A method for mounting large prints on foam core

Blognosticator Head

One of the things I learned while making my large photo exhibition was how to mount huge photo prints without getting wrinkles or bubbles.

I am a user of permanent self-adhesive foam core board. I love this stuff. My favorite brands are Elmer’s and Gilman, which I buy from ArtSupply.com in sheets up to 4 x 8 feet. These boards are 3/16 inch thick, and feature an adhesive so strong, and so permanent that it sticks to anything that touches it instantly. This stuff is unfailing, and occasionally exasperating.

Greenfield clouds, Elk 02

Two of the very large prints in my photo exhibition SLO PANO, on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through March 30. I printed and mounted these two by myself, and I got away with it. Doing the work with two friends makes it much easier. The print on the right is 14 feet long, and about 37 inches tall.

It’s usually human error that makes the adhesive exasperating. The foam core is just a benign material that – seemingly – grabs onto anything in its vicinity, and it will never let go.

Mounting small posters and sheets – up to about 32 x 40 inches (one of the standard sizes) is easy. It’s a one-person job. I usually arm myself with Big Blue – my five foot extruded aluminum cutting ruler, and Alvin, my 3 x 4 foot self-healing cutting mat. I also have an 1950s era Kodak hard rubber roller with a big cast iron handle. This is used to roll material down onto the smaller foam core boards.

For larger sheets, the job becomes a two-person or three-person project. And, it becomes a lot more difficult.

There are very nice laminating and mounting machines available to the wide-format industry. These, typically, cost about $20,000, and they are worth the investment I am sure. But, my operation is in my home, and I have no room for such a machine. And, my need to mount very large projects is limited. I did a lot of this while preparing my exhibition, but now that it’s up, I haven’t made a big print since.

For the low-budget crowd, those without a laminating machine, my friend Catherine and I came up with a great solution to the problem that involves nothing more than a large table, a long 3-inch roll core, and two to three people (three is best).

Print

Here, the Dopëlganger twins prepare to roll a huge print onto a large sheet of self-adhesive foam core board. The third person (not shown) peels the release paper away just in front of the two as they press the photo paper to the adhesive in a continuous motion from one end to the other.

Having a long table is helpful, but it is possible to make do with a shorter table, and shift the work as you go.

Put the foam core on the table, with the adhesive side up.

Roll your large print out on top of the foam core to be sure it will fit on the sheet you have. Once it’s on the table put three strips of painter’s masking tape on the end of the photo paper, exposing half of the tape facing upward. To this you will affix the long cardboard core. Be sure the tape sticks, then wind the print very tightly around the core, image-inward. When it’s rolled all the way to the end, take it to the end of the foam core sheet and have one or two people hold the photo tight on the roll.

At the end of the foam core, pry up the silicone release paper, and fold-back a one-inch flap, exposing the adhesive. Crease this sharply with your fingernail.

With your two friends holding the tightly-wound roll of photo paper, CAREFULLY position the edge of the photo paper near the exposed adhesive. Then move it over the adhesive, and touch the center of the photo to adhere it to the center of the board. Then push with one finger from that center point toward each edge. This establishes the beginning of the mounted photo.

Tacking the start of the roll

Tacking the photo paper at the head end of the roll is critically important. Start in the middle, and smooth the paper out to the edges. This must be done perfectly to prevent a wrinkle that will ruin the print, so be careful to start it right.

Being sure that the photo is tightly wound on the roll, move around to the edge ahead of your two friends, and have them set the roll of photo material down on the adhesive where you tacked the start. They should push downward while maintaining tension on the print.

Then, pull the silicone release paper away from the adhesive, while your friends roll the print down onto the adhesive. Go slowly, and stay ahead of them only by an inch or two. They will continue to unroll the print while pushing it down onto the foam core. You get only one chance.

When you get to the other end, remove the masking tape, and finish the roll-out. Your work should be perfect.

