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Making and Cutting Your Own Picture Mats


how to frame pictures
framed picture with a beautiful matThis article will show how a home owner can cut their own mats for their own pictures with out the use of an expensive mat cutting machine. It can be done using nothing more than just a few simple tools available in your home. In fact it was not that long ago when all mats were cut by hand. This is the purpose of this article, to show you how to cut mats using a few simple tools.

Professional picture framers consider mat making to be one of the most challenging and pleasing aspects of putting a picture together for their customers. The mats may have more impact on the finished piece of art then any other component. Choosing the colors and the various cuts made in the mats requires lots of care and considerations to make the finished job look great.

There are many ways to cut mats, cut the corners, and cut v-groves, and decorate the corners and the mats. There are whole books wrote on just this subject. Some professionals now use computerize machines which design and cut the mats and add fancy designs. These computerized mat cutters take all the guess work out of cutting mats and a human is no longer needed.  Soon the world will be run by a bunch of machines and humans will become a nuisance, ha.  Well, the machines do take the fun out of doing many things!

There are schools and books where you can spend days learning how to cut fancy mats and designs. I have seen mats designed that took hours to cut and cost hundreds of dollars. That's right, just for the mat!

But you know what? In most professional shops, most people that come in to have a picture framed just want a plain and simple mat that shows off their artwork or picture without the mat being over kill and taking away from the art or picture. There is lot's to be said for just choosing plain cut mats for the art. I have seen some mats so well done with fancy designs that you spend your time looking at the mat and not the art that was supposed to be the focal point of the picture in the first place. Ninety percent of the customers at our shop just want nice looking regular cut mats. You too, can cut these mats!

The purpose of this article is to show you how you can cut one or more mats for your own pictures. I am going to show you how to cut a mat board using nothing more than just a few common tools and materials. Then later you can progress to hand held mat cutters or even get a larger Pro mat cutter.

Mat Board Materials

mat board colorsWell, you need mats for sure. Mats are made of either cardboard or rag board. Cardboard is a wood product and at one time was the most common mat board used in matting pictures. But wood contains acids that will in time leave permanent discoloration where it touches the art. This is called acid burning and eventually ruins the art. Take a look at any picture that has been framed for six months using cardboard mats and if you look closely at the cut edges of the mat board you may see that the edge of the mat has already started to turn a brownish color. This acid will eventually leak into the art.

Click here to see a larger image of the
Mat board colors

Mat boards are also made of 100 % cotton fibers and is called rag mat, or museum board. These mat boards are now made in many colors and are in use by most professional shops. These boards never turn color, the cut edges always stay pure white and never turn brown, nor do the boards leak acid into the art. These rag mats are 100% archival and should be used on any art that is worth anything to you. These mats are usually about double the price of regular cardboard mat boards and some are five times the price.

The price of rag mats is one of the reasons why frame it quick shops and other low priced shops found in malls and cheap places use regular mat boards. They also use cheap mounting, and glazing, but that is another story. You pay for what you get in this life. One look at the cut edges of a mat can tell any experienced picture framer which type of mat has been used, even on freshly cut mats. There is a difference in the way they look.

There is a place for regular mat board to be used though. For example, maybe you just want to frame a piece of children's art or a newspaper article. Things you don't care if it lasts more than ten years or so. Why pay the price of rag mats on such framing? The only person who can answer that question is you. If on the other hand you were framing a limited edition print or a picture of your grandfather, you would really want to use rag mats. More can be learned about mats in my article about mats.

There are other things you can use for mats. For example at one time glass mats were real common. The glass was cut into mats and the inside edges of the glass was sometimes, dyed, stained, smoked, or painted. I have seen all kinds of things done to glass mats. You almost never see them anymore.

There are other ways of coming up with mats without even buying them.  For example, for children's art you might just want to make a mat out of construction paper, cardboard covered with cloth, painted foam core boards why there are many things that could be used for home projects. A home picture framer can keep a sharp eye on lots of things he might see in some of the larger department stores and art supply shops! I  have seen some incredible framing jobs that have been done by home owners that the pro's could never do due to time constraints.

