Retouching old and antique frames

Sometimes you come across a wonderful artwork with a damaged frame. Old prints and plates usually suffer from effects that are caused by time: foxing, yellowing, browning or tearing.


To me, these marks of aging are perfectly fine and acceptable, to some degree that is. I don’t like whiter than snow antique prints that have been whitened with aggressive bleaching agents. The print will look like it was printed yesterday and in most cases probably even looks whiter than it ever has! Some art dealers might resolve to these harsh methods, but the prints suffer severely and the chlorides and other chemicals will damage the fibers of the old paper. Most antique lovers would agree with me that some wear and tear actually adds to the charm and beauty of an antique item.

A frame however, is a different story. After some time in the antique prints business, I have noticed that damaged frames dramatically devalue a piece of art. Frames are intended to serve as a window that you look through, they separate the artwork from the rest of the environment, so your eyes can focus on the work of art. Next to that, they also offer protection to the art piece, especially when glass is used. So when the frame is damaged, sharp visual lines are broken, and all these complimenting effects mentioned above, are compromised. In this article I describe the work on a standard, antique frame. I also sometimes use different techniques when ornaments are damaged. (working with hand made molds) But that will be featured in another article.

Not suitable for your wall

People tend to put artworks with damaged frames away, since they find that these artworks are no longer suitable to put up on the wall. Maybe they will place them somewhere in the attic or cellar, and next you know, the glass gets broken and atmospheric effects have their way with the paper, leaving the artwork aged beyond its time. A shame, and moreover a reason to keep original frames in tact and visually pleasing to the eye.

Here is how I do minor touch-ups on a damaged, antique frames. You can find a summary of the materials I used at the bottom of this page.

First, I begin with sanding the damaged areas with fine gritted sanding paper. I make sure the damaged and undamaged areas have the same level of smoothness. Second, I clean and wipe the sanded area with a degreasing agent such as Ammonia. When dirt and grease are removed I apply the wood putty. I smooth the putty out before I apply it, to make sure that there are no granules in there. I  apply the putty with a dull knife and my fingers. After the drying period of the putty it is usually necessary so sand again, and apply another layer of putty. This goes on until the results are satisfying.  Before applying the paint, the frame should be degreased and dust free. I begin mixing the paint, (two shades of acrylic gold paint) to match the paint on the frame as best as I can.

Sometimes, a few layers have to be applied to have a good coating of paint. The result can look somewhat like the photo on the left. I will proceed by applying a layer of black paint on top of the gold paint to create a patina effect that matches the patina that is already there on the antique frame. I dab that in with a cloth, using some turpentine to thin the paint. In this case I used oil paint for the patina and used turpentine to thin the paint. After a few drying and re-applying sessions, the end result look like this.

This procedure works best on superficially damaged frames that have straight lines. When whole parts of rounded and ornamental decorations are missing from the frame, its sometimes best to make the new parts via the use of a hand made molds. The materials I used for this cosmetic touch up are:

  • Fast drying wood plaster, (putty),
  • Amsterdam acrylic gold paint, deep gold , nr. 803 and Amsterdam acrylic paint light gold, nr. 802.
  • Brand-less black oil paint,
  • turpentine, brushes, knife, cloth and sanding paper, (finely gritted)



One thought on “Retouching old and antique frames

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *