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What Are Mat Boards and How To Use Them

CHOOSE FROM LOTS OF COLORS!

how to frame pictures

what are mat boardsThis article explains what picture framing mat boards are and how they are used. Mat Boards Are More Than Just A Pretty Color! Mats aren’t just for looks! They serve the practical function of protecting artwork.

Mats should be used on all forms of paper art, prints and photographs. Mats are necessary to keep the artwork separated from the glass in the frame so that the two never touch.

There are not only many colors of mats but many different kinds. Rag mats, regular mats, white cores, black cores, fabric covered mats. There are even specialty mats which come in unbelievable styles of colors and designs.

The mat is the board that surrounds much of the art being framed today. One of the most obvious reasons for the use of mats is because they bring out the colors in the art. Mats also draw the eye toward the art. There are hundreds of creative designs that can be done to mats to make the framed artwork appear more elegant. Most art on paper is framed using a mat, not only for beauty but also to protect the art. First, let’s look at what a mat is, then what does a mat do, and are mats just for looks.

What is a Mat?

There are in common use today three different types of mat boards. Paper mats, Alfa Mats, and Rag mats. All these mats come in many colors. All three types have the same colors, for the most part. Paper mats have been around the longest so there is a slightly larger choice of colors for these, but rag mats and others are quickly catching up.

Paper Mats

mat boards used to mat picturesPaper mats are made from paper pulp. These mats are the most inexpensive mats available. They are fine for use on cheap artwork, which can easily be replaced or art that has very little value at all. Paper mats are also know by the name, Regular Mat Boards.


Paper mats have a lot of acid in them. This eventually causes the cut edges of the mat to turn brown. The acid will find its way into the art and also cause that to turn brown. This of course will ruin the art as the acid eats into it. Usually the edges of the art that are hidden just under the edges of the mat will be attacked first. Much art is ruined this way before the owners even discover what is happening.

It is easy to tell if paper mats have been used on a piece of art. Look at the cut beveled edge of the mat where it meets the art. If the cut edge is not pure white, it probably is a paper mat, as rag mats and alpha mats are pure white. Collectors of fine art can spot a paper mat a long way off and usually will not buy any framed art that has been framed using such mats. Anyone can learn to spot this kind of mat very quickly. These mats are in very common use today. They are used on almost all the framed art you see in department stores, and by many artists framing their own work. They are cheaper. You pay for what you get, always!

Even children’s art does not have to be framed using paper mats. For just a few dollars more, the owner could have used rag mat. It would have been appreciated 30 years later when the child was grown. Think about it, even Pablo Picasso must have produced tons of drawings when he was a child. If you have some of his around and don’t want it, send it to me! Those could have all been saved using rag mats and archival framing methods. You should be very concerned about the materials used on your art or photos.

Alfa Mats

Alfa Mats are paper mats that have been much more highly purified. The acid in the mats has been neutralized using buffering agents. The manufacturers of these mats claim that these mats never hurt your art. The cut edges of the mats are pure white and stay that way. Many times these mats are called acid free mats, which is not exactly true. The acid is still there but has been neutralized by the buffering agents.

These mats come in many of the same sizes and colors as rag mats, but are made by a different company than the maker of rag mats. Most frame shops start with one company or the other and build up quite an inventory of mats. Due to this, most frame shops tend to stick to one company for most of its mat needs. These are very good mats, but we do not feel they are quite as good as true cotton rag mats.

Rag Mats

rag mat samples for picture framingQuite a number of years ago museum curators asked Crescent Cardboard Company to produce mat boards that would not harm art in any way for any duration of time. The museum curators were disturbed by the damage that was being done to their works of art, by paper mats.

Crescent Cardboard Company started producing mats using pure cotton. The mats have no acid, are pure white inside, and the cut edges always stay pure white. This mat is the absolute finest mat board available today and is still used by the majority of the world’s museums. These mats come with an outer covering that is available in just about any color you could ever desire. In fact Crescent has recently just released thirty-five new colors in its rag mat line. These mats are considered the best mats available today by many custom framers and museums.

Are Mats Just For Looks?

mat board for picture framingMats aren’t just for looks! They serve the practical function of protecting artwork. Mats should be used on all forms of paper art, prints and photographs. Mats are necessary to keep the artwork separated from the glass in the frame so that the two never touch. Without a mat, works of art may stick to the glass, which would eventually ruin the art. Moisture can condense inside a frame just as it does in a car on a cold morning. Usually not so bad as to be even noticeable until someday the art is ruined.

Photographic emulsions can also soften with time and heat and stick to the glass and be ruined. Photographs also expand and contract a lot due to temperature variations in a room. If the photograph has been placed next to the glass without a mat or art spacer it can be ruined. Have you ever taken a really nice glossy photo, and framed it using a department store frame without a mat? Go get that piece and take it out of the frame. If its been there a couple of years or more, I am sure you will fine small scratches all over it that weren’t there when you put it in the frame. These are due to the expansion and contraction of the photograph while pressed next to the glass. All photographs and works of art should never be allowed to touch the glass covering them. The best and easiest way to accomplish this is to use a mat!

Mats also add greatly to the beauty of a custom framed picture. Two or more mats can be combined to create distinctive designs. Beautiful V-grooves can be cut into the mats to enhance them. French lines and panels can be added.

At Grignon's Art and Frame we choose mat colors that compliment the art. With the hundreds of colors available we try to pick mats that make the art come alive. Many galleries use only white mats on their art. This is a very contemporary look which is fine, but we find colored mats that compliment the art is what many people are looking for. Even black and white works of art deserve proper matting and framing.

Mats add depth and realism to artwork. They take a one-dimensional picture and make it appear to have three dimensions. Two mats nearly always look better than one mat. A V-groove adds even more appeal.

Mats add width and height to a picture. To look great the art needs the space around the image that the mat supplies. Also your eyes need a place to focus without being distracted by the wall behind the picture and the frame. If you ever have a chance to compare two identical pictures, one beautifully matted and framed next to an un-matted picture you will quickly see the difference.

Most companies will not sell mats to homeowners for several reasons. One reason is that selling less than 20 sheets at a time means a loss of money to the company. The biggest reason is that this 20-sheet package is heavy. The carriers sometimes drop the packages and the corners of the mats sometimes get damaged. Now your typical professional picture framer understands this problem and never complains. He takes it in stride and works around the problem by cutting the damaged areas off.

The average home picture framer that gets mats delivered to him with damaged corners complains bitterly almost every time. It turns into a mess with the company either sending more mat board out or refunding money. Either way the company always ends up losing. For this reason they won't send mats to anyone other than a professional shop. You really can't blame them either, you would do the same thing if you were in their shoes for just a little while. The general public can be hard to deal in this area.

Cardboard mats can sometimes be purchased at department stores or other craft and art shops. Some people find other things to make mats out of. For example, I have seen people take foam board and cover it with glue and then glue great looking fabric to the foam board and make fabric mats. You are only limited by your imagination! Good luck and try to have a happy time cutting a few mats for your pictures, you may or may not get a perfect professional looking mat but a great deal of satisfaction comes from looking at your finished picture on the wall and saying to yourself, "I did That !" On heck, tell your friends and brag a little…..

Thank You For Visiting www.GrignonsArt.com
Sincerely, Reimond Grignon