Build Your Own Picture Frames
Rather than buy the same, standard picture frames that everyone has on their wall, learn how to make your own and a world of possibilities will present itself to you.
A few years ago, an aunt lent me an album filled photos of our family dating back several generations. Charmed by the quaint poses and changes in dress, I scanned the photos, intending to make digital prints to frame and display. All went well until I looked into the cost of framing.
I’m not down on framing shops – everybody has to make a living – but I was shocked to discover I couldn’t afford more than a fraction of the number of frames I wanted. That prompted me to learn how to do it myself. It turned out to be not that tough, so to help you get started I’ll pass along a few tips that I picked up along the way.
Your first step is wood selection. Take your time here and be a bit picky. You can use almost any straight-grained hardwood or softwood, but be sure it’s well dried and stable. You don’t want your frame twisting and warping.
Practice restraint with wildly figured woods: they can compete with the artwork for visual attention. They’re also much harder to mill and finish. Also, be wary of resinous woods like pine, which can ooze pitch seemingly forever.
Picture frame moulding is a little different from standard trim moulding. It has a rabbet at the back, which holds the glass, matt board, artwork and backing board. This gives it an L-shaped profile. The front of the moulding usually has a decorative profile. This can range from a simple cove or roundover to gilded rococo carving – it’s entirely up to you.
When cutting the rabbet with two cuts on the table saw, be careful that the second cut releases the waste piece on the outside of the blade. If it is trapped between the blade and the fence, you risk a dangerous kickback.
A chop saw makes short work of rough-cutting your frame pieces to size. Perry likes to make the first cut at 90° to break the stock out.
Think Twice, Mark Once
The pencil marks the spot you measure from: at the point where the mitre cuts across the rabbet.
Instead of measuring where to cut the second side, use the first as a template. Place the two pieces with their mitred ends against a flat object, in this case a plane, and just mark the length from one piece to the other.
Simple and Accurate
A mitre sled on the table saw is a good alternative to the chop saw for cutting mitres.
A bevel-up plane like this low-angle jack is ideal for shooting the mitres.
Clamp and Reinforce
The Veritas 4-Way Speed Clamp holds the frame tight and square while V-nails are driven into the backs of the mitres.
Keys with a Router
This simple jig for the router table holds the frame secure while a three-wing slot-cutter bit cuts the slot in the frame’s corner.
Keys with a Table Saw
A shop-made cradle holds the frame while cutting slots in the corners on the tablesaw. The tablesaw’s fence is used to adjust the cradle’s position.
Neat and Tidy
Brush glue into the slot instead of onto the mitre key to minimize squeeze out.
The router table can do it all
You also have some options when it comes to how you make your moulding. I’ll start here with the most straightforward method, which is to do the whole job on the router table. You will have two profiles to rout: the rabbet on the back of the moulding and the decorative profile on the front.
To make the rabbet, use either a straight bit or a bearing-guided rabbeting bit. Your router table’s fence controls the width of the rabbet and should be used even if you are using the bearing-guided bit. The fence allows you to make two or three safe, shallow cuts instead of one heavy one that risks splintering the wood, or worse, injuring yourself. Make your last pass over the bit a nice, light clean-up cut.
Once the rabbet is done, select the router bit with the profile you want, set up the router table with the fence, and run the moulding profile just as you did the rabbet, remembering again to keep the cuts light.
You can also cut the rabbet on the table saw. This is a good choice if you have a lot of moulding to make; it’s much quicker. You can use either a standard blade or a dado set. With the standard blade, two intersecting cuts remove the waste, while a dado set can plow out the rabbet in a single pass if it’s not too deep.
When making two cuts with your standard blade, be careful as you make the second cut that the waste piece of wood releases to the outside of the blade. If it becomes trapped between the blade and the fence, you risk a dangerous kickback. Whether using a regular blade or a dado set, a featherboard will help give safe and consistent results by holding the workpiece firmly against the fence.
Make up enough moulding for your frame plus a bit more, keeping the extra in reserve for machine setup and in case you make a mistake. You can cut the moulding with a power mitre saw, on the tablesaw using a mitre gauge or mitre sled, or you can cut it by hand using a mitre box or saw guide. The chopsaw or tablesaw are the fastest and most accurate; cuts made by hand are trimmed afterwards with a plane and mitre shooting board.
Layout is critical
Before cutting, however, you have layout, measuring and marking to do, and this is where the fun begins. Some people – me at the head of the line – have what I have dubbed “three-dimensional dyslexia.” This is the inability to pre-visualize how to orient your moulding before you cut it. You know you have the disorder when you go to assemble your frame only to discover it looks like something designed by M.C. Escher.
Amazed at the number of mistakes I’ve made over the years when cutting moulding, I’ve come up with a simple way to minimize the disasters and I’m happy to pass these tips along to you.