My team of volunteer helpers and I did this successfully five times while preparing the huge prints for my exhibition, and it worked perfectly every time. In the absence of an expensive laminating machine, this does the trick, and the result is the same.

 

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Associate Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
This entry was posted in Mistakes you can avoid, Panoramic Photography, Photography, Printing and Printing Processes and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to A method for mounting large prints on foam core

  1. Markk Owens says:

    thanks for sharing..easy and simple method to understand printing and laminating process…keep sharing !!!

  2. Steve Glass says:

    What a great post! Thanks for sharing all this wonderful information.

    I have a question. Does the foam core warp after time?

    Also, can you give a bit more information on how you get straight perfect cuts on such large pieces?

    Thanks!

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Steve,

      Does foam core warp? Definitely. Once I ordered 1/4 in. self-adhesive foam core from very rainy Chicago, and it came on a truck to very dry San Luis Obispo. I mounted my photos on the boards, and in the following days the moisture left the back side of the board, but not the front (because it had the photos mounted on it). The result was seriously bowed prints. I tried putting them through a heated laminator to cook the moisture out of the front, to no avail. Ultimately I had to use wood screws to mount the boards to the museum wall. It turned out OK, but it was difficult to get them to stand flat on the walls.

      Now, when I order foam core I give it time to acclimate before mounting photos on it. Once it has dried out, it causes no trouble. Photos I mounted this past January are still very flat and straight.

      On the straight cuts, it’s a matter of having a very long aluminum straight-edge and a lot of patience. Cutting the 14-foot boards was exceptionally difficult, and I was in a wheelchair at the time (it was nearly impossible). First I put tiny tick-marks on the face of the photos with a string as my guide, then I cut between them with the long aluminum straight-edge and an X-Acto knife. Behind the board I use a six-foot Alvin cutting mat, which is very helpful.

      Never try to cut through foam core in one pass; I usually cut two or three times with a very sharp blade to get through the 1/4 inch material. Thicker boards require more strokes. This requires good hand control to keep the blade tilted the same between cuts, avoiding the tendency to undercut the board.

      I break a lot of X-Acto blades, but that’s part of the excitement!

      Thank you for reading The Blognosticator,

      Brian

  3. Jim Rota says:

    Nice!

    Just wondering: What kind of printer does 3′ x 14′?

    Jim

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Jim,

      The photos in the description I wrote were all printed on my Epson 9600, which can print up to 44 inches wide by any length (limited by the paper roll).

      The rolls of material I buy are typically 100 feet in length, so I suppose I could print a 44 inch by 100 foot print in one piece.

      Brian

  4. Harold says:

    Are small routers ever of any use cutting shapes out of foam or do you X-Acto blades the ‘one and only’..?

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Harold,

      My good friend Bryn has been cutting a lot of styrofoam on our CNC router, and it works fine. The “saw”dust is a horrible mess, but otherwise I would say it’s successful.

      Brian

  5. James Harrison says:

    This technique looks great. But is your foam core acid free? If not, your images will deteriorate with time.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi James,

      I don’t think there is such a thing as archival foam core. It’s made of styrene plastic sandwiched between two sheets of paper. The paper might be acid-free, but that doesn’t buy you much time, as the styrofoam core will eventually deteriorate.

      Obviously, this technique would work on an archival acid-free board, which can be bought, and the results would be longer-lasting.

      For my exhibition I was only interested in the prints lasting 90 days, so I didn’t worry about the quality of the foam core other than its flatness.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Brian

      p.s. You are the Blognosticator’s 100,000th reader.

  6. Thanks for the great mounting tips, Brian–I’ve scrapped my old way of putting my panos on foam board. I just ran into a related problem of my own making–cutting a thin (maybe 1/16″) slice off the end of a pano to fit in an existing frame since I left it a tad too long. Huge problem trying to get my hand-held knife to cut it. Any ideas? (Also, what kind of camera are you using for your large panoramic images?)
    Frank

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Frank,

      I occasionally have to cut a tiny slice off the end of these boards once they are mounted. I find the easiest way to do it is to turn the whole thing upside-down, then use the long straight-edge (I bought a new 72-inch model recently called Keen-Cut; it’s great!) held against the edge of the foam-core, and then trim it back to the edge. This works well.

