Skip Navigation Website Accessibility
220 S. Wabash Ave. Chicago, IL 60604
(312) 431-9588

Mat Cutting

Flax Art & Frame does mat cutting of virtually any size, opening, shape, and color. Choose from a huge selection of archival mat boards, with hundreds of mat board samples on display by Crescent, Bainbridge and Artique. We have a Wizard Model 9000Z computer-driven mat cutter, a state-of-the-art mat cutter that lets us do things with mats we only dreamed of a decades ago. We can cut mats with an outside dimension of, up to, 60 x 40". We can even cut names or words into mats, along with pictures and logos. While we still own a Fletcher 60" hand-operated mat cutter, that we used daily for decades, we find the Wizard much faster and more accurate.

A Short Primer on Mats
We get calls every day about people wanting to mat their photos and artwork, and there seems to a fair amount of confusion and misinformation out there about custom mats. Here are the steps we go through to determine how to design your matting:

Step 1: What is your art size and how much do you want to see in the mat opening?
When we measure art for matting we, usually, encroach at least an 1/8" into the art image with the mat. By encroaching, we mean that the mat will overlap the outer 1/8" of your artwork all the way around its perimeter. If you don't, it is very likely that you will see some white border showing through around the desired image. Nobody is that accurate that they can cut a mat exactly to the size of the image. It is also possible that there is an artist's signature and edition number under the artwork in the white margin. In that case, it is often desirable to pull away from the image and leave a white border all around the artwork, including the signature and edition markings at the bottom. When we add a little space around the perimeter of the printed part of the art (to show the artist's signature and edition number, for example), we call that "the pull-away."

We rarely try to measure down past 1/16". Most manual mat cutters don't have rulers finer than that, though we can go down to 1/100th of an inch on our Wizard Computerized Mat Cutter. We have found it only causes problems when we order frames from our suppliers cut to a dimension that has sixteenths in the measurement. Every moulding manufacturer has their chop saws maintained differently and measurements to the nearest 1/8" are easiest for them to cut accurately. Also, most frames have an (extra)1/8" allowance in them anyway. That way, if (for example) we have a 16 x 20 frame and we cut the mat to 16 x 20, there is an extra 1/16" space all around the mat so that it fits without having to jam it in the frame or trim down the outside of the matting and glass.

Step 2: What size mat borders do you want or what is the size of the frame your are using?
You can either start out with the size of your picture frame (i.e. what is the size of the glass that fits it) and work backwards to determine the border widths. Or, you can decide on border widths and build the custom frame to that size. Obviously, with a ready-made, you are somewhat restricted to border widths by the mathematics of the image opening in the mat. For custom framing, we recommend a minimum of 2 to 4 inches of matting. Skinny mats just don't look good! The main purpose of the mat is to create a visual space between the art and the frame. The closer the frame gets to the art, the more it, visually, becomes part of it all. The frame is, after all, just a showcase. Also, the mat keeps the glass off your art. You never want the glass to touch your art since moisture condensation occurs on the glass inside the frame. The only exception to this is plexiglass. Plastic is an insulator, whereas glass is a semi-conductor of hot and cold, causing moisture to condense on the underside of the glass during changes in temperature and humidity in the room where the frame is hanging.

Just because a piece of art is small doesn't mean the frame and mat need to be. You can increase the visual impact of the matted art if it is small by giving it generous borders on the mat, drawing more attention to the item in the middle.

Very often, on horizontal compositions, we will make the bottom border a little wider, or "bottom weight' that border. It gives the mat more of a pedestal effect and helps move the visual center of the art back to the middle of the frame if there is a lot of dark images at the bottom of the art or photo (like in a landscape, where all the trees and ground are on the bottom and the top of the image is filled with empty sky). We have coined a phrase for this. We call it The Visual Preponderance of Mass. If the image is well distributed around the print, then bottom weighting the mat may not be necessary or desirable.

