Tales from the Frame Shop – Cut Your Own Matts

One of the ways I paid for college was as a custom framer. In my first year I landed a seasonal job as a portrait artist at a northern California amusement park.  My life drawing professor encouraged me to try for this type of job because it would be good training.  He was right on that count.  But I still had to earn money during the months when the park was closed.

One day while I was running errands, I noticed a custom frame shop had opened in the neighborhood. I went in to check it out.  The owners were very nice and friendly so I proposed they let me set up my easel in their storefront to try and attract foot traffic and commissions.  If someone had a portrait done, it was logical they would want to have it framed, so a win win.   It went well and we both profited.  When they became really busy prior to the holidays, they asked if I could help out when I had time.  That’s where I learned the basics about framing.

From there, a friend of a friend hired me as a framer for his shop. It was a great place to learn the craft.  It didn’t hurt it was in a fairly well to do area, so the art was generally very nice and the choice of materials was wide ranging.  One of the skills I learned there is cutting matts by hand.  Not with one of the matt cutters on a rail, but a hand held model (I have been using the same Dexter cutter I got in college).   All you need is a large, flat and clean working surface; a long heavy duty metal straight edge; an 18 inch metal ruler and a small 5 inch ruler; a heavy duty spring clamp, a utility knife, a hand held matt cutter,  and a hard, sharp pencil.  Oh yes, a steady hand and patience help too.


The actual cutting part just takes practice to master. It took an afternoon to get comfortable and gain confidence.  I wasn’t fast, but in a couple of weeks, I was much faster and at ease cutting double and triple matts, and then matts with multiple openings. I’ve tried using the “bullet proof” track cutters, but it’s too easy to make mistakes and waste matt board.  The blades flex too much causing curving at the corners and wavy cuts, and there is a tendency to over cut the corners.  I see it all the time in galleries.

A well cut matt can really dress up a simple, good quality pre-made frame and save a lot of money. As an example, I recently compared the price of a custom frame job to my cost including time and labor.  The frame shop was moderate, catering to mid-range clientele.  I selected very similar frames and identical matting, glass, etc.  My cost was one fifth of the shop quote, savings worth doing it myself.  I am delighted to offer my clients their commission framed.  This way I know it is ready to display and I have saved them a fair amount of money.  Everyone is happy.

Periodically I’ll share “Tales from the Frame Shop”. Some are humorous, some are humorous in a weird way and some are just plain astonishing.

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