Sterling Art Services

A Simple Frame

By Chris Barnett

Customers and patrons may sometimes ask for just a simple frame.  Often the implication is, “This is something I don’t want to spend too much money on”, with the expectation that the result will be achieved through an architecturally clean and uncomplicated design–but sometimes the things which appear uncomplicated and effortless do so, because they are the product of care, thoughtfulness, and considered details.

Everyone has seen simple frames using natural woods, perhaps painted or stained dark or light, and we frequently use several shapes of walnut or maple with clear or dark stains on them, made in length and finished at the mill before being sent to us;  we also obtain mouldings milled raw and sanded, ready for us to start joining and unifying, to accept various treatments, like a clear acrylic seal, or a light application of oil or furniture-grade wax.  In our framer minds, the simple frame starts as raw boards taken off of a distributor’s truck by our mill, hand selected for stock which looks promising for clean, straight lengths of moulding when milled.  Sometimes, the internal stresses hidden in a solid board express themselves when milled in strips, warping or revealing knotholes or other irregularities.  It’s for another chapter, how one of our mills uses even this sort of material to make moulding of truly superior quality.  When we handle the individual sections of moulding, though, you can easily become aware of the tree from whence it came, its unique colorations and grain patterns suggesting the soils and the climate conditions it knew in life.  Wood still lives in a sense, even once the tree dies.  The memory carried in its fibers can result in exquisite patterns, and formidable forces to work with.  It is natural that wood is so often the right material to frame so much art!


Stacks of splined, simple frames in the making

After the wood is selected, milled, and sanded, it is bundled and sent to us, where our staff helps unload the trucks and haul the bundles up to our woodshop.  There, the stock is unwrapped and stored in vertical bins,.  When it comes to selecting the footage we’ll use to make a simple frame, considerable time can go into finding lengths of similar grain pattern, color, and tone to help support a unified effect.  Accounting for how a clear seal or other finishing products will penetrate and deepen characteristics of the wood, especially if a bleached or clear finish is to be used, is an important part of the craft.

If the moulding is prefinished, such as with a clear finish on maple, we cut the frames, most often with its 45 degree ends, true them up on a hand-cranked sander, and glue the corners up in vice.  Glue swells up the cells of the wood at the ends of the cuts and, if a good miter is achieved, the cells mesh together and, once cured, provide considerable strength.  Mechanical fasteners are typically added, including nails, screws, and underpinning, to add further security to the strength of the join.  Sometimes we spline the corners, adding decorative biscuits to slotted grooves in the corners which also greater strength through the additional wood grain-to-wood grain points of glue contact they create.


Once joined, corners are unified through artfully filling nail holes or any minor gaping with tinted epoxies (or tinted wax putties for prefinished mouldings).  The varying steps of finishing follow to create beautiful, closed corner frames.  We do a pretty nice job with the prefinished materials too.  The accuracy of their milling lends itself to a unified effect, a sometimes less-expensive but nonetheless intentional answer to the need for a simple frame.

Of course, many other components play into the result of a simple frame.  What kind of glazing you use and why;  to mount or mat or float are issues to be decided and, if so, what kinds of substrates and attachments are appropriate for the art materials at hand.  Thoughtful proportions and balancing of visual tones must be sought after.  Some frames ARE simpler—but part of why we believe simple frames exist is that we’ve doubtless been lucky enough to appreciate some which look so simple.  As often as not, that apparent simplicity belies how framers and collectors consider which materials to use and how to assemble them together.  Not only to the devils lie in details, but the angels do to, and the careful attention of framers who observe and act upon their influences can achieve sublime results, even with a simple frame.


A simple albeit nicely proportioned frame for this Barry Shapiro photograph.

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