Frugal Living: How To Frame Your Art on the Cheap

Apartment Therapy Tutorials

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I never quite felt like a real adult until I framed my first piece of art. All through college I pinned giant collages of unframed art to my walls like a life-size scrapbook. Post-grad, I've slowly started framing my favorite pieces, both to make them more of a statement, and to protect them from dust and the cat. Custom framing is wicked expensive, so I scour thrift stores for well-made frames with glass, and hit up my local art supply store for the rest of what I need to do my own custom framing.

Here's one of the thrift-store frames I found. Although the print looks nice in this picture, up close it's actually quite grainy and not worth saving.
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What You Need

Materials

  • Pre- made frame (including glass)
  • Artwork
  • Acid-free mat paper cut to the same size as frame glass (found at art supply stores)
  • Mat cutter (optional)
  • Acid-free artist's tape (found at art supply stores)
  • Thumb tacks or small nails (if nails, a hammer)
  • Paint or stain for your frame (optional)
  • Picture wire and 2 D-ring hangers (optional)
  • Kraft paper to cover the back of the frame (optional)

Tools

  • Pliers
  • A-acto knife
  • Screwdriver to attach D-ring hangers (optional)

Instructions

1. Find a frame that fits your art. I have two odd-size lithographs of spines by Metana Press that I've been toting around for years in their original acid-free plastic because I couldn't find the right size frames — custom framing is too expensive, and finding two identical odd-size frames at a thrift store is a shot in the dark. Happily, last month I finally found frames! Tucked away in the back of a thrift store, I found two matching fake veneer frames that were slightly beat up, but both had intact glass and were framing art that is the same odd size as the spines I want to frame. At $14 for the pair, it was meant to be.

Since my frame is mass-produced, it's backed with craft paper and foamcore (the white) held in with staples. I left the picture-wire attached since I'd only have to put it back on at the end.
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2. To disassemble your frame, flip it over and inspect how it's assembled. Usually, the last layer on the back is brown kraft paper (just like most upholstered furniture has that black dust cloth to cover up the inner workings). Remove this by either running an X-acto knife along the inside edge of the frame or just tearing it out.

3. The next layer is usually a piece of foam core board, cardboard, or wood (if the frame is super old) held in place with staples (newer) or tiny nails (older). Use your pliers to gently pull all these out. If they're staples or bent nails, discard them. If they're old tiny nails that remain usable, feel free to reuse them at the end, especially since old frames with their original nails are super cool.

4. Finally, you can tip or pull out the foam or wood, then whatever art is in the frame, then the glass. Set the glass and foam/wood aside, and recycle the art.

I painted my frames an ashy grey which picks up on colors found in the lithographs.
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5. If you want to paint or restain your frame, now's the time to do it. I primed and painted the fake veneer a mellow, ashy grey.

6. Clean that glass, and clean it really really well, with whatever method you like best. I usually go for dish soap and water to remove sticker gunk and dust, then a clean dishtowel followed by clean, crumpled newspaper to remove any remaining lint. Wear gloves if you're nervous about cutting yourself on the sharp edges.

7. At this point, it's only important to keep fingerprints off one side — whichever side will touch your art — so feel free to support the glass from the bottom like a stereotypical butler does a serving tray.

8. Let your glass dry very thoroughly before assembling your framed art.

9. To mat your art, first wash and dry your hands, then make sure you aren't bleeding from step 6 (which will ensue pure panic when you drip blood on the corner of your lithograph).

10. There are two ways to mat art: lay the art on top of the mat, or cut a hole in the mat and place the art behind it. Since I think the latter is too stuffy for my taste, and especially since mat cutters are hard to use without damaging the mat, I opted for attaching my art to the top of the mat. (If you choose the second option and you aren't keen on cutting the mat yourself, you can take your mat to a custom framing shop and have it custom cut. Most shops will do this for a few dollars.)

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11. Center your art on the mat paper. A general rule of thumb is to center the image horizontally but leave more room at the bottom of the art than at the top. I decided to leave about the same amount of room since I'm going to hang these higher up on the wall.

Since the artist's tape is white and therefore hard to see, I traced over it in red.
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12. Once your art is centered perfectly, use artist's tape (represented in red because it's white in real life) to secure the top edge. This tape will hold your art in place while you attach it on the back.

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13. Flip your art up away from you — the tape on the front acts as a hinge — and add two long pieces to the back as shown. I don't put tape horizontally because it's too bulky and shows when you fold the art back down.

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14. Fold your art back down and remove the artist's tape from the front. The long pieces of tape should hold your art without showing at the top.

15. Put it all together! Place the glass back in the frame — careful not to leave fingerprints — then lay in the art. Lay in the foam or wood and gently tack pushpins or small nails into the frame to hold it in place. Use more than you think are necessary— at least one every six inches.

Optional: If you want, cover the back again with paper. Use a thin line of glue to attach kraft paper over the backside of the frame.

17. If your frame is missing its picture wire, screw in two D-ring hangers on either side of the frame, equal distance from the top. (See image of the back of the original frame for an example). Twist picture-wire through both rings.

18. Clean any stay fingerprints off the front of your now-framed art, and you're ready to hang!

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(Image credits: Andrea Sparacio; Emil Evans)