-ply, this is the normal thickness used for mats.

You actually use two pieces of board to frame a print. One is used behind the photograph as a backing board. This is what the print is actually mounted to. 8-ply board is hard to find and pricey, but it makes the best backing board because of its stiffness. The other board, which should be 4-ply, is the one you cut the opening in for the mat. Some people like the 8-ply board for mats on very large prints, and it does look nice. The purpose of the mat, aside from the aesthetic purpose of isolating the image from the frame, is to hold the glass away from the print's surface. You don't want the glass touching the print. The glass can cause damage to the print, especially in humid conditions.

I used to buy Light Impressions museum board in standard white, but am almost out of it now. I'll probably buy Bainbridge AlphaRag board from Lodima Archival Materials in the future. Lodma is owned by fellow fine art photographers Michael Smith and Paula Chamlee.

Museum board is not cheap. It is about $15 a sheet, but this is for a 32x40 inch sheet, which can do a couple of complete mat/backing sets if you do smaller prints. Even for larger ones, it is really not that costly when you consider how much a fram shop will charge you to cut a mat, even with cheap non-archival mat board, and te expensive museum board will not damage your valuable prints the way the cheap stuff will.



I use Neilsen & Bainbridge aluminum frames. Several companies make metal frames, but Neilsen frames are the best I have ever seen. Despite being the best, and being American made, they are not terribly expensive if you get them online. I get them from American Frame in Toledo, Ohio. They have good prices and they get them to me fast. American Frame custom cuts the Neilsen frame moldings when you order, and they carry a number of styles. Neilsen Style 11 is the normal style; American Frame calls it 'Standard' on their website. Call them to order; their website sucks. They make it damn near impossible to order just a frame without glass or mat on the site, but if you call there's no hassle with that. They charge half what stores like Michaels and Hobby Lobby charge for the same frames!

Metal frames don't come with glass. I have it custom cut locally at City Glass in Fort Wayne. Framing glass is cheap and easiest to buy locally rather than having it shipped. Nearly every decent size town has a glass shop that can cut it for you.

You'll also need some framing wire; its used to make the wire hanger on the back of the frame. Hardware stores sell it, and it is cheap too.


Mat Cutter

I use a Logan 700SGM cutter system, which I have had since 1995. It works magnificently and was worth every penny. The current model is the 550-1 Simplex Classic. When you get a mat cutter, you want one that is made so that the cutting head rides on a rail, and you want one big enough to handle standard full-sheet mat board.

Standard mat board sheets are 32x40 inches. Even if you never frame a photograph big enough to need a sheet of mat board that large, remember that you'll need the capability to cut the big sheets down to smaller sizes.

The importance of the cutting heads riding on a rail cannot be overemphasized. Some cheap systems have a rail that you push the cutting head against, but it is not actually connected to the rail. On systems like the Logan that I use, the cutting heads attach to a groove on the rail, making an unstraight cut impossible. There are two cutting heads, one that makes the angled cut for mat openings, and the other that does regular non-angled cuts for cutting the outside dimensions of mat boards and backing boards.

Some people insist that they can cut mats with a box knife and a ruler. This always looks like crap, and it makes even the best print look like crap as well. Its your reputation, don't throw it away to save some money.


How to cut mats

Figuring the mat size

First you need to figure out the size of mat board you need. As you can see in the photograph above, I cut my mat openings a little bigger than the image area. This allows the viewer to see the entire image, with no overlap from the mat over the edges of the image, and it allows the title and signature on the front of the print to be visible.

I cut mine so that there is 1/4 inch extra space above and on both sides of the image, and 3/4 inch below. The extra space below gives room for the title and my signature to show. The mat itself needs to be the same width on the sides, but the top and bottom do not need to be the same width as the sides and should not be the same as each other.

The bottom of the mat should be slightly larger than the top, effectively pushing the image opening slightly higher than the exact center. This because if the mat is cut so that all four sides of the mat are the same width, the image actually looks like its too low. I do not know the scientific explanation for this; it is psychological. I try to make my sides around 3 inches wide and the top about 3.25 inches. The bottom should be slightly larger than the top, and I find that around 3.75-4 inches works well.

You probably won't get these exact sizes; it depends on the size of your image. On a 6x9 inch horizontal image, I use a 14x16 inch frame. The opening is cut 9.5 inches wide and 7 inches tall. I center it exactly from side to side, so the sides of the mat are both 3.25 inches wide. I make the top about the same and the bottom 3.75.


Cutting the Mat

The actual procedure for cutting the mat depends on the mat cutter you own, but with all of them you draw lines on the back of the mat board that are used with the mat cutter's guides to show you where to cut. A piece of scrap mat board is placed under the one you're cutting to act as a cutting board. This should be moved slightly after each side is cut so that the blade doesn't go into the cut made by the previous cut in the scrap piece.

Blades are single-edged razor blades, sized to fit the cutting head. The blade should be used for ONE mat only, as the blades dull very quickly when cutting thick cotton board. My Logan cutter uses the corner of the blade to cut, so you can actually turn the blade around and use the second corner for another mat. If you reuse a previously used corner of the blade, you'll get jagged cuts. Blades are about 10 cents each; not worth trying to economize when you can mess up the much costlier museum board.


Assembling the mat and mount

To assemble it all, you use linen tape to hinge the mat to the backing board. The tape is placed inside the hinge so it isn't visible from the front of the mat. The print is mounted to the backing board, not to the mat.

Dry mounting used to be popular for mounting prints, and some people who do traditional silver-based prints still prefer it. Dry mounting involves sandwiching a piece of special tissue between the print and the backing board. The tissue melts and forms an adhesive when heated in a special heated press. This should not be used for digtial prints, as heat can damage them. I do not recommend dry mounting for any prints, however. The opinion of art conservators today is that mounting must be completely reversible to be considered truly archival. This is necessary in case the mount board is damaged by water, humidity, or physical damage (like being dropped or dirtied).

I use archival mounting corners made by Lineco. They're made of an archival plastic and have adhesive that sticks the corner to the backing board, but does not stick anything to the print itself. The print can be easily slid out from the mount corners.

Be very careful when handling the mat; your hands must be extremely clean because cotton mat board absorbs oils and dirt immediately and cannot be cleaned or erased without scuffing the delicate surface of the board. I wear white cotton gloves for handling mat board, and I use them once and discard in case they get dirty themselves.


Assembling the frame

There isn't much to say here; you simply follow the frame manufacturer's directions. You'll need to get your own glass, as mentioned earlier, and it will need cleaned before use. Glass fresh from the glass shop is always dirty and must be cleaned with windex and carefully wiped dry before use. Be careful not to get fingerprints on it! You'll need to wipe it free of dust right before putting the frame together; any dust on the inside of the glass will stick out like a sore thumb. You'll have to take the frame apart to clean it, and sometimes it can be maddening!


Framed photograph of a red barn with a basketball hoop at dusk by Christopher Crawford.





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©2022 Christopher Crawford