Should prints be mounted?
What’s the best way to do these things? The answer is “It depends.”
If your work is for yourself alone, you can do what you please; mount, or don’t mount, it’s up to you. If you’d like to sell your work, have your work last for the ages, or display it to best advantage, you’ll need some specific information about techniques for mounting, so that you can hand your work on to successive generations.
Many photographers learned they needed these special approaches the hard way, discovering their older prints and mats were browning, staining and decomposing from incorrect mounting (and framing).
The mat shown above has a brown core, indicating the paper was not acid-free. The mat below is newer, and might or might not be acid-free; you can’t tell simply by looking. This one is not acid-free, and over time, it will turn brown. Worse yet, the acids will leach into an image underneath it, and stain the image. In response to these types of damages, standards for archival print creation, mounting, display, and storage have been defined.
This blog entry focuses on mounting; others will address printing, framing/display and storage options and best choices.
Different Kinds of Mat Boards
To choose correctly, it’s important to know that there are several types of mat boards sold. The most popular is acid-neutralized board, where chemicals infused into the boards are supposed to buffer the acids so no damage happens. Within this category, the majority of choices have a cream-colored core, but a subcategory offers a black core, and occasionally, other colors in the core. This can offer a nice visual contrast for certain images.
This category has the widest range of colors and is the least expensive. Next up is rag mat board, made with cotton in its core. Museum Rag is next, made 100% of cotton, used for maximum protection. Good professional framing shops use Museum Rag mat board as a standard.
Preserving your Images for the Ages
Archival is a word used to identify techniques that are designed to preserve your work for as long as we know how to make it last—for the archives, as it were. When choosing best mounting practices, it’s good to know what these archival standards are, even if you choose not to follow them.
A good resource for archival guidelines can be found on the United States Library of Congress website.
These guidelines for display and framing of paper images provide excellent starting points for deciding what to do with your work. As you’d expect, libraries and museums are in the forefront of conservation efforts, and this link summarizes the best advice available.
The guidance offered is targeted first and foremost at preserving paper, so some of their priorities and your goals are going to differ. For example, for paper prints, their guidelines recommend keeping the original prints in a dark location to help preserve them, then making and displaying a good copy. This doesn’t apply to contemporary prints which you create and own, which can be regenerated if needed. Much of the rest of the advice is valid, though.
It should also be noted that contemporary archival standards generally forbid permanently mounting prints in any way that can not be undone. Not everyone agrees with this; it’s possible to use certain methods to mount a print in a way that can be undone later, discussed further down in this article. It’s also possible to disagree with this standard. Some people hold the opinion that a print can only be correctly displayed if it’s mounted, arguing that if the the artist’s intent and decision is to present a mounted image, that’s their right. Of course, the mount board needs to be archival quality and the adhesive used should archival quality as well for this argument to be valid.
Let’s look at ways to mount images, discussing as the article progresses which methods are archival, which are definitely not, and which fall in a gray area of which you should be aware when making informed choices.
Mounting Prints with Spray Adhesive
Do-it-yourself mounting can be done as simply as purchasing a can of spray adhesive, a mount board and a brayer (a roller for smoothing down prints. An advantage of using this method is that you can center the print on the mount board, and leave a border around it. This is not possible with pre-made adhesive boards, discussed below.
However…even if you buy an archival mount board, which is acid-free, the spray used to mount may not be acid-free; be sure to look at the label and buy spray like the one shown, which clearly states “acid-free”.
If you choose to mount your own images using this or other methods, you’ll want to have a good dust brush (sold at art stores and drafting supply stores) or a can of compressed air handy. Little bumps of dust underneath a mounted print are one of the worst signs of inattention to detail, and will definitely diminish your enjoyment of your print (and chances of selling it!)
Dust carefully, and then dust again; then, run your fingers over the back of the print carefully to capture every speck of dust before spraying adhesive and mounting, then using the brayer. As you’d expect, the spray goes everywhere, so be careful, use the spray in well-ventilated spaces, and be sure to protect any other prints and surfaces that would be damaged by free-flying drops of spray. Then, consider adopting other mounting methods discussed in the rest of this article.
Premade Adhesive Boards
An even easier way to mount a print is to use boards with adhesive already on the board, protected until you use it by a peel-off sheet. These quick mount boards are available from various art and photo supply houses, and are the height of convenience. If your work doesn’t need to meet archival standards, use these for a quick and clean solution. These boards are often not acid-free, so check carefully when choosing. If you are selling work to other people using these boards, ethical behavior requires you to disclose that the print is not archivally mounted if you are using non-archival materials.
Dry mounting is a time-tested technique for adhering prints to mount boards. In heat-based dry mounting, a thin sheet of heat-sensitive adhesive is cut to the size of the print, then affixed to the back of the print with a small iron to tack it in place. The print is then placed on a mounting board, and slipped into a hot press, carefully calibrated to be hot enough to melt the adhesive, and not hot enough to damage the print. The heat melts the adhesive, and the print is removed to cool. Voila! Instant mounting.
Technically, the adhesive boards and the spray method discussed previously are both considered dry mounting techniques, as opposed to rolling out a wet paste that requires drying time. However, when many people hear the phrase “dry mounting” they’re thinking of this technique.
While the print, and the board can be acid-free, most dry mounting is not considered an archival technique, because archival standards require that any mounted print can be easily removed from the mount board behind it. That being said, if you mount an acid-free print with certain recently developed dry mount heat-sensitive tissues, it’s possible to get them off the board later with denatured alcohol. This mounting tissue is shown on DryTac.com and is used by various entities with a strong interest in best archival standards, such as the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the Dutch National Archives. Even so, before using it, I’d suggest you buy some, test it, and see how easy it is to remove a print from a board.
