How to Build a Picture Frame




About: I've been posting Instructables since the site's inception, and now build other things at Autodesk. Follow me for food and more!

How to build a high-end wood picture frame to accommodate a large oil on canvas. Awesome art by Emily Keyishian.

Teacher Notes

Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.

Step 1: Make or Acquire Art

Make something brilliant, or find someone who has and is willing to sell it to you for a reasonable price.

Most cities will hold artists' open studios, where you can walk around checking out neat art, meeting the artists, and generally poking through interesting live/work spaces. This means you can find work by young/unknown artists, who are usually much less expensive than big-name artists yet often just as talented, and that you don't have to pay exorbitant gallery markups. Get out and look around- meet some neat people, support a starving artist, and get inspired to make something yourself.

I found a neat piece by Emily Keyishian. You can check out her art during the SF open studios every October, or as listed on her website. Of course, this picture needed an equally impressive frame. Having spent all my money on art, I got to make the frame myself.

Step 2: Select Wood

Measure your picture and draw out a rough frame schematic, then go and find some beautiful hardwood lumber.

I wanted a rich, deep brown wood to bring out the brownish bits of the oil painting. We went to PALS in Oakland, CA, and got sustainably harvested Chechen, a Central American hardwood. The boards were planed but needed to be edged, so I made sure to select boards wide enough to accommodate my needs after the edges were trued.

Step 3: Trim Lumber

I wanted to present a narrow edge at the front of the picture, with the wider face positioned to cover the roughly 2" deep stretcher frame. (This scheme should become more obvious when you see my later assembly pictures.)

The edges on the boards were quite rough and the boards themselves were not square, so I needed to be sure to trim along the entire length of the board. To square the boards, I judged by eye which side was straighter, put this side against the table saw's straightedge and made a cut just deep enough to cut at least one blade width over the entire length of the boards. I then flipped the board over, adjusted the straightedge to to cut another blade width narrower and cut this side. By doing this, the two long edges of the board were now parallel and straight.

Make sure to move the wood smoothly through the saw, as pauses may allow the blade to burn the wood.

Step 4: Cut Boards

Now cut the boards in half lengthwise. This will define the depth of your picture frame, so you really want to hit the halfway point properly.

Step 5: Sand Boards

Sand down all surfaces of the cut boards with a belt sander, working with the grain. Don't use one of the oscillating pad sanders, as it will scrape against the grain.

Sand the surfaces smooth, removing burrs and saw burn marks. Start with coarse grit, (~100) and move up to higher grit paper (200-400). After the frame is assembled, you'll finish the wood with hand-sanding of even higher grit paper.

Step 6: Measure and Mitre Cut

Make 45-degree angle cuts at the end of each piece in accordance with your measurements.

This is a serious measure-twice-cut-once situation: it's very easy to accidentally make your angled cut the wrong direction, or to measure length from the wrong side of the cut. Always measure from the inside, or shortest side, of the piece; this will be the side directly against the picture. I find it useful to pencil in a line in the direction of the angled cut to make sure I do it properly. Drawing in these lines and doing a mock-setup of the uncut wood is a nice way to double-check, especially if you're new to the process and/or paranoid about wasting the yuppie timber you've purchased.

Step 7: Prepare for Biscuit Cutting

I decided to use a biscuit joiner to make my corner joints. It may not be the best technique for such small wood, but this technique makes strong joints. I was concerned about creating sufficiently strong and rigid joints, and wanted to practice using my new biscuit joiner.

To prepare for biscuit cutting, first identify the size biscuit you'll use and where it will be located. The hole you cut will be slightly larger than the biscuit itself, so make sure you position the biscuit cut appropriately. Sketch in the location of the biscuit cuts, as they're another one of those points of no return.

Clamp your boards down firmly to your work surface, positioning them for proper attack by the biscuit joiner. Mine cuts horizontally, so I clamped the wood down as shown below. Since the pieces of wood are small I clamped two together to help support/stabilize the biscuit cutter, oriented such that I could cut the outside edge of both pieces.

Step 8: Make Biscuit Cuts

You've really marked everything, double-checked it twice, and are ready to go? Then let's cut slots for your biscuits.

Butt the cutting surface firmly up against the wood, match the center line with your mark on the wood, and hit the trigger. Congratulations, you've made a cut!

Step 9: Assemble Frame

Lay out your frame face-down with the biscuits in place. A right angle of some sort can be useful here; don't get too stressed about it yet, as you'll get it properly square after you've applied the wood glue.

Now's a good time to find that wood glue; this is a cheap product available most anywhere.

Step 10: Glue

Apply glue to the all surfaces: the inside of the cut-out and the biscuit itself. The biscuit will fit quite loosely in the slot, so you'll need to apply more glue as you go. The liquid in the glue will cause the biscuit to swell and fill the slot, so feed in more as necessary.

Try not to smear it all over the good bits of wood, as you'll have to sand it off later.

Step 11: Clamp

Now we'll clamp the piece down, add more glue, and let it set.

