Introduction: DIY Custom Picture Frames

Avoid the high prices of buying custom frames by making your own. Its easier than you think.

Step 1: Introduction

Nothing helps improve the appearance of a photograph, drawing, print or other artwork than a good picture frame. Frames are available in some standard sizes, however often what one wants to frame does not fit in a standard frame. Many would have you believe that creating a custom frame requires arcane skills that only a select few can do, and they charge accordingly.

This tutorial shows how one can create their own custom frames to show off your works of art, and save a good deal of money in the process.

Some of the pictures in this tutorial are way out of focus but they still get across the meaning. I'll update them next time I make a picture frame.

Step 2: Measurements, Materials, and Tools

Measurements: There are a collection of dimensions that we will use throughout the tutorial. The next step has details on how to calculate each one.
  • PD: Picture Dimensions - Width and height of the thing to be framed. In this example it is a panorama print.

  • OD: Outside Dimensions - Width and height of the matt board and mounting board.

  • MID: Matt Inside Dimensions - Width and height of the inside of the matt, always slightly smaller than PD.

Materials: The following is a list of the materials we will make the frame out of.
  • 1 photograph, print, drawing, document or some other flat piece of art to frame. For this tutorial I use a panorama print of a photograph I took on a trip to London in January of 2005.

  • 1 piece of chip board at least OD in size

  • 1 piece of matt board at least OD in size

  • Enough acid free paper to cover an area at least PD in size, with a little left over (2"x6" or so)

  • Acid free glue

  • 1 piece of glass, plexiglass, lexan, or lucite at least OD in size. For this tutorial I chose lexan because the frame will be very large and lexan is a lot lighter than glass.

  • 4 pieces of molding, picture frame boards (basically the same as molding except it already has a rabbet on the back side), or strait boards. Two of them must be at least FOD-width long and the other two FOD-height long. A little longer is preferable to just the right size. For this tutorial I'm using 1/2" by 2" poplar straight boards which will produce a very simple and elegant frame.

  • At least 4 joint fastners.

  • Glazer's Points

  • Stain, paint, or some other finish. For this tutorial I will be using spray paint.

  • Hardware to hang the frame later.

Optional Materials
  • Wood filler: It is quite a challenge to create a perfect set of miter joints. You can use the wood filler to fill the gaps, but if you plan in staining the frame, make sure to use wood filler that matches the stain or stainable wood filler.

  • Wood glue: You can use some wood glue to help reinforce the joints, but because it is an end to end joint, you will have to use joint fasteners.

Tools: The following is a list of the tools needed to convert the materials listed above into a picture frame.
  • A clean, flat workspace much larger than the frame under construction. I used the kitchen floor because my frame is too large to put together on a table or workbench.

  • A sharp box knife

  • Pencil

  • Angled matt cutter. If you plan on making more than one frame over your lifetime, it is worth investing in this tool. Mine cost $35 and it is more than made up for in the savings you will gain by doing your own custom framing. I will have alternate instructions if you choose not to get this tool.

  • Straight edge

  • Glass, plexiglass, lexan, etc. cutter if you don't have it cut to size for you (highly recommended, particularly for glass).

  • Router or table saw to create a rabbet

  • Miter box and hand saw (unless you have a very well calibrated power miter saw or table saw)

  • Hammer

  • Corner clamp

  • Tape measure

  • Sand paper

Step 3: Making the Measurements

Make sure to be as accurate as possible when taking measurements. There is some room for error on a couple of them but most must be as accurate as possible. The object here is to generate the measurements for the mounting board, the matt and the glass. In the end, the glass, mounting board and the outside dimensions of the matt board will all be the same (OD). The inner dimension of the matt board will be slightly smaller than the picture's dimension so that the matt covers the edges of the picture.

PD: To take this measurement, use a ruler or, if the thing to be framed is too big, use a tape measure. To avoid any error caused by the end of the tape measure or ruler, I usually start the measurement at the first inch rather than the end. In this case, the panorama print I'm framing in this example is exactly 32 13/16" x 12".

OD: To calculate this dimension you first need to decide how wide the visible matt border will be. I decided to have a 2" visible matt border. In the final picture frame, 1/4" of the matt will be covered all the way around by the wooden frame. Therefore we need to add another quarter of an inch to the matt border for a total of 2 ". There is a border on all sides of the picture. Therefore I need to add two times 2 1/4", or 4 1/2" to the width and the height of the PD to come up with the OD. In the example here that works out to 37 5/16" x 16".

