Mat Your Print


Some Suggestions for Matting a Print

by Steven Walker

Cutting a mat is a fairly straightforward procedure, but there are some pitfalls and potential problems inherent in the process. This is an article in which I'll lay out some suggested best practices for matting prints, with a focus on members submitting work to SAGA shows. I will try to cover the actual "how-to" (along with various situations that may arise), always in the light of a few basic principles.

A mat serves two main purposes: to protect the print and to present it well. Everything I will say will fall under one or both of these two precepts, which can be thought of as the practical and the aesthetic. The practical will also cover a few economic aspects of matting.

The mat should be thought of as something that supports the print during a part of the print's life. In other words, the print will hopefully outlive the mat. The mat should serve to protect the print, doing the print as little harm as possible while the print is in its custody. For this reason, the overarching idea is to avoid any practice that could potentially pose a danger to the print. Also, the mat should not be thought of as permanently attached to the print.

Aesthetically, the mat should help to display the print to best advantage for exhibition. It should present the work without calling attention to itself or detracting from the work for any number of negative reasons.

To cut a mat yourself, you will need a mat cutting device. Although it is possible to cut a mat with a hand-held tool, most people will prefer to have the tool mounted on a track to hold the blade at a consistent angle. Mat-cutters with a device sliding along a track start at about $45 for a 24-inch track, while a 36-inch model with the track mounted on a base will start at about $100. While the price may seem like a lot to lay out, I think it will pay for itself after two or three uses (compared with the typical cost at a framing store).

Mat board is sold in regular and acid-free or archival. Sometimes manufacturers use the term “acid-free” a little too loosely, so I would look for “archival” or “museum board.” Regular mat board is less expensive but should only be used for short-term presentation, not for permanent storage or framing. It is made of an inferior pulp core with paper covering the top and bottom. Over time, acids will turn the core yellow, orange, and brown, and this will leach into your print paper. Archival board is homogeneous, so that the exposed interior after cutting appears as a single solid material. The backing board can be either mat board or foam-core board. Be aware that foam board is also sold in both regular and archival.

Color. While both kinds of mat board are available in colors, most exhibitions will specify a white or off-white mat. The off-whites range from slightly warm white to ivory, cream, and natural. My own feeling is that the mat shouldn’t be warmer than the print paper. I would use pure white mat board over a pure white paper, and a warmer white for warmer paper. My preference is also that the mat not be of a darker value (of off-white) than the print paper.

The next consideration is whether the print is to be framed, or if the show calls for specific mat dimensions. Here the matter of cost may come into play. I will list the framing options in order of ascending price:

1) Re-using an existing or found frame, obviously the cheapest option.

2) Standard-size frame purchased wholesale. Depending on the size of your print image, there may not be a standard size frame that does your work justice. The margins may end up with unfortunate proportions no matter which standard size you try. But for other image sizes, a standard frame may be just fine. (Here I will confess that there have been times when I’ve calculated the final frame size before deciding on the size of my copper plate.) Examples of standard sizes are 12x16, 14x18, 16x20, 18x24, 20x24, 24x30.

If you sell your work, you might consider obtaining a resale certificate and ordering mat board and/or frames from a wholesaler. (For tax purposes, these can be deducted as business or hobby expenses from the amount of your sales.) They will usually be available with or without glass or Plexiglas. Wholesalers set modest minimums for a given order, which may or may not be too much for your needs. But the cost per piece can be less than half the retail price.

3) Standard frame at retail. The least expensive retail option. Also available with or without glass or plexi. Note that some of these frames come with a pre-cut mat, but the mats are usually not archival, they always have a centered window, and the window is in all likelihood not the right size for your print. But the free mat can be used for scrap or some other purpose.

4) Do-it-yourself, whole-inch custom frame made from retail frame sections and plexiglas. This option will allow more flexibility than a standard frame, since you can choose the whole-inch mat size that comes closest to your preference. Sections are sold in pairs, and you will also need to buy a piece of plexiglas cut to fit the frame. On occasion, there may be a situation where you prefer to use a standard size frame made of sections; in this case, you can use a standard piece of plexi, which will be less than a custom-cut piece.
5) Custom mat and frame done by frame shop or department. This is the most expensive option, but allows you to get exactly the dimensions you want. (I will have a few more comments about frame shops later.)

So when I’m thinking about matting a print, I may also consider present or future framing options in deciding how to mat the print.

Aesthetics of the mat margins. The optimal way to display a print in aesthetic terms is to choose mat margins based on the image. The classic rule of thumb is for the top margin to be a little larger than the sides, and for the bottom to be larger than the top. In most cases, raising the image a little above center will show it to better advantage than merely centering it. There are exceptions, such as an image with a strong design in its upper half, but I would generally go with the standard for starters.

