Canadian Woodworking

Rustic reflections: simple mirror frame with a weathered look

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Published: October November 2016

This simple frame is accentuated by a bold, distressed finish to give it some added character. There are many different types of finish you can use to customize this frame, and make it look great in your home. Learn how this finish was applied, and see a few other options for different looks.


When making frames for pictures or mirrors, there are many options for design. Rather than just make a standard mitred frame, I wanted to add some angles to the project so I tilted each of the four frame pieces in towards the center of the frame. If you want to make this frame even easier to build, just cut the mitres with the parts flat on your table saw’s mitre sled, or your mitre saw’s surface.

Trim, Then Cut
In order to fit the workpiece on the sled, without interfering with the thin strips, Brown rough-trimmed each mitre on the bandsaw before making the final cut on the table saw.

Mitre Cut
With the thin strips secured to the mitre sled, the workpiece sits tilted on an angle while it’s being mitred.

More Accuracy
Though the first mitre cut doesn’t need to be positioned accurately, the second mitre cut does. Brown marked the length on the face of each part, then added a 45 degree line to the workpieces’ surface so he could cut to the line.

Perfect Circle
When drilling dowel holes freehand with a brad point drill bit, make sure the initial cuts made by the bit’s lips cut a full circle; otherwise, the hole will not be perpendicular to the face.

Dowel Centers
With one half of each joint drilled for dowels, insert dowel centers into the holes, align the mating parts, and press together. Repeat for the other three corners then drill the holes.

Angled Assembly
Since the parts will be assembled with their faces on an angle, this assembly is a bit trickier than normal. Four clamps are needed – two in each direction – to bring the joints together. Just make sure to close the joints evenly, as the dowels will only do so much to ensure the joints are aligned during assembly.

Even Back
Before running the rabbet to accept the mirror, ensure the inner, rear edges are all coplanar. This will ensure the rabbet will be even and the mirror will sit in the rabbet nicely.

Run the Rabbet
With a rabbet bit in his router table Brown creates the joint with a few passes. Be sure to avoid climb-cutting, or the frame might jump during the cut.

Position the Clips
Mark a line about 1/4" away from the start of the rabbet, set up a fence on your drill press and bore shallow 7/16" diameter holes to accept the retaining clips.

Final Fit
A bit of material needs to be removed before the arm of the retaining clip will fit in place.

Hanging Groove
Brown positioned his router table fence so the groove to hang the frame was positioned on the top rail. He then added a stop block to position the initial plunge cut. Once the frame made contact with the router table’s surface he moved the frame about 1/4" towards him, stopped the router and waited for the bit to stop spinning before removing the frame from the bit.

Start Layering
Brown applied a wet coat of brown stain to most of the frame; he didn’t worry about covering the entire surface, so there was some variation. When dry, he applied a tan-coloured milk paint. Notice he allowed some of the dark stain to show through the tan paint, to add an aged look.

Add, Then Subtract
On top of the tan paint went a blue milk paint, again with near-full coverage. A very light layer of tan-coloured paint was applied to a very small portion of the surface, before Brown used medium grit sandpaper to distress the finish. Uncovering layers of blue and tan paint, as well as brown stain, produced an aged look.

Source your Material

If you keep your eyes open for a pallet or two as you drive around your home town, you might be surprised at how many you notice. Lumberyards, home improvement stores, and industrial areas are your best bets. Always ask before taking them. When you’re scouting, you might want to bring a battery-powered circular saw or a handsaw with you, as you might have to break down a pallet to fit it into your vehicle.

It’s best not to use wood that is very wet, so if you don’t have a moisture meter you should allow the wood to dry out before building something with it. Then again, if you’re going for a really rustic frame, and don’t mind gaps, start cutting right away.

Once your pallet is home, plan which pieces will look best for use in your project and extract them from the pallet. Account for the longest pieces first, as they will be the most difficult to find. I used a saw to cut the ends of two crosspieces away from the pallet, then used a pry bar to remove the nails in the center of the piece. Make sure there are no nails in the material before you machine it.