Sending Prints Out to Be Mounted
If you pay for mounting at a framing shop, a version of the spray adhesive technique is commonly used. The board and print are dusted carefully, the adhesive is applied, the print is carefully placed on the board, and this assembly is slipped into a vacuum table. Vacuum pressure ensures a tight bond. No muss, no fuss, and a border can be left around the edges of the print. A couple of caveats apply.
First, these prints mounted using spray and vacuum are only as good as the quality of the board and spray used. Even if the board is 100% archival cotton rag, if it has been stored in a less-than-optimal climate, it’s possible it’s absorbed a large amount of moisture, and prints mounted to it will debond over time, because parts of the board, when heated, released moisture, preventing a bond from forming with the print. I have a nifty set of large prints that are riddled with bubbled up areas, mounted in a hurry and permanent, a sad lesson in how not to trust a sloppy framer. I keep one on the wall, bubbles and all, to remind me not to cut corners and not to be in a hurry.
Second, if this board is not acid-free, it’s not archival. This is where you need to establish a relationship of trust with your framer, so you’re sure you’re getting the quality you pay for. It’s a good idea to ask the frame shop if they offer archival mounting techniques, and discuss options with them. Competent framers are well trained in these techniques, and can show you the best ways to mount and frame your work. As you might expect, it’s not inexpensive.
Archival Mounting Techniques at Home
A major focus of archival techniques is to avoid acid contamination in any part of the process. I strongly recommend you invest in one or more pairs of lintless cotton gloves ($7–12 / dozen) and use them for all your print and board handling. Gloves are particularly recommended when working with prints, and makes it easier to handle glass. After all, skin oils transferred to your prints will negate all your hard work to keep an archival workflow. Uline carries a nice selection of these gloves, as do other suppliers.
You’ll also need an acid-free surface on which to work. Many people just use mount boards as a work surface. Others invest in sheets of neutral plastics, or professional cutting mats, such as those shown here.
Once you have protection in place for your work, you’ll need to get the supplies. First are mount boards, and pre-cut mats, if you don’t plan to cut your own. If you plan to mount your images permanently, whether with spray adhesive, or dry mount tissue, you’ll need spray and brayer, or dry mount tissue and a dry mount press. Resist the temptation to melt the dry mount tissue with a handheld iron; it rarely works correctly and usually results a damaged print. Mounting presses used to be a staple of most photography studios. Now, they’re easily found on eBay and Craigslist at serious discounts. For a modern press that combines heat and vacuum, see this link here; it’s a thing of beauty.
If you are not going to mount your images with a permanent technique, you’ll want to purchase archival hinges to secure the prints on backing boards, or to make photo corners to hold the print in place, according to standard archival framing practice.
A great source for these supplies is GrignonsArt.com.
The tape’s built-in adhesive is water-activated, and can be easily undone. You’ll of course use distilled water, so as to be sure not to introduce any contaminants. Using tape like this to hinge the print to a backing board, and to hinge the mat over the print to the backing board is very easy, and the best way to protect your work.
To be proficient in archival mounting and framing techniques requires study and practice. A CFP (Certified Professional Framer) has mastered these tools and techniques, one of the reasons they’re worth paying to do the work for you. If you’re determined to do it yourself, you’ll want to read and research, as well as investigating any classes available in your area.
Coating Prints for Preservation
If your print is going to be exposed to the air, or to light (somewhat necessary for us to see it), you may want to consider using a spray or a roller-applied coating to protect your print. Breathing Color sells a very good product for this use. Tests for longevity show that a coating can add considerable lifespan to a print, as it blocks damage from ultraviolet rays as well as fingerprints and other contaminants. For more info, see entries on this blog discussing archival framing and preservation.
Fine Art Requirements
Deep detail about fine art requirements is outside the scope of this article (look for a specific blog post soon on the fine art market.) That said, if you’re planning on selling your images for fine art, certain requirements are common.
- Fine art buyers assume they’re investing for the long term. If you’re not printing using archival quality ink and paper, you must tell them you’re selling them a print that is not designed to last as long as possible. If you don’t, and they test the print, the backing board, the tape holding the backing board and mat together, or the mat around the print, and find any of it to be acidic, they will demand a refund and may damage your reputation.
- If you’re vending your work through a gallery or dealer, they’ll have specific requirements for printing, framing, mounting, and even substrate selection. Some galleries will frame everything you show, while others will require you to offer already framed work, as well as unframed versions. Clarify all expectations and understandings in writing before producing a body of work for them.
- Substrates infused with optical brightening agents (OBAs) are almost always not acceptable for fine art prints. See the blog post on this site about OBAs for more info.
- Many fine art markets forbid permanently-mounted prints. Use the archival hinge-mounting method described in this blog post.
Whether you wish to mount and mat your work yourself, or pay a skilled professional to do it, the quality of the materials used dramatically affects the longevity of your images, and their saleability. Knowing the basics of what’s available and some of the varying standards for different needs and markets is the foundation for making good choices about how to present your work.
Kevin O’Connor helps design and test software, is a graphic designer and photographer for multiple clients and companies, and fixes people’s (and companies’) color.
He has consulted to multiple companies, including Apple, Sony, Fujifilm USA, and X-Rite. He loves teaching good color practices to enthusiastic learners.
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