If you've got some of those fancy right-angle clamps this is the time to use them. If not, get a couple of those ratcheting tie-downs, enough to encircle your frame, and loop them around loosely. You'll need to pad the corners and the ratchets to prevent damage to your carefully-prepared wood. You can use several layers of cotton cloth, paper towels, or the like; just remember that overdoing it is preferable to underdoing it.

Cinch the tie-down into place, then rack the frame (wiggle it side-to-side) using your straight-edge to figure out when you've got the whole thing square. Measuring your diagonals can help- they should be of equal length. Once you've got the whole thing situated add a bit more glue to the biscuit joints to be certain they'll seal solidly.

Homemade tie-down clamps would have been good here, but the ones available didn't quite fit.

Step 12: Hand-sand

Now that you've let your frame dry for a day or two, remove the clamps and give it a test-wiggle. Your frame should be rock-solid. Now snip or saw off the protruding biscuit tips, and we'll get on with the hand-sanding.

You'll need a variety of grits: I gave the biscuit tips a once-over with 100 grit to create a smooth surface, then hit the entire piece with 220, 320, then 400 grit. Sand with the grain, and wipe clean with tack cloth* between sandings. I probably should have given the surface another hit with 800 grit paper, but was getting sort of tired at this point.

*The microfiber tack cloths are preferable to the gummed versions in many ways: they're reusable after washing, and aren't covered in nasty gummy goo.

Here's an Instructable on removing sawdust.

Step 13: Oil

Now that the piece has been sanded and wiped clean of all dust, you'll want to cover the wood in oil or polyurethane for protection. I chose Tung Oil, which penetrates to bring out a shiny, nice-looking grain.

Use cotton cloth rags (chopped-up pieces of old clothing work well) to apply the oil. Work with the grain, making sure all surfaces are evenly covered. Let the oil penetrate for a bit, then wipe down your surfaces with a clean rag. The more layers of oil you apply the deeper the shine your wood will develop. I applied something in the 6-8 coat range; go until you're bored and the wood looks gorgeous.

Sit the frame on nail boards to reduced the surface area in contact with the fresh oil.

Step 14: Align Frame

Set your newly shiny frame around your picture, and maneuver it into the exact position you'd like. Take thorough measurements and notes on the alignment, space, and anything else that's relevant.

Step 15: Align Brackets and Pre-drill Holes

I used 2inch L-brackets to connect my frame to the wood of the stretcher.

Flip the picture and frame over, and set them on some sort of padded risers. I've used towel-covered milk crates. Make sure you're not going to damage the surface of the painting, then carefully re-align your picture within the frame according to your previous measurements. Position the L-brackets so the ends sit over the frame without protruding, and the angled portion sits over the stretcher.

Chechen and other dense hardwoods definitely need to be predrilled to avoid splitting, and it certainly won't hurt the softer wood of the stretcher. Select a drill bit slightly smaller than the screw you're planning to use: the bit should be the width of the screw minus the threads, since the threads still need to catch in the wood.

We'll predrill and screw the frame first, then move on to the stretcher; this will make sure everything fits nicely without shifting. As you drill, don't push too hard, and make sure to back up frequently to break and remove chips that will otherwise clog your drill bit. Also make sure you're drilling perpendicular to the wood- any additional torque on the drill bit can cause it to snap when you're working with an extremely hard wood.

I'm stressing this because Chechen turns out to be really hard- I broke off a drill bit and a screw when attaching the L-brackets.

Step 16: Sink Screws

Now that you've carefully drilled out that Chechen, sink the screws. Again, be careful not to break anything- this wood is hard, so if you're getting too much resistance don't force it.

When you've got the L-brackets firmly secured to the frame, triple-check your picture's positioning within the frame, then drill holes in the stretcher. Make sure you don't do anything brilliant like drill through the front of the canvas- that doesn't improve the artistic value of the painting.

Now sink the screws. You'll probably be picking the picture up as you bear down on the screws, so do this carefully! Alternate between the two screws at the corner, gently tightening up on each until the picture fits snugly. You can finish the tightening by hand if you're paranoid.

Step 17: Attach Hanger

I skipped this step, as the picture had been hanging in my stairwell for some time before I finished the frame.

You may have planned more sensibly, in which case you'll need to pick up one of those picture hanging kits from your local hardware store, or at least a couple of d-rings and some wire. Attach the d-rings to the frame (or stretcher) about 1/3 down from the top of the picture, and leave the wire loose enough to make a decent arc behind the picture but not enough to protrude over the top. This isn't terribly complicated. Wrap or tie off the wire in secure fashion.

Step 18: Hang and Enjoy

Get a friend to help you with this- it's much easier with help. Find an appropriate chunk of wall, and have the friend move the picture around until you decide where you'd like it. This is mainly about height, so mark the wall when you've decided where to position the picture. You can mark the top, bottom, or the center of the hanging wire if your friend is really good; if not, you'll have to measure the distance between the center of the extended hanging wire and positioning mark you made, and make a second to approximate where the wire will hit.

