• Defying Gravity: Hanging a Large 2-dimensional Object

    By Richard Hinson

    I canít say how many times Iíve been asked the question, ďHow did you get that painting to stay on the wall?Ē Hanging a large painting on a wall poses many challenges and great potential for catastrophe. There are several factors that need to be assessed before proceeding with hanging a large, heavy painting. The weight alone of a large painting creates the possibility of dropping the object damaging both the frame and the painting, not to mention the potential of injury to
    personnel. The age of many paintings and frames can compromise the integrity of the hanging devices used to keep them on the wall, and the condition of the wall can pose difficult problems for hanging heavy objects. We have developed a method for hanging large, heavy paintings that reduces the stress on the hanging devices (and the Installation staff), reinforces the site on the wall where the hangers attach, and gives us the assurance that the paintings will stay where we want them.

    Let me describe first what I consider to be a large painting. A large painting or framed 2-dimensional object is one so large that two preparators, lifting on opposite sides of the object, have trouble lifting it. This can be a painting as small as 48 inches by 60 inches, depending on the weight of the materials used in the frame, glazing, and backboard, etc. If it takes more than two people to comfortably lift it, itís large.

    Let me discuss an example of hanging a large painting. In our collection we have a large painting by an Italian Neapolitan painter that is approximately 10 feet by 10 Ĺ feet, without the frame. The profile of the frame for this painting is about 12 inches, making the overall dimensions of the painting 12 by 12 Ĺ feet and the approximate weight about 350 pounds.

    With any large painting or 2-dimensional object the first thing we do is check the hanging devices, the D-rings or whatever hardware is on the painting. Many old frames will have some wrought iron rings or straps that have been used in the past for hanging, as was the case with this painting. We rarely ever use existing hardware to hang a heavy object for several reasons. Old hardware is just that, old. It may be compromised due to stress from years of hanging and re-hanging. Another reason we rarely use old hardware is that it has been installed by someone using a different method of hanging. In most cases, especially with new accessions or older accessions not on view recently, we install new D-rings. In special circumstances, we contact our Conservation Department for advice on how to proceed. My experience always tells me to install new hanging devices. That way Iím certain of their integrity. It just so happened that we had two heavy-duty D-rings that were perfect for this painting.

    We never hang framed objects by wire. Hanging wire can stretch, fray, or break from too heavy a load. Hanging wire is compromised every time itís bent. Not to mention that itís difficult to hang paintings on a straight-line center when wire is used. Itís possible, but difficult.

    When a painting comes to the museum, if it doesnít have D-rings, we get permission from the owner to add them. Two D-rings are always used, one on each side of the frame about 12 to 18 inches from the top of the frame depending on the size and structure of the frame. They are installed at the same height on each side to facilitate hanging. There is nothing more aggravating to a Preparator than a Framer who installs D-rings at different distances from the top on each side of the frame.

    After the D-rings were installed, we next had to look at where the painting was going to be hung. Was the wall going to be structurally strong enough to support the painting? Where I work, I have the luxury of knowing that, under most circumstances, the walls will have no problem holding whatever we put on them. Our walls have ĺ inch plywood installed behind the drywall. This was something that was designed into the original plans of the building. When we install an object on the walls of any gallery in our new museum building, we donít have to worry about something falling because the walls failed.

    To hang paintings like this one, we had cut in our wood shop some small plates of ľ inch plywood approximately 4 inches by 4 inches that we secured to the wall with 4 drywall screws in each corner of the plate. (see figure #1) A hole was then drilled into the plywood plate through the wall into the ĺ inch plywood behind the drywall where the D-rings on the painting should hang. A screw-L was screwed into the hole in the plate and into the ĺ inch plywood behind the drywall giving it more strength than if only screwed into the ĺ inch plywood and drywall alone. With the L of the screw-L pointing up, the painting was almost ready to be lifted into position. Note: The holes for the screw-L are never centered in the plywood plate. Depending on which side of the painting the plate is going to be used, the hole for the screw-L is closer to the right or left side of the plate.

    Figure #1
    Drawing by Michael Kennaugh

    Sometimes, if a painting is very large or very heavy, as was the case with this painting, we will place two L-brackets at the bottom of the painting to offer additional support. (see figures #2 & #3) The brackets get placed where they are most helpful for easing the pressure on the D-rings and hangers. All of this requires very accurate measurements, both for the hangers and the brackets, but can be mastered very quickly. We purchase the L-brackets at our local hardware store or manufacture them ourselves out of flat stock. They come in many different sizes and thicknesses and by now we have a large assortment on hand to choose from. The Brackets are placed pointing up so the bottom of the painting rests on the inside of the bracket and hides it from view. We cut the bracket to leave only enough of the arm extending out from the wall to hold the painting. This makes the bracket invisible when viewing the painting from eye level. If any of the bracket is showing, we paint it to diminish its appearance.

    This method of hanging has served us well for many years and helps me sleep at night knowing that what I put on the wall today will still be there when I get into work the next morning. In all the years we have been using this method of hanging large objects, there has been only one incidence of an object falling and that was because the integrity of the wall on one side of the object was compromised and failed. A large painting was hung on a wall in a gallery that had masonry walls instead of drywall. The wall crumbled and caused the hanging device to pull through the wall. When we arrived at work the next day, the painting was swinging from the hanger on the other side, proving that the strength of the hangers and our method of hanging are more than adequate to hold the weight of the objects.

    This method of hanging is only good when you are certain of the integrity of the walls you are hanging objects on, the strength of the hanging devices you use, and the condition of the actual frame. Every installation is different. There are always factors that need to be evaluated before definitive answers can be given. A large painting should never be hung on a wall without adequate support. If you arenít certain the wall can hold the weight of the object, or the frame or hanging devices arenít solid enough, you shouldnít hang it. Whenever you are in doubt, contact a Conservator for advice.

    Richard Hinson
    Preparations Manager,
    Packing and Storage
    Museum of Fine Arts, Houston