While some keen photographers don’t print a thing, there are those who feel ‘the print’ is the final step in image making. However, I’d go one step further and say ‘whatever form your final output, it is the displaying/showing of that photograph that is the final step’. For me, that means a physical print and I love them. However, anyone who has hung prints in their home will know getting the printing right is soon followed by deciding how to hang and light the print. These final steps can make all the difference and in this article I am going to talk about shunning picture hooks in favour of picture rails i.e. the sort of things you see in galleries. Sometimes they’re called ‘gallery rails’.
What are the Advantages of Picture Rails?
Your ‘installation’ is (and remains) totally customisable. You can add new frames, move existing work around, or remove them quickly and easily.
Individual pieces are quickly and easily adjusted for perfect alignment.
When moving things about, you won’t leave holes in the wall behind! Once installed, there is no need to ever move the picture rails. Large and heavy framed photographs (which will probably use strap hangers (also called D-rings) require drilling and raw plugs for conventional installation.
They can be an aesthetic choice, giving a very contemporary industrial or modern look with most designs.
You can hang images over doors and windows (more on this later. It’s not as weird as it sounds). After all, the frame hangs from the picture rail attached to the wall above the window or door.
See Above: These picture rails used a corner connector and you can see the clear ‘perlon’ wires. This frame hangs fine with the two hooks towards the centre, but it is coming down soon and will be re-hung with the hooks close to the margins, on the outside of the crimps on the picture hanging wire.
Who are Picture Rails For?
Ideal for people who wish to exhibit work, or rotate framed work through their home periodically. Upon moving into my new home, I realised that I had both of those requirements, so off I went to these people: Picture Display Systems. There are many similar alternatives out there and some of the components are standardised.
How Picture Rails Work
In simple terms, most work like this:
- Screw attachments to wall.
- Clip on picture rail (cut to length)
- Slot in hanging wires. Twist to secure.
- Slide on hooks.
- Hang work (using two wires and hooks per piece)
- Pray nothing falls down (this applies to all hanging methods).
I knew I needed about 20m/60feet of rail and would need to hang some 50″/110+cm frames. I therefore selected a medium weight system with a maximum hanging weight of 30kg. Better to over (rather than under) engineer things, right?
Some picture rails can be hung flush to the ceiling (which looks best IMHO), but I live in a Victorian house built by inebriated builders. While solidly built (yes, solid walls made from real bricks) nothing is level, so mine is placed about 3 inches (on average) from the ceiling. I’m also in an end terrace property, which also means that one wall has two chimneys, three pillars and an arch! I therefore did not run the rail along the entire length of the wall, following all the ins and outs of the wall. I simply placed rails at the appropriate height on all the surfaces I would be expecting to hang frames.
I chose a picture rail system that came pre-sprayed in primer suitable for interior emulsion. This meant it easily took a coat of the same paint I used for the walls. I also chose the clear plastic ‘Perlon’ wires rather than silvery steel cables, as I felt these would look best in my home. For some settings, I can see steel looking better. The Perlon wires are very transparent and the line you see on the wall tends to be a shadow from lighting, rather than the wire itself.
Exhibitions at Home
This was a key consideration for me. I want to exhibit photographs at my home, ranging from small private viewings of one or two images, right up to as many prints as my walls can reasonably hang. I mentioned earlier that rail systems allow you to hang images over windows and doors and this can be very handy if you have limited space. With a white venetian blind closed and set in a white wall, if you are hanging a large frame that spans the window void, it looks surprisingly OK.
My home is not large, however, on the ground floor I am going to be able to comfortably hang the following:
12 x 70-80cm wide frames, plus;
4 x 100+cm wide frames
Alternatively, I can hang a larger number of smaller frames or just spread them out a little more. This is a very good number for a fairly broad selection from any series or project I have ever shot. This would not be feasible with regular picture hooks.
If your ceiling is not level, I advise not trying to install the picture rails level. This will look like something is horribly slanted. The rail will operate perfectly fine on a very slight angle. The wires secure just fine (they have excellent ‘bite’). It looks best if you parallel the ceiling, even if that means sloping the rail. A laser level might seem like a good idea, but its unlikely to be useful for deciding where to drill unless your ceiling is perfectly level too.
If your walls are a bit curved or uneven, you can make little batons out of wood or plastic. While the picture rails will curl around concave and convex surfaces pretty well, there are limits (which my walls found!). You don’t want rails being pushed off their fixings! I used a couple of plastic batons in a few places from stacks of sheet plastic cut from household items or packaging. I drilled holes in them and they allowed the wall fixings to stand proud of the wall where they needed to to allow the picture rails to be flat enough to clip on without feeling like it was under undue pressure.
Look down! With your nose up close to the ceiling, its easy to forget to check where wiring conduits might be. Use a suitable detector. I came close to an unpleasant surprise!
Try to locate your wall fixtures close to where your wires (carrying their load) will be hanging if you put up very large frames. This is not essential if the fixtures are spaced at the recommended intervals (40cm/16″ for mine), but would seem to make sense.
Ensure you use felt or foam bumpers behind your images at the base. They’re likely to get moved around a bit more on wires and your walls will mark up in no time if you don’t use bumpers.
D-Rings/strap hangars located in the back of the frame moulding make hanging easiest, but you can hang frames that have a traditional string or wire in the back. If possible, put a knot in the strong, or a crimp in the wire, so that there is a little loop close to the margin of the frame. This will allow the wire hanging hook to go in this loop and not slide down the length of the string/wire.
Cost of Picture Rails?
From my supplier 20metres of rail (10 x 2m) with fixtures, 20 x 20kg hooks and wires, along with end caps and some corner caps was £200 (the competition is about the same). I then added another order of about £80 for 8 small hooks, 8 micro hooks and 14 more 1.5m Perlon wires. So, for £280 I am now set for just about any size and type of installation that I might undertake. In my opinion, that’s excellent value considering the huge flexibility I now have and the additional commercial opportunities it opens up. I also know I won’t have to fill or paint any walls when I move images around, either.
You need more rail than you think! This is because you cannot use a bunch of offcuts to make up a section of rail. The rail system seems to work best when you use the longest continuous sections of ‘whole’ rail. Heavy frame introduce a slight rotational force. While the wall fixings allow sections of rail to be joined together, if only one section is taking a load, then this section will not line up perfectly with the other sections that are not under load. I will find a solution to better join together sections, ensuring that this rotational force is transferred to adjacent lengths. This will be a personal solution, however, and I have not seen any products from any of the suppliers that add this finishing touch, which amazes me. All it would take would be a short section (10cm?) of aluminium or hard plastic to keep adjacent sections absolutely perfectly aligned and robustly connected to each other (rather than just to the wall). I had about 19m of wall, but will have used about another 5m of rail, because many of the ‘hangable’ sections of wall between chimneys and arches were about 1.2-1.6m long. The rest of the 2m length was therefore scrap.
I’ll post photos of my first ‘show’. Unfortunately I need to wait for the new floor, new kitchen and loft conversion before that happens. The house is still in a state of flux and I also have nowhere to prepare frames/prints and store framed prints not in use (hence loft conversion). I can’t wait!
I have installed new lighting to suit the rail system I’ve installed and I will write about that next.