Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Working with suede mats

As I mentioned in my multi-part series on improving my presentation, I had been considering suede mats for my new, higher end prints. Well, I ended up buying some, and I've had a little bit of time to work with them, and I have a few thoughts to share.

How I Chose Between Two Brands
(and how I ended up with both)

Originally, I was thinking about the Crescent Moorman suedes line. However, I was having some trouble getting Crescent to provide me with corner samples. Thats a bit of a story, and is probably best left for another post. My first show was getting closer, and I really needed to figure out some colors to with my photos. I had debated ordering some corner samples from ebay, or even something stupid like blindly guessing what colors I wanted from the little swatches on the specifier sheet (as if you could predict what a half inch wide sample will look like when scaled to a 4" inch wide, 36" inch long border).

With time really running out (less than 2 weeks to my first show) I was really desperate. Trying to come up with an idea, it occurred to me that the framing counter at the Michaels store had a big rack of mat corner samples. I went up there to play with them and was very impressed by the Bainbridge suede samples. After some further research into their product line, I decided I would go with Bainbridge for my new mats.

Having picked out 7 colors I liked for a group of prints I was going to frame, I went to buy the mats. I had trouble ordering online, and to make a long story short, I found a local framing supply wholesaler that carried them, so I went to pick them up in person.

For one of the colors I needed, they only had a partial quantity in stock. However, they had the same color in the proper quantity in the Crescent line, so I ended up buying all Bainbridge suedes except for that 1 color, which I replaced with Crescent Moorman suedes.

Similarities Between Bainbridge & Crescent

Many of the suede colors are identical between the 2 brands. Apparently, both companies get their fabric from the same source. The end result is that there is a lot of overlap between the 2. That was convenient for me, since I was able to get the exact same color in the Crescent when the store didn't have enough sheets of the Bainbridge.

Differences Between Bainbridge & Crescent


The first difference between the 2 is completely obvious the instant you pick up a sheet. The Bainbridge suedes are quite flimsy. With normal matboard, you can stand them up on edge and lean them against a wall with only minimal bending. However, with a Bainbridge suede, thats not possible. The mat practically collapses under its own weight. Even putting several sheets together in the same bag with some other cardboard sheets didn't help. On the other hand, the Crescent Moorman suedes are the exact opposite. They are MORE rigid than standard matboard. Whether 1 sheet or many, they can easily support their own weight.

The rigidity issue brings up a few other issues. First storage of the Bainbridge suedes is a bit difficult. I've got a bin where I usually store my mats standing up on edge. However, that probably won't work well with the Bainbridge suedes. For now, I've just been storing them laying down flat. Not a good long term solution, but since I knew the matboards would all be cut up within a week, that was fine.

Another issue is when you go to cut down the mats. With a typical mat cutter, unless you've installed it to be flush mounted, the matboard sheet will only be supported in 2 areas: the main cutting board and the edge along the squaring arm. Other than that, the rest of the sheet is left to support itself. With normal matboard, I haven't found this to be an issue. The board usually supports itself. However, with the Bainbridge suedes, the matboard just sags. That makes it difficult to ensure you have things squared up properly. The solution I found was to stack up some 16x20 foam boards to approximately the same height as the cutting surface and to use these to prop up the matboard.

Ease of Cutting

When I went to trim my matboards down to size, I noticed the next major difference between them. The Bainbridge suedes cut like butter...perhaps a tad easier than regular matbaord. However, the Crescent Moorman suedes are a pain to cut. When I cut my first sheet, I thought I had somehow damaged the blade or that it was more worn than I thought. However, I went and cut another sheet of Bainbridge and it was smooth as silk again.

I haven't yet done any bevel cuts (I've only cut the sheets to size), but based on my experience so far, I'm not really looking forward to the experience with the Crescent mats.


In an attempt to figure out why there was such a difference between the 2 boards, I decided to take a look at their construction. I very quickly realized what was different. The Bainbridge suedes are the same thickness as typical 4-ply matbaord. When you consider that part of this thickness is accounted for by the suede fabric surface, the actual thickness of the supporting paper is thinner than typical matboard. Considering that fabric is a whole lot more flexible than paper, it quickly becomes apparent why the Bainbridge suedes are more flexible.

