2021 Christmas Gifts: Picture Frame

Published Tuesday, January 4, 2022 by Bryan

The final Christmas gift I made in 2021 was a last-minute addition. We were able to gather with family for Thanksgiving this year. With everyone fully vaccinated, including boosters, and Omicron as yet unheard of, it was wonderful to finally gather.

An aunt brought to the gathering several boxes of photos that she had recovered from her mother's house. Among them was a mint-condition 8x10in. (20x25cm) photo of my brother-in-law at only a few months old. His father immediately leaned in my direction and whispered, "Don't you think Jill [his significant other] needs to have that framed for her wall?"

I laughed, even when he later told me he had secreted the photo away on one of my book shelves. But as the last projects finished, and I found myself with a few free hours left before Christmas, I eventually set to work designing a frame.

It took a relatively long time for me to find a plan I liked. At first I expected to do something with splines, like many picture frames I made for myself last year. I had even bought some exotic colored wood species in 1/8in. (3mm) thickness, to do exactly this with. But nothing spoke to me.

Among the problems the picture presented was that it didn't have much clear border. The subject ran almost to the edge, leaving little space for a frame to support. Thankfully, Amanda remembered that we had also found a few picture mats at her grandmother's house. Two of them were an 8x10 opening - one in black, and one in sort of a forest green. Even better, they were oval openings, with 11x14in. (28x35cm) overall size.

Better? Oval opening in a large format is better? In this case yes, because it pushed me out of my usual simple-square-shape thinking. I started wondering what directions I could go to "fit the theme" in some way. Something classic in style, like the oval shape. Something with "big" texture, to match the big size.

That's when I started thinking rustic. Something with a rougher look. Wood that's not perfect and shiny, but is instead knotty, twisted, mottled. I really wanted to head in the direction of pine logs, covered in the knots of tiny branches proliferating from the trunk. But I didn't have that.

What I did have was a stack of white oak planks. The ones that I had deemed too rough for building Adirondack chairs out of. In that pile, I found a board I had admired a few times, only to set aside when the knots ended up where screws or tight corners would go. It had some great spalting, some waves from a larger knot, a mix of light and dark colors. And believe it or not, except for the slightest bend in the center of the large knot, it was straight.

The exact shape still took a while to plan. I still liked the idea of logs. Overhanging at the end, rounded and cut into each other at the corners. But I didn't really have a lot of thicknes to fit both round and cut into - my plank was only 3/4" (19mm) thick. So what I decided to do was this: instead of fully rounding the entire face of the frame, I rounded the edges, and then cut the lap joint so that the round of the top and bottoms slats ended right at the flat of the side slats. This makes the top and bottom sit proud of the sides, giving some of that log-cabin stacked texture to the overall shape.

Cutting the recess for the glass, mat, and backer was the only remaining complicated part. since all of the slats were the same size, the recess was shallower in the raised top and bottom slats than it was in the side slats. I did the math to figure out the deepest I could make the shallow recess without removing any of the curve of the side slats, then cut those, dry-fit the frame together, marked where the recess met the side slats, and then disassembled to cut the side recesses exactly to that line.

Glue-up was easy, since the walls of the lap joints held everything square. Glass cutting was tough, because I didn't press hard enough the first time. Finishing was as finishing always is: a chore, but worth it.

I am so surprised and happy with how this frame turned out. It's very hard to get a good picture of it, because of the reflectivity of the glass. Thanks to the giftee for getting the best picture of it (above). In person, the spalting and the grain whorls form a complex organic texture, that I think captures well the "rustic" feeling I was looking for. Merry Christmas, Jill!

Categories: Woodworking