Making A Picture Frame General Woodworking

by Don Heisz

Just over a year ago, my wife and I set up a darkroom in the basement and started taking black and white photos on film. In the beginning, it was just to have a bit of fun and see what the results were. We got the entire set of equipment at a low cost and we were both interested in photography. And I must say, it’s been a lot of fun and quite rewarding. Frankly, you get a different viewpoint on picture-taking when you print the photo yourself.

Anyway, not being constrained by the regular sizes and formats you get commercially, it’s sometimes difficult to get a frame that fits the photo. A short while ago, I took a picture of my 9 month old daughter standing at the living room window. It was the first time she had done that, actually, and I liked how the photo came out. I thought, for extra effect, it would be good to have the picture itself tall and narrow, to accentuate how short she is in comparison to the window. So, i printed the photo 11 inches high and 5 inches wide:

silver gelatin print to frame

A frame for such a photo? I guess I could buy one, but how much would it cost? Normally, you can get a standard sized frame and mat it out the size you need. But the ratio is so odd (5×11), it’s impractical to look for a frame. So, I decided to go an extremely economical route and make my own.
First, I needed a piece of glass. While you can put a photo in a glassless frame, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. Glass is much easier to clean than a photo. So, I went out and bought a very cheap clip frame. I got a size that is supposed to be used for framing large documents like diplomas, eleven by fourteen inches. The added bonus of getting the glass that way is the piece of fibreboard that comes with it. That can be used as a backing plate for the frame you make.
The glass, of course, needs to be cut. A few years ago, I needed to cut a piece of glass and so went out to the hardware store to buy a glass cutter. Now, not really that long ago, a glass cutter was a common tool to find in a handyman’s arsenal and they were certainly readily available in every hardware store. But that’s no longer the case, apparently. Hardly anyone cuts glass, so I actually had difficulty finding a cutter. There was one (only one) in the third hardware store I visited.
And amazingly enough, I could actually find it when I needed it this time.
Cutting glass, especially the very thin glass you get from a clip frame, is pretty easy. You score a line with the cutter using a straight edge as a guide. You need to press firmly and move the cutter consistently and not too quickly. You can feel and hear the cutter grinding into the glass. The score mark is a guide for where the glass should crack. I find it best to put something thin directly under the score, such as a tiny drill bit, then press on both sides to break along the line. I like to run some sandpaper over the freshly cut line to dull the edge a bit:

glass cutter cutting along a straight edge
use a drill bit to crack glass at score

And if you ruin the glass, you’re not out very much money, plus you’ve gained valuable experience.
I made the glass larger than the photo, since I wanted the entire photo visible. The opening in the frame should then be the size of the photo (5×11).

For the frame itself, I chose a nice piece of cherry I have had sitting around for ten years. I think it’s probably pretty dry and stable by now. I first ran the board through the planer to remove the surface and ensure it was of a consistent thickness. Consistency is truly desirable in a picture frame, where four corners have to come together and match. It’s quite annoying to assemble a frame and find three corners go together flush and the fourth has one side of the mitre slightly thicker than the other.
I ripped the board in half and then cut each half to two inches wide. Not wanting an overly fancy frame, I cut each piece on a simple bevel along its face. A frame face can be shaped using any combination of saw cuts and router bits, v-grooves and ogees. But you want to do all of that while your stock is at its maximum length. I, for instance, would have preferred to have a piece of cherry twice as long in order to make a single piece of moulding from which to cut all four pieces of the frame. As I said earlier, consistency makes the final product better and easier to make:

cut cherry

After the profile is cut in the moulding, sanding is a good idea. Then the rabbets for the glass and backing plate should be cut in. I made the backing plate (the original one from the clip frame) a half inch bigger than the glass. The glass is a half inch bigger than the opening in the frame. So, you need a rabbet a half inch in from the inside face of moulding, with a depth the thickness of the backing plate. Then you need a rabbet a quarter inch in from the inside face of the moulding, with a depth the thickness of the backing plate plus the glass. I make these rabbets by setting the blade on my tablesaw, first according to the backing plate alone, then according to that plus the glass, and make multiple cuts while advancing the fence. You can use a dado but it’s not really required for a single frame:

set depth of saw according to material thickness
rabets cut in frame material

Once that is done, the four parts of the frame can be cut. I used my mitre saw. Truthfully, mine is not really set up to make extra-fine cuts, and perhaps a better blade would have been advisable, since it made my joints slightly jagged. Nevertheless, whatever you use, your joints will be better if you make certain the tool is set up properly. Mitre saws, for instance, are practically never true to 90 degrees when you buy them.
Your joints will also be better if you ensure your opposing parts are of equal length. You do that by using a measuring tape to mark one and then, after you cut that one to length, you use it to mark the other. I actually use the first one set on top of the second one to position the second one under the blade. If these pieces are not of exactly equal length, then it really doesn’t matter if your mitre saw is set up to cut perfectly, the joints will not close:

four pieces cut for picture frame

For a small frame such as this one, I assemble it by taping the corners to keep it aligned while the glue sets. That, of course, applies no clamping pressure whatsoever. So, I then put a couple of clamps on. However, you must be careful not to apply too much pressure with the clamps, or it will start to pull the frame apart, and both clamps must apply the same amount of pressure. You accomplish this by gently tightening each a little bit at a time, until you’re sure the joints are as closed as they will get. You can, of course, also get corner clamps or rig up something to do the job. But if you’re careful, regular clamps can work:

tape lines up joints on picture frame
glue and clamp picture frame

So, after the glue dries, you can clean it up with some sandpaper and then put a finish on it. I rubbed on some tung oil and left it at that. This cherry will get darker with age and really doesn’t require anything more than a simple renewable finish like tung oil. If you find the wood dull or dry looking, you can always rub on more.

back of custon frame

With the glass and photo in the frame, the backing plate is held in by some screws. I had to cut half-inch screws to ensure they did not go through the frame. I also advise drilling pilot holes.

finished cherry hand made picture frame

This frame cost next to nothing to build. I could have made it out of any kind of wood and equally liked the results. I think it suits the photo very well and now I just need to find a place on my walls to hang it.