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Why framing your photos and art winds up feeling like a total rip-off

Emily Stewart   

Why framing your photos and art winds up feeling like a total rip-off

At the start of the year, I decided that I would become America's bravest woman. I would frame some art on my own.

Getting something framed professionally is super expensive, so I was convinced that this would be a herculean task — requiring precision and craft to justify such a high price tag. Ultimately, the endeavor turned out to be painless. With a handful of frames I bought online and, briefly, the help of a butter knife, I accomplished in an hour what I'd assumed would take me all day. My framing job is not awesome, but it's fine.

I recognize this sounds a little silly, but it did make me seriously wonder why getting something framed professionally was so costly. I've spent a lot of money to get art put behind glass in the past, and my DIY job didn't seem so vastly different.

Take a spin around the internet, and it's clear that I'm not the only one with some questions about framing. People joke about being able to frame something once they win the lottery or a trip to the frame store means they won't be able to pay for their kids' college education. A lot of the friends I told about my endeavor noted that they, too, had found themselves aghast at the price issue. It's genuinely puzzling how some wood, glass, and paper can be so much. Have we all just been duped by Big Frame? Or, worse, by Little Frame Down the Street? To get a sense of what's going on here, I reached out to some people in the business, and for one thing, they've all heard this question before.

"People come in, I'll quote them, and they'll say, 'Oh, my God, the frame is more expensive than the piece,'" Hope Dye, the owner of Artful Framer Studios in Chicago, said. That's especially true if they've got a cheap print they bought online. "And I usually explain: labor, knowledge, materials — this is why this costs so much," Dye added.

In addition to using higher-priced materials and allowing consumers to outsource the labor of framing to someone else, professionals have some other advantages that translate to dollar signs. The dizzying number of options means framers can offer people more and more and more without those people knowing whether it's something they really need. Framers can lean into customers' emotions about protecting their precious stuff and their insecurities about their own design savvy. After spending some time talking to pros on the phone, I started to wonder whether the Mexico Olympics poster I'd framed myself would someday be ruined because it didn't have whatever fancy glass to protect it from the sun — before I remembered it didn't hang in the sunlight and I really didn't care about it that much.

There were some 9,000 local framing shops in the US as of 2018. If you don't frame things often, you don't really have a sense of what things should cost, so walking into one of these shops can feel overwhelming, with hundreds, even thousands, of options. There's generally no available price list to get a sense of what you may be in for, so you have to get a quote. That means it's you, a framer, and a half-hour consultation where you hope for the best — and their honesty.

"The downside of the infinite possibilities of custom framing is that means there's infinite possibilities of price," said Sven Olsen, Michaels' senior director of Michaels Custom Framing, part of the national craft-goods chain.

When it comes to materials, there are three main components in play: the moldings, the mats, and the glazing. The pricing of those materials varies widely. Kevin Ivester, the owner of East Side Picture Framing in Austin, told me that molding — the side borders of the frame — could cost anywhere from $10 to $300 a foot. A basic black stick of wood is priced quite differently from something that's gold-leafed and hand-carved. His shop offers 1,500 frame samples and 300 mat-board samples. "There are so many variables that go into framing. You can get a very straightforward frame, and you can make them very complicated," he said.

Frame shops keep some moldings on premises, but they have to order many from outside vendors, hence how they can offer so many options. For preservation purposes, framers will suggest acid-free, lignin-free materials so the art won't get damaged, which adds to the cost. And then there's the glazing — acrylic, regular glass, UV protectant, antireflective, or even museum level. The size of the piece matters, as does the quality of materials. "Glass is incredibly expensive, and part of it is because it's made specifically for picture framing. You wouldn't put that type of glass on your house," Ivester said.

Dye, who has been in the framing business for eight years and bought her own shop in 2022, said there's about a threefold markup on materials at most stores, though for really expensive moldings, she usually does 1 ½ or two times so it will be accessible for customers. Framing isn't as simple as the materials alone, and other costs are added on top. Custom framing is labor-intensive — shop owners have to pay their employees, and the people I talked to emphasized that it's skilled labor. There's the cost of rent and equipment, too. She said that what's also rolled into the price is her expertise and design sense. "You're paying for someone who has a good eye," she said.

When you talk to smaller framers, there are, of course, some elephants in the room: much-larger framing operations, such as Michaels and the online company Framebridge. National competitors have advantages of scale, convenience, and price. They're better able to buy in bulk and leverage their scale, which helps them keep costs down. Still, they're not especially cheap.

Most customers don't walk into a Michaels store thinking they need a custom frame. They figure they can grab a ready-made one off the shelf. But premade options are limited, and they often wind up at the custom counter, facing a similar situation to the one they'd find in a local shop. "There are a lot of decisions that can be made with custom framing," Olsen from Michaels said. Those decisions can add to the budget, but the best-case scenario is a "collaborative" conversation so there are no pricing surprises at the end, he said.

Framebridge, the direct-to-consumer framing company that's been around for about a decade, tries to cut out the sticker shock by listing its prices online. The costs are still a little shocking — a basic black frame starts at $75. Julia Lovett, the director of product at Framebridge, told me that the company worked with premium materials, which are expensive, and brought up the expertise and craftsmanship that goes into the work. Framebridge offers just 89 frame styles, which allows it to offer a lower price point since it's not ordering materials piecemeal from various vendors.

"We offer a more limited assortment," she said. "We try to strike the balance between having something for everyone, something to flatter every piece, something for every style, and not being too overwhelming."

Naturally, many of the people I spoke with had some thoughts about what the other operations were up to. Lovett warned about the opacity of different design treatments and tricks for getting people worried about the quality of materials, noting that there's upselling and upcharging in the space. With no prices on the wall, customers really can't get an idea of the cost before getting a quote.

Dye, the Chicago shop owner, told me she often could and did offer a better price than Michaels. She pointed out that unlike Framebridge, she's not shipping valuable pieces of art around the country.

"When you're working with the smaller mom-and-pop shops, you really develop a relationship," she said. "There's a trust there."

Ivester from Austin said that if you wanted to pop a poster in the mail to Framebridge, fine, but he doesn't really see it as being in the same category as he is. "I don't really even view them as my competition. They just simply cannot do all the things that we do for our clients," he said. With bigger companies, you don't get as much insight into who's working on the piece and their level of expertise.

Some framers were sensitive when it came to inquiries about direct margins and prices, which was unhelpful to the impression that there might be some price gouging going on. The day after I spoke with a manager at a midsize framing shop in Brooklyn, I followed up to ask about general price ranges on moldings and mats. He responded by telling me it was considered confidential and asked me to delete our conversation.

In industries dominated by a number of small businesses where there is information asymmetry, things can feel like a rip-off. People can find themselves in similar situations when dealing with, say, a roofing company or a funeral home. Maybe you're getting a good deal, but sometimes you're getting taken for a ride, and it's hard to tell the difference.

Given the cost and the fundamental challenges in determining a fair price, I somewhat awkwardly asked all the framers the question that got me on the journey in the first place: Why shouldn't people just frame things on their own? There's still a markup in just premade frames — I'm sorry, but there's no way that $20 frame I got from Amazon cost anywhere near $20 to make — but a do-it-yourself approach isn't going to break the bank.

Ultimately, most told me it was a question of value. How much did the thing you want to frame cost? What about its sentimental value? Can you achieve what you want to by yourself? Fabric, for instance, is tough to deal with, so you've got to decide what you're willing to pay to avoid hanging that wrinkled commemorative basketball jersey on your wall. Some people are craftier and more design-minded than others. Some people are also lazier and would just rather pay someone to do the work for them.

Julia Mack, an interior designer in Brooklyn, gave some practical advice. If it's a budget item or something homemade you don't really care about, that's a DIY moment. The same goes for if you want just a black frame and a white mat for a standard-size, inexpensive print. If you do go to a professional, have an idea of what you're willing to spend ahead of time. If the artwork cost $500, maybe commit to spending no more than $500 on framing. "Shopping around does not hurt anyone," she said. "You just have to be willing to put the time in."

You may not care that much if the piece you framed is perfect. I do wonder whether someday I'll come to regret my DIY efforts, but for now, I'm pretty satisfied with the result. I told Dye that, and she, a professional, told me that's OK. "Can someone frame something themselves? Absolutely. Is it going to look as nice? Probably not," she said. "But they're the ones living with it, so if they're happy with their own handiwork, cool."

Emily Stewart is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, writing about business and the economy.

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