Taking a look at Crescent Moorman suedes, you can very easily see why the opposite is true for those board. They are considerably thicker than a standard 4 ply matbaord...I'd estimate somewhere between 25% and 50% thicker. Even looking at just the paper layers, it's still thicker than standard 4-ply. That would make this matboard considerably stronger than normal.

Quality control and damaged boards

With standard matbaord, it isn't unusual to have damage. Every now and then you'll find a board with a mark or dent on it. That's kind of par for the course, but it usually isn't too much of a problem. However, based on my small sampling, it seems that there are serious quality issues with suede matboards.

The first issue I noticed while still at the store (luckily, since it's about 40 minutes away). I needed 4 sheets of one particular color, but the store only had 2. Instead, they got me 4 sheets of the matching color Crescent. To be sure the colors were identical, we went to compare a sheet of each, side by side. However, when I pulled out a sheet of Bainbridge matboard, I found it had tons of black marks all over the tan board surface. The board was absolutely unusable. When I went to check the other board of this color, I noticed that it too had the identical damage.

Now, typically when there is damage to a matboard, you never know where it happened along the line. It could have happened in the factory, during shipping, while stocking, or even by customer handling. However, in this case, I had just removed the board from a factory sealed plastic bag. There is no place these marks could have gotten on the board other than in the factory.

After that, I quickly checked all of the other boards, and everything appeared to be alright, so I bought them. Several days later, when I went to start cutting them, I noticed that there was various sorts of damage to several of the other sheets.

The worst damage I found (not counting what I found at the store) was a pair of Bainbridge mats that had a sort of wrinkle in the fabric that extends all the way across the board. It was a very distracting defect...very noticable. Luckily these were colors I was planning to use as a bottom layer mat, so only a thin line of this board will be exposed. Hopefully, I'll be able to mask this defect somehow (brush it out or something), becuase even if I wanted to drive all the way back there to exchange it, they have no more in stock and wont for at least a week. I should also mention that the 2 sheets which had this defect were of different colors, so it wasn't an isolated defect on a single run of matboard.

Below are 2 photos I took of the defects. The first shows the defect on black matboard (which I had to brighten to a gray to make it visible on a monitor) running left to right. The second photo shows the same defect running top to bottom.

defect running left to right

defect running top to bottom

Next, I found a Bainbridge mat that had a small and subtle black mark on it. I tried brushing it off, but it wouldn't come off.

black mark

I also found what looked like indentations in the fabric on 2 other Bainbridge sheets. Some of it brushed out with a little rubbing. It's possible the rest of it will with a little more effort. I don't have any photos of this.

Finally, on all 4 of the Crescent Moorman Suedes, there were a couple of little marks in the fabric. It looked like a little nick and a tiny bit of fabric was missing (maybe 1/32" in diameter). I have no photos of this damage either.

In summary, of the matboard I had dealt with, here is how the damage breaks down

2 sheets Bainbridge - extremely serious black mark
2 sheets Bainbridge - pretty serious wrinkle
2 sheets Bainbridge - somewhat minor indentations
1 sheet Bainbridge - very minor dark mark
5 sheets Bainbridge - no defects at all
4 sheets Crescent - moderate nicks.


I love the look of this matbaord. Even in spite of the significantly higher cost and the difficulty in handling/storing it, I'm very happy I chose to work with it. However, considering the damage issues I've experienced, it makes this matboard a bit of a gamble. If I order it online, I can't inspect if before I get it, and at that point I'm not even sure how I'd go about exchanging it. Matboard is sort of expensive to ship, and difficult to ship safely in small quantities. It seems best to buy this stuff locally. However, locally it ends up being a bit more expensive. In addition, the only place I know so far to get it from is a considerable drive away, and they have limited quantities on hand. I'd hate to drive all that way, find a damaged sheet, and then find out they don't have any more in stock. And given that I didn't even see some of this damage when I looked while at the store, I don't know that I can count on someone there to find all the damage before I make the drive to pick it up.

I guess like a lot of things, it's a love hate relationship. I'll probably continue to use the matboard, and just deal with the problems as they come. Perhaps when I get some time, a letter to Crescent and Bainbridge would be in order, just to see what they have to say about the issue.

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