View Full Version : Framing and the pocketbook

8-Nov-2009, 18:40
In the last six weeks, I've spent $2500 on framing. I'm happy with the shop that is doing the work, but I think that I'm going to be in for another $6000 to $8000 over the next 12 months. I'm beginning to wonder whether I should start doing it myself.

I have the space and the main tools necessary to make wood frames and cut aluminum moulding. There are a few additional tools that I would have to acquire, but they are not expensive. There's a shop not far from me that can cut glass to my specifications.

I am not set up to cut mats, unless I do it with a couple of straightedges and clamps and acquire a Dexter handheld cutter. Maybe I'm wrong, but I have the feeling that this route would be frustrating and the results spotty.

If I'm going to buy a dedicated mat cutter, I want to get one that will just do the job, no issues. I'm considering machines by Keencut, Valiani and Fletcher. They all seem to run $1200-$1500. Not cheap, but the reality is that this isn't a lot of money in comparison with what I expect to spend, if I continue to use a framing shop, over the next year.

I have two questions of people who are doing their own framing.

Are you saving a significant amount of money over what a framing shop would charge?

Are you getting professional results?

Also, I'd appreciate comments on the merits or otherwise of the three brands that I'm considering.


Drew Wiley
8-Nov-2009, 18:54
If you're going to spend a thousand or so you can expect a quality matcutter from
several different manufacturers. You should also order measuring stops and a
squaring arm. But like all equipment you will need to make some starting adjustments and practice technique. Another thousand (or much less used) and you
have a professional glass/acrylic/board cutter mounted on the wall. And yes you can save a great deal of money, especially if you buy matboard in bulk wholesale. Making the frames themselves really depends on your like or dislike of shop skills. At a minimum you need a mitre saw built like a tank, extension wings with accurate stops, and a good clamping system. If you cut aluminum frames you need to be
especially careful and need a high quality blade. Nothing you're going to find at
Home Depot. So there goes another thousand. You should also have a good air
compressor for cleaning things. Is it worth it? Depends on how much time and energy you can spare. You will save a lot of cash, no doubt; but there are some
things professional frame shops can often do better and more efficiently. Do you
already have a drymount press too, or something equivalent?

8-Nov-2009, 19:01

I've got a workshop area and good sized bench, a Milwaukee 12" sliding compound miter saw, planes for trimming, clamps, etc. The Milwaukee will handle aluminum, so it's a matter of getting the right blade.

I don't have a dry mount press, but I don't think that I want to dry mount.

There may be a point at which I'll want some of the work mounted on aluminum, but that is not something that I plan to do myself. I'm told - maybe incorrectly, I don't know - that mounting on aluminum is tricky.

What are the things that professional frame shops can do better and more efficiently, especially better? I don't want to go down this road and discover that it's false economy. If saving money is going to compromise quality, then I'd rather bite the bullet and have a shop do this work.

8-Nov-2009, 19:24
There is a half-way method. Get the mats precut in bulk (probably cheaper and better than you could cut them yourself, and get precut metal frame kits and have the glass cut locally.

8-Nov-2009, 19:37
Obtaining quality results is not difficult with a little prcatice. But, and it is a major consideration, it is time consuming and I think that is the most important consideration.
Keencut or Fletcher are both top quality cutters.

My advice would be to buy precut mouldings. In the UK several companies offer a chop service. Arqadia are the market leaders. Obviously precut moulding costs more but there are major benefits. Firstly they are extremely accurately cut. Secondly if you purchase full length mouldings and cut your self, you will find that sometimes they are warped and there will be wastage and you need expensive mitre equipment. IMO the extra cost of precut/chop is well worth it.

Then for underpinning (V nails) you must have a machine with exceptionally good grip.
http://www.cassese.com/encrdang/assemblang/assembang.htm. Using one of these will reduce the amount of finishing you need to do. i.e. the mouldings will be precisely joined so require less filling.

something like the CS79 is a decent machine. The pneumatic ones are more pricey and really designed for busy framing shops.

For aluminium precut are supplied with assembling kits so you only need to cut board and glass and are very quick to put together.

For wooden frames you need to finish frames with framing wax of the correct colour to fill any tiny gaps in corners and give a quality finsih. Use paper tape to seal back but check for dust inside glass before you finally seal anything.

A hand pinner gun for putting backing board in place (on wooden frames).

I'd use the light weight backing board which is easily cut with a mount cutter which simplifies things and speeds up process.

So in other words, if you are careful about your choice of materials and equipment, you can save yourself a lot of money and make the process reasonably quick and doesn't require any power tools.

The thing likely to cause you most problems would be cutting your own mitres even if you have a top quality mitre cutter so buying precut will save you a lot of time and frustration.

With mount board you need to consider carefully the biggest boards you will purchase as you will need a cutter big enough to cut that length or width very accurately (squarely). Depends on the biggest size you make. If you think carefully about print sizes, you may be able to make mounts for smaller sizes from cutout from bigger sizes and save a lot on mountboard as a result.

Actually cutting mat hole is really not difficult with any hobbyist mount cutter. The problems arise with thick board (8 ply) where you need a top quality keencut or fletcher to get reliable cuts.

Use new blades for every cutting session. They lose sharpness very quickly.

8-Nov-2009, 22:34
Use new blades for every mat that you cut and with a bit of practice you'll be fine.

Google Peter Liepke...he is an amazing photographer/printer who makes his own awesome frames and has a page on his site describing them. Ask him for advice...

Frank Petronio
8-Nov-2009, 23:44
If all of your work is a consistent size, why not just buy in bulk and do the final assembly yourself?

A lot depends on size. 16x20s are far easier than 30x40s from a shop/craft standpoint.

I used a paper-backed 3M adhesive film (forgot the number) to mount onto Aluminum years ago, I don't know if it is the current state of the art but the prints still look great and are sticking well after almost 20 years. It didn't seem like a fancy shop would do it any more careful than I could at home. A local sheet metal shop supplied flat Aluminum blanks with rounded edges, drilled for hanging, based on a "back of a napkin" sketch I supplied.

9-Nov-2009, 00:04
I've got a workshop area and good sized bench, a Milwaukee 12" sliding compound miter saw

Professional framers shops tend to use guilotines to chop moulding to size. Gives a far more accurate and very clean cut which doesn't require finishing.
Your average mitre saw simply isn't accurate enough for picture frame making. It only has to be out a tiny fraction of a degree and the frame will have gaps and if that is compounded on every cut, then you are in trouble. And the lengths also have to be very precise or things get worse. i.e. you buy the specialist tools for the job such as a morso or buy precut unless you want a lot of extra finishing work.

Jim Becia
9-Nov-2009, 06:02
As a gallery/frame shop owner for nearly 16 years and as someone who still mounts and frames my own photographs, I'll give you my opinions.

A Fletcher mat cutter is my mat cutter of choice. My 60 inch cutter is still going strong and it's 19 years old. Makes mat cutting a breeze. Stops are useful if you are using the exact same size time and time again. I never use them, but then that is my way of working. The advice of changing the cutting blade is right on. I change my blade after 8 cuts (that's a double mat.) The quality of the mat board is a big factor also. Musuem quality mat board by the major manufacturers - Bainbridge, Crescent, Artique (Larson Juhl's brand) all cut cleanly without any flaws. Not sure what the economics of buying precut mats would be in Canada. I had a friend who bought precut mats in bulk. While the price of the product was fairly reasonable, shipping really ate into the savings, specially in larger size mats. She just disliked cutting mats. She used www.matcutter.com and their work was top notch - perfect corners and clean cuts.

Glass cutting is the simplest thing in the world to do. My glass cutter cost me $15 and that and a 60 inch straight edge and I can cut anything. There is no need for a wall mounted glass cutter as far as I'm concerned. With 5 minutes of practice, it's very easy to score and snap the glass.

