Properly Framing Your Documents, Prints and Maps
By Rick Badwey
My start in the archival framing business occurred about 20 years ago when I bought and sold rare coins and fiscal/historical paper related items: Confederate bonds, early currency, etc. During this time, I would get items framed for resale. In time, I encountered problems with frame shops working on my artwork. Among other things, they used lower quality materials and methods. It was during this time, I decided to get into the business.
During my years of owning the business, I have come across numerous documents, autographs, as well as other art objects damaged by improper framing techniques and materials. This included a mat burn around the perimeter of a document caused by the item being in contact with an acidic mat board. As an active participant in the field of manuscripts, it bothers me to see these pieces deteriorate in front of my eyes by an industry that should have the knowledge to know otherwise. Even skilled restoration techniques from a trained conservator may not be enough to restore damaged items to their original condition.
This article will examine framing and mounting techniques and materials which should be used in the framing process. Framing, if done properly, will provide many years of pleasure and appreciation. While at the frame shop, the collector or dealer should ask questions to the manager on duty regarding the framing of his or her documents. It is important to know how the framer will handle and frame your items for preservation and enjoyment.
There are some terms which need to be discussed. Conservation refers to the materials and methods used in the framing process to preserve and protect the item being framed. Related terms such as archival, preservation and museum quality are often used as well. Unfortunately, I have seen many framing establishments use these terms without actually employing them. Glazing refers to the glass or acrylic (i.e. Plexiglas) material that is placed into a frame. Finally, “acid free” may not really be! This term is very loosely used, and in most cases, may be a misnomer. Materials, such as mat board and foam backing, are sold to the framing industry with this labeling, when, in fact, the opposite may be the case. These materials may contain contaminants, such as wood pulp, that may harm artwork over a long period of time. Make sure that the framer uses materials that have a solid rag (cotton) based ingredient which may not decompose or outgas over a period of time.
Most collectors are not well versed on framing and take their valuable items to a local frame shop entrusting their skills. When entering the shop, the first thing you need to do is examine the overall appearance of the frame shop. Their walls speak volumes! If the shop has inexpensive metal framed contemporary entertainment posters adorned on the walls, you need to ask yourself “Would this place be a good candidate to frame my rare George Washington signed letter?”
Is the staff helpful in answering any concerns you may have with your framing project? Ask to speak to the actual framer who will be working on your documents. Make sure that he or she has the knowledge and care in handling, mounting and framing your artifacts. Ask for a mini tour of the work area. Speak to the owner if you are not satisfied with what you see or hear. It is better to for both parties to have a mutual understanding of what is to be done, then face any problems later.
Now, let’s discuss the proper methods of framing important and valuable manuscripts. Depending on the paper content of the document, hinging/mounting techniques may vary. Vellum, on one hand, would require encapsulation in Mylar or sturdy archival Mylar/rag paper corners. Any type of moistened hinging (Japanese tissue, etc.) may not be strong enough to hold the vellum, thus causing the document to release from the matting. With any type of paper or vellum, encapsulation works very well. Just make sure it has been properly deacidifed before encapsulation to neutralize the paper (vellum does not get deacidified). Other than vellum or thick paper, applying Japanese tissue with proper application is another alternative; however, avoid any non-reversible methods or materials. This means no tapes, glues, so-called acid free mounts or hinges.
Regarding mat boards, make sure only solid archival cotton rag mattes are used, not the more commonly “acid free” mattes, which have a wood pulp base. Framers not familiar with this mat board may recommend this to collectors, concerned that a customer may not want to pay the extra charge for a solid cotton rag matte. If you do not want to pay a slight premium for quality, then be prepared for problems.
On the subject of backings, make sure the frame shop also mounts the document directly onto a 100% cotton rag matte. All too often, I have seen artwork mounted directly on foam or other improper backing, even regular corrugated board! This is harmful to the item being framed because there needs to be a minimum 4 ply rag barrier between the item and the final backing.
Finally, glazing (glass or acrylic) is another important issue to consider. Most of us have heard of UV filtering, etc. This is extremely important. Because of the amount of light that is transmitted in an average room, it is vital that the glazing consists of UV filtering properties, at least 97 percent. A NOTE OF CAUTION: Even with this type of glazing applied to your framing project, it is very important that you still keep your document away from direct sunlight.
A final note regarding your personal framing, please ask the framer to book hinge the finished mattings. This means that instead of tape or gluing down the top mat to the bottom mat (which will cause serious problems), the framer applies an archival hinge to the top and bottom matte, so if you need to remove the autograph from the frame, it can be done easily without the chance of damaging the contents of the frame. Plus, if a document releases from the hinging, if there is double sided tape that was used to attach the top and bottom mattes, the document can slip into the tape and become damaged.
A point needs to be made about purchasing already framed autographic material. We all, including myself, have purchased autographs which have been previously framed. For the most part, the framing jobs have had negative effects on autographs. In these cases, documents have had mat burns, were improperly mounted, and at one time, I have encountered a situation where the mat was affixed so securely around the autograph, it ripped the letter (this framing job was obviously done by a framer who did not want to spend the extra few seconds to apply a proper mat hinge). Unless you absolutely know how the item was framed, take into account what unknown possibilities may be lurking within the frame!
For example, at the time of writing this article, I purchased an Abraham Lincoln document, described as being “archivally matted and framed,” from a well known autograph auction company. Upon receipt, I removed the document from the frame. It was poorly framed as it was mounted directly onto foamcore. And, instead of true conservation glazing, non UV filtering glazing was used. (By the way, a sticker on the back of the framed stated that the glazing was UV filtering!) Lastly, the document was mounted on linen. This was not mentioned in the description, nor was it evident upon inspection outside the frame. I took the document to a prominent conservator to remove the linen.
As a collector or dealer, it is important to know a well-trained conservator to tackle problems including documents affixed to boards, old tape/glue stains, etc. Since almost my inception into the business, I have used Frank Mowery, who is head of conservation of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. He has more than 30 years experience in the conservation field. I have recommended him to dealers and collectors for many years.
In conclusion, I cannot emphasize enough that collectors and dealers need to take the utmost care in maintaining the condition of manuscripts while in their possession. After all, it is our duty to act as curators for these items so that future generations continue to enjoy and appreciate our nation’s and global history.