Tip #1: Work with small, manageable pieces
Since you have to make a 45° mitre cut at each corner of the frame, it seems logical to start by cutting a mitre at one end of your moulding and then continue by making mitre cuts all the way down. Resist that urge. You will end up with mitres that are cut every which way but right.
Instead, cut your moulding to approximate lengths – the finished length plus another inch or so, depending on the frame’s size. Make 90° cuts. This will give you two pieces of moulding, about the size you need, that are easy to manage.
Tip #2: Mark and cut one single mitre at the end of each piece
Place one of the pieces of moulding on your bench so that the rabbet faces down against the bench, and the profile you routed faces up. Mark a 45° line from the outside corner of the moulding across to the inside (profiled) edge. It doesn’t have to be accurate; it’s only a visual aid to show you the direction in which to cut. Cut that mitre on each of the pieces, giving you four pieces of moulding, each with a mitre at one end and a straight cut at the other.
Tip #3: Fit the frame to the artwork, not the other way around
It’s easier to cut pieces of moulding to fit the glass and matt than vice versa, so whenever possible cut the glass and matt first. Use the glass as a template to mark the size of the frame, thus avoiding measuring – one of your greatest sources of error.
But when you do have to measure your moulding, here’s the trick to ensure you do it right. Don’t measure from the longest point, where your 45° cut crosses the outside edge of the moulding, and don’t measure from the shortest point, where the cut crosses the inside edge. Instead, measure from where your cut crosses the rabbet (see photo). Think of Goldilocks and the three bears: the outside is too long, the inside is too short, but the middle of the rabbet is ju-u-u-st right.
One more small but important detail: cut each side of the frame approximately 1/8″ longer than the size of the glass you order. Glaziers will cut glass to a tolerance of about ± 1/16″, so that extra eighth of an inch ensures that the glass still fits into the frame if it’s cut a bit too big, but won’t fall out if it’s a bit too small.
Tip #4: Use your visual aids
Remember the rough 45° line you drew in Tip #2 as a visual aid to be sure to cut the mitre the right way? It’s time to do it again. Measure the length of the side and mark that length in the middle of the rabbet. Double-check that your moulding is oriented properly; this is the point where you’re most likely to make an error because the moulding has been rotated 90° or 180°. If it’s correct, mark the direction of the cut with your pencil.
Tip #5: Once one side is cut to size, use it to mark the length of the opposite side
Instead of measuring the second side of the frame, inviting error, use the finished piece to mark the length of the other side. Hold the two pieces together with the tips of the cut mitres point-to-point, mark the length, make your visual aid mark showing which direction to cut, and then cut down from that point.
Perfecting the joint
If you used a chopsaw with a good blade or an accurate mitre sled on the tablesaw, you should have four perfect 45° mitres ready for gluing. Mitres cut by hand usually need some trimming to make them accurate and neat enough to glue. Do this with a finely tuned low-angle hand plane and a mitre shooting board.
The shooting board is a simple jig that holds the moulding at an accurate 45° angle while the plane trims it. Make one using some scraps of plywood: one for a base, a thin piece for a raised platform, and a third piece for a fence. The thin platform guides the plane and raises the workpiece above the plane’s side so the blade can make a full cut. Two sides of the fence must form a perfect 90° angle. Check this with an accurate square, then attach it to the platform so these sides meet the platform’s edge at a perfect 45°. Stick pieces of 120 grit sandpaper to the faces of the fence to prevent your workpiece from slipping and you’re all set.
When using the jig, make sure you plane “downhill” as shown in the photos so that you’re planing with, rather than against, the grain. This is a very fine cut, so I like to set up my plane using an extra piece of moulding with a mitre cut on one end. This is the Braille method: it relies on touch rather than sight. Retract the plane’s blade so that when you make a pass it doesn’t cut any wood at all. Very gradually advance the blade while making more test strokes. The blade might scrape a bit of sawdust off the end of the workpiece and then – if it’s truly sharp – will take a fine, almost transparent shaving.
That’s what you want. If you glide the plane forward and it goes “Thunk!” when it meets the workpiece, the blade is advanced much too far. To repeat: This is a very fine cut. Once setup is done, a few strokes of the plane should give you a perfectly smooth and accurate mitre, ready for gluing.
How do I clamp this?
You have a choice of clamps to use. Right-angle clamps secure each corner separately. They work fine but if your angles are off, cumulative error can add up quickly. Regular bar clamps also work fine, but again watch your angles. Check that your frame is square by measuring from corner to corner, then making a second measurement between the opposite corners. If the measurements are identical, it’s square. If not, squeeze in the longer dimension until it matches the shorter one, then tighten up the clamps.
Spring clamps used with pliers designed to spread them are yet another means to clamp a mitre while the glue sets. These leave a small mark in the wood, so they’re best used when the frame will be painted and the mark can be filled.