As for frames, here it gets a little complicated as the equipment gets more expensive. If you are going to use aluminum, I would personally order the moulding in the appropriate size. Wood frames are another story, here in Wi there are several companies that chop/cut frames and join them if ordered that way. In terms of cutting frames, most framing operations that I know use mitre saws. Choppers tend to be used on smaller sized mouldings. I have cut hundreds of frames with a miter saw without any problem. The key is to have a sharp blade and a good measurement/clamping system. To effectively join wood frames a good under pinner is the way to go if you are going to join lots of frames. If you are only going to join a few frames a week, some would say to just use a clamping system with a small wood drill and nails.

Mounting of photographs is a subject that has many different opinions. I personally used and still use 3M's PMA. Having used it now for going on 20 years, it has never failed me. It doesn't require any special tools/equipment. While PMA is acid free, it's use isn't really up to pure museum standards. That being said, I have yet to see any adverse effects in pieces that are going on 20 years old.

These are a few of my opinions on the way I work. The savings on doing it yourself can be substantial depending on how much work you want to do yourself. Good luck. Jim

Ed Richards
9-Nov-2009, 06:42
Unless you enjoy the craft work, another question is whether you could spend the time it will take to frame - which includes the time to get the materials, take care of them, etc. - doing something else that will earn you the net income, that you like more. Taking more pictures, doing more post-production, going to more shows (if that one way you sell). If you cannot use the time to make as much money doing something that will more directly advance your photography, then framing may make sense. As an occasional woodworker, I can testify that these are mechnical skills that need practice to stay at top condition. (Every project I do has a little error I would probably not have made if I were doing woodwork all the time.) You should very seriously consider buying precut materials. You do not need screw up many frames to wash out the savings on bulk moudlings.

D. Bryant
9-Nov-2009, 06:49
Jim Becia beat me responding about the Fleicher. Get the 2100 or 2200.

Get your metal frames choped by a framer, for wood framing get those cut by a framer and have corner inserts cut.

You are spending way too much on framing IMO.

Don Bryant

Ed Richards
9-Nov-2009, 08:06
> You are spending way too much on framing IMO.

Hard to say without knowing how much he made on the photographs and the number of photos framed. That would be nothing to spend on 100 photos, but quite a bit on 10.

9-Nov-2009, 09:56
Thanks, this has been really helpful.

I'm persuaded that if I go with aluminum frames, I should get them pre-cut.

If I go with wood, I'll either do them myself from hardwood, using miter joints and maybe splines, or also get them pre-cut. PViapiano, the frames on Pete Liepke's site look very nice. I'm going to have a look at wood frames in a couple of high end framing shops in NY next week, and see if I can find a good book on wood frame styles.

Jim, if I work with wood, I was planning to use a power miter saw, trimming and trueing with a shooting board and plane. When you refer to a miter saw, are you talking about a power saw or a miter box and, say, a tenon saw? I'm wondering whether the latter might prove just as fast as a power saw for picture frames.

For mats, I'm either going to buy a cutter while in NY next week or have them cut to my specifications. I'm checking prices now, starting with matcutter.com, but I want them bottom weighted, vertical and horizontal, and for three formats. That's a lot of variables, and I may be better served by the versatility of having my own cutter.

If all I need to cut glass is a straight edge and a $15 cutter, there's no harm in finding out whether I can do it without winding up with broken glass all over the place and/or mortal personal injury :)

Drew Wiley
9-Nov-2009, 10:18
Not all chop services are equal. If the corners aren't perfectly cut and are even a little
skewed you will end up with dangerous sharp edges and difficult assembly. Always place a small order first to get an idea of quality control. If you do it yourself it will be
difficult with a sliding mitre saw since these have quite a bit of play in them. And expect to pay hundreds on a stiff enough aluminum blade. Wood frames are obviously
easier since you can sand and glue. But finding properly dried straight sections of
moulding can be frustrating, especially if you intend to frame large work. I've often
milled my own hardwoods. And while this has been fun, it is hardly cost effective if
one factors in the value of personal time/labor. You would need a set of big mitre vises. The antique Stanley ones work well, and there are a couple of heavy Bessey
ones which do a good job. If you don't buy a wall cutter, you can easily cut plexiglas
with a hook blade and a straightedge, or simply buy a plastic blade for a skilsaw.
I have both a Fletcher wall cutter and a Festool rail saw, which is absolutely the
cat's meow for this kind of work. Matcutting can be tedious. Hopefully I can acquire
a Speedmat in the next couple of years, but these start at three grand. In the meantime, I continue to use my conventional machine. Lots of used matcutters on
E-Bay right now, but if you go that route, make sure the rail bearings can be replaced.
Not worth the gamble otherwise. Splining wood frames is tricky, but a Festool Domino
machine makes it easy, and in my opinion is a better investment than a dogbone
machine or underpinner, which works well only on softwoods like poplar or ramin.

