Pictures are some of the most personal decorations you can have in your home. They represent memories, hopes, or even just a glimpse into your passions. One way to enhance the deep connection you have with the photos you display is to build the frame yourself.
DIY picture frames are a simple, straightforward project that any beginner can take on. They’re also an excellent educational endeavor, as they form the foundation of many projects, like the wall-mounted laundry drying rack I made a few months ago. You can make something simple, like the basic frame I describe below, or try out some creative upgrades. Maybe you want to add splines, make the frames out of fancy moulding, or even explore how to do inlays for visual contrast.
I decided to go the basic route because I needed frames for my kids’ 5-by-7-inch school pictures in my office, and I didn’t want to distract from their handsome little faces. I also didn’t want to spend a ton of money, so I made as much of the frame as I could from materials I had kicking around. I scavenged the wood from the rails of an old bed, and the backer is cardboard from one of the many Amazon boxes we receive each week. And the best part is that no one will ever know they’re made from scraps. It’s amazing what a nice coat of paint will hide.
Warning: DIY projects can be dangerous, even for the most experienced makers. Before proceeding with this or any other project on our site, ensure you have all necessary safety gear and know how to use it properly. At minimum, that may include safety glasses, a facemask, and/or ear protection. If you’re using power tools, you must know how to use them safely and correctly. If you do not, or are otherwise uncomfortable with anything described here, don’t attempt this project.
- Time: 2 to 3 hours
- Material cost: $5 to $50
- Difficulty: Easy
How to build DIY picture frames
1. Clean up your reclaimed wood as needed. When working with recycled or reclaimed wood, whether it’s from pallets, old furniture, or a random board you found buried in your shed, you’ll need to clean it up before it touches tools. A shop vac and scrub brush can help remove dirt and debris from the surface. Then take out any hardware like hinges, screws, and nails. Consider using a nail-finding magnet if you regularly work with reclaimed wood—you don’t want to discover a missed nail with your table saw. If the boards are especially rough, you can also sand them down with 80-grit sandpaper.
2. Mill your wood to rough dimensions. Milling wood is a critical skill in woodworking, and PopSci has an entire guide on how to do it. Essentially, milling involves flattening each side of the board with a jointer and planer so the faces and edges form right angles. If you don’t start with flat wood, your corner joints won’t be as strong, and your frame might hang crooked on the wall. Depending on what kind of wood you’re using, you may not have to do much milling. My recycled bed rails were already flat and square, so I didn’t mill or joint them. I just cut them down to rough length on my miter saw and to actual width on my table saw.
[Related: Tune up your table saw the right way]
At the end of your milling process, you should have two 9-inch-long boards and two 7-inch ones, all ⅝- to ¾-inch wide.
3. Cut the mitered ends on each board. Since this project is a frame for a 5-by-7 picture, with ¼-inch rabbet joints on all sides, the short side of each miter should be 4.5 inches on the smaller boards and 6.5 inches on the longer ones. The length of the longer side of each miter will depend on exactly how wide your boards are.
There are several ways to cut miter joints, including, as you may have guessed, on a miter saw. However, I prefer to use a table saw on smaller boards like this. It feels safer and more accurate. You can use the miter gauge that came with your table saw to make this cut, or you can build a mitering sled.
- Pro tip: However you decide to cut the pieces, use stop blocks to set the lengths rather than measuring each cut individually, if you can. Stop blocks guarantee that the paired pieces are exactly the same size, which is critical to getting well-fitting miters.
4. Cut the rabbets. A rabbet is a small channel cut along the edge of a piece of wood. In this case, the rabbets are where the glass and picture sit in the frame without falling through the front. You’ll need to add these channels to the back of each board along the inside edge, so they all face inward when assembled.
Like many woodworking tasks, there are several techniques for cutting rabbets. My preferred method for narrow rabbets like these is on the table saw, using a single blade instead of a dado stack. Making two passes with a single blade is faster than changing over my saw to take the dado.
Lay a board down flat next to the blade, and set its height to about half the thickness of the wood. In my case, this was about ⅜-inch tall. Then set your fence so the blade will cut the inside portion of the rabbet. Make your cut on all four frame pieces.