My favourite clamping method is to use the Veritas 4-Way Speed Clamp sold by Lee Valley. This clever combination of right-angle corners, threaded rods, and speed-clamping nuts not only clamps a frame evenly, it also pulls it square. Once you have cut and mitred the sides of your frame, place them face down on your bench-top inside the clamp. Then slide the cross-drilled brass nuts along the rods until they meet resistance. This forces them straight so their threads engage and they can be tightened up around the frame.
Thread the nuts until the clamp barely snugs up around the frame, then push all four sides of the frame down flat onto the desktop so everything is in the same plane, and tighten up the nuts. Now turn the clamped frame over and check the mitres to make sure there are no gaps. If there are, it’s back to the shooting board for a bit more plane work. If all the mitres are nice and tight, you can open up the clamp, spread a bit of glue onto the joints, clamp the frame and set it aside to cure.
Reinforce the joints
It would be nice if the mitred corners of the frame were strong enough once glued, but they’re not. In a mitre, you’re essentially joining end grain to end grain. This is always a weak joint – weak enough to break with your hands alone – so it needs some kind of reinforcement. This is your next step: those mitres need to be toughened up.
Again, you have a few options. The quickest is to drive a brad or small nail through the mitre from the side of the frame. It can then be countersunk and filled, and painted over. Have a look in the picture frame section of any dollar store and this is likely what you’ll find.
A much better option is to use V-nails. These are metal fasteners shaped like the letter “V” (duh!), which are far stronger and more stable than brads. They are pressed or driven into the back of the mitre, drawing it together and holding it fast. Lee Valley’s V-Nail & Brad Driver (86K87.10) gives you a V-nail driving tool and enough V-nails to make dozens of frames, or their V-Nail Press (86K33.01) for $132.00 provides a tool adequate for light production work.
Using V-nails is simplicity itself. The driving tool has a magnetized plunger that holds the nail. All you do is place the nail on the driving tool, position it so its “wings” are aligned with the sides of the frame, and drive it home with a mallet. In a wide frame, three or four V-nails can be used along the joint for greater strength.
Another alternative is to use a keyed mitre joint. This reinforces the joint by providing long-grain gluing strength. It can also add a decorative element if you use keys cut from contrasting woods or use more than one key per corner.
You can cut the slots using a router mounted in a router table, or on the table saw using a simple jig; cutting it neatly by hand is a challenge. Once again, glue up the frame first. Then, set up your router in the router table with a slot-cutting bit used for biscuit joinery. It will cut a slot up to about 3/4″ deep, so it works for smaller frames.
Make a simple jig to hold your frame consisting of a flat plywood platform with two pieces of wood attached at 90˚ to each other and at 45˚ to the platform’s edge. They form a cradle that holds the frame secure while the jig is run along the router table’s fence and through the cutter.
Deeper slots can be cut using the table saw with a cradle attached to a box that fits over the saw’s fence. The fence is then used to position the work. Use a rip blade so its flat teeth cut a flat-bottomed groove. Be gentle while cutting the slots; those end-grain mitre joints are fragile.
Glue hardwood keys into the slots. Take care to brush glue into the slots instead of onto the keys to minimize squeeze-out. Once the glue cures, carefully cut off the waste ends of the keys using a flush-cutting saw so as not to mar the frame’s surface. Be especially gentle right at the corners where the wood is prone to chipping out. Once cut, trim the keys flush using a low-angle block plane. Plane in from the corners to avoid chip-out.
To complete your frame, sand any rough areas and break any sharp edges or corners – it’s nice if the frame feels as good as it looks. Brush or blow all the dust out of the wood’s pores before applying a finish. I prefer a coat of super blond shellac wiped on as a finish for light-coloured woods; it’s also a good sealer for pitchy woods. For darker woods such as cherry or mahogany I use a wiping varnish – either Tried & True Varnish Oil or, if I want it to dry a little faster, a shop-mixed blend of one-third boiled linseed oil, one-third spar varnish and one-third turpentine.
Your frame is now ready for its glass, image, matt and backer board. If you’re concerned about the image’s longevity, use only acid-free matt board and other materials intended for archival preservation of images. One nice last touch is to seal the opening at the back of the frame with a sheet of acid-free paper to keep out dust and pollutants. Wipe a thin coat of water-based paste around the back of the frame, cover it with the paper and let it dry. Trim the paper with a sharp blade for a neat, professional finish and you’re done.
The last step is to install hardware. This is basic, consisting either of hooks on the sides of the frame with picture wire strung between them, or of solid metal hangers attached to the center of the top of the frame at the back.
Another simple method is to rout a small groove along the back of the frame’s top section. Once the groove is routed the frame can be hung from a single nail or, if the framed artwork is especially heavy, two grooves can be routed to spread the load over two nails instead of one. A third option is to scroll a small bracket and hinge it to the back of the frame.
However you do it, framing your own pictures is fun, economical, and yet another outlet for your artistic impulses.