You can also buy regular mat boards in some craft stores in your area, or go to a picture framing shop and buy a few boards for your projects.

Understanding Measurements

To make mats you are going to have to be very accurate with a ruler. You need to make sure you understand all the markings on the ruler. You need to know what 1/16 is, 1/8 is, and ¼ is. All these are found on every ruler.

The best sizes of mat for the beginner to work on are mats that measure 16 by 20 inches or less in size. To make larger mats without some kind of a mat cutter gets to be much more difficult but it can certainly be done.

We need to have a starting place. So lets say you have an 8 x 10 picture you want to mat and frame. It could be any size, but in order to have a frame of reference for this article, we will talk about and use this 8 x 10 photo.

In almost all cases, you want the mat to cover the edges of your picture. You cannot just cut an 8 x 10 hole in a mat board and expect that to work because the picture would fall though it. You should always have the picture covered all around the edges by ¼ inch of mat board. There can many reasons for doing otherwise, as any professional knows, but this article is for the home picture framer. So if we take the 8 x 10 picture and deduct ¼ inch all the way around, what you then need is a mat with a 7 ½ by 9-½ inch hole cut in it. So in other words, no matter what you are framing, you need to deduct ½ inch from the horizontal measurement and the vertical measurement to get the hole size required. It is simple; your 12 x 14 picture needs to have a hole cut in the mat 11 ½ by 13 ½ for example. You can figure out any picture quite simply this way.

Once you know the size of the hole in the mat board you require you are pretty much all set. Forget the true size from now on and work with only the hole size. So if our 7 ½ x 9 ½ hole had two inches added all around it we find out that we need a piece of mat board with a total height and width of 11 ½ x 13 ½ inches.

It don't matter what the ending glass size is because when you are building a picture frame from a chop as ordered from this web site, we will cut the frame to the exact dimensions you require. This is the exact process used by professional frame shops. They find the size of the cut out, add to that how much mat they want and then order picture frame chops to fit.

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picture frame chops

The picture shows a set of picture frame chops. This chop is for an 11 by 14 picture frame.  All the pieces are cut to the prober length, with the corners all pre cut. This is exactly how a professional picture frame shop receives his corner chops. You can buy them just like a professional, at the same wholesale price, right here on this web site.

Back to our mat cutting

Let's study this just a bit more. Lets say you want that 8 x 10, or more exact the 7 ½ x 9 ½ picture to fit into an 11 x 14 frame you have kicking around. To do this would require the 11 x 14 mat to have 1-¾ inches of mat on the sides, and the top and bottom would have to be 2 ¼ inches. Do you notice that the sides and tops are not equal? This is one reason why professional picture framers always have so much nicer looking pictures. They usually make the sides equal all the way around. You just can't do this with store brought picture frames. And it is so much easier for you to make the equal sides and order the frame chops to fit like the pros do.

Now, if you really want the professional look, you will want to add a nice even space all around the cut out hole, then order a picture frame chop "to fit". In the example above you would order a 13 ½ x 15-½ chop. This is what professional frame shops do. We can sell you the picture frame chops here. And of course, we like selling picture frame chops. That's our business.

Measuring and Marking

using a square to measure and mark a mat boardOnce you know the hole size, and have added the mat size all the way around, you now know the total size mat you need. In the example above you need a mat 13 ½ by 15 ½ inches. Then you need to use a carpenter's square to mark this measurement out on a piece of mat board. Make sure the marks are true and square by measuring across all four corners, then cut this piece of mat board out using a straight edge and a utility knife. Make sure your mat is lying on top of a piece of cardboard so as to protect the top of whatever table you are using.

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Square being used to mark a mat board

You should always make your pencil marks on the backside of the mat board, never on the front side. This method has many advantages. Don't even think about marking the front side. I am not going to explain any further about why, so I can keep this article down to less than book size!

