Picture Frame Repair: Restoring Damaged Frames

Picture frames — whether factory-made, or custom made to order — are actually rather more complex than they might first appear to be. They’re constructed out of a variety of different parts, and there are quite a few different ways in which they can get damaged.

This damage can occur from improper handling and storage; from accidents, like falling from a wall or being dropped during transport; or simply from routine wear and tear over decades of use. At any rate, it’s quite common for frames to eventually need some sort of repair.

The good news is that a lot of different kinds of damage are actually quite repairable. A damaged frame may not need to be completely scrapped and replaced. Instead, a framing professional can fix them for you. This is great news if it’s a custom frame that you really love. It’s also less expensive than having a new custom frame created from scratch.

This article will give you the basics on how to prevent damage to your frames as best you can; on what kind of damage picture frames are susceptible to; and on how to go about finding a professional framing shop that can repair your frames correctly and protect them from future damages.

Taking Good Care of Your Picture Frames

Not all kinds of picture frame damage are preventable, but many of them are. It’s important to handle frames correctly and with care, especially when moving them or cleaning them.

Frames can be made of a variety of different materials, but woods are the most common choice. Here in the UK, the go-to woods for picture framing tend to be oak or pine. Oak tends to be rather weighty and heavy, but quite strong and robust. Pine is more lightweight and airy, and sometimes less expensive. You’ll also find frames made from other kinds of hardwood, like cherry or mahogany, as well as other softwoods like spruce.

While some frames have a sleek, minimal design — especially those created to complement midcentury modern or contemporary interiors — many have various degrees of carving and ornamentation.

The carving may be of the wood itself, or may be cast from solid moulding material such as certain durable plastics, then applied onto the wooden substrate. This type is called a “composition ornament,” and is actually the most common in antique frames that date from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. In a few cases, the ornamental moulding may even have been made from ultra-lightweight papier mâché.

There’s also the matter of gilded frames, which are encased in a thin outer layer of gold or another metal leaf. Beneath the metal leaf is a hard white coating called “gesso.” The gesso can be either “water-gilded” or “oil-gilded.” The difference between the two is water solubility.

These aspects of the construction of a picture frame can affect which of the following kinds of damage they’re most susceptible to.

There are a few rules of thumb for any frame, however:

  • Keep moving to a minimum whenever possible. This is especially true for any frame that is gilded or leaved with metal, but it’s a good idea even for wooden or acrylic frames. The less you move it, the less likely an accident is to occur — whether that means dropping it, getting it wet, or any other misfortune.
  • Store picture frames carefully. Keep frames that are in use away from fireplaces, radiators, and other nearby sources of heat. Avoid placing them in areas susceptible to water leakage. For fragile frames, like many antiques, it’s also a good idea to hang them in areas with relatively low human traffic. This means avoiding locations like the backs of doors, directly behind the back of a chair or sofa, or in other places where absent-minded people might bump into them or knock them over.
  • Clean carefully and rarely. It can be tempting to constantly over-clean picture frames, especially if you’re a very neat person. However, this can actually do more harm than good. Dust frames lightly with a soft dustcloth or feather duster, and avoid using water or cleaning chemicals. Wooden frames can sometimes be treated with wood polish, or cleaned with special wood cleaners if necessary. However, in most cases, all you’ll really need to do is dust.

Environmental Damage and Age-Related Wear and Tear

Humidity and moisture, large variations in temperature, and other ambient issues in a storage area or home can cause wood and finishes applied over it to move and change over time, often in undesirable and detrimental ways. One common manifestation of this is when a gilded frame develops cracks in the gold leaf near edges and corners.

Applied composition ornamentation is also vulnerable to environmental damage over time. The ornamentation material may gradually shrink, causing it to crack and break away.

There’s also general wear and tear — that which is more physical and direct than heat or moisture in the air. This is just a reality of a frame’s existence for years or decades in a home, a business, or even an art gallery or museum environment. Scratches, dents, and abrasion can occur and aggregate over time. Staining is also known to occur, usually from accidental exposure to water, corrosive or pigmented liquids, or other materials.

Gold leaf is especially susceptible to this. The bole layer underneath may begin to show as the metal leaf cracks and breaks away. Both gilded and wooden frames can also be damaged by incorrect cleaning by amateurs, using the wrong cleaning compounds with chemical compositions that are harmful.

Whatever material your frames are made from, trying to DIY repairs isn’t really advisable unless you really know what you’re doing. Many people have unwittingly damaged beautiful, ornate antique gilded frames by trying to fix cracks in the leaf with simple metallic-colored paint in a gold or bronze tone. These paints oxidize to greenish or brownish, undesirable colorations, and end up looking streaky and grainy.

Even with the best treatment and care, environmental factors, as well as time itself, can wear down a picture frame. In most cases, this damage can be repaired by a framing professional or conservator.

Damage from Moulds and Insect Pests

One of the many issues with exposure to moisture is mould growth, which can greatly damage wooden frames, or composite or gilded frames with a wooden substrate. Wooden picture frames are also susceptible to damage from furniture beetles, which produce tiny 1-3mm holes on the wood surface. Even if the frame is gilded or has another non-wood finish, the wood underneath can be eaten away by insect pests.

Professional Picture Frame Repairs

If you have a frame that’s cracked, broken, moulded, or otherwise damaged, contact us any time to find out more about what we can do to repair the frame. While we occasionally come across frames that are damaged beyond repair, most types of damage are fixable by a trained professional.