If cost is no object, or if the work will not be framed, or if the show has no size requirements, you can base the margins strictly on appearance. Lay out the print on a table surface and use four straight edges like rulers or strips of paper or board to “frame” the image to a perimeter size and margins that work well to your eyes. Then use these measurements for your matboard and backing board.

This technique can also be used to fit your image to a whole-inch or standard size frame. Try various possibilities until you find the best option for the mat perimeter and the margins around the image.

Cutting the mat.

Make sure your hands are clean throughout the matting process.

You will likely start with a standard 32 x 40” sheet of mat board. The backing board should be cut to the same size. The total size of the mat is the size of the image, plus a small border between the image and the mat window, plus the margin of the mat. The amount of space between the window and the image is a personal choice—as small as 1/8” for smaller prints up to an inch or more for larger prints. A standard might be to use a half inch at the top and sides, and a little more at the bottom, say 5/8ths or three quarters.  The mat should not cut off the title or signature, so keep an eye on this when measuring.

Once you determine the outside dimensions for your mat, measure and rule the back of the board with a light pencil, and cut with a sturdy tool (e.g., box cutter). A slimmer blade will work as well, but will take a little longer. Use a piece of scrap underneath to absorb the blade during the cut. Next, cut the backing board to the same size as the mat. The larger type of mat cutter will have a 90-degree blade that can be used for this purpose.

Measure the mat window carefully and mark lightly in pencil. You will need to make two sets of tick marks for each line to ensure that the window is parallel with the board. Since the board may be slightly imperfect after cutting (e.g., it might be 20-1/32” instead of 20”), always measure with the zero line of the ruler aligned with the same edge of the board for both measurements. The marks may be drawn as small crosses at the intended window corners, or as lines running across the entire board, depending on the type of cutter you will be using. Avoid using dark graphite marks as they may cause discoloration on the exposed core of mat board after cutting.
Each mat cutter has its own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. It’s a good idea to practice on scraps until you are used to how it handles and cuts. Especially important is to develop a feeling for the best place to insert the blade in order for a good corner to result. On some cutting devices, you start the cut at the top and pull the blade toward you, while on others you push the blade away from you. You should place a length of scrap mat board under the line of your cut to absorb the blade. When making cuts, I start the blade slightly beyond my marked corner (1-2 mm), to compensate for the blade angle and the depth of the board. However, it is best to err on the side of coming up a little short than to overshoot the corner (which will leave a visible cut on the finished mat). If the corner is not quite cut, don’t panic. Carefully remove the board from the blade-holding device without tearing the remaining fibers in the corner; then slip a razor blade into the angled slot of the cut, and make gentle strokes toward the corner until the cut is complete.

With a new blade, it should be possible to make each cut by penetrating the board completely and executing the cut in a single stroke. However, for 4-ply board, I find it is generally safer to make two or three cuts for each edge. The first stroke goes about halfway through the board and the next stroke(s) complete the cut. This reduces the chance of the blade snagging on fibers and causing tears or “pilling” on the front side of the mat. To do these multiple cuts, make sure the blade always enters exactly into the original slot for subsequent passes.

Sometimes problems do occur, as when fibers bunch up and pill. This can be treated by gently and patiently stroking the pilled area with an emery board or blade until the fibers are flush with the rest of the cut. If the problem cannot be fixed in this way, or if there is a small but noticeable tear on the mat surface, I can often save the mat by measuring and cutting a new window 1/16- to 1/8-inch larger than the original one.

For joining the front and back boards and mounting the print, there are two types of archival linen tape: self-adhesive and gummed. The self-adhesive has a strip (as on a Band-Aid) that is peeled off. Its advantage is that it doesn’t require water. I tend to think gummed tape is more reliable in the long run, provided the right amount of water is used. For delicate papers like rice paper, lighter weight gummed paper tape may be preferable. (See below for details on wetting gummed tape.)

Once the window is cut, follow these steps to complete the matting process. Refer to the diagrams below. Double check before applying any tape, because it is easy to make irreversible errors if you are not careful (like taping the mat upside down to the backing, etc.)
Remember that the bevel cut of the mat window is to open outward when the mat is in its final position, and that the widest margin should end up at the bottom.

Place the two boards in their intended position on a clean tabletop. Flip the window mat over so that it lies face down above the backing board, with its intended top edge aligned with the top edge of the backing board (which remains face up). If the two boards are of the same thickness, hinge them together with tape along their common edge. Ideally they should be hinged with archival linen tape, either with two- to three-inch strips perpendicular across the common edge, or with a length of tape running horizontally along the edge. If there is adequate space at the top such that the tape will not come into contact with the print paper, a non-archival tape will be all right for hinging the boards. Gummed packing tape or white artist’s tape would be my choice; I would avoid using cheap masking tape, plastic packing tape or duct tape. (Be sure to keep your print well away from the boards until they are hinged together, since a dangling piece of tape might find its way inexorably to your print and bring it to ruin.) In fact, I would keep the print out of reach in a safe place throughout the process of cutting the mat.