Step 3: What Kind Of Mat Board Do You Want?
Whether you use a less expensive "paper mat" that is neither archival nor acid-free, or an archival, acid-free mat depends a lot on your budget and whether or not you truly value the item you are framing. Paper mat contains wood pulp, which has an acid bearing structure called Lignin. It is that substance that makes newsprint turn yellow, then brown over time and makes it brittle and disintegrate. This acid can migrate into your artwork and ruin it as well. We only recommend the use of acid-free mats and do not even offer the cheaper non-archival variety anymore. Why spend all that money to frame an item and cheap out on the mat? We don't want the liability and you shouldn't settle for anything less than archival quality. We offer Crescent, Bainbridge, and Artique mats in their 100% cotton rag versions (considered the gold standard of matting), along with the purified alpha-cellulose versions of those mats (wood pulp mats with all Lignin or acid-bearing structures removed, considered archival but which tend to be a lot  less expensive than cotton rag mats).

Step 4: What Color or Colors Should Be Used?
You can put 10 framers in a room with the same piece of art and get 10 different answers as to whether or not you should use a single mat, double mat, triple mat or some other combination of techniques. Further, there is no right or wrong way to pick mat colors. However, there are some basic design principles that help when selecting color:

(A) A dark mat tends to push the focal point of the art to the back of the field of vision. Interestingly, a mat darker than the darkest part of the artwork can also lighten up the perception of the art itself. George Seurat used this to great effect in his "pointilist "compositions in the late 19th century.

(B) Conversely, a light mat brings the matted image to the forefront. Usually, the lightest color in the artwork can be used to select a similar colored mat for the top or main mat. You can also use other, more recessive (or stronger) colors in the art for a bottom mat in a double mat, leaving just a sliver of color showing of the bottom mat to accentuate the zone where the art meets the mat. It also works well to break up the "light on light" look and gives it a crisper edge. Trying to match a white mat to the white paper color a poster is printed on is difficult. The colored bottom mat mitigates that problem quite well. We tend to use 3/16" as a benchmark for the bottom layer showing in a double mat, but there is no hard and fast rule that says you have to do it that way. You can show as little as an 1/8" or as much as 1". It all has to be done in proportion to the size of the artwork and frame. Be careful when using bright primary colors ( red, yellow, blue) for your top mat, as they can fight with the image you are trying to showcase. However, they can be used in the right circumstances (such as children's art or something highly whimsical).

(C) While there is nothing wrong with a white mat, it is so boring. Try other mat combinations before resorting to plain white. In the case of black and white photographs, shades of white or shades of gray work well. Even black will work on occasion. Having said that, though, we have a client who is a dealer in vintage photographs. Everything we mat for her is done in 8 ply (double thick) mat board, with the color tuned to the lightest, most dominant shade of white or cream in the photograph. We will use White, Bright White, Antique White, Soft White, Cream, Ivory, Colonial Cream, Khaki, and some other shades in Crescent and Bainbridge 8 ply Rag Mat or Alpha Mat. In Sepia-toned photos, the Creams, Ivories and Antique Whites look great.

Step 5: How Many Mat Layers Should Be Used?
While a single mat can work well if the frame is very shallow, in most cases we find that a double or triple mat looks a lot better with most art. The bottom mat in a double mat helps give the edge of the art a crisp border zone. If the top mat is light in color and the art is light in colors as well, a darker or stronger bottom mat (for a double mat) or the middle layer (of a triple mat) can enhance the composition and lend a crispness to the mat showcase. Let's face it: Everything we see or touch in life is in 3 dimensions. Why does framed art have to live in only 2 dimensions?

When doing a triple mat, we will often use the same top and bottom mat colors, changing the middle mat to a brighter, dominant color from the art and just showing a sliver of it for accent purposes. The deeper the matting, the less two dimensional the whole art package looks. Something that starts out in life as a flat photograph or poster can be greatly enhanced with a deeper mat treatment. Also, you can use a triple mat to gradually step the darkness or lightness up or down so that the gradient between the art and the mat is gradual.

While most mat boards are 4 ply in thickness, we now have 6,7 and 8 ply mats that give a progressively deeper 45 degree bevel when the opening is cut in the mat. This deep bevel gives your art a more dramatic showcase. Only archival mats are offered in these thicker formats.

Still have questions about matting? Call or email us (see "Contact Us") and we will get back to ASAP.