Get out your measuring tape and center the picture between whatever architectural parameters you're working within. Now combine your horizontal measurement with the previous vertical one, and make a nice X.

Place your picture hanger of your choice right on this X. You'll probably need to check whether it's on top of a stud or not, and know what kind of walls you've got. Mine are standard wallboard with wooden studs, so I prefer to use heavy-duty drywall anchors for anything but the lightest pictures. Since I'm in an earthquake-prone area I add a large washer to prevent the picture from hopping off during tremors. You can get earthquake hangers, but they're expensive and I've yet to see any more than marginally better than my solution.

Now, put your picture up on the hanger and enjoy the art. This makes the walls seem warmer and friendlier, and having real, properly-framed art on the walls may fool people into thinking you're an adult.

This picture was painted by Emily Keyishian, an awesome artist with a studio in SF's Mission District.

Be the First to Share


    • Furniture Contest

      Furniture Contest
    • Reuse Contest

      Reuse Contest
    • Hot Glue Speed Challenge

      Hot Glue Speed Challenge

    24 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Beautiful result. I like tung oil too. Hope you take safety tips in the spirit they are given, it's very easy to have a mis-adventure. Have fun, be safe!


    6 years ago on Introduction

    1. Your circular saw should have a cap over the blade to prevent the wood riding up and being thrown back at you - It happens and it hurts (I know.)

    2. It should have a riving blade behind the saw to keep the cut open - See point 1.

    3. Your saw blade is blunt hence the burning.

    4. Please use a push stick to push the wood through the saw rather than your delicate hands.

    Other then that a neat well written instructable.

    2 replies

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    You don't need a riving knife or a "cap"; You can use a sacrificial push stick in your left hand and apply pressure to the inside of the cut, pushing the cut into the fence. The waste will sit safely to the left, and you'll end up with a straighter cut.

    A riving knife is a saftey feature to prevent kickback and is nice, but isn't necessary. It isn't even possible to attach one to some saws. Knowing what causes kickback, and being careful to avoid those situations will help a lot, with or without a riving knife.

    Burning doesn't necessarily mean "dull". Some woods have a tendency towards blade scorch more than others; wider boards that aren't planed flat and 90 to the fence can pinch, causing scorch; pausing while running the piece through the saw can also cause scorch. All kinds of things.


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the feedback! This was a learning project for me many years ago; now I have a much better understanding of the tools, as well as access to better ones. :)


    6 years ago on Step 3

    Pro tip:
    too keep your hands free of the whirling blade of death, use a push stick (I used to use a baseball bat that I squared off, good grip and nice flat edge)

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Yes, push sticks are the smart choice for those who wish to keep all their fingers!


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Solid instructable, but there are some issues with the way you're using equipment, that are probably just making more work for you. If you're having to clean up burn marks, you're doing something wrong. I'd check the manual to make sure but the most common causes of burning that I know of are:

    1. Dull saw blade.
    2. Pushing wood too fast.
    3. Saw blade alignment with the table is off.
    4. Your blade is too high.

    If you use the right blade, like one for finish work, you'll find that the amount of sanding you end up doing is really minimal. Also, I would not risk my fingers like that. Use a pushstick for anything less than a handspan from the blade, especially since you're going to want to get it all the way through. A screwed up piece of wood is infinitely more preferable to screwed up fingers. You can buy or make a pushstick for a pittance.

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the feedback! This was a learning project for me, and in retrospect you're certainly right about the dull blade and pushing too fast. I'd do it a bit differently now.

    I wouldn't recommend drilling screws into the painting/stretcher bars, or even for that matter having metal or oil treated wood be in direct contact with the canvas. I mean, i guess it's ok if it's cheap art or something you don't really care about, but it's sorta disrespectful to the artists work. simple pine spacers along the frame could have made the painting float in the exterior frame better, and even, wood swatches to secure the back of the frame. I also, don't generally get the idea of just surrounding the perimeter of the canvas... for having access to a wood shop, you really ought to have boxed in the painting a bit. almost every painting frame will cover the canvas somewhat, I think this is a good demo of how to join the wood together and whatnot, but it's not a good example of a frame for a canvas.

    1 reply

    Thanks for the feedback, this was a learning project for me. The frame is also designed to fit my tastes exactly. :)

    Please post a framing Instructable, I'd love to learn how you'd do it.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool art and frame... maybe some detil with a woodburning pen would be cool... just an idea.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Ooh, neat idea! Thanks for the suggestion - will have to try it next time.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I don't use it terribly often, but when I do it's usually invaluable.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    This is excellent, saved me a lot of time and a trip to the craft store for help. Couldn't be easier.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Places like Home Depot will do the first few steps of wood cutting for you. Sadly, it means having to use their commercial, non-special wood. Still good if you don't have the fancy tools.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Do you have an easy way of doing this without using some specialized tools. thanks. Nice work !!!!