If the boards are of unequal thicknesses (e.g., foam core backing), place a strip of mat board under the foam core near the top edge, and a strip of foam core under the top edge of the mat board to bring them to the same height for hinging.

To mount the print in the mat:

Open the mat and place the print face up on the backing board. Bring the window board down and maneuver the print until it is centered and parallel with the window and in the desired position. Once this is achieved, place a paperweight on the print to hold it in place, and then flip the mat open.

You will next attach the print to the backing board using two “T-tabs” (tape in a T shape with adhesive sides facing each other). For larger or heavier prints, three or even four T-tabs would be better. The size of the tape can vary depending on the size of the print. For a modest size print, use about 1.5” strips; the top bar of the T can be a little longer.

For gummed tape, I use a small dish with a wad of paper towel soaked with water. A shallow dish of plain water will work with some tapes, though I usually prefer to blot it if too wet. The tape should not be too wet (loss of adhesive) or too dry (poor adhesion). Moisten half the strip and feel with your finger; with a little practice, you will develop a feel for the optimal degree of sliminess you should feel.

Wet the bottom half of a piece of tape and slip it under the print near one of the top corners. Position the tape face up so that the wet half adheres to the back of the print and the top half extends above. Repeat near the other top corner of the print for the second T-tab. If a third is needed, place in the center. When applying these tapes, take care not to move the print out of position.

For each piece of tape adhered to the back of the print, wet another piece and apply it face down over the protruding part of the first piece to form the T. This second piece should be large enough to cover the visible part of the first piece with enough left over to secure itself to the backing (about 2” should be adequate). I normally use a piece of clean paper towel over the wet tape as I press it into position for a few seconds. No tape should touch the front surface of the print.

The final step would be to apply two small hinges of linen tape inside the bottom corners of the mat. This will keep the mat closed and make it easy to reopen if that becomes necessary in the future.

Closing thoughts.

Here I will mention that a less-is-more approach is better and safer in matting a print. The print should be able to “breathe” (expand and contract depending on temperature and humidity). Note that by hinging the print from the top, it is allowed to hang freely under the mat and there is a minimum of adhesive actually in contact with the print. Sometimes mats get dirty when prints are exhibited (installers don’t always follow best practices), and you may end up having to replace the mat later on. For this reason, it is best to have used a simple and clear method to mount the print in the first place. The mat should be made in such a way that it can be reopened easily without endangering the print in the process. For this reason, I would avoid the following practices, all of which I’ve come across in my experience of handling prints, and all of which violate the basic art handling principles of preserving the artwork and minimizing risk.

DON’T adhere the print to the back of the mat board. Although some may think of this as a standard and safe method, it’s not. My problem with this method is that if the mat window is needs to be opened and raised, the print comes up with the mat. Any time the print moves, it can also be torn. Remember that it may not be you who eventually opens the mat.

DON’T use anything more than a top hinge and bottom corner tabs to attach the mat to the backing. Anything more is probably overkill. I’ve seen mats where there was glue applied all around the print in order to keep the mat and backing stuck together; I’ve also seen double-sided tape used in this fashion. TERRIBLE! It’s terrible because when you open the mat, you must destroy the matting and apply force to rip the boards apart. Obviously this jeopardizes the print.

DON’T apply any tape to the front surface of the print. Use T-tabs as suggested above and adhere to the back.

DON’T tape the print to the backing anywhere other than the top edge. For heavy prints, use a few extra T-tabs at the top. Archival corners (similar to old photo corners, but in larger sizes) can be purchased, or can be made by folding paper and taping to the backing. Corners support the print from below. Because of gravity, I would only use corners in tandem with top T-tabs, to avoid the print sagging downward over time.

DON’T dry mount. I don’t know if this practice even exists any more, but if it does, I would avoid it like the plague. Once a print is glued on its reverse side to another surface, it cannot be removed. Eventually the impurities in the glue and possibly an inferior backing will make their way into the print.

DON’T ASSUME FRAME SHOPS always follow best practices. Some of the atrocities I’ve encountered were very likely perpetrated by frame shops. I would ask questions before entrusting my work to some of them.

I’ve too often seen things like tears, acid haloes, or amber-brown tape marks on a print where a piece of cheap tape had been used decades earlier. As SAGA members, we would hope that our prints will outlive us and that others will handle them in the future. Therefore, we want to use the best materials and make things as easy as possible for someone who opens a mat in the future.