I used a pallet that was outside for the last six months. It was very weathered, but was structurally sound. The rough, weathered surface of the wood lent itself to a rustic looking frame, but there’s nothing wrong with using wood that looks like new, and dressing all of the surfaces smooth. It all depends on the look you want.

Lay out your Frame

With the wood on your workbench, plan where each piece will be positioned. I wrote on the backs of the parts, and even added rough lines where mitres were going to be cut, so there was no confusion during machining. Because I was going to be using the inner edges of each of these boards to run a rabbet router bit bearing on, in order to cut the mirror rabbet, I made sure the inner edges where at least fairly straight. You can joint the inner edge of each piece, but that will remove any patina that’s already there – if you’re okay with that, go for it. I settled on a 30″ x 17″ frame.

Tilted Mitres

Because the frame parts were going to finish on a slight angle, I added 5/16″ thick strips to my table saw’s mitre sled. My frame parts were 3-1/2″ wide, so I added the strips 3-1/4″ away from the sled’s fence. The strips had to be kept about 1″ back from the cut line, otherwise they would interfere with each cut. You’ll know what I mean once you go to make your first cut – if the opposing fence is too close it will not allow the workpiece to get close enough to the blade.

The first operation was to roughly cut the mitres on my bandsaw. This was so the waste material wouldn’t butt into the opposing 5/16″ high fence. I cut all four of the cuts needed on the left side of my mitre sled, then measured, marked, aligned and cut the mating four edges. If this was a finer piece I would have set up stops to cut like pieces to the exact same length, but I didn’t go to those lengths on this rustic frame. It’s kind of fun working to “close enough” tolerances. In hindsight, I wish I had tilted the four frame members even more. Adding another 1/8″ to 1/4″ to the thickness of the strips that were applied to the mitre sled would have created sides with a more pronounced angle to them.

Dowel joinery

Butt-joining mitres is not overly strong, so I decided to add a few 1/4″ diameter dowels to the joints to make sure that when this frame falls off the wall it will have a fighting chance to remain in one piece. Rather than get all serious about jigs and accuracy, I drilled two holes in one side of each of the four joints freehand with a cordless drill. I used a brad-point bit – I wouldn’t think of using a regular twist bit, as it skates around at the start of the cut. To ensure the holes were bored perpendicular to the face of the joint, it’s important to watch the start of the cut carefully. The two lips of the bit should form a circle at once if the bit is held perpendicular to the face. If only an arc shows up, the bit is on an angle.

With a pair of 1/4″ dowel centers in the holes I worked my way around the four joints, butting each joint together to leave two tiny points. I then drilled the mating holes in all the joints. A quick dry assembly revealed they didn’t all work out perfectly, as the end-grain of softwood is never easy to drill into accurately, but, once again, I was able to say “close enough”.


Add a light layer of glue to all eight of the mitre joint faces. This will cause the next layer of glue to not sink in as much, creating a stronger joint. Next, install the 1-1/2″ long dowels in one side of each joint, making sure they all protrude about 3/4″. With four clamps nearby, coat all the dowel holes and mitre face and bring the frame together. Run two clamps underneath the assembly, and two more clamps on top. When tightening the clamps, be sure to apply only a bit of force in one direction, then apply force to the clamps in the opposing direction. Work back and forth, using a bit of hand strength when needed, to bring the four joints tightly together. With the dowels in place, small gaps can be shrugged off, as long as you mutter to yourself “close enough”. This is a rustic frame, after all.

Run a rabbet

Set up a rabbet bit in your router table, so it makes a 3/8″ high cut. The width of rabbet it leaves is determined by the size of bearing installed in the bit. I changed the bearing so the width of the rabbet was 7/16″.

To ensure the front faces of the rabbets would all be coplanar, and the mirror would sit against the rabbets without flexing, I used a hand plane to take away some of the twist in the underside of the frame. Removing the high spots left a frame that sat on a flat surface and didn’t rock at all. Now, when I lay the frame face-up on a router table to run the rabbets, they will be in the same plane.