      I sometimes take a 1/32 slice of foam-core with it, to make the edge consistent.

      Brian Lawler

  7. Elvino Marangoni says:

    where can i buy the foam core? i’m looking to make 16 3’x6’ photos from 1915 industral and nautical photos i have scanned them in and would like to do this my self i have access to a large printer

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Elvino,

      I buy the foam-core from (you’re going to love this…) foamcore.com.

      They stock sizes up to 48 x 96 inches, and they have a variety of other stock sizes.

      I have been very happy with them and their service.

      One thing to be careful about is the humidity of the material once it arrives at your location. Two years back I received a shipment from them during the summer. It was muggy in Chicago, from their warehouse there, and very dry here in California. I had to allow the foam-core to acclimatize for about a month before using it to prevent warping.

      When it warps there is nothing that can be done, because your photos are creating a moisture-barrier on one side while the other side expands or contracts. It’s a mess!

      Best wishes,

      Brian Lawler

  8. Eric Pierce Brown says:

    Any tips to guide/help when mounting (HP Self-adhesive Indoor Paper) on a non adhesive Gator-Core foam board

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Eric,

      I think I would just invert the process, carefully peeling the release paper from the HP material as the roll is approaching the foam-core.

      I made a mounted print a couple of weeks back using a double-sided adhesive sheet (which is essentially the same thing), and I fed the board and photo into a laminating machine (with the heat turned off). As the material approached the nip-point, I peeled the release paper away. The result was perfect.

      It helps to have an assistant when doing this kind of mounting, because you can have your helper jump in and peel, hold, pull, and share the success with you.

      Brian P. Lawler

  9. For the 14′ long print did you use 8′ sheets and just butt them together or did you use some other method? I ask because I also have a show where I am displaying a 12′ print. Thanks for the post, I have already tried it on a 6′ and 8′ print and it worked really well.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Mark,

      I’m glad you were successful in using the technique to mount large photos.

      On the large foam-core, I experimented extensively with methods for splicing two sheets of foam-core.

      I tried cutting a v-groove at the joint, and applying Gorilla Glue on the back side, while masking the front with clear packing tape. Unfortunately, this created a tiny visible bead. The Gorilla Glue is extraordinarily strong, but the little bead made it unworkable.

      Then I tried a butt-joint with Weldwood II glue, also successful, but it created a bigger bump at the splice line.

      I finally achieved success by cutting as clean a cut as possible for the splice, and applying a single line of clear packing tape across the back of the joint. When I applied the photo to the front, it became the second structural element, and the joint was almost invisible.

      I tried making slightly diagonal joints, hoping that they would show less than a straight vertical line. But, that didn’t seem to matter so I returned to straight splices. It works quite well.

      I hope you are successful with this technique.

      Brian

  10. Michal says:

    Brian Lawler on Dec 3, 2014 said:
    “I don’t think there is such a thing as archival foam core. It’s made of styrene plastic sandwiched between two sheets of paper. The paper might be acid-free, but that doesn’t buy you much time, as the styrofoam core will eventually deteriorate.”

    Yes and no. There are products sold as archival foam core that are acid free board with a styrene core that, as you suggest, off-gas and slowly degrade. However Bainbridge make a product with buffers encapsulated in the styrene to neutralize the off-gassing. Search for : Bainbridge ArtCare White Archival Acid Free Foam Board. The problem for my application is that I can only find it it sizes up to 40×60 inches. I’d like 4×8 foot.

    Michal

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Michal,

      Thank you for the info on the archival foam core. I didn’t know that such a thing exists.

      And, I am sorry that you can’t get it large enough for your project.

      Brian P. Lawler

  11. Nikeeta says:

    I’m exhibiting on foam board and was just wondering how you hung these works without damaging the foam core or making the hanging device visible?