Unfortunately the chip board I had available is not quite big enough at 36" x 16". Therefore rather than making another trip to the hobby store I decided I would make up the difference by allowing a slightly smaller visible border with 2" visible and 2 1/4" total matt width.

MID: You only need to calculate this dimension to make sure that the matt border width you choose leaves an opening that is at least slightly smaller than PD so that the matt will cover the edges of the item being framed. This will be the OD minus the two times the total matt width (36" - 2 1/4" x 2 wide by 16" - 2 1/4" x 2 high). In this case that comes out to 32" x 11 1/2". Comparing that to the PD shows that all four edges of the picture will be covered by the matting.

The Frame dimensions are not needed right now. I'll explain how to calculate them when we get to that point to avoid confusing things.

Step 4: Cut the Mounting Board

The mounting board is the bottom layer of the frame. This is what the picture is mounted to and it should be stiff and strong enough to support the picture. Chip board around 1/8" thick is ideal, though acid free chip board would be even better if it is available (usually only from framing stores).

The mounting board should be cut to OD dimensions. Measure and mark out the cut lines on the board and, using a straight edge cut the board using the box cutter. Be sure to put something down to protect your work area when cutting. See the pictures with the next step for an example of how to make this cut.

Step 5: Cut the Matt Board to Size

Now we want to cut the mounting board down to OD. Be careful when handling the matt board so you don't stain it or get it dirty. If you do get a smudge on it, you can sometimes clean it off using a clean eraser.

Follow the same instructions for cutting the mounting board as illustrated.

Step 6: Mount the Picture

Now we want to mount the picture to the mounting board.

First cut the acid free paper so it will cover the mounting board where the picture will sit. This will protect the picture somewhat from the acid in the mounting board. Glue it to the mounting board using the acid free glue. Keep enough of the acid free paper left over to make mounting corners and mounting strips. Allow the glue to dry before mounting the picture.

While we are waiting for the glue to dry, we will make mounting corners. Cut 4 strips of paper 1" x 4" to form a mounting corner:
  1. Fold in half lengthwise and unfold.

  2. Fold the right side so that the top edge lies alongside the center crease

  3. Fold the left side similarly.

  4. Turn over. You now have one mounting corner. Repeat with the other three corners.

Create a couple strips out of the last bit of acid free paper. Glue them to the back top of the picture using the acid free glue. This will stabilize the picture. This step is only required if you are mounting a large picture. For smaller pictures the corners should be adequate.

Now make lines so you can tell where the picture will fall on the mounting board. The easiest way to do this is to use a scribe set to the actual width of the matt board less the overlap over the picture. A scribe is a tool that has a block that glides along the edge of a board and an arm that sticks out with a pencil or sharp nail at the end. This allows one to mark a line precisely x" from the edge of the board (see picture). The matt cutting tool I got has a scribe built into it. I set it to 2" (remember that the PD is 4" smaller than the OD) and drew a line on all the sides. I placed the picture in on the mounting board to make sure that the lines are accurate. If it is off a little, split the difference and make a little mark. These marks will be used to position the mounting corners. If you don't have a scribe, make the marks using a straight edge.

Next glue the mounting corners to the mounting board in at the outside corners using the acid free glue. Place them slightly outside the lines to account for the thickness of the paper. Position the picture in the corners to make sure they are positioned correctly. If not, adjust them. Let the glue dry on the backing paper and the mounting corners before continuing. You may want to put weight on the paper and corners while the glue dries as most acid free paper does not stick real well right away (the glass is a perfect weight).

Step 7: Cut the Matt Center

This step is perhaps the most nerve racking because if you make a mistake you have to get a whole new board. The following instructions assume you have an angled matt cutter. Following that is a description of how one might do this with a board and box cutters.

Place the matt board face down on some scrap matt board, scrap chip board or something else to protect your work surface.

Scribe a line the matt actual thickness from all four edges. In this example, the matt's actual thickness is 2 1/4". As with making the marks to position the picture, this is easier if a scribe is used, but it can be accomplished with a straight edge and a ruler.

The next couple of steps are those for the specific matt cutting tool I have. Read the instructions for your tool and follow those if different.

Place a straight edge on the outside of the line. Position the tool so that that the center mark lines up with the line perpendicular to the edge of the straight edge. Plunge the knife into the board and pull it along the straight edge until the center mark lines up with the other perpendicular line. Repeat for the other three lines. Be very careful that the straight edge does not move while you are cutting the matt. If possible, clamp the straightedge down.

