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The Most Important Element In A Picture Frame Is Something You Can't See

A client recently brought in an original piece of art to have photographed. The work had been framed and although I am able to photograph through glass if required, the artwork needed to be removed from the frame so the artist could sign it before gifting it to someone else. The framing had been done elsewhere and I must admit I’m always curious to peak inside and see how other framers work. The results are almost always disappointing and sometimes even horrifying.

How the work is mounted inside the frame can have serious ramifications for the value and life of the art. If it is not done correctly it can permanently damage the art or render a valuable piece effectively worthless.

In this case, the work had been stuck fast to a backing board of MDF using a strong adhesive and it quickly became apparent it wasn’t going to come off without damaging the work. Fortunately, we didn’t need to remove it from the board for our purposes and let’s just hope the new owner wasn’t planning to reframe it. Of more concern is the fact that MDF is highly acidic and will likely outgas over time, which can damage the artwork.

This kind of dodgy work is far too common. In most of the frames I’ve opened (and I’ve opened a lot), the artwork has been stuck down using double-sided tape. I have had to remove delicate, original works which were mounted in this way from their backings and it is extremely difficult to do without damaging the piece. In worse cases, pieces are permanently glued to their backing boards. A few years back when my wife and I were planning a trip to Europe, we decided to sell some pieces from our collection to raise some extra money. One poster (which was framed elsewhere before I’d entered the industry) sold for several hundred dollars to an overseas collector but when I went to remove it from its frame we discovered it had been glued down and was now effectively worthless.

This limited-edition print has been glued to the backing, rendering it worthless

While a good quality frame can safely house a work of art for a lifetime, framing should not be approached as a permanent solution. There many are good reasons why a piece might need to be removed from its frame and the practice of conservation framing dictates that no permanent alterations should be made to the art itself.

The correct way to mount artwork is using water-release hinging tape and the t-hinge method. Two 25mm tabs of hinging tape are attached to the back of the artwork so about 5mm of the tab holds the artwork whilst the rest protrudes from the top. Once the piece has been positioned correctly, two more lengths of hinging tape are used to attach the tabs to the backing board. The artwork should always be attached to the backing and never to the mat.

Tabs are attached to the back of the work, 5mm from the top

The same technique is used for float mounts, only the tape is placed around a quarter of the way down from the top of the artwork and passed through a couple of slits cut into the backing so it can then be held from the rear.

If the artwork needs to be removed, you can simply dab a little water on back of the tape and after a few moments it will lift cleanly from the artwork.

The tabs are then attached to the backing using more strips of hinging tape

I honestly have no idea why this technique is not used more; it is simple and reliable and, most importantly, it’s reversible and completely safe for the art. Reversibility is important to me because, being human, I make mistakes and it’s comforting to know it can be easily rectified. Even on an entirely personal level, doing the wrong thing seems like more stress than its worth.

The only drawbacks I have encountered are aesthetic and are related to float mounts. Some clients prefer the art to sit completely flat when floated and this is impossible to achieve without gluing the work down. It is also possible for the work to slip, depending on its weight and the atmospheric conditions in the location in which its hung. This can be irritating, but I’d honestly rather suck up my pride and re-mount the work (using heavier hinging tape if necessary) than do anything to permanently alter the art. I am also careful to explain exactly how I handle the art and why I work the way I do when consulting with new clients so they have an understanding of the pros and cons of different techniques. If your framer doesn’t, it’s worth asking a few questions just to be sure your art is being treated with the care it deserves.

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