Your diploma from Big Bucks University. That giant photo from your wedding (a reminder that you’ll never be that dressed-up again). A beautiful thrift-store oil painting surrounded by regrettable plastic molding. Most of us have many items we would like to frame and display, but the bother of taking them to a shop, finding supplies to do it ourselves or paying a fortune to professionals means our stuff remains off the walls.

Here’s how to get help. Plenty of shops have staff members who provide expert advice, take care of your precious belongings and don’t charge high prices. And if you want to frame something yourself, online businesses offer products and instructions.

If someone else is doing the work, you’ll want a skilled pro who offers sage advice. Staff members at the best shops will spend time with you exploring framing options (single or double mat? Metal or wood frame? Plexiglass or real glass?) and eventually give you a fine-looking final product.

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Until Oct. 10, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area framing shops to Washington Post readers via this link: checkbook.org/washingtonpost/framing. Checkbook surveyed its own and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected individuals. You’ll notice big shop-to-shop differences for customer satisfaction and prices.

You can hire a local shop to do your framing, ship your stuff to an Internet-based outfit, or do some or all the work yourself.

DIY options are usually the cheapest. You can buy inexpensive pre-made frames at stores such as Target, Pottery Barn and Ikea, and they often look pretty good. “I do kid artwork walls for some of my clients, and cheaper frames like this are a great option,” says Allison Marvin, an art consultant whose Sightline firm helps people buy and mount art.

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If you have odd-size art or want customized frames and mats, several websites allow you to enter measurements and shop from hundreds of frames — plus buy custom-cut mats, glass or plexiglass fronts, and more. The store ships your products, and you assemble everything. In our experience, this is a relatively simple but not totally goof-proof transaction. Precise measuring is crucial. Plus plexiglass panels from online vendors can have a lot of fuzz that’s a pain to remove, and positioning art onto pre-cut mats is harrowingly tedious. If you’re using a mat, buy linen mounting tape ($10-$15 at art stores or online) to affix art to the mat.

If you want a full-service frame-up, local stores or full-service Internet-based companies can help. Online services such as Framebridge.com, ­PictureFrames.com and ­SimplyFramed.com ship you tubes or flat mailers so you can send your artwork to them; they then frame the item and mail it back. If you’ve got a digital photo or print, the process is simpler: Email it to the company, which sizes it, prints it and sends you a framed version a few weeks later. Simply Framed in particular offers a wide variety of suggestions tailored to specific sorts of art and artifacts — a.k.a. a groovy plexibox (also known as a shadowbox) for a textile or a gilded wooden frame for a fancy oil painting.

Why stick with a local shop? It’s easier to discuss your project in person, plus shipping your precious 1974 Rolling Stones poster or your kid’s drawing means it might get lost. This recently happened to me, though the company refunded my money and paid for the waylaid print.

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Checkbook’s undercover shoppers asked a sampling of local framing shops and six online outlets for prices to frame two different pieces. For the larger piece, prices from local shops ranged from $111 to more than $350; for the smaller piece, prices ranged from $55 to more than $250. Hobby Lobby offered the lowest overall prices — beating even most online services. But don’t assume big chains always charge lower prices than smaller outfits. For example, for the two pieces we shopped, the average prices at the Michaels stores we surveyed were only about 12 percent lower than the average for all surveyed stores. We also found that prices can vary substantially from location to location for the big chains.

And the Web-based stores consistently offered low prices. FrameItEasy.com’s prices were $61 for the smaller piece and $78 for the larger one (though remember, the final assembly is on you). Framebridge.com was the cheapest full-service Internet option: Its prices were $85 and $145.

Materials and what they mean

The types and quality of materials you choose when framing also matter.

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Mats: In general, a good bricks-and-mortar or online framer should use acid- and lignin-free mats, meaning they’re cut from alkaline paper boards with no acids that can damage your artwork. It’s probably more important to check this when buying online or picking up an inexpensive pre-made frame; most pro framers use only acid-free materials.

Why invest in a mat? “It creates air between the glazing and the artwork,” says Mark Klostermeyer of the Professional Picture Framers Association. “The mat absorbs and dispels moisture, which can condense on your art and even sometimes cause mold.” Mats, whether single, double, or even placed behind the art (known as “floating”), also enhance the appearance of pieces ranging from a vintage postcard to a Rembrandt etching. With the floating styles, framers use spacers to create distance between the mat, the artwork and the frame itself.

At a good frame shop, staffers should show you a range of mat colors, placing them up against your artwork to see what looks best. White or eggshell tones tend to let the art, not a trendy mat color, shine. Pros will also suggest mat widths. In general, they range from 1½ inches to more than four inches. “Or a wider, larger mat, like a snapshot in a 10-inch-deep mat, can make things feel more modern and significant,” says designer Nate Berkus, a creative adviser for Framebridge. Double mats, while more expensive, can be used to further accent colors in the piece, usually via a top mat in a neutral hue (white, black) and an inner mat in another shade that draws out a color in the art.

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Most online services let you upload an image of your artwork for this process, meaning you can play around with mat colors and sizes.

For some photos and posters, you might not want a mat. This can save you some money, and in the case of a large graphic image, such as a movie poster, might be the best option. “You almost don’t need a frame, since many posters have printed borders,” Berkus says. And newer framing techniques make it safer. “It used to be that forgoing a mat meant smashing the work up against the glass, which could damage it,” Marvin says. “But now framers use spacers to keep the piece away from the glass, and it can look very modern and also not hurt the art.”

Frames: No, you don’t have to keep all the frames in your house (or even on one wall) the same style and color. Thanks to the gallery wall trend and the increasing variation in home decor, a mishmash of materials and styles denotes a collection amassed over time. In general, metal or plastic composites are cheaper; wood can cost hundreds of dollars.

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Choosing a frame style is largely a personal matter, but it should cue off the art, if possible. “A lighter-feeling piece, like a delicate work on paper, might just get a slim frame, whereas a chunky abstract painting probably needs a frame with more heft,” Marvin says.

Glass vs. plexiglass vs. nothing: The surface of an oil or acrylic painting is durable, so you’ll probably want to frame it without glass or plexiglass to show off the artist’s brushwork But a watercolor needs a mat (to protect it from smudging and wrinkling) and a glass or plexiglass front to protect it from dust, sunlight and little fingers. A clear front also helps keep a work from warping and, frankly, helps it look important. Glass used to be standard, but it’s heavy and can break. “Many of my colleagues in San Francisco won’t even use it, because of earthquakes,” Klostermeyer says.

Both glass and plexi may filter out UV rays and reduce reflective glare. And there’s a wide array of glazing for both, ranging from simple SUV to what pros call “museum glass” that blocks out nearly all light and glare.

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For our money and trouble, plexiglass is the way to go. It’s more expensive than glass and more prone to scratches, but it’s not fragile and a lot lighter, making it easier to hang. 

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice free of charge until Oct. 10 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/framing.

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