9-Nov-2009, 10:21
These days I usually go with aluminum, since it's the cheapest and easiest.

Years ago I used pre-cut wood moulding and assembled and finished them myself. This was always more work than I anticipated, but it was affordable and I loved the results. The company I bought the moulding kits from is long gone and I haven't tried any others. I'm open to trying it again someday.

Unfortunately, these days, my eyes glaze over when I add up the price of framing a show, even using the cheapest methods.

If you have a wood shop, there shouldn't be any problem cutting your own moulding. I worked in a custom framing shop years ago ... we used a table saw with a jig. A friend of mine (unlike me he's a real wood worker) just treated frames like any other cabinet making job ... made his own moulding, made nice corner joints for them, etc... I don't know what he used to cut his moulding but he had standard wood shop stuff.

9-Nov-2009, 10:42
...a Festool Domino machine makes it easy...

Funny you should mention that, I was thinking the same thing. Don't tempt me :)

Jim Becia
9-Nov-2009, 11:43
Jim, if I work with wood, I was planning to use a power miter saw, trimming and trueing with a shooting board and plane. When you refer to a miter saw, are you talking about a power saw or a miter box and, say, a tenon saw? I'm wondering whether the latter might prove just as fast as a power saw for picture frames.

I'm talking about a power miter saw. Jim

10-Nov-2009, 05:37
Precut aluminum frames are the way to go. I stock a couple common sizes in black and silver. There are a couple places online where you can order aluminum frames which you just assemble the corners and you are done. Order extra as there are always things to frame beside what you'd planned.

I order matt board and acid free foamcore type backing online too and cut it down to size myself. I have a mid-range logan matte cutter that's about $200. Go too cheap and you'll spend a lot more time messing around. Pay more, and you'll save time. Mine is fine for my low volume and produces good results.

I get glass from a local glass shop. I tell them I want 10 16x20 pieces for example, and pick them up the next day. You will need to clean the glass again yourself as you frame. Nobody has better clean glass requirements than the person representing the framing job.

You'll also need picture hanging wire, hanging tape (or some other way to position the photo on the matte board), t square, quality ruler and yardstick, and some basic math skills involving fractions. You'll also want lots of lighting. 2-3x brighter than a normal living space is good to see your matte cuts, frame corners, dust on the glass, etc...

Framing can be a time consuming process for one-off jobs, but is still cheaper than a frame shop. For volume work, you can speed up a certain amount by doing a bunch of the same thing at once, like cleaning all the glass at once, cutting all the mattes at once, etc... For volume work, you will save serious money. It could go a lot faster with a spouse or friend helping.

Don't get into this if you don't like working with your hands, don't like math, don't have the space, don't want to spend a little time at it.

Raymond Bleesz
10-Nov-2009, 07:26
Hello--Over the years, I went from alum frames to wood---for appearance & for exhibiting--a nicer look in my opinion. With alum frames, I purchased packets of specific sizes (They are collecting dust.). Now with wooden frames, I have found a shop in Denver which bulk makes frames to my sizes, typically 11x14, 16x20, 20x24 and a few larger ones--what is nice is that I can select the specific moulding this shop offers--this allows me to change my framing "looks" as time dictates. I do not mind paying the cost of these frames as they seem reasonable.

As for matting, cutting glass, I decided long ago, that the Fletcher systems, 3100 &3000, was the easiest, the least amt of pain. I purchase bulk glass in specific sizes as well as bulk matt board (cresent). I enjoy, for the most part, the matt & glass cutting & having the frame ready when needed.