I can't stress enough that the straight edge must not move while cutting. While making this tutorial I got sloppy and I messed up the first one. I actually messed up the second one a little as well but not as badly so I'll use it.
The alternate method for cutting the matt if you don't get a tool will require a straight edge with a 45 degree angle and a long box knife. To create the straight edge, use a table saw to true up one side of a board. Tilt the saw blade to 45 degrees and trim off the second side. To cut the matt, follow the instructions above to mark the lines. Lay the straight edge on the outside of the line with the 45 degree slope toward the inside of the matt board. Adjust the box cutter so it is longer than the width of your straight edge and cut the matt. This method is much more prone to error but it will work.

Step 8: Hide the Mounting Corners

You will notice that the mounting corners are peaking out of the matting. Make a note of how much is sticking out with a pencil and remove the visible part using the box knife. Make sure to remove the picture before you start cutting the corners.

Step 9: Permanently Mount the Picture

Remember the two strips that we glued to the top of our picture? Now is the time to apply glue to the underside of those strips and glue them to the mounting board. If you ever need to remount the picture, you simply have to cut these strips to remove the picture from the frame.

Step 10: Rabbet the Frame

If the wood you acquired doesn't already have one, rabbet off what will be the inside bottom corner of the board. The rabbet should go into the width of the board 1/4" and it should be 1/8" deeper than the combined thickness of the mounting board, picture, matt board and glass (1/4" in my case). If using a straight board, make sure to put the rabbet on the least attractive side of the board.

Step 11: Miter the Boards

A miter is a 90 degree joint formed by cutting each board at a 45 degree angle. This is the most common joint for picture frames, though other joints are sometimes used.

Orient the board so that the board is perpendicular to you and the rabbet is face up and away from you. Make a mark from the bottom left corner to the top of the board at a 45 degree angle. This will help you avoid cutting it wrong later.
Using a miter saw, miter box, table saw or some other accurate cutting method, cut off the corner along the line you made. Use a piece of sand paper to clean up the edge.

This next step is a little difficult to explain but it is very important. The object is to measure the board for the next cut such that when they are assembled later, the mounted picture, glass and all the rest will fit. To do this I first add 1/4" to OD, for now we will use the OD-length, in this case that is 36 3/4". The trick here is that you want to measure from the bottom edge of the rabbet (see picture). Mark the diagonal as before only this time the angle goes the other direction.

Once you have one of the boards cut, use it as a template for the other board to insure that both of your lengthwise boards are exactly the same size and the widthwise boards are exactly the same size.

Step 12: Assemble the Frame

Now it is time to put the four pieces of wood together into your frame.
Get out your corner clamp and clamp a length piece and a width piece together.

If you are planning to use wood glue, apply the glue to the edges of both boards before putting them in the clamp. The clamp isn't completely necessary but it does guarantee that the frame will be square even if your miters are not perfect. It also holds the pieces together while you are pounding on it in the next part.

Get a joint fastener and place so half of it is on one piece of wood and the other half is on the other. Pound the fastener in all the way using the hammer.

Take the other two pieces of wood and assemble them in the same manner. Make sure you attach the boards on the right sides this time. I do this by lining them up with the other two boards to dry fit the frame. Also, make sure that you are lining the boards up so all the rabbets are on the same side and you are nailing in the joint fastener on that side (see picture).

Finally, attach the two remaining corners in the same manner.

Once the frame is assembled, make sure the picture, glass and the rest fit in the rabbet. There should be a little bit of extra room to allow for changes in size due to humidity. It absolutely should not be so tight that the picture warps in order to fit. It may be necessary to trim just a little bit off the glass, mounting board and/or matt. Alternately you can use a chisel to make the rabbet a little larger. Obviously it is best to have it be the right size to begin with.

Step 13: Paint or Stain the Frame

It is very difficult to create perfect miter corners. If your corners have gaps, you can use some wood filler to fill the gaps. Let the wood filler dry and sand the frame. Finally finish as desired. In my case, I apply two coats of primer and two coats of glossy black enamel. You do not need to finish the back of the frame if you don't want to.

Step 14: Mount the Picture in the Frame

Almost done! Now all that is left to do is mount the picture into the frame.

Place the frame back side up. First drop in the glass, making sure the glass is very clean and dry. Next drop in the matt board, followed by the mounted picture board. Make sure to put the latter two in upside down (i.e. the side you want to see toward the floor).

Now that everything is in place, use glazing points to keep it from falling back out again. Just use a large flat screw driver and push the points into the wood.