Copper Pipe Photo Frames




I'm always looking out for unusual projects to work on, and for a while I'd been thinking about the copper pipes you can get from the plumbing section at the hardware store. Combined with the 90 degree elbows and "T" connectors, they can make for a fairly interesting Lego type set where pipes can be cut and assembled in all sorts of shapes.

I had also been wondering about making connected photo frames out of those shapes, but one of the issues I kept on running into was how to actually hold the photograph and backing material within the pipes. One approach included grinding a channel on the inside of the frame so the picture would sit in it, but that would imply more effort than I was willing to put into this. It would also mean needing to make very precise cuts, the possibility of the new edges biting into the pictures, etc. Not a good idea.

I ended up realizing that I could combine copper pipes with regular copper wire in such a way that the wire could be added to the corners of the frames (by drilling holes right through the pipe). The wire would support the photo on the front, and by folding it on the back of the frame it could also offer a quick way of swapping the photos out for others.

I originally wanted to make a significantly larger set of frames (for perhaps a dozen photos) but ended up scaling it back because it was my first try and I needed to ensure this could work. Now that I'm done with it, have a few "lessons learned", and have seen the final product, I can move on to making a larger version.

I hope you enjoy this instructable, and if you end up making something based on this please post a photo in the comments. I'd love to see it!

Finally, if you've enjoyed this instructable please vote on it, as it is participating in the "metal projects" contest.


Step 1: Tools and Materials

The tools used for this project are common ones like a hammer, awl and drill as well as a metal file and metal sanding paper, but if you have not worked with copper plumbing before you might not be acquainted with the pipe cutter. It's an inexpensive (around $15) handheld device that fits in the palm of your hand and attaches to the pipe. To use it, you alternatively turn it around the pipe (to score it) and then tighten the cutter. Eventually the score line goes through the pipe's wall and a section is neatly cut off.

For materials, you'll need:

* 0.5" copper pipes. The pipes are sold in lengths of 6', and for this project I used three of them (including room for error and some experimentation). I don't remember the exact cost, but I think they were about $10 a piece.

* Copper elbows and T connectors. These can be bought individually (and are about $0.50 each or so) or in bags.

* Copper wire - I bought a length of fairly stiff copper wiring (10 gauge if I'm not mistaken) that was basically a set of six or seven strands twisted together. The combined wire did not have a plastic jacket, which made it much easier to use. Just separate the strands and you're good to go. To straighten the wire you can just hold it between two sets of pliers; as you pull and lightly twist, the wire will straighten. You'll also need a bit of thinner, more pliable wire, in order to hang the whole frame from.

* 0.25" plexiglass - this is the material that will be put in front of the photos. You can get 2'x4' sheets for about $20.

* Crazy glue - when you're using the pipes for plumbing you always need to sauder them to ensure a strong and water tight fit. I chose to skip saudering for this project because it takes a bit longer, is potentially messier, might discolour the copper (because of the heat) and I did not want to see the silver colour of the sauder in al the joints. Instead, I went for crazy glue. In hindsight, I might have still gone for the sauder and then used some patina to colour it because the glue held well but there was still some play if you forced the pipes a bit.

* Polishing and sealing compounds - the copper needs to be cleaned and polished, so I picked up some copper polishing compound and car wax. Both worked well.

* Fine steel wool - this comes in handy to clean the pipes when you first start working on them.

* Bristol board - You'll use this to cover any areas of the plexiglass that are larger than the photo so that you don't end up seeing the carboard filler.

* Corrugated cardboard - you'll need some of this in order to fill the space behind the photographs so that everything stays put.

* Passpartout - this one is completely optional. You can have the copper pipes frame the photo very closely, or you can use a passpartout to surround the photo and then frame them both. I tried both approaches and preferred the clean look of copper-only.

Step 2: Preparing the Pipes and Building the Frames

The copper will go through a few stages of cleaning, and the first one is done with the steel wool. Just take a wad of the stuff, put it on the pipe, and start scrubbing. You won't have to work for more than a few seconds before you start seeing the pipe shine. If there are any stickers on it you'll need to remove them (I found the easiest way was with dishwasher soap and a sponge).

Whether you're framing one photo or combining multiples, the beginning is the same. You'll need to build the individual frames for each photo, and once they're complete you can then arrange them in different ways to see which layout looks best.

The individual frame is a pretty simple square made up of four pipe lengths and four 90 degree corners. The pipes all fit very snugly into the corners, and once everything is exactly how you want it then you just put a couple of drops of crazy glue inside the corner fitting, slide the pipe into it, and you're done. Note, though, that the glueing is only done at the very very end of the project, as you'll need to assemble and disassemble the frames a few times before you're done.

To see how long the pipe sections should be, just stick one into a corner fitting, line the photo up with that corner, and estimate where the next corner piece will go. Mark and cut the pipe at that location, put the corner piece on, and move on to the next side. Repeat. Just make sure the overall size is slightly larger than the photo itself.

One of the lessons I learned about pipe cutting is that if you're going to do a few of them (which you will), the pipe cutter will end up causing you blisters from all the tightening. You can avoid this by gripping the pipe with a set of lock grips (surround the pipe in a rag to avoid marking it) and then tighten the cutter with a pair of pliers.