Make a few passes around the inner edges of the frame to remove the material. You could even start with a large bearing, make a pass, then switch to a medium-sized bearing to make a second pass, before switching to the smallest bearing to finish the rabbets. When the rabbet has been run, square off the corners with a chisel.

Mirror clips

To hold the mirror in place you could silicon it in place, but that gets problematic when the mirror needs to be replaced. I used plastic retaining clips from Lee Valley (Product #00S07.02). I always have a few different sizes on hand, depending on the depth required.

I set up a fence on my drill press then drilled 7/16″ diameter holes to a depth of about 3/16″. The holes were positioned so a quadrant of each hole was in line with the edge of the rabbet.

Each hole had to be opened up a bit with a chisel, so the clip could extend over the back of the mirror.

Hanging Groove

You could use a simple picture frame hanger on the back of your frame, but I opted to rout a short groove with a keyhole bit. With my fence positioned to cut a groove in the middle of my frame, I set up a stop block to help me position the frame so I could slowly lower my frame onto the rotating bit. I then slowly moved the frame about 1/2″ to create the groove. If you move the frame the wrong way – trust me, it’s easy to do – you can just rerun the groove, but move the frame in the opposite direction.

Ease some edges … maybe

Because my frame didn’t go together perfectly – remember my “close enough” approach – I eased all sharp edges of the mitre joints, as well as removed any small bits of wood that looked like they were going to fall off as soon as I hung the frame. It exposed fresh wood, which didn’t look fantastic when beside the rough, silver surfaces of the rest of the wood, but since I was adding a painted finish I wasn’t too concerned.

If you plan on leaving the wood its natural colour, or even just adding a natural oil, I would carefully consider how much edge easing you do.

Add a finish

Because this is a fairly simple project, and I don’t often paint wood, I wanted to add some colour to the mix. I’ve always liked milk paint, especially when the look is on the worn side. I played around with a few different options of laying colours, and then applied my first coat of dark walnut stain (“Provincial Walnut”, with a brush, making sure the corners and edges were covered. I didn’t worry too much about completely covering each face. When dry, I mixed up a fairly thick batch of the tan (“Hampton”) colour paint and brushed it on. I focused on covering all the high spots, edges and much of the face surfaces, but again didn’t fuss too much.

The next step in this finishing process was to mix and apply the blue (“St. Laurent”) over the tan. Again, I wasn’t aiming for complete coverage, as I wanted some of the tan, and even a little bit of the brown stain to show through. The final application was another very light coat of the tan paint. I probably only covered about 5–10 percent of the surface; this was a light coat with the intention of adding a highlight to the textured surfaces and edges. I used a fairly dry brush, and a light touch for this final coat.

When it was dry, I used 150 grit sandpaper to remove some colour from the edges, as well as the higher spots, on the wood. This gave an even more worn look. A coat of hemp oil over the paint gave a nice sheen and offered a bit of additional protection.

Nothing is perfect

It’s important to not aim for perfection when applying this finish, as wear rarely happens evenly. Edges and high spots are going to wear down quicker, as well as pick up a darker, worn look. There are likely thousands of approaches to applying a finish like this, so I’d suggest practicing on some scrap wood before reaching for the frame.

Install the mirror with the clips, drive a screw into the wall and hang your mirror. Don’t forget to have a quick glimpse to see how great you look in your new mirror.

What finish will you apply to your frame? Share your project with everyone at the end of this article.

Selecting a Finish

From coloured to natural, distressed to even, painted to stained, how are we supposed to decide on how to finish this frame? The bottom line is you have to finish this frame with something you will like, and will look good in your home. The finish can be the focal point of the project if you choose a bold colour, or it can barely be noticed if you brush on a simple, clear oil.

Before deciding on a general finish for this frame I applied a bunch of finishes to some similarly weathered wood. All the finishes were nice, but it all depends on what you’re looking for. If your wood has a silvery, worn look you might just want to apply a simple wiping oil and be done.

Polyurethane, coloured or clear spray-can finishes, stains and one of my favourites – milk paint – are all possibilities. With a simple frame like this, the right finish can really punch it up or it can let the wood speak for itself. Here are what a few different finishes look like on the weathered wood I was using.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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