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How To Enhance Your Picture Frames


The other day was a Thursday. And I'd forgotten that it was Thursday. I was browsing Instagram and I saw someone posting a "#tbthursday" picture (Turn Back Thursday). So I thought I should post an old project also, and I looked up from my computer and there on the wall above my computer were these two framed pieces (the second set described below). So I snapped a photo and posted it to my instagram account.

Later I was pondering these pictures some more. I had made these back in 2011, and at the time I wrote an article about them for Canadian Home Workshop Magazine -- which has since ceased publication. I dug through my website and was surprised to see that I had never posted anything about these pictures. I love talking about design, so I decided to rectify that by making a video (above).

Here below is the original article. The video just talks about design. The article also gives some building guidelines.

A picture frame, as a shop project, is fairly straightforward. You take four pieces of wood and join them at the corners, usually with a 45-degree miter. But there is far more to woodworking than just the assembly of pieces of wood. There are countless design decisions that can be made to make a project interesting, challenging, and uniquely yours.

In this article I will describe two framing projects that go in widely divergent directions, which will hopefully inspire you as you plan and design your own.

As with all projects, a parts list and illustration is included. However, all dimensions will need to be adjusted to match whatever piece you are framing.

First, A Frame Within A Frame:

My first framing challenge was to frame a set of three photographs, commemorating a family vacation to the east coast. After various considerations, I decided that it was simpler and cheaper to start with a prepackaged frame from a store. This would already have glass and a mat, and was made to hold three photos, and is far cheaper than having custom glass cut and a custom mat cut. However, as a statement, it was all bland, since it consisted of just a simple unadorned black frame.

My challenge, then, would be to build a custom wooden frame that wrapped around the prepackaged frame.

For the lumber, I chose to start with some 6/4 spalted maple which I had been saving for a number of years. I had two twisted, cracked and knot-filled 8ft boards that had been laying around my shop for years. I couldn't bear to throw out these spalted boards, but they did not contain enough useable wood for most of my projects. However, a picture frame does not require large pieces, so I was able cut those two boards down to provide just enough wood for my desired frame, with a bit left over for practise cuts.

As always, start with jointing and planing your stock. Planing spalted maple is like opening presents at Christmas -- the interwoven black lines that are revealed are all delightful surprises. Cut your boards to rough length, but leave them generously oversized. The next step is to lay out the position and orientation of your boards. With the intricate spalted lines this is crucial and I cannot emphasize it enough. Take your time and lay things out to maximize the visual impact. Mark all pieces carefully with position and orientation. In my situation I placed pieces together that had similar colour, and also worked with the grain to create an effect like an arch. The spalting appears to almost form an arch that curves around the top of the piece.

With the beauty of the spalting revealed, it was time to change my plans. I had originally planed to use different molding bits in the router table to make decorative cuts in the frame. However, the spalting made such an impact that I concluded that it deserved to speak for itself. Instead, I simply chamfered the inside and outside edges of the frame with a 45 degree chamfering bit in the router table – first a narrow 1/8x1/8 chamfer along the inside, then a larger 5/16x5/16 one on the outside edge. For the rest, I just left the frame plain -- though really the lovely spalting ensured that it was far from plain.

Remember that this frame is designed to wrap around another frame. To do so, I cut a deep rabbet along the inside edge of the frame parts. For my situation, a rabbet 1/4” wide by 3/4” deep was called for. That is quite a deep rabbet, since I am need space to fit a frame in there, and not just a mat. It isn't very wide, though. That was intentional, as I do want to have a portion of the purchased frame revealed, as part of the design. The rabbet can be cut on a router table, or with a dado blade on the tablesaw as I did.

If you cut this rabbet on the tablesaw, you might just set your fence and run the piece between the dado blade and the fence. This can be a risky procedure, since you cannot use a splitter when cutting, and if the blade pinches the board between the fence and the board you could end up with some dangerous kickback. The safe way to cut a rabbet like this, is to clamp a sacrificial board to your fence, and then raise your dado blade up into that board, such that the dado is now partially embedded in your sacrificial fence. Then, using one or more featherboards to keep your board tight to the fence+blade, run your your work over the dado blade.

The next step is to measure and cut the 45-degree miters at each corner. Measure very carefully, as the inside frame must fit inside this outer frame. If you have an accurate Miter saw you can use it for these cuts. My own miter saw is more suited for construction work and I used a 45degree sliding jig on the Tablesaw for these cuts.