Once the frame is cut, it's time to worry about the mechanism for holding the picture in place. This is done by adding copper wiring to the corners. With the frame assembled (but not glued), make a mark about 1/2" away from the edges of the corner pieces on to both of the pipes that are protruding from it. Then, using a hammer and awl, hit those spots and make an indentation so you can later drill through without the drill bit dancing all over the pipe. Follow this by drilling a hole wide enough to accommodate the wire. The hole should go all the way through the back of the pipe.

When you have the holes done, file and sand them down, then bend a length of wire (about 8" in my case) into a square shaped "U" and fit it through both holes. The wire ends should be bent after passing through the back holes, and this is what will hold he picture and backing material in place.

Step 3: Cutting the Plexiglass and Backing Material

If you're buying the thin plexiglass (i.e. 0.25" thick), you can cut it with nothing more than scoring knife and straight edged tool like a level. Just mark your line, score it, and bend the plexiglass over the edge of a table. The sheets will break in two with a really clean line.

If you're using a thicker sheet (which for this sort of thing would probably be an overkill) then you'll need to use a jigsaw or circular saw.

Once you have all the pieces for the frames, you can measure the inside and the plexiglass to size. Note, though, that the plexiglass will be sitting along the front of the frame (where the pipes curve outward a bit) and not in the exact centre, so take that into account when taking your measurements.

If you've cut the plexiglass slightly larger than the photos, you'll need to add the bristol board so that the cardboard backing does not show. Just lay the plexiglass pieces on the bristol, mark the size and cut.

The backing material then follows the same process, but is just cut out of the corrugated cardboard. I found that the thickness of the frame accommodated the sheet of plexiglass, the photo, and two cardboard sheets. You'll need to do a few test fittings to see what works best for you.

The final assembly then goes in this order (from front to back): Plexiglass, photo (centered), birstol board (with a loop of scotch tape in the middle so the photo doesn't slide around), and the cardboard.

Step 4: Putting All the Frames Together

Now that the frames are fully assembled, you can start looking at the big picture and figuring out how you want them positioned and connected to each other. You can lay them side by side, you can overlap them, they can be assembled at different heights, etc. You really have a whole bunch of options.

When you've got a layout in mind, it's time to start fitting the extra corner and "T" connectors to hold all the frames in place. One thing to remember is that frames should be attached by at least two pipes, since their weight might end up causing them to sag (over time) and turn a bit if there's only one pipe holding them in place.

When all the pieces have been cut, everything fits and looks good, you're ready to glue it all up. Crazy glue will dry very quickly, so you'll have to be very methodical with your work. Have everything assembled, and then remove one connection at a time, put a drop of glue in, and quickly reassemble it.

I glued up the individual frames first, and then glued the pipes connecting them. Note that when you're glueing the frames you're probably going to move them around a lot. Make sure you keep the holes in the pipes properly aligned, and it's a good idea to work on a clean hard surface so you can always ensure the frame is kept nice and flat.

When everything is glued up, turn it around, add a couple of extra holes for the hanging wire, add the wire, and you're all done. Time to do a final clean-up with some polishing compound and add a protective layer of wax (I used regular car wax). Insert the plexiglass, photos, backing material, fold all the corner wires over the backing, and that's it!



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    12 Discussions


    3 years ago on Introduction

    I always knew there were lots of great projects down that aisle, just waiting for us to make! Thanks for the thoughtful instructions and time put in for all of us!

    1 reply
    David Catrieldebschlouch

    Reply 3 years ago

    There are some pretty cool things we can make with stuff from the plumbing isle (except maybe with the wax rings...). Glad you enjoyed :)


    3 years ago on Introduction

    What an extraordinary project, a nice change from the usual wooden picture frames. Check out the copper pipe towel racks. Well done!

    1 reply

    3 years ago on Introduction

    One problem with copper is that it tarnishes, that nice shinny color will turn a dull dark color. One way to prevent that is to coat it with a clear spray varnish. My dad made towel racks using copper pipe. He sanded the pipe to get ride of all the lettering and give it a nice low luster sheen and then coated it with finish. It never tarnished after many years of use.

    1 reply
    David CatrielVyger

    Reply 3 years ago

    yeah, tarnishing was a concern for me too. I did some reading on that and many people recommended using car wax so that's what I tried. a lacquer might have been a better (and more thorough) idea.


    3 years ago

    Nicely done 'ible and quite a beautiful project.

    1 reply

    This is a great idea, copper being expensive though, I might be inclined to replicate it in good 'ol cheap PVC pipe; easy to fabricate, glue, and paint- copper color of course. ☺

    3 replies
    David CatrielBeachsideHank

    Reply 3 years ago

    Pretty cool alternative! and cutting lengthwise through it (so the photos slide in) is easier to do than with copper. However, if going for alternative materials, I would opt for bamboo and twine. A bit more rustic.

    BeachsideHankDavid Catriel

    Reply 3 years ago

    I was gonna say I see lots of PVC pipe roadside here in Florida, but then again I see bamboo too, many times free for the taking in private yards- I like your thinking on that, au natural!