You can make your own picture frames for a fraction of the cost of buying them at a frame store. You don’t need a large shop, and it’s a great way to use workshop scraps. Making picture frames for your art and photos offers a great return on your investment of time, effort and materials.
You might think the trickiest part of making a picture frame is cutting the miters. But with a simple table saw jig, the challenge is easily conquered. The real trick to building picture frames is the workflow. The right process makes this project a snap for any woodworker. In fact, once you’re set up you’ll find it’s faster and easier to make several frames at once than to make them individually — so this is the perfect project for holiday gift makers.
Rather than provide plans for a single frame, I’ll take you through each step and offer tips along the way. Once you understand the concepts, you can create your own designs.
Design the frame
The two basic design variables are the mat and the frame molding. First, decide whether you will use a mat. I recommend matting photos and prints, but it isn’t required.
You don’t need to know exact dimensions yet, but you must determine the approximate widths of the mat and frame molding. Experiment with different combinations, but avoid making them the same width. Using a mat that is wider than the frame molding isolates the image from the frame and creates a contemporary appearance. Using frame molding that is wider than the mat gives the frame more prominence and creates a more traditional appearance. Mat cutting is a skill. Several mat-cutting kits are available at framing, craft and woodworking supply stores, or you can purchase precut mats from a frame shop.
Next, design a frame molding that will complement the picture. The frame should not overwhelm the image it surrounds. You might be tempted to add many fancy router bit profiles to make the frame more impressive. However, simpler is often better. For example, when designing a frame for rustic images or contemporary images, a simple square-edge frame molding (with no profile) is often best.
Sometimes you won’t know what will end up in the frames you are building, especially if you plan to give them as gifts. In this case, consider the recipients’ home décor, and build a frame that reflects their taste. When giving frames as gifts, you’ll want to make them accommodate common picture sizes, such as 5 x 7-in., 8 x 10-in. or
16 x 20-in. rectangles or 3- to 6-in. squares (see Photo 4, at right).
Make the molding
Hundreds of molding styles are available at framing shops, but you’ll save the most money by making your own moldings. Lumber species that machine well are the most popular choices, including beech, poplar, red oak and mahogany. I prefer 3/4-in.-thick stock because it is commonly available and less expensive than thicker stock.
The stock is made into frame molding by adding profiles. The one profile every frame molding incorporates is a rabbet in back for the picture and glass. The most common frame rabbet is 3/8 in. wide x 1/2 in. deep. The easiest way cut a profile in the stock is with a router table set up with a piloted bit. You can also use a table saw to cut profiles such as rabbets, bevels and coves.
Combining decorative profiles on a single piece of molding creates a variety of different frame styles. You can also stack pieces of the 3/4-in. stock to create thicker moldings, called stacked moldings. Stacked moldings are often used by trim carpenters to create large profiles, such as crown molding, that would be too expensive and difficult to cut from a single large piece of stock.
The easiest way to design a stacked molding is to sketch your idea and then mock up a model using scrap pieces. Making a mock-up requires setting up the router bits twice, once to create all of the small mock-up pieces and a second time, after you have worked out the design details, to create the actual moldings. It is time-consuming, but it will prevent costly mistakes.
Most stacked frame moldings contain two to four pieces of stock. Create a combination of pieces that lock together in rabbets or align along the edges so the pieces register during assembly. All pieces must maintain the same positions along the length of the frame molding or the miters will not line up.
If your frame will be one color, you should assemble the individual pieces before finishing. But if you plan to use multiple colors or finishes, such as a combination of staining, painting and gold leafing, apply the different finishes to each molding section before assembly. Assemble the pieces using glue and 3/4- to 1-1/4-in.-long finish nails, depending on the thickness of the molding (see Photo 5, at right).
Finish the molding
It is best to finish mitered frame molding before cutting the miters and assembling. This technique keeps the finish from accumulating in the frame corners and leaves the miters looking crisp. You can touch up minor flaws in the finish after assembly.
Before applying any finish, sand all pieces smooth using 100-, 150- and 220-grit sandpaper. Use profile blocks, dowels and wedges to achieve uniform sanding. Each surface requires no more than a few passes with each grit of sandpaper.
Use a rag or foam brush to apply stain. Apply paint with a spray can or a paint spray gun. You can also use decorative paint products such as crackle treatments, which are available at home centers and paint retailers. To create an aged or antique look, wait until the paint is dry and then sand the corners and edges. To simulate the look of gold leaf, use metallic gold spray paint. Topcoat the frame molding with polyurethane or lacquer.
Cut the miters
Although cutting a miter joint is not as easy as cutting a butt joint, it’s not as difficult as you may think. You might be inclined to use a miter saw, but it’s not the best tool for the job because it’s too easy to make cutting errors. To achieve accurate results with a miter saw, you should recheck the blade angle with a square every time you move it.
I have found that it is much easier to get consistently accurate miter cuts using a simple table saw jig (see Photo 8, at right). If you build the jig accurately, you will end up with perfect miters every time.
Before cutting the miters, trim each piece of frame molding slightly longer than the planned length. Next, mark the miter directions. (It’s easy to mix them up.) Make the first miter cut through one end of each piece. Measure from the outside corner of the miter and mark the second miter location on each piece. Make the second miter cut, leaving each piece its final length.
Assemble the frame
There are many methods of securing mitered frame joints. The method described here is simple and easy, although it doesn’t produce the strongest joints.
Lightly coat the ends of each piece with wood glue and position them in a frame-clamping jig. Frame and corner clamps are available from woodworking retailers. I prefer the type that pulls all four corners together simultaneously rather than clamping one corner at a time (see Photo 7, at right).
Slowly tighten the clamps until all corners are tight and square. Do not overtighten the clamps. Clean up glue squeezeout after the glue has dried.
Glue applied to end grain has little structural strength, so reinforce the miter with fasteners. Drive 3d x 1-1/2-in. or 16-gauge 1-1/2-in. finish nails through each side molding piece and into the ends of the top and bottom molding pieces. If you are not using a pneumatic nail gun, drill a pilot hole before driving the nail to avoid breaking the glue joint.
Install picture and glass
Purchase a piece of 3/16-in.-thick glass (nonglare is best) that is 1/16 in. smaller in length and width than the opening in the frame rabbets. Clean the glass thoroughly on both sides. Insert the glass into the frame and then immediately place the picture and mat on top of the glass. Place another piece of mat (or cardboard) on top of the picture as a backer board. Secure the layers with brads or glazier’s points (also called push points). If the frame is made of hardwood, you might need to drill pilot holes for the brads.
Connect a piece of braided wire between two loop hangers fastened about a third of the way from the top of the frame (see Photo 10, at right). When using a single hanger, use a sawtooth hanger that permits the picture to be shifted and leveled when placed on the wall.
Now that you have the necessary jigs and understand the process, you’re ready to crank up production. So dust off your favorite photos and grab your gift list — the holiday season is just around the corner.
Bench Dog (router table and featherboards)
Rockler (router bits)