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Nikeeta,

      I used industrial Velcro material on the back of the foam core boards. I put two-inch strips on the corners, and periodically along the edges. It worked fine. I had to be careful not to push too hard to prevent the foam core from being damaged by the pressure.

      Brian

  12. Amanda says:

    Hi,

    I am trying to mount a poster onto a canvas board. I have attempted this many different times using different spray adhesives, sealers, and Mod Podge but the poster I use tends to bubble or unstick from the canvas board overtime. Any suggestions on what adhesive to use or what boards to use? Have you ever used insulation board. Any help is appreciated!! Thanks!

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Amanda,

      I’m sorry for the delay in responding. I would suggest that you get two-sided adhesive material, roll it onto your artwork, then transfer it to the board using my large roll technique. Double-sided adhesive material is available in rolls from companies like USI, and in sheets from Art Supply.com. It’s very nice material, and it is permanent.

      When I am mounting artwork to boards, and the artwork is not flush to the edges, I use that stuff.

      Brian

  13. Kathleen says:

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks for posting these tips on mounting big prints. I have a question about a really big print that is being mounted onto sintra. The print is 60 inches by 107.25 and we are using your roll up method, but having a hard time keeping it straight on the reel and so it doesn’t lie down straight on the sintra. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Thanks,
    Kathleen

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Dear Kathleen,

      Sorry for my long delay in responding. I have been goofing off, teaching, and not blogging.

      I had no particular trouble getting my 14-foot prints mounted, but it depends on how tightly you roll the material to the upper roll.

      It absolutely takes three people for a print that large. Two on the roll of fresh material, and one to trouble-shoot on the fly.

      I can’t offer any other advice other than to be really careful and keep the roll as tight as you can as you unroll it onto the Sintra.

      I mounted two large prints this week (on material about 40 x 60 inches) and I did it alone! I was taking a huge risk in doing this, but it worked, and I got away with tempting the gods of self-adhesive board.

      Best wishes,

      Brian P. Lawler

  14. Greg Mather says:

    So how did you connect more than one piece of foam core if they come in 8 foot boards? I am trying to mount large prints but don’t know what to do when they are over 8 foot..

  15. K2 says:

    Just saw your post as I was searching for info on mounting a laminated map on a foam board. My questions concerns using acid free vs. non-acid free foam board. In your estimation, how long would a laminated map last on a non-acid free board?

    Thanks for any advice you can provide.

  16. Elliot Burg says:

    I just began dry mounting 16 x 20 prints onto foam board, then cutting the four sides with a mat cutter. The process was easy, and the result looked great–an inexpensive way of exhibiting 25 or 30 photographs at a time. However, by the next day, the boards had warped. I’m going to try again with boards that have “acclimated.” Two questions: (1) How do you prevent warping due to changes in humidity AFTER the acclimating process? (2) Is there a way to affix the foam board to a stiffer material (like gatorboard) after the photo is mounted–or some other strategy–to prevent or control warping?

  17. ron andreasen says:

    am doing small work to start…prints from 5×7 up to 3×6. previously have used spray mount with some success. any problems long term with this technique ?

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Spray mount to me is the Devil’s work. It’s messy, smelly, toxic, and it is a bug magnet! The reason I first tried self-adhesive foam-core was that I hated spray-mount so much. Now I will never go back.

      My prints on foam-core are free of bubbles, dust, bugs, creases and other flaws, and they are smooth and professional looking.

      Brian

  18. Court Nugent says:

    Brain,
    are you rolling the art work down on the exact same size piece of foamboard and staying in alignment all the way down? Thats impressive! I would like to use your method but I don’t see how I could do it without drifting to one side or the other. Or, can you use an over-sized board and trim back the excess?

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Court,

      I do not attempt to get the print and the mounting board to be the same size. Instead, I mount the print on a larger board, and then trim to size, making a clean edge and a nice, square image.

      Brian

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