Now that you have your 13 ½ x 15 ½ piece of mat board cut out, you need to lay it face down on a piece of cardboard. Using a straight edge and your rulers, mark out the 3 inch borders all the way around (or what ever size border you are using). You should end up with a mat board with a hole marked out on the back. Take your ruler and measure this cut out. It should measure exactly 7 ½ x 10 ½ inches for your 8 x 10 picture. Always measure the cut out before you actually cut the mat to be sure the hole will be the correct size when you are finished. It stands to reason that the better you are at measuring your pictures and mats the easier and better your finished products become. Like anything else, once you have done a few, the process becomes much simpler.

Mat Cutting

using a square and utitly knife to cut a mat boardThe sheer linear perfection and clean-cut corners of a well-cut beveled mat window is your reward for all the work and care you have put into this project. With practice, you can do a really nice job. Remember, years ago all mats were cut by hand. Practice on scrap materials until you are satisfied with your results.

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using a square and Utility knife to cut a mat board

Make sure your knife has a new blade in it. Some professionals use a new blade on every mat they cut! New blades make the cut edges of the mat crisp and clean. You will soon note the difference between a sharp clean cut with a new blade and the look of a cut done with a dull blade.

When cutting mats keep the cutting tool moving at a steady pace. When you come to a corner learn to not slow down, but to make your cuts smooth and steady and learn to "stop quickly at the corners." This process makes your corners look much nicer. It takes time to develop this practice. It is the process used by professionals. It is the process you want to learn, whether you are using a hand held cutting knife or a mat cutting machine.

You can use a utility knife to cut mats. To cut the bevel opening you will have to learn to tip the utility knife over about 30 to 45 degrees. This can be learned and will become easier with practice. Try to always cut your mats with the same degree of bevel and soon you will be doing it automatically. You must use a nice new blade to get nice cuts. 

A better knife to use is the Logan 500 mat cutting knife.  This knife works better than a utility knife because it use real mat cutting blades.  These are the same blades used in professional mat cutters.  These blades last longer and make nicer cuts than utility knife blades. These knives are also inexpensive to buy.  You can purchase them on this web site.

Click here to see a larger image of the
Logan Mat Knife

These knives also come in handy for cutting mat boards down to size and for cutting up mat boards to various sizes.  This is their intended purpose and they work great.

This knife comes with three real mat cutter blades. When received you have to take the knife apart and take out two of the blades and set one blade back in and place the pin in the prober hole you want to use. Directions are on the box. On the knife shown above, this knife is shown as shipped. The blade has not yet been extended out to where you would use it. The blade is retracted.

You will need a good straight edge. Hold this next to the line you have made on the backside of your mat board with one hand, while holding the utility knife with the other hand to make your cuts. This becomes easier with practice. The pictures show how this is done. It will take your cutting a few mats to become proficient at doing this. Maybe more depending on how worried you are at doing this. It helps to learn to cut your mats with confidence right from the beginning. Pretend you have been doing this for years and just go ahead and make nice quick clean cuts. It's like cutting glass, if you try to hard it becomes much more difficult.

Why make beveled cuts? First off, the bevel edge looks so much nicer and leads your eye into the picture. Also, if the cuts were just straight cuts with no bevel, the straight edges always end up casting shadows into the picture.

hand cut mat using a utility knife by reimond grignonAfter cutting all four of your cuts on the backside of the mat board. Put your utility knife aside and gently pick up your mat board and turn it over. I will assume that you will find your corners to not be cut all the way off cleanly, because you didn't want to over cut your corners. So be gentle when picking up and turning over your mat board. If the corners of the cut edges are still holding, you do not want the cut center piece to just go dropping out by it's weight and causing the corners to be torn loose. Next I will show you how to finish clean cutting the corners and using mat saver files.

(If the paragraph above is unclear - just go ahead and cut a mat board. When you turn it over, the paragraph above will be instantly made clear)

The above is a picture of a mat I cut in a few minutes using nothing but a square and a utility knife just to show you how it used to be done. The mat came out crisp and clean with nice corners and a nice bevel all the way around. You can do this too with a little practice.  This is OK if you wish to cut a mat or two, but I would highly recommend that you purchase a hand held mat cutter as I talk about later in this story. Those are so much nicer and easier to use than a utility knife. 

