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Mat Board Guide

How to Buy the Best Mat Board 

All dogs go to heaven. It's true, they made a movie about it.

As for photographs and artwork, that is a different story.

Things happen.

Things like mat burn, mold, paint smearing, or photos sticking to the glass of your frame. Things that mess up your photograph or artwork.

That is why it is important to mat your photograph or artwork. 

But buying the right mat board can be a pain. With so many choices, how do you know you're getting the best mat board for your money?

Which is why we wrote this guide. This guide will teach you the terminology and 3 things you need look for so you can buy mat boards with confidence and cut out a little piece of heaven for your photograph or artwork.

What is mat board?

Mat board (aka frame mat, photo mat, matte board) is a board that sits between the glass of your frame and your artwork. It protects your artwork from damages and helps enhance the presentation.  

What is the purpose of a mat board?

The purpose of the mat board is two-fold:

1)      To protect the piece from:

  • water damage
  • mildew
  • mold
  • paint smearing on the glass
  • photographs sticking to the glass
  • and other damages that physically destroy the piece

2)      To enhance the piece by guiding the viewer’s focus and complimenting the colors

Because of how much damage water and contact with the glass can inflict, matting your photograph/artwork is a must. Matting provides a necessary buffer between the piece and glass. This prevents water damage and controls the humidity so the photograph/artwork lives longer for more people admire and enjoy.

Beyond that, matting provides another avenue for the photograph/artwork to be enhanced visually. From color selection, to the material, to the size of the opening, each variable can be controlled to maximize the visual appeal of your photograph/artwork. Be careful not to get too caught up in matting however. Your matting selection should complement your photograph/artwork much like condiments to the larger entrée.

But before we get fancy, it is helpful to understand how mat boards can damage your photograph/artwork so we can prevent it.

Acid-Free vs Conservation vs Museum

When choosing your mat board, be mindful of the damages mat boards can cause to your piece. Some of you are scratching your heads: aren’t mat boards supposed to protect the work?

Mat boards are supposed to protect your work and do protect your work. And while it is much better than not matting at all, some mat boards can imprint on your piece mat burns.  

What is mat burn?

Mat burn is irreversible damage on your artwork that is caused by acid leaked by the mat board. Mat burn can take years to develop (depending on humidity and exposure to sun light), but it is quite an unpleasant surprise. Imagine looking up one day to find your favorite piece vandalized by a hazy brown border and there is nothing you can do about it.

That’s why it’s important to do your due diligence before it happens. That way your work stays in perfect condition for years to come.

How is mat burn developed?

Mat burn is caused when a compound in the mat board called lignin degrades. When lignin degrades, it releases acids that will lead to discoloration and fading of the mat board, compromise the structural integrity of both the mat board and piece, and given enough time, mat burn.

It’s true and it happens all the time. While still much better than the alternative – not matting at all – mat burn can severely diminish the aesthetic and value of your photograph/artwork. With some due diligence, however, and/or cost, the problem of mat burn can be avoided entirely.

How?

By choosing the right mat board for your project.

Today, there are three kinds of mat boards:

1)      Acid-free mat boards

2)      Conservation mat boards

3)      Archival or museum mat boards

What are acid free mat boards?

Virtually all mat boards today are acid-free. That is not to mean they are all lignin-free. Mat boards are deemed acid-free when the mat boards have been bathed in calcium carbonate neutralizing the acid on the mat board. This treatment slows the degradation of the lignin greatly and it will take years or even decades depending on the environment before any noticeable degradation happens. This is by far the most cost-friendly option.

Pros:

-          Inexpensive

-          Perfect for craft projects and non-conservation framing

-          Lots of color options to choose from

Cons:

-          Have to re-mat every several years to avoid mat burn

Purchase acid-free, non-conservation mat boards here

What are conservation mat boards?

Conservation mat boards are the highest grade paper mat boards. Constructed of alpha cellulose, the wood fibers in these mat boards have been treated and stripped of all acids and are lignin-free. However, depending on the manufacturer, conservation mat boards may or may not contain chemical impurities.

“The conservation quality of a mat can often be affected by the chemical impurities within its materials. For instance the level of iron and copper within the mat board can create tarnishing and discoloration of the mat while the sulfur content can raise acidic levels that attack both mat and artwork.” – Peterboro Matboards 

Pros:

-          Great balance between cost and conservation

-          Lifespan between 50-100 years (depending on manufacturer and environment)

-          More color options than museum or cotton mat boards

Cons:

-          Will eventually degrade

-          Less color options than regular paper mats

Purchase conservation mat boards here

What are museum mat boards?

Museum mat boards are made of 100% cotton. Cotton, unlike wood, contains no lignin at all. Combined with archival framing methods, your artwork will be preserved for hundreds of years. This is the option museums and collectors choose when framing photographs and artwork and is the most expensive option.

For most people, acid-free mat boards are enough for their purposes, but when choosing your acid-free mat board another thing you should be mindful of is the core.

What is the core of the mat board?

The core of the mat board is what is visible when the mat board is cut. Because mat boards are cut with a bevel cut (a 45 degree cut), the core serves as a second border to your photograph or artwork.

There are 3 basic types of mat board cores:

-regular cream core: The most cost-friendly option, but the most acidic. Over time the cream core will fade and discolor.

- white/colored core: These cores have been treated and are acid-free. They can be depended on to retain their color.

- cotton core: The most protective option. Lignin-free and made to resist bleeding for at least 100 years. Only available on museum mat boards. 

How thick is the mat board?

The third thing you should be conscious of when choosing your mat board is the thickness of your mat board. Because the mat board also functions as a border to your photograph/artwork, a thicker mat board will have a visible impact on the finished aesthetic.

A thicker mat board will:

-          Offer a greater field of depth which gives your photograph/artwork a professional finish and more command over the viewer’s attention

-          Provide more support to your photograph/artwork

Mat boards are typically measured in ply which can be misleading. It implies the thickness of a mat board will be the same given the same ply. This is false.

There are thin boards and there are thick boards. Thicker boards are of higher quality so it’s important to do your research.

How thick is a 4-ply mat board?

A 4-ply mat board is a standard sheet with a thickness of about 0.040" – 0.07" depending on where you buy the mat board from and what material the mat board is made from

How thick is an 8-ply mat board?

An 8-ply mat board is a two-sheet mat board that is approximately double the thickness of a standard 4-ply mat board, so about 0.080" - 0.14".

How thick is a 2-ply mat board?

A 2-ply mat board is a half-sheet mat board that is approximately half the thickness of a standard 4-ply mat board, so about 0.020" - 0.035".

How thick is a 16-ply mat board?

An 16-ply mat board is a four-sheet mat board that is approximately quadruple the thickness of a standard 4-ply mat board, so about 0.160" - 0.28".

How to Make the Right Purchase

To recap, when choosing your mat board, you want to look out for:

-          Whether it is acid-free, conservation, or museum

-          the core of the mat board, cream, colored or white

-          the thickness of the mat board, the thicker the better

If you keep these 3 things in mind when making your purchase, you will get the best quality for your money. 

We offer mat boards wholesale.  Our mat boards are:

  • buffered to a neutral pH (acid-free, non-conservation unless mentioned otherwise) above industry standards meaning your photo will stay protected for longer
  • 4-ply mat board with 1/16" or 0.0625" thickness 

Our precut mat boards are all: 

  • bevel cut to give your photo a professional finish
  • white/black core that is more resistant to discoloration than cream cores 

Purchase wholesale mat boards here