This is a large and heavy frame and I was not willing to just trust the glue, so I added two dowels at each corner using my dowelling jig. This is far overkill in strength, but easy to do. Pocket holes or biscuits could also work there for reinforcement.

Second, Tall and Slender is the Theme:

My second project involved a pair of prints that my wife brought back from a trip to Kenya. Being original artwork, as well as a unique size, these called for a different approach than with the previous frame. Purchasing a "standard" or "common" sized mat just wasn't an option. The first task, therefore, was to order some custom mats cut to fit these prints. I needed the dimension of those mats before I could proceed with cutting any stock to length.

These particular prints are very bright and busy, so I wanted a wood that was more understated. Spalted wood or anything with wild grain would not be a good idea in this situation, since it would compete with the picture subject. I chose to use cherry, selecting boards that had a fairly straight and regular grain. I started with a wide board, 10-1/2" wide, by 48" long. This yielded enough wood for two frames, a well as some excess pieces for test cuts. By using wide stock like this I had plenty of room to arrange and cut out the best pieces. Typically the edges of wide boards have quartersawn sections, (with the long straight grain I was looking for) whereas the center section is more flat-sawn and is from closer to the center of the tree (with wilder curvy grain). By sticking to the edges, I was able to get all long straight grained pieces for my two frames.

In addition to being bright and busy, these prints are also quite tall and slender, as were the figures in the prints. In my frame design I wanted to echo that vertical orientation. Therefore, instead of typical mitered corners, I extended the two vertical pieces of each frame right up to the edge of the frame and beyond; standing 1/2" proud at both top and bottom. As well, the two horizontal pieces of the frame would be left unadorned, whereas some vertical accents would be cut into the vertical pieces to again contribute to the tall theme of these frames. Start with jointing and planing your stock to thickness. My rough wood

started 1-1/8" thick, and was very straight. Through careful planning and prep work, I was able to keep the planing to a minimum, and ended up with wood just a fraction under 1" in thickness. Rip the pieces to 2” in width and cut to length. The picture will sit in a rabbet that is 3/8” wide, around the inside back edge of the frame. Therefore, the two horizontal sections of frame need to be cut to a length that is 3/4” shorter than the width of the picture mat. Determining the length of vertical sections requires a bit more math. Take the height of the picture mat, subtract 3/4” to allow for the rabbet, then add two times the width of the frame, and finally add another 1" to allow for the vertical frame to protrude 1/2” above and below the horizontal frames. Refer to the accompanying plans if that is not clear.

Next, I set the fence on my tablesaw to 1/4", and the blade height to 1/16". I then ripped a long shallow groove on the face of the vertical frame members, then flipped the board end for end and ripped a second groove. This adds two lines to the vertical frame parts. Next I moved to the router table and inserted a grooving bit, and ran a shallow 1/8" deep V-groove down the exact center of each vertical frame piece. As mentioned previously, the two horizontal frame pieces were intentionally left unadorned.

I used a pocket hole jig to join the vertical and horizontal frame members, but dowels or other methods would also work. This is a side grain to end grain butt joint, so it will require some form of mechanical connection – I would not recommend just using glue.

Once the frame is assembled place a 3/8” rabbeting bit in your router and route out the inside back edge of the frame, to receive the picture mat. Take several passes, each time adjusting the bit a bit lower until the full depth of 5/8" is reached. Use a chisel to square up the four corners of the rabbet, testing the fit with your picture mat.

Finishing up:

All three frames received the same finish method. The frames were first sanded to 180 grit smoothness, and then carefully cleaned of any dust. Three coats of Circa 1850 Tung+Teak oil were then applied, with a light buffing inbetween coats. This is a quick and simple wipe-on finish. It adds a touch of amber to the pale maple wood, and heightens the contrast of the spalting. It also gives a slight darkening to the cherry frames, but if you want to hasten that process, try laying the cherry out in the bright sunshine for a few days.

In this article, I have tried to highlight the design aspect of these projects. As a custom woodworker, you have the ability to make the frame part of the artwork. Instead of just choosing a generic frame, you can choose the wood, and the design to support and echo the artwork that you are framing. In that way you enhance the piece, instead of just framing it.


Thanks for reading!

See Also:

Designing Picture Frames

Picture Frames Build

Hello Internet Nail and Gear Plaque

Epoxy T-Shirt Experiment

Spaceman Spiff Picture Frame