Click here to see a larger image of the hand cut mat board

A corner-cutting hint. Try to cut your corners cleanly and all the way off the first time. To do this you will need to learn to tip the blade of the utility knife down, as well as side ways so that the tip of the blade matches the bevel of the opposite side line you are cutting into. Only cutting a few mats makes this statement clear enough to be learned. This is difficult to do using a utility knife but very much simpler if you purchase and use one of the hand held cutters that I talk about below in this article.

If your corners are still holding turn the mat face up and using a mat cutting blade or your utility knife, just gently insert the blade in the cut and clip the corners loose.  Usually all you have to do is make that one little cut to finish the job. You will want to do this finishing job from the front side of the mat most of the time.

Mat saver files

using a mat saver file to fix a mat board When you have your mat window all cut out, check the edges of your cut mat for any defects you have done. Don't expect perfection at first! You will notice that dull blades leave a ragged cut along the edges of the cut edges, and maybe your corners need a little touching up. Don't use a knife or mat cutting blade to do this. You will invariably make it worse. Instead use a mat saver file to file off the raggies and fix small errors as shown in the photo.

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mat board being fixed with a mat saver file

These files work great, but I will state right here, that if you can get to the point where you don't need to use them, or barely use them, your mats will be so much better. Mat saver files have a purpose. Trying to save a real poorly cut mat is not one of them.

So your first mat came out poorly.  Did you expect miracles the first time?  Anyway, don't throw your bad mats away.  Try to cut, or practice cutting your first mats for standard size pictures such as an 8 x 10 or 11 x 14.  That way you can easily find a use for them later.  Now, if you have saved a few of these bad mats this is what you can do.  Number one is that you can cover them with all kinds of beautiful cloth.  Just wrap it around and glue it on the mat.  Do you know how expensive cloth covered mats are in a frame shop?  Gee, and here you can get them for almost nothing but a little work.  There are other things you can do, you can paint them, cover them with glued on fine sand, air brush them.  I have even made some wonderful looking mats by burnishing them with a blow torch.  The ideas are unlimited!

The whole discussion above is about the process of cutting a single mat. Cutting a double mat by hand, so that it looks good is very difficult. It can be done, but it is much more difficult to get a perfect one because when finished there usually is a variation in the sizes of the cut edges and how they line up. I recommend you only cut single mats using the hand cutting method outlined above. To cut double mats, or a lot of mats I would recommend that you purchase a mat cutter made for the purpose. But anyone can learn to cut mats by hand as outlined above. It is up to you to decide if and when you want a mat cutter. With the picture framing tools, materials, and picture frame chops that we provide on this web site, you may just decide to do a lot of your own picture framing!

Mat CutterAlthough you can cut a mat using a utility knife or the Logan knife, you can also purchase small inexpensive hand held mat cutters that makes cutting mats simple and you can repeat your job over and over very easily. Hand Held Mat cutters hold the mat blades very firmly and at the prober angle to make a nice beveled edge on the mat board. And it works every time. It is almost fool proof!

They are highly recommended if you are planning to cut a number of mats. These cutters come with instructions for use. Basically what you do is use them the same way as the utility knife.  The bases of these cutters are made to be run along side any straight edge. A metal ruler for example.  You just place the mat cutter at the starting point, push and hold the blade down and run the cutter up your marked lines using a straight edge. The blade is held at a perfect angle for you and you will find cutting mats easy with one of these cutters.

The hand held mat cutters we sell on this web site are not toys.  They are made out of solid metal. They are extremely well designed. These cutters are in use by many home owners and even professionals use these for various jobs.  These cutters are extremely nice. These cutters are very, very well made! Seriously, I can not believe they sell for as low a price as they do and would very highly recommend one of these mat cutters.

Thank You for visiting
Sincerely, Reimond Grignon