What Is Conservation Framing?
If a piece of art is worth framing, it is worth framing well. Good framing is not just about aesthetics - a quality frame should protect the work inside for a lifetime and beyond. This is known as conservation framing, a phrase you might be familiar with. In this post I will describe what exactly constitutes conservation framing, what distinguishes it from other standards of framing, and why it is important.
The Picture Framers Guild of Australia recognises a hierarchy of five standards when it comes to framing artworks. I am not concerned with the first three, described on their website as Minimum, Decorator and Quality as these are generally of little interest to my clients. When it comes to the other two, Conservation and Museum, the distinction is a fine one so for now we’ll focus our attention on what makes a Conservation frame and note the differences between that and a Museum frame as they arise.
As the name would suggest, a conservation frame is one which protects the artwork from the environmental influences which might cause it to become degraded over time. These influences include moisture, ultraviolet light and any chemical pollutants used in the construction of the frame itself. It is usually stated that a conservation frame will preserve the artwork for around 20 years, but this is highly dependent upon the materials used in the creation of the work itself and the environment in which the frame is hung. Accelerated UV testing indicates giclee prints made on archival papers could last for up to 100 years without any noticeable degradation.
Conservation framing is thus the preferred option for displaying any pieces of value, be it financial, historical or sentimental and is the base standard I set for all the frames I make. But what exactly goes into making a conservation frame?
The Frame Itself - Moulding and Mitres
It stands to reason that the construction of the frame itself should be sound and free of defects. The moulding must be deep enough and have a sufficient internal rebate to comfortably house the contents of the frame. The mitres (or corner joins) need to be accurately cut and firmly fixed to ensure the structural integrity of the frame. Good mitres should be a point of pride for all framers!
Foil-backed tape should be used to seal the internal wall of the frame if the artwork is likely to touch the moulding. Although not specified in the guidelines, I also prefer to use this tape on any mouldings made from “engineered” wood to protect against any outgassing of harmful chemicals over time. However, most of my frames are made from untreated hardwood (finished on the outside) which greatly reduces the risk of outgassing.
Window Mats, Undermounts and Backing Boards
Although many people assume the window mat is purely an aesthetic option, it actually serves a vital function in that it keeps the surface of the artwork from touching the glass.
The PFGA specifies window mats must be at least 4 ply in thickness. Strictly speaking, “ply” is not a unit of measurement, but in practice this equates to a minimum of 1400 microns or 1.4mm. The mat must be made of conservation or museum grade board which are acid and lignin free. Museum grade boards are made of cotton, which is naturally free of acids and lignins. Conservation boards are made of alpha cellulose (wood pulp) fibres which have been treated to remove all traces of acids and lignins. My standard boards are conservation grade as these are more affordable and come in a wider range of colours than museum boards, whilst providing a near identical level of protection.
The undermount sits between the window mat and the backing board, forming the rear part of the “sandwich” which houses the artwork. Undermounts made from cotton mat boards are an essential component of a museum frame but are optional when working to conservation standard, provided the backing board is made from acid-free foamcore. I used to include undermounts made from conservation grade boards but eventually stopped doing this, preferring instead to hinge the artwork to the backing board. This is because mat board is one of the most expensive components used in framing (second only to high quality glass) and, at conservation grade at least, it provides no more protection than acid-free foamcore. Omitting the undermount helps to keep my prices competitive.
I have written a more detailed post on glazing here.
Glass or Perspex may be used provided it offers protection against at least 95% of UV rays. The standard glass I use is Tru Vue Conservation Clear, which protects against 99% of UV rays.
Under no circumstances should the glass touch the surface of the artwork. If a window matt is not used, spacers should be fitted to ensure the artwork is held clear of the glass.
Fitting the Artwork
The artwork should be t-hinged to the backing board (NOT the window mat) using starch paste or gummed paper tape with a water-soluble adhesive. The hinges must be attached to the rear of the artwork and should be of a material weaker than the artwork. The goal here (as in all aspects of conservation and museum framing) is that the process should be fully reversible with no damage to the artwork.
The contents of the frame should be held in place with rigid framing points (and not the flexible points often found in prefabricated gift frames) and the back should be sealed framer’s paper tape.
Hanging the Frame
It goes without saying that the hanging system used should be strong enough to support the weight of the frame. For most frames, simple d-rings and wire should be sufficient. For heavier frames it may be necessary to use something stronger. Wires and hangers are available in a variety of strengths. For anything over 5kg I prefer to use hangers with multiple screws, particularly if the frame itself is made of “engineered” wood, which is often quite flimsy. For very large frames, hanging plates may be required.
Ideally the frame should be hung away from direct sunlight in an environment free from dramatic fluctuations in temperature or humidity.
For complete piece of mind, it is recommended the frame be inspected every five years to ensure the integrity of its components. I offer a lifetime warranty on all my frames. I can also refurbish existing frames to bring them up to conservation standard.
Although it requires high quality materials, conservation framing need not be expensive and the cost is certainly insignificant compared to the heartache of having an irreplaceable piece damaged by cheap framing components. For artists and photographers selling framed pieces at exhibition, it is essential that your frames will protect the investment your buyers have made in your work. To do anything less is frankly unethical.
Even if you are unsure whether the piece you have requires conservation framing, it is worth going to the effort of finding a framer who is at least familiar with the principles of artwork conservation. Poor practises abound in the industry as framers pursue higher profit margins and lazier working methods. Some of the techniques employed by unscrupulous framers today can effectively render a piece of artwork worthless before the frame has even left the shop.
For anything of value - be it financial or sentimental - it's just not worth the risk. Email me today for a quote.