I try & keep my system as simple as possible without a lot of variables,

I do not think I would want to venture into cutting my own moulding even though I have the shop space as well as the equipment.

In the Vail Valley---Raymond

Frank Petronio
10-Nov-2009, 08:22
Actually you can get pretty fast and consistent with a $20 handheld Dexter and a lot of new blades... it just takes a couple of warm up cuts to get your "eye" down and you can nail the corners 98% of the time. That's how we cut mats at the old Light Impressions shop, we did shows for the Eastman House and such.

Still, 25 years later, the first thing I look at when I see a traditional matted print is the corners ;-)

Ed Richards
10-Nov-2009, 08:44
What about cropping to fit pre-cut mats? I have bad habits left from 35mm, in that I shoot as if cropping were a sin, so most of my images are very close to 4x5 multiples - but not exactly. I have thought about being more exact in my cropping, when it does not really affect the image, so I could use pre-cut mats.

10-Nov-2009, 13:49
I don't think that cropping is a sin but the idea of letting mat size dictate whether and where a photograph will be cropped kind of rubs me the wrong way.

A few weeks ago, I asked the framer that I've been using to frame an 8x10 contact print by a photographer who is well-known to participants on this site. When I got the photograph back, it didn't look right. I wasn't sure whether there was really something wrong or whether I was imagining things. This bugged me for several days before I finally called the framer and said that I wanted to bring the piece in the next time that I visited the big city (not such a big city, but the biggest here). Anyway, when we met, it became apparent that there really was a problem. We changed the frame colour just a bit, and more importantly changed the side and top widths of the mat border and bottom-weighted it, which she had done on most of the other pieces that I had had her frame, but not this piece. The changes made a big difference in how the photograph came across. The conclusion that I drew is that the frame has to suit the photograph, and that trying to make the photograph suit the frame just doesn't work.

11-Nov-2009, 04:52
Actually you can get pretty fast and consistent with a $20 handheld Dexter and a lot of new blades... it just takes a couple of warm up cuts to get your "eye" down and you can nail the corners 98% of the time. That's how we cut mats at the old Light Impressions shop, we did shows for the Eastman House and such.

Still, 25 years later, the first thing I look at when I see a traditional matted print is the corners ;-)

I did an exhibit of 20 cibachromes prints once, and did the framing myself. I'd never done any framing before. I bought a tsquare, $20 handheld Dexter, and a package of blades to do the mattes. If you are careful it does a very good job indeed. Just as good as a nicer system, but it does have more optional opportunities to screw up in terms of hand/arm pressure or straightedge movement. I look at corners too. Lots of people's mattes are notably overcut or started with a dull blade that doesn't make it very crisp.

11-Nov-2009, 11:55
Handheld Dexters and Logans can do a great job with a little practice, esp with 4 ply. Get a nice straightedge and clamp it down, use fresh blades....practice, practice, practice.

I know...I said this before. ;-)

Jack Dahlgren
11-Nov-2009, 23:00
I've been using the same blade in my Dexter for a long long time. I just touch it up on a stone every once in a while. But then I'm cheap.

24-Nov-2009, 20:10
An update on this...

I went to the person who has been doing my framing and explained that I need to bring down the cost. In an act of considerable graciousness, she referred me to a local company that deals only with wholesale framing and with artists. When I met with the owner of this company, it became clear that he runs a first class operation and that he can cut my framing costs by a huge amount. In return, he expects a reasonable amount of annual business, which is well within what I can manage. I have to do the assembly, but he will pre-cut everything on a custom basis.

I have received wildly conflicting advice on the Dexter, and I have been offered a very reasonable price on a two year old Fletcher 2200.

However, there is a very real question about whether I should just have this company cut the mats along with the frames, supply the hardware, etc. I brought in a print yesterday and walked out this morning, with everything that I need to do the assembly, at a very reasonable cost. I would have to cut an awful lot of mats to make it economically sensible for me to do it myself, and, to the extent that I use aluminum frames, I would still have to get this company, or someone else, to cut them to size.