Once all four are cut, move your fence to the right an eighth of an inch, then cut again, removing more wood and widening the rabbet. If you still need to, keep moving the fence over until you’ve removed all of the material for the rabbet.
- Warning: Even though the blade won’t stick out the top of the wood, still use a push stick or push block. You never know when a board might break, jump, or kick back, leaving your hands behind to fall on the blade.
5. Glue the frames together. The easiest way to glue up miters is with specialized clamps. I used corner clamps for this project, which are designed for 90-degree glue-ups. You can also use a strap clamp, which is going to be my next shop upgrade. But have no fear if you don’t have specialized clamps for corners yet—painter’s tape works in a pinch.
A more detailed explanation of how to use painter’s tape this way is available in an article I wrote about building a small wedding card box. The gist, however, is that you start by laying all four pieces of the frame down flat, end to end, with the outer points of the miters touching. Then connect them with a 2- to 3-inch piece of painter’s tape, pulling the tape as tight as you can. This will create a long train of frame pieces. Flip the whole unit onto its back, so the tape is down and the valleys of the miters are facing up. Spread a thin layer of glue into those valleys, then fold the miters together. The last corner won’t be secure, so stretch a piece of tape over it to hold it in place, then adjust everything as needed to make sure it’s flat and square.
6. Cut the acrylic to size. Cutting acrylic is as easy as cutting a thin sheet of plywood on the table saw. You don’t need a special blade or anything. Size the acrylic to fit inside the rabbet within the frame. I cut mine about a sixteenth of an inch small so it slips in and out easily.
There are a few tips that will make this step a bit easier:
- Leave the protective plastic on the acrylic while cutting. This will keep it from getting scratched by any dust or debris on your saw.
- Make sure the acrylic can’t slide beneath the fence. If there is a large enough gap below the fence, clamp a flat, well-milled board to it, with one edge flush to the tabletop.
- Lightly sand the edges of the acrylic when you’re done. The friction of the saw blade melts the plastic, so you might be left with uneven edges. Those burrs come off no problem with 120-grit paper.
7. Sand the picture frames smooth. Because photo frames aren’t a high-contact item, and I was planning to paint them anyway, I didn’t do much sanding for this project. I only did a single pass with my orbital sander using 120-grit paper. This cleaned up any glue squeeze-out and small imperfections at the corners, while preparing the wood nicely for paint.
8. Apply finish. What kind of finish you use is a matter of personal taste. I decided to paint my frame black, for two reasons. First, I had some leftover black paint, so I didn’t have to buy anything new for this project. Second, the reclaimed wood I used didn’t look super nice. It didn’t have any interesting grain, there were a few imperfections, and some of the old stain was still visible. Paint’s an easy way to cover up less-than-stellar wood, so I paint recycled wood projects a lot.
9. Cut your frame backer. There are all kinds of products you can use for this, but in the spirit of recycling, I used a piece of cardboard that I cut to size, using the acrylic as a template. It doesn’t really matter what you use, because no one ever looks at the back of a picture frame.
10. Install hanging hardware. This is another decision that comes down to personal preference. I like to use sawtooth hangers because they’re pretty forgiving of a little imprecision in the hanging process. Picture frame wire is another easy method. Whatever you use, however, pre-drill the holes for any screws. You don’t want the frame to crack after you’re this far into the process.
11. Put it all together. Place the acrylic first, then the picture, then the backer piece. The final step is to secure that backer so that everything doesn’t fall out when you pick it up. There’s actually a specialized tool for this called a point driver, and you might want to pick one up if you plan on making a lot of picture frames. If, like me, you’re one of the many woodworkers who don’t have one, just use a staple gun.
12. Hang the frame, stand back, and admire. How you hang the picture depends a bit on the hardware you choose. Because I used a single sawtooth hanger, I was able to just hammer a single nail into the wall, with about a quarter-inch sticking out, and hung the frame from that.
Now, when guests comment on what a lovely picture you have on your wall, you can say, “Yes, but did you know I made the frame?” And bask in the ensuing compliments.