William H. Hays lives and works in Brattleboro, Vermont. Along with painting in oils, he is an accomplished print maker whose linocut prints can be seen in galleries in the northeastern US and in Maritime Canada.

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"An Economical Solution To Framing Oils"
by William H. Hays

The Artist's Magazine, May 1998

Draped Guardian, oil painting by William Hays

"Draped Guardian" 18" x 20"

During the course of any given year I usually complete fifty oil paintings. If I were to spend $50 framing each one, I would end up with a $2,500 bill. In reality, unfortunately, the average price of framing my oils runs around $200 each, or $10,000 per year. In an effort to find a more inexpensive method, I started tacking wooden lattice to the stretcher frames of my completed works. When done properly, this technique can have attractive results. But too often many artists don't take enough care, and their frames look cheap and amateurish. Even without carpentry skills, I've found it's possible to make this inexpensive frame look like a first-rate professional made it.

Step 1. Measure twice, cut once. Measure the stretched canvas and cut a piece of interior luan (mahogany veneer plywood available from a lumber yard), so there is an extra " on all sides. Using the sides of the cut luan, measure the lattice so that a mitered forty-five degree corner will fall from corner to corner on the edge of the panel.

Step 2. Cut and mark. Cut the lattice with a japanese saw and miter box to get a smooth cut, eliminating the need for sanding. Mark where the lattice will align with the back of the panel and where the nails will be set on the outside of the lattice. It's a challenge to set the nails so they drive into the center of the edge of the thin luan, but it can be done with consistency after some practice.

Step 3. Put it all together. Lay down a bead of carpenter's glue on each edge of the panel. Take the corresponding piece of lattice with nails set in place and match up the guideline on the lattice flush with the back of the panel. Carefully tack down the lattice, making sure the nails do not protrude from the front face of the panel.

Step 4. Fill in the gaps. Using wood putty, fill the gaps at the mitered corners and where the lattice meets the panel. After it's dry, sand down the putty fills, along with the sharp edges of the lattice.

Step 5. Lattice is lattice. No matter how many different paints you try, this frame will always look like painted lattice. I improve its appearance by covering the grain and the texture of the wood with two coats of acrylic gesso. It's not necessary to cover the entire frame, just the parts that show. I make a texture after I apply the gesso by lifting a brush off of it while it's still wet to create ridges and bumps. This eliminates the need for a perfect surface, which is very difficult to achieve and unforgiving of blemishes and mistakes. The texture also diffuses light from the surface of the frame, thereby drawing the viewer's attention to the painting, not the frame.

Step 6. Finishing touches. I use a satin finish, oil based enamel for the final coat. Gloss enamel attracts a great deal of attention to itself. Satin finish is polished, but soft in the way it diffuses light. I prefer a dark gray because black is too harsh. But any color that suits your painting can be used. I have found that acrylic based enamels don't have the durability of the oil based variety; every time acrylic painted frames are transported, they need touching up. The oil base dries hard and with no tack.

The finished frame is attached to the painting with 5/8" screws and washers that are easily removed if desired. I also paint the outside edge of the canvas with the enamel so that it fits with the frame. This makes the image surface stand alone within the frame. The result is a painting that floats within a dark space, finished by a clean line. In combination with a traditional molding, the results are striking. Alone, this shadow-box frame is a clean, contemporary finish to almost any style of painting. Hanging a show of works framed in this fashion allows each piece to be showcased on its own terms, without competing with the work beside it or the frame around it.

One of the best aspects of this method is that it is so affordable. With about $25, I can build one 48" x 38" frame, two 24" x 24" frames, one 34" x 30" frame, and one 34" x 18" frame - about $5 each. The trade-off is the time spent building the frames, but the results are satisfying. As an aside, smaller pieces of leftover panel can be gessoed and used as painting surfaces. Be careful not to use larger pieces of panel for paintings without a proper support frame on the back. The luan panel bows and warps easily if it measures larger than about 24" in any direction.

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Copyright 1998, William H. Hays

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