Doug Dolde
24-Nov-2009, 20:18
My advice...buy precut mats from Frame Destination. They have Bainbridge Alphamat in both 4 ply and 8 ply at what I think are pretty reasonable prices. And they have almost every size and opening size you could want.


I've been making some wood frames out of East Indian Rosewood but I'm not sure its worth the time. I buy raw wood locally and do the cutting, mitering, shaping myself. While they look incredible, its hard to get enough for them to justify the labor. I also frame canvas prints with a simple Nielsen Standard matte black aluminum frame. In a way I like them better because they put the emphasis on the image not the frame.


24-Nov-2009, 20:58

That was an education. The roughly 24x31 mat that I had these people do yesterday cut to my specifications, with bottom weighting, was Bainbridge Alphamat 6 ply. It cost the same as what Frame Destination wants for 4 ply, done exactly the size I want it rather than a "standard" size, 24 hour turn around and no need for shipping.

There appear to be operations out there that supply the trade but will also supply artists. They just don't want to do walk-in retail trade, in part because it would put them into competition with the retail framers that they are supplying, which is obviously not cool. I think that it's just a matter of finding these people.

Bob Keefer
25-Nov-2009, 22:57
Frames are easy, if you do any woodworking at all. Buy precut molding and cut with a hand miter box.

Cutting mats is also easy and you don't need to spend $1,000 on a mat cutter unless you plan on using it eight hours a day or want to cut very large mats. For photo sizes up to 16x20 I've had perfectly good luck with my $80 (then) Logan mat cutter.

You save a huge amount of money.

For the small amount of framing I do (about 30 pieces a year at most) I'm very happy to do it myself. I usually set aside quiet time on a weekend morning for framing, when I need to get it done.

Like so much of photography, framing can be simple or way overthought. Stay simple.

James Olson
26-Nov-2009, 05:04
I just purchased a Logan Pro miter saw and also ordered some moulding in lengths less than 60 inches . The molding is finished and the rabet is cut . I just cut to length and with the logan saw it is very easy to cut a very good miter.

Michael Rosenberg
26-Nov-2009, 05:27
I have to second David Dolde's recommendation on Frame Destination. I have found them to be the most reasonable place for buying frames, especially wood frames. I am framing prints up to 20x24 with gallery glass, so the frames have to be strong enough to support the weight - and they do a great job on the frame. Their frames are well finished, the service is great, fast fulfillment, and cheap shipping (!!!). I have only ordered frames from them, but I am sure that the rest of their services are first class. I cannot see that I could afford to do it any cheaper factoring in my time. I would rather be making prints than spending time trying to make great frames.

For mats, I order a couple cases of Rising museum mat board at one time and get a good discount. I then cut mats with a Logan simplex mat cutter. I really recommend you replace blades often - they do dull quickly - you want to avoid having the blade drag through the board and create a rough edge.


21-Mar-2011, 23:07
I have also tried making my own mats through those tutorials online but it seems really different from those professionally made :) maybe I have to be learning more..For now i have found in some good quality collections in here of pre cut mats (http://www.bdmatboard.com/157.pre-cut-mat-kits/871.8x10-precut-mat-kit-25-single-mats-polar-white.asp) from BDmatboard. You can check it out.

Bruce Barlow
22-Mar-2011, 05:25
I use the Dexter, too, with good results. Have a cork-bottomed straight edge. I always use my blade one mat too long...

The I fell in love with gallery clips and plexiglas. Very inexpensive, and I like the minimalist look. I have standard sizes, so I can easily keep an inventory of a few pieces. I used to use Nielsen 33 Silver (slim edge), but they don't make the silver anymore, and I personally don't like black or contrast gray.

Jim Jones
22-Mar-2011, 06:10
I remember one art student who cut perfect window mats with a straight edge and a mat knife. An artist in one field can be an artist in another field, too. I used a Dexter for maybe 20 years before switching to a Logan cutter and home-made mat cutting jig. However, Frame Destination is now worth the cost to me, if not to struggling photographers.

Decades of Kodachrome taught many of us to frame the image in the camera. It still makes adapting the image to standard frames and mats a modest restriction and a considerable convenience and economy.