Cutting antique frames


MGF, Master Grumble Framer
Mar 25, 2004
A man from North Carolina came into my shop the other day and asked about cutting down old frames (he had some ca. 1820 artworks and wanted to use period materials from some damaged frames). He said that he couldn't find local frame shops willing to do this, and he asked me why they wouldn't (it wasn't till just now that I realize he should have asked them this question instead of me). I suspect that it may be an issue of not wanting to mess with material they cannot replace in case of error, or possibly hitting an old stray nail with their blade.
Any ideas, as well as tips for working with old material?
Old frames have very brittle gesso, hand forged
nails and fragile wood, making them very risky
to work with.

A big yes to what Hugh commented on.

In addition there are really very few framers that are used to working in antique frames these days, probally only a couple hundred throughout the entire US, if that

Another factor might be the actual condition, quality of the the antique frame, its profile and what might be left after surgery. Will the result be a crappy used frame or a real antique. There is also the factor of cost.
It's very disconcerting to be cutting down an old frame and have random chunks of gesso flying around the room. That 20x24 can become a 5x7 in the blink of an eye.

Most of the really lovely old frames (and a lot of the ugly ones) were stacked three or more layers deep, so you're not cutting down and rejoining just one frame.

One of those big old nails can trash a $200 saw blade before you can say ****.

Also, they never seem to join properly, and no amount of sanding or cursing will help.

Otherwise, it's a great idea.
As far as nails in existing moulding is concerned: Years ago I bought a cheapo magnetic stud finder at the hardware store. Before I bring any old moulding rails to the saw, I scan the corners with the stud finder. If there are any ferrous nails left there, the magnet comes to attention to warn me before I ruin the blades.
Originally posted by Ron Eggers:

Also, they never seem to join properly, and no amount of sanding or cursing will help.

That is absolutely what I have found. A simple cut down and re-join can take hours.

There is some of us willing to take on the task, but the customer has to be willing to pay what it cost.
We rehab lots of old frames for antique dealers, but will cut down only a few. Experience helps tell you which ones will and won't do well...and even then bad things can happen. They are really time hogs. Charge accordingly. Also, explain in advance that the frame may self-destruct. If you do this alot, be prepared to learn how to recast ornaments, refinish antique finishes (like faux tortoise shell) and gold leaf. Good luck!
Originally posted by Janet L:
Joseph, with all the framers in North Carolina, I'm really glad this guy traveled to Mass to get this job done! Good luck!
Actually, I was in my Maine location, and don't have a saw there, so was able to avoid this entirely (and when he mentioned it being a "quick job" I interpreted that as "and cheap". They were traveling to NH for antique shows, not for framing.

He just seemed to be suspicious of the local framers' motives, and I found it hard to believe they would turn down paying jobs without good reason. FYI, I am primarily involved in gilding and restoration, and would not feel comfortable cutting down a decent frame.

A $200 saw blade is nothing. I had an old frame take the blade and the motor shaft out of a Ryobi chop saw. I haven't messed with an old frame since.

Pat :D