Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Frame Magic

Well, he did it again. The Engineer went off and built me something grand! 

This is the first piece of art we ever purchased. We were so poor, living on barely anything. But we both loved it. It was the semester before we graduated. We went to see the graduating seniors' theses exhibits...and a set of five larger than life charcoal drawings caught our eye, this one, being our favorite. I knew the artist, Rencher Walker, and a deal was made. 

She (the drawing) spent that summer and fall semester CAREFULLY rolled and protected in our tiny cinder block wall married student housing apartment. The end of fall semester brought graduation and a move to our current local. That's when we began pricing frames. And what we were quoted was OUTRAGEOUS! $1000+! And that was without glass...because a piece of glass that large would break...or we'd have to purchase some kind of crazy commercial grade glass - the numbers were just astronomical. We considered plexiglass - but the static build up would likely pull the charcoal onto the plexiglass. So...she lived tacked to our wall. I did use brass upholstery tacks and we were very careful to ONLY tack in the holes the artist had originally used to fasten the piece to the wall.

I kept rolling ideas around in my mind and finally, for the sake of cost, suggested we use crown. I explained what I had in mind. The Engineer and I loaded up the fam and headed to Lowes. Together we picked out all the needed supplies. The Engineer built and puttied the frame over the course of two afternoons. I spent three afternoons painting/finishing it.

I could not be happier with the end result. All said, $116 out of pocket. (I had the paint and nails on hand.) That's roughly one tenth of the lowest quoted price. (And no, we've never spent that much on a single frame, but this thing is HUGE!)

Want to make one? Here's how...

You'll need:
  • 1/4" plywood (number of sheets depends on the frame size, we needed two because our frame is over 55"x72" and plywood is only 48" wide)
  • 1x4 poplar boards (again the length depends on your frame size)
  • Crown molding in the style of your choice (we went with pre-primed MDF)
  • Some wood putty to fill in the nail holes
  • Wood glue 
  • air powered brad nailer
  • miter saw
  • table saw
  • router with a bead routing bit

The first step was to cut a groove in the poplar boards just big enough for the plywood to fit in it. We used the table saw for this, but a router would do just as well.

The Engineer had to take two passes on the saw to get the right width. Also notice that the teeth of our saw blade do not leave a flat-bottomed groove. In this case it is no big deal because no one will see it. After cutting the grooves he measured for the final length and mitered the end of each board.

Next The Engineer routed a bead on the edge of the board with a bit similar to this. If you don't have a router, then there are plenty of small, decorative mouldings available that could be applied to the frame edge.

These are the two pieces of plywood he cut to be the back of the frame (we used luan plywood).

The Engineer spread the wood glue in the grooves and slid in the plywood. This took a lot more work just due to the sheer size of the frame. As you can see the two pieces of plywood did not naturally want to sit flush. He had to attach a backer board at the seam to keep both edges flush. He also had to use a ratchet strap in the middle to apply some clamping pressure and pull everything together.

Next came the crown. It is hard enough cutting crown for a ceiling (upside down and backwards), try visualizing the frame as a ceiling laying on the floor. Just think about each cut, and we highly recommend a jig like this, just so you have a handy reference.

If you are really handy you may want to cope the crown moulding joints. The Engineer chose to use a mitered joint because we intended this to be a weekend project and his coping skills do not include speedy execution. (He said that, not me! I think his skills ROCK!)

Once the nail holes and cracks were filled with wood putty and sanded smooth, I primed the raw wood. An hour or so later, I came back with the first coat of black paint. We used an eggshell finish. 

Because I didn't want the wood on the back of the frame to be painted, I used pieces of card stock along the edges to protect the wood. That way I could get a good coat on all desired surfaces.

Once the second coat was on, I let her dry 24 hours...

And then I broke out a tube of my favorite stuff, this time in "gold leaf."

I got an old rag, folded it over and wrapped it around my index finger and began.

I squeezed a tiny bit on the rag and began rubbing it on the frame and then buffing it. This stuff is NOT forgiving. Once it's on a surface, it's there to stay. Ain't no gettin' it off.

Slowly, I worked my way around the frame...

You don't have to get it perfect. The variances in thickness create character. We placed the drawing in the frame and secured it with steel tacks. We wanted the texture and finish on the edges of paper to be seen, so The Engineer secured the back to the front of the frame so it doesn't come off, like a traditional frame would.

Once she was "finished," The Engineer hung her using a "French cleat."

For the French cleat The Engineer cut a solid piece of 1x pine lengthwise at a 45 degree angle. He attached one piece to the back of the frame at the top with wood glue. He used some brad nails and clamps to hold the cleat in place while the glue dried. He attached the other piece of the cleat to the wall with deck screws making sure it was level (we have solid wood paneling behind our drywall so he didn’t have to look for wall studs, if your house is newer then you will have to attach the cleat to studs to support any significant weight). The French cleat is a nice system because the wall piece is light-weight, easily attached, and easily located (i.e. centered and leveled). 

Once the wall cleat is in place all you have to do is lift up the frame and set the frame cleat onto the wall cleat.

My lens distorted the frame a bit. She really is square.

I am LOVING the end result. So dramatic. 

Hope you're inspired!


  1. Wow...Wow....Wow! It's beautiful!

  2. Awesome! The piece is beautiful and the frame accents it perfectly. If I'm ever at your house... beware of a potential art heist!

  3. LOVE the artwork! You did a great job on the frame. It's very dramatic and looks fantastic in your dining area (also love the walls of your dining room)!

  4. blows me away. seriously. love it. must 'star' this one for future use. LOVE the artwork. and, so neat that it actually means something to you guys!!!

    will have to post some pics of my latest project. adam thought i was crazy when i told him the idea...more on that later!

  5. Absolutely unbelievable!!! Love it... very dramatic and makes an awesome statement in there. So... with no glass if the kids touch it do they walk away with charcoal fingers? Or is there a "no touch" rule. Thanks for your text yesterday... loved hearing from you!!

  6. statement piece indeed! looks great :)

  7. Oh my goodness! Beautiful and dramatic. I love the largeness.

    I have to show this to Stephen because he could totally make a frame.

    That Engineer...I'm so impressed.

  8. I absolutely love it! It is crazy how expensive framing is. Sometimes more than the art itself. We have a french cleat too. We used it for an enormous mirror we inherited and it works perfect. Great job!

  9. Oh my goodness, that looks amazing! What a handy man you have!

  10. So, so, so beautiful, and so amazing what that husband of yours can do! What an great man! I absolutely LOVE the sheer size of that picture-it's breathtaking in that dining space. And, I still want a home tour! I adore your taste! One day, Jenn-show us your house g'friend!

  11. You guys really are a pair of talented people. Great job! :)

    Love to you!

  12. Oh, my. Wow. I am in love with the scale of this piece! I'm a bit speechless, friend. I feel all warm inside just gazing at these pictures.

  13. Wow, you such a beautiful home! Love that painting.