Making a wooden picture frame by hand

walnut picture frame

There are many guides to building picture frames on the web (like this Popular Woodworking one), but few walked through making one with only hand tools. I went ahead and made one. Actually I made two. The first was a DISASTER. What follows is a list of essential considerations:

  1. The miters need to be 45 degrees. On the dot.
  2. The miters need to be cut vertically. Any dip in the sawing will show in the joint.
  3. The frame pieces need to be the same length. On the dot.
  4. Care must be taken to cut the miters in the right direction. You don’t want the rabbet on the outside of the frame…
  5. The frame segments must be the same width AND thickness, if you want the rabbets to match up.

So I made all these mistakes and then set out to make another frame with a more focused mind. I used a Stanley 116 miter box, which is a portable item you can use with almost any saw. And by ‘any’ I mean that I could use my Japanese Ryoba saw in this thing.

For the glass and cardboard stand/backing I simply bought the cheapest 8 by 10 inch frame I could find (~$3. Thanks Ikea). The frame was junk, but the hardware is great.

The wood is a piece of walnut I ripped into 1 inch by 3/4 inch strips. I used a jointer plane to ensure each frame segment had the same dimensions. I used a rabbet plane to cut a 1/4 by 1/4 rabbet around the edges for the glass. The miters were cut taking the width of the rabbet into account: it was a simple case of using the glass resting in a rabbet to mark out where to make the cuts.

Instead of cutting splines through the miters (like this example), I tried to simplify things by placing the spline on the outside edge in a diagonal rabbet. I used a pink ivory pen blank for the splines so there is a contrast against the walnut. I cut the blank into sections and used a chisel to split the blank. The rough pieces were glued to a notch cut into the frame corners and planed to size after the glue had dried.

And there is no way I can claim perfect miters. Maybe I could have done better with a shooting board. I closed up any gaps with small wedges I cut from scrap walnut in the miter box. Once the glue had dried and I planed the wedges flush, the corners looked brilliant.

Lastly, the glass, photo and backer need to be held into the frame somehow. Production frames usually have staples or the like but I found it quite difficult to drive them in securely. So I decided to create a new method – a pin which fits into small drilled holes in the frame. The pins are pieces of left-over pink ivory whittled to have a friction fit in the 1/8 inch holes. They hold great and add an interesting detail to the rear of the frame.

The frame was given a once over with some danish oil to bring out the grain in the walnut.

8 thoughts on “Making a wooden picture frame by hand

  1. Thanks for posting! This is giving me good ideas. You’re right, not much information posted on making by hand and its seems like the perfect project for that.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! The picture frame is great miter practice; the miter is much more difficult to get right than even dovetails in my estimation and with much less attention in the blogosphere as they are not as fancy. It’s nice to complete a project in an evening, too!

  2. This is great! I’ve been looking for tips on making frames by hand for ages. As you say, most of the available info explains this using power tools. So it’s great to come across this. I’m looking forward to reading more about your work!

  3. Great post which is timely for me. I recently discovered most of these mistakes, I call them character marks. As a new member of the Hand Tool School my question to you is why not use the half blind mitered half joint to make your frames? This would hide any imperfections in the corners without having to use splines. By the why I haven’t finished semester one yet so I’m not sure this would be easier or better. I like the pegs on the back too. Thanks for the post.

    • Actually that is a great idea! The half blind miter lap joint means only half the depth of the miter to worry about, and prevents daylight from getting through gaps. But you would have to prevent the rabbet from making an appearance on the side of the frame. I do think splines are a nice decorative touch though.

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