Custom Photo Mats

December 23, 2015

When the holidays roll around I always struggle to find great gifts for people. It's just not really something that I am good at. I know it, I accept it, I still struggle. When trying to come up with some gift ideas I went through the photos I had on my phone. Almost everywhere my girlfriend and I have visited we have managed to get at least a few good photos. So I decided that for Christmas I was going to make her some photo mats and put a couple of our photos in them. 

When I was in high school I had learned to use a mat cutter in our graphic arts classroom where my dad taught. When taking black and white photography in college, I decided that instead of mounting my work on matboard I wanted to cut custom mats so I bought a mat cutter from the local art store and have held on to it over the years. I don't get a chance to use it often, but the process is fairly simple once you've done it a few times, and comes back faster than how to ride a bike.

For this particular project, I decided that I wanted to do something a little more custom than a single mat. Double mats can be nice but seemed like overkill for the size of the photos that I was using. Since my girlfriend usually has a limited amount of space and I wanted to do more than one I wanted the frame and mat to fit in an 8" by 10" frame. Using a ruler and a sheet of printer paper I established my 8" by 10" template and arranged the 5" x 7" photo space in the center. Working with the dimensions I came up with the idea to do a color-reveal border. Rather than stepping directly off the photo, there is a band of black mat, then the color-reveal, and finishes with a border of black matboard. Using the mat cutter to establish the beveled edge increases the overall appearance of depth and provides a nice transition between the pieces. 

Once I had my design, I printed my digital photos at Costco and returned to the art store where I bought my mat cutter years earlier. Picking up some large pieces of matboard in a few different colors, I went home and set to work. I have found mat cutting to mostly be about patience, careful transfer of guidelines to the back of the mat, and a sharp cutter. In this project, my black mat actually ended up being the most complicated. Since I was making multiple mats I laid out a basic grid of my finished sizes, to be cut with a regular X-acto hobby knife. Then I laid out my internal cut lines for my mat cutter. The hardest part here is remembering which way the bevels are meant to go. Working from the back of the board means that the cut happens on the inner dimension. For a traditional mat, you are always lining up the straight edge on the mat portion of the mat and cutting from the window side. My mat was a little more complex, with a traditional window cut in the center, and then facing bevels where the mat would reveal the mat below. Taking no chances I drew little arrows to remind me which way the cuts were meant to go, which totally saved me a time or two. 

In all honesty, the rest was pretty straight forward. I cut my colored stock to size, removing a 5" x 7" opening in the back to accept the photo. I kept the piece that was cut out to provide a backing for the photo once it was put in place. To keep the pieces of matboard secured to each other I used a two-surface application of rubber cement. If you haven't read this project yet, applying rubber cement to both glue surfaces and then waiting until the glue is mostly dry before putting the pieces together provides a very strong bond. Any glue that squeezes out can usually be cleaned up with a little friction or a white eraser. 

To complete the project the photos went in, the "doors" were taped shut to hold the photos in. I actually only used two photos and the third mat held a promise for a short vacation we took with one of our friends the following February. Because I'm also big into wrapping I found a wrapping paper with a simple black stripe that looked like kraft paper and used a simple twine as a ribbon. 

I apologize for the photos. I had no idea in 2015 that I would later be featuring this project on my website.