(Excerpt from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to  Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Mouldings, which may be either wood or metal,  are ornamental contours given to an object. Mouldings for framing do more than  decorate—they hold the glazing, picture, and backing together so that the  artwork can be properly protected and displayed.

Wood Mouldings have height, width, a back, lip, and rabbet. The  illustration below shows what these terms refer to.

In the recent past, basswood was one of the most  popular woods used in modern framing. But this wood has continued to increase in  cost, limiting its use to finer-quality decorative mouldings. From the linden  tree, basswood is a soft wood ranging from white to cream in color, and of the  many woods used in framing, it has the least apparent grain. Basswood resists  splitting, does not warp easily, and can be sanded to a fine finish. It also  accepts gold leaf well. Because of its softness, however, basswood is not  considered to be the best choice for gallery-style framing. (Gallery-style  framing is that which can be handled a great deal without being damaged easily.)  Poplar is used as a substitute for basswood because of its similarities, but it  tends to warp more.

Kiln-dried pine (if pine is not dried properly,  its natural resins can leak) is used mostly in less expensive mouldings because  of its abundance, although its large resin canals make working with it more  difficult. Resin canals sometimes deflect nails, which can result in splitting  and the nail can also end up in the wrong place. These canals also make it  difficult for even sanding and finishing. Fir is often used as a substitute for  pine because of the similarity, but it has a wider grain, which adds to the  splitting problem during the nailing of the frame.

Although most of these woods are not as soft as  basswood, they are soft enough to be of concern if they are to be handled in a  gallery situation. Their great advantage is that because of their softness they  are more easily worked without expensive equipment. Flaws in cutting the miter  are easily covered by compressing the two corners during their joining.

Terms for Frames

Hardwoods do not compress and small flaws in the  cutting of hardwoods will not go away. There are many beautiful hardwoods,  including padouk, cherry, walnut, maple, and mahogany, that are used as  mouldings for picture framing because of their unique textures and colors. The  woods discussed here are those most commonly used for picture framing.

Ash is a hardwood that is easier to work with  than most of the woods in this category. Its color ranges from a cool gray-white  to a brownish-red. In the lighter tones the grain looks like a darker version of  poplar and in the darker tones, the grain resembles that of oak. Ash does not  split easily when nailed or otherwise worked with, which is why many people  prefer to use this wood whenever possible.

Oak has three color varieties consisting of  white, red, and brown. The characteristic coarse grain and pores makes oak one  of the most easily recognized woods. It is more popular for decorative artwork  than for contemporary artwork because of its strong appearance. It is hard and  heavy, has a tendency to split, and is one of the most acidic of woods.

Ramin is an evenly grained, light, cream-colored  wood. This wood, a recent introduction to the framing industry from southeast  Asia, is lighter in weight than most, and does not split as easily as oak. Ramin  does not stain well, but can be easily sanded and finished. Because of its soft  neutral look, this wood is rapidly becoming popular.

Working with raw woods without expensive  equipment is within reason for an artist with some basic knowledge of  woodworking. Most artists who get a taste of do-it-yourself picture framing,  however, usually proceed to go out and find a good professional framer to do it  for them. If you are one of the dedicated few who wish to work with raw woods as  opposed to finished mouldings, you will have to seal them to help protect  against shrinkage, splitting, dirt, and moisture. After mechanical abuse,  shrinkage is the next major cause for corners coming apart. Unsealed wood can  shrink as much as 5 percent along its length. Raw wood can easily be sealed with  hot paste wax, liquid wax, woodworking oils, or any commercial product made for  this purpose. As for gesso, lacquer, gold leaf, staining, and painting of woods  for picture framing, unless you wish to have a second career as a picture  framer, I recommend that you purchase what you want from a picture framer. There  are many picture framers who will sell you moulding by the length, or moulding  cut and mitered, or moulding cut, mitered, and joined, so that you may assemble  the rest yourself.

Joining mouldings to make a frame is most easily  accomplished by gluing and nailing. It is a common misunderstanding that the  nails hold the corners together. The nails only assist in holding the corners  together while the glue dries. It is the glue that will ultimately hold the  corners together over time, so using large nails or many nails is not necessary  and can even weaken the wood. I recommend yellow carpenter’s glue, which is an  aliphatic resin. This glue is water-soluble, sets quickly, and is a strong wood  glue. Water solubility makes it easy to clean up excess glue that might affect  the wood’s ability to accept stains or finishing oils. Aliphatic resins are more  brittle than white glues, which are composed of polyvinyl acetate. I feel that  with the exception of very large frames, the brittleness of an aliphatic resin  is an advantage because it allows a frame to be taken apart for repairs without  being destroyed.

To  avoid splitting and nails working their way to the surface of the moulding,  holes should be drilled for the nails before hammering. I recommend, again with  the exception of large frames, that you place the nails into the corner in one  direction. This will allow you to take the frame apart for repairs. Use the  smallest and shortest nails that you can work with and still get the job done.

Metal Mouldings are much easier for an amateur framer to work  with. They can be purchased precut or cut to order and can be assembled with  simple hand tools. If you follow the rules of framing that I have outlined, you  can end up with professional results. The major difference between a wood and a  metal frame is that you cannot have an airtight seal with a metal frame. This  can be a serious consideration if the artwork is sensitive to moisture or air  pollutants. In most cases, artwork that is framed with metal, if not placed in a  bathroom, on a boat, or in a smoked-filled room at a political convention,  should not be greatly affected.

Metal Frames






Building a setback into a wood frame can be difficult and, if you are paying to  have it done, expensive. There are metal mouldings that are made with a set-back  built into them. (See the illustration above.) This allows for a relatively  inexpensive form of conservation framing where the artwork could be  float-mounted to museum board and kept away from the glass.