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Article Last Updated: Saturday, March 20, 2004 - 3:35:02 AM PST

Demystifying framing
A primer

By Monique Beeler, STAFF WRITER

GOT a vintage poster, treasured family photo or a piece of contemporary art stashed away in a closet or becoming moth food in some forgotten box?

It may be time to haul that delicate heirloom to a framing shop for a makeover that will turn it into a joy to behold for years, possibly generations, to come.

The anticipated cost may make some people frame-shy, but once they understand the process and what they're getting for their money, many owners of unframed artwork feel more ready to take the plunge.

"It's like washing your car, like anything else, you procrastinate," says Eliane Walis, 55, of Berkeley as she shops for a frame at The Framer's Workshop in Berkeley. "(With) the pace of living here, framing is not the hot priority, but when you do it, you're satisfied."

Kirstie Bennett, co-owner of The Framer's Workshop, recently demystified the framing process by demonstrating three ways to frame the same object. She also explains what customers receive when they pay $37, $112 or $181 to frame a greeting card-size image. Each price quoted is based on a do-it-yourself job in her shop. Expect to pay $25 to $30 more for a custom project at her store, a price she says is competitive with other retailers.

Bennett says she can sympathize with the experience of some framing neophytes.

On her first trip to a framing shop years ago, Bennett walked in and found herself overwhelmed by the huge quantity of frames and mats to choose from and intimidated by the uncommunicative shop owner who perched behind the counter. He sized up her project, pulled out a few frame mouldings without consulting Bennett, calculated an estimate and, without explaining what she'd be paying for, presented her with a three-figure price.

"I didn't know what had happened, how he arrived at the price, and I decided not to do it," she says.

She walked away with her unframed art still in hand.

In 1977, Bennett opened The Framer's Workshop where she purposely keeps the frame selection out in the open so customers can survey the samples independently. Work tables are placed in the middle of the floor, where patrons can watch the framing process or take on a do-it-yourself project. The Framer's Workshop, which Bennett owns with her husband, Jeffrey Goldberg, is one of a handful of retailers on the West Coast who allow customers to assemble their own frames.

"I have them do it, and I explain everything to them," says Bennett, an energetic woman who greets each person who walks in the store. "We do demystify it for them so they understand what they're doing and why."

Whether customers visit her shop or a large chain store, Bennett encourages them to ask questions and educate themselves about the framing process.

Three main components

It also helps to have a basic knowledge of the three main materials that go into framing a piece: the moulding, the matting and the glass.

The term moulding refers to the four wood or metal pieces that make up the sides of a frame.

Matting, made from materials such as cotton, linen or silk, lies between the artwork and the glass and helps to create a small pocket of air that prevents the art from sticking to the glass and potentially damaging the piece. Matting or mats come in nearly every color, from neutrals to bright red. A carefully chosen mat or series of mats will complement key colors in the artwork and create a stunning, overall look.

Any material that comes in contact with the customer's artwork, particularly the matting, should be acid-free. Otherwise, the original art may become damaged over time as chemicals leach into the photo or painting inside the frame.

Regular glass is the cheapest kind to use, but it won't protect the art from sun damage. For a few extra dollars in most cases, consider using ultra violet glass that will help reduce fading caused by sunlight, fluorescent bulbs and other lighting. Museum quality glass will reduce glare, but its thin, delicate composition makes it the least durable.

For the $37 framing project, Bennett selects a $20 ready-made frame, which comes with regular glass. She adds a white acid-free mat that won't distract from the black-and-white greeting card image of a Victorian-style bride.

"First, I'm going to hinge the mat to the backing," Bennett says. "Let me get some tape."

The backing, made from foam core, rests behind the artwork.

She tears off several pieces of acid-free linen tape from a giant roll. Before taping down the image, however, Bennett centers it on the foam core backing. She holds the art in place with a paper-wrapped weight, then drops the matting over it to confirm she's positioned it properly.

Next, she flips the photo up and adheres it to the backing with a long piece of tape stuck to the top edge. Adding two vertical strips of tape across the first piece, she creates an H-shaped hinge that atttaches the photo to the foam backing.

Never tape every edge, Bennett warns. It could buckle the artwork now and trap in damaging moisture later.

Before assembling all the pieces, Bennett dusts off the artwork and cleans both sides of the glass. She drops in the mat, followed by the backing with the art attached. Using a pneumatic stapler, she inserts staples around the back of the frame close enough to the foam core backing to hold it in place.

Now she's ready to tape on a piece of brown paper to protect the contents of the frame.

"The purpose of the backing paper is to keep out dust and bugs and anything over time that would pollute the (artwork)," Bennett explains.

Bennett then twists two screw eye hooks into the frame and strings picture hanging wire loosely through the loops. For the final touch, she adds what she calls a "fuzzy bumper" to each corner at the back of the frame. The padded fabric dots will keep the frame from scratching the wall. It also promotes air circulation behind the framed piece, which prevents too much heat or moisture from damaging the artwork.

"And there's the finished piece," she says, tipping the completed project up on the table for inspection.

What you get with upgrades

For the midprice $112 sample project, Bennett adds a larger, more expensive custom-made moulding, two mats covered in a champagne silk and a third mahogany mat sandwiched between them to lend drama to the finished product. Custom-made frames also require an extra fee for joining the pieces together.

The more costly $181 sample project calls for the slightly more expensive UV protection glass, a hand-wrapped raw silk mat, a smaller pongee silk-covered mat and a rag paper mat cut with a decorative edge.

"Framing will take the most simple photo and make it look terrific," says longtime customer and former state legislator Johan Klehs, who dropped by The Framer's Workshop to pick up photos of himself with public officials. "If you've got a poster you've had for years, they'll take it and make it look like a Rembrandt."

In general, moulding is the most expensive part of the equation and a good place to economize for those on a limited budget. Fortunately, there are plenty of styles from which to choose. Bennett's shop alone carries 2,000 styles, including wooden frames resembling a basket weave, zebra-striped moulding, shiny metal frames in rainbow hues and top-of-the-line hand-made water gilded 18-carat gold Italian mouldings.

Priced by the foot, ready-made frames cost as little as $5.75 per foot, while high-end custom frames cost up to $60 per foot.

Limiting a project to one mat will also keep the price down, especially if it's a ready-made mat.

And nearly anything can be framed, including three-dimensional pieces such as Indian scarves, needlepoint, sports jerseys and African spears.

Bennett's last hint: Compare prices.

"Find a framer who is willing to educate you on the preservation of your art," she says. "That's the most important thing, because the primary purpose of framing is preservation and display."

You can e-mail Monique Beeler at or call (925) 416-4860.

©2004 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers