Custom Framing Tips

We like to remember life's special moments, don't we? Whether it be through scrapbooks documenting certain milestones in our lives or through that pile of yearbooks we occasionally dust off to remember bad hair and weird clothes. So getting something framed shouldn't be so complicated, right? For many, choosing between a metal frame or a gold leaf frame sounds like another language. I talked to some local experts on what you should know before setting foot in a custom frame shop.

Tip #1: Framing is more expensive than you think. Even if you just paid $5 for that small watercolor you bought while backpacking through Europe a few years ago, it may cost more than $100 to frame. The cost of a frame is a per-foot rate, ranging from under $10 to more than $50 a foot depending on the materials used to make the frame. Even the glass can be pricey. One way to justify the hit to your bank account is to realize that this may be the only time you ever frame the piece if it's framed well, says Lisa Adams, principal of Adams Design Inc., in Washington. "You're not going to frame it again perhaps in your lifetime," she adds.

Tip #2: Be prepared to make a decision on four elements of framing -- the frame itself, the type of glass, the mat and the type of material used to seal up the back of the frame. "It helps if you go to a frame shop with a frame in mind or a color in mind," says Peter Bortz, owner of Georgetown Frame Shoppe, also in Washington.

Tip #3: If you're completely clueless about what to choose, a good frame shop will help. You will, however, need to have a clue about where the art might go in your house, what color the walls are, if the art will be in sunlight and what type of furniture you have. Frame shops have samples of frames and mats you can play around with and some smaller framers may let you take the samples home to try them out in the room where you plan to hang the art.

Tip #4: Consider buying a frame at a retailer like Pottery Barn and taking it to a frame shop to have them cut a nicer mat and put on acid-free backing. The cost could be under $50, depending on the size, and still have a professional look to it. Framers say this works well with photographs.

Tip #5: The more complex the piece of art, the more expensive it's going to be to frame. Duh, right? Well, you may think the supplies drive up the cost but it's actually the labor. Georgetown Frame Shoppe found this out when they were asked to frame a shovel from a groundbreaking last year. The hours it took to make a shovel fit in a frame dramatically drove up the bill. So think twice before framing the backpack you used to hike through Europe, too.

Tip #6: Going to a large retail framer could mean that your art is being shipped to another frame shop. The drawback is that framer didn't deal with you directly and some of the notes on the order may get lost in translation. Ask if they frame on the premises and ask the person who's helping you if they will be the one doing the framing. You'll probably want a "yes" for both those questions.

Tip #7: When thinking about how to frame something, don't frame it for the room it's going in but for the piece of art. The decor of the room may change over time or you may decide to move the piece of art one day.

Tip #8: Go to the best frame shop you can afford. "You want people who look at frames all the time," Adams says. "You want them to be familiar with how certain frames look on those pieces." One way to determine if it's a good shop, adds Adams, is to ask if they offer acid-free matting and if they sell museum glass, the highest quality type of glass available. You may want to consider shelling out the money for those two elements so the piece doesn't have to be framed again down the road.

What have you learned from getting something framed? Do you have a favorite shop? Post a comment and tell us about it.

By Tania Anderson |  January 8, 2008; 3:00 AM ET General Interest
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I do not recommend the custom framing at Michael's. I had 2 diplomas framed at the same time. The employee must have entered the order incorrectly into the computer and one arrived with the glass and mat but no frame! The colors on the mat were also reversed, but I didn't notice until I compared them with another diploma at home that I had tried to match the new ones with. Even with their discounts (usually 50% off), it was still really expensive and the service was horrendous.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 8, 2008 9:36 AM

Same here! Michael's is overpriced and I've noticed that two of the jobs they did for me are crooked. I found a great frame shop, inside Potomac Mills. He's top-notch and about half the price of what Michael's charges.

Posted by: hype2new | January 8, 2008 11:47 AM

Oakton Art & Framing in Oakton, VA is a wonderful frame shop. The owner does the framing herself and does an incredible job. As mentioned in this article, it is somewhat pricy, but the end product is worth the cost.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 8, 2008 1:09 PM

The Hang Up in Sterling is a fabulous frame shop. She does all of the framing herself and I have never been disappointed.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 10, 2008 9:13 AM

i actually remember the old days of "frame-it-yourself" & do it myself. i purchase the glass at a hardware store & the frame either on-line or locally & put it together. also, ikea is a great source of artwork/frames. my house is full & it looks colorful. if we don't like something, i didn't spend too much.

Posted by: jane | January 10, 2008 9:39 AM

Adler's Art & Frame in Kingstowne (next to Blockbuster near the Giant) does outstanding work. As you note, it's not cheap, but the quality of the work more than makes up for the price. Ask for what they call "museum glass." I've used it on four pieces and you almost can't tell the glass is there.

Posted by: Rich | January 10, 2008 11:57 AM

I think the author's hints overlooked a critical decision to me, as a collector of antique maps. BUY ACID-FREE MATS when you frame antique maps or prints or photos! It's a very important element. Over the yeatrs, I have resisted the fancy glass option that some frame shops hoped to sell me. To save money, I also framed many of my maps myself, in several DC-Bethesda frame-it-yoursef places. The tip there: go at times the place is least busy and the staff will be more available to help you when you mess up some elwement-- and it happens to all of us. Another tip: Remember that adjusting the tautness of the wire is easier than banging another nail/hanger into the wall if you have measured the wall space incorrectly. Keep in mind, however, that the farther from the top of the frame that the hooks and wire are set on the frame, the more likely it is that a non-taut wire will result in the frame tipping away from the wall.

Posted by: Former DC-er | January 10, 2008 12:51 PM

Doesn't Tip #7 (frame for the art)contradict Tip #3 (frame for your decor)? The advice from Lisa Adams seems to lend credence to #7 but perhaps the author could address the contradiction.

Posted by: DC-NY | January 10, 2008 3:55 PM

I use K.H. Art & Framing at 4745 Lee Highway in Arlington. They do a beautiful job and usually give sound advice on framing choices. The prices aren't low, but they do a very good job. And it's a family business and not some impersonal chain. They also have beautiful posters for sale, including vintage and antique French ones.

Posted by: PTobey | January 10, 2008 3:57 PM

I go to Turner Framing and they are so worth it! It's expensive but they do a top-notch job and always have great ideas on how to frame it.

Posted by: Little Red | January 10, 2008 4:57 PM

Forget all of the craziness. I bought an "all in one kit" from The Picturewall Company which includes 10 beautifully made wood frames and acid free mats. Talk about easy.. they ship it right to you. You use one of several templates they include to hang the frames up. It took me 20 minutes without taking a single measurement and it's perfect. I also gave one to my daughter as a wedding shower gift which she loves.

Posted by: Dorothy Segal | January 10, 2008 8:15 PM

The Frame Shoppe in Annapolis on Riva Rd & Rt 450 at U.S. Rt 50. Go there and all you questions will be answered and work done as you want at better prices than most shops.

Posted by: FredtheBlackLab | January 10, 2008 9:27 PM

If you are a do-it-yourself, I recommend purchasing a custom frame from one of the online sites. The cost is significantly lower than custom frame stores.

I order from They have very low prices, great quality and ship for free. There are others, but you have to be careful as a number of them sell poly frames (made from a plastic substance), which may not be an issue if you don't care about the material so long as it looks good on the wall.

Posted by: Melanie Hartman | March 27, 2008 10:14 PM

I just have to say that having something custom framed at Michael's is the same as having it custom framed anywhere - the quality of the work depends on the people doing the work.

Michael's does your framing in-house and doesn't ship off the artwork. If the mats/frame are not what you ordered, one of the certified framers or definitely the manager should be contacted and will fix it for you at no additional cost. If not, ask to speak to have the number for the zome framing manager - but this should never be necessary.

As far as straightness/quality of the finished product, etc, sadly this is going to vary as I said depending on who actually frames your artwork. It could be bad at a local framer and excellent at a retailer, depending on who is doing the work.

I will honestly admit: I do work in framing at Michael's. I take a lot of pride in my workmanship and will always fix problems if the work is not to the customer's satisfaction. We had a difficult to frame piece one time which we simply could not do as ordered, and we gave a 100% refund to the customer after we had attempted several times. This cost us a lot of money on materials, but ultimately if the customer was not happy with the finished product, then we had no choice but to give their money back.

There is a Hobby Lobby 300 feet from our door, and we constantly have people try to have us price match with them. We also have had people bring artwork they had framed there into our store - sometimes the same day the picked it up - for us to reframe. There IS a difference in price, and the reason is due to workmanship and materials.

As stated above - always make sure to request museum glass if you want proper presentation and preservation. It is much more expensive, but the finished product is much more professional. We have this - and it is one reason our prices seem higher than the competition which frequently does not offer true museum glass. Additionally, 100% of our custom matting materials are acid free. We do not sell non-acid free custom mats. We use acid free paper on the back of the frame as well, and line all wooden frames with a foil barrier liner. Many discount frame shops cannot claim any of this.

The best thing to do is to ask questions of the salesperson taking the order. If they don't seem up to par, ask if there is a certified framer or someone with more experience you can speak with instead. If they cannot offer that - move on. If you have a very large order, take something small first and see how it turns out before placing the large order. Finally, if there is any issue such as incorrect matting, bad cuts, etc, bring them to the framer's attention. They should offer to fix these issues at no additional cost to you. If they do not, move along.

Posted by: Alvin | April 27, 2008 10:42 PM

In response to Alvin, I'm sure he and others do great, quality work. Unfortunately the problem with most mass production places is that too often, the quality of the work isn't all that great. There tends to be a high turn-over rate of employees and many do it just for a job. This leads to low quality work. What you tend to get at an independant framer (yes, I stress 'tend,' I cannont attest for everyone), is someone who is skilled and does it because they love their work and helping people preserve their memories and make their homes more beautiful.

Also, every franchise, or super store that happens to dabble in framing that I've ever been in seem to have VERY little choice. Several styles of frames in oak, cherry and walnut, and the standard metal choices. This is because they order a few frames in bulk. I've been to many independant places. Of course, the selection will always vary, but I've seen far more selection at these palces.

Another thing to note, is to always read the fine print on a coupon. When you see 50% off custom framing, the fine print will likely say "discount only applied to labor." Which,I don't have to tell you, is not truely 50% off! Look for real discounts at other framers, like 20% your order. This will save you more money in the long run.

I would NEVER recommend using a framer that ships your work out to be done elsewhere. Go with someone you feel comfortable with. And make sure they use acid-free products only. If you're even given a choice (before or after you ask), I would walk away. products that have acid in them should not even be an option with all we know about what acid will do to your work. The use of ANY products with acid in them is a sign of poor quality.

Once again, it is good to check out a few places before turning over your prized posessions. Once you find a framer you know and trust, you'll find the process to be easy. It is little things that can make or break your framing experience. If you educate yourself on what to know and look for, you will present yourself as an educated consumer and no one will be able to sell you sub par work.

Posted by: Meg | May 6, 2008 4:19 PM

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