Make your own frames with the following advice from Alan Bickley, Cheryl Culver and Christine Pybus.

  1. How to meaure for your frame
  2. How to cut your moulding
  3. How to join your moulding

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Why frame your oil paintings

‘A frame isolates the artwork from the flock wallpaper and accentuates the perspective, giving the image much more depth,’ days Christine Pybus. ‘A frame can also either make or break a picture. Beware then of dark or bright-coloured frames. The viewer’s eye will be drawn to the point of highest contrast in a picture; that’s where the darkest dark and lightest light meet. If, instead, that point of contrast is at the edge of the picture – because of the tone of the frame – that’s where the eye will go to and not to your painting.

‘Choose neutrals, even off-whites. If the overall tone of your picture is warm, use a warm neutral. Conversely, if the tone of your picture is cool, choose a cooler, bluer neutral for the frame. An inner frame, or slip, will often enhance a frame, but, again, beware of excessive contrast. Essentially, don’t use darks darker, or lights lighter than those in the painting’.

Don't miss our great guide to oil painting by Alan and Christine.

The Pier at Sandown, oil on board, (25x60cm)
One of Alan's finished paintings, showing gunmetal frame with separate ‘slip’, which acts as a narrow mount

‘Fashions in frames has changed over the last decade, as has all fashion,’ says Alan Bickley. ‘Gold, highly decorative and dark woods are less popular; lighter colours tend to be dominant in the galleries, interspersed with a few light woods, so there’s something to suit all modern tastes and styles of artwork.

‘Your chosen frame must enhance, not detract from the painting or be the focus of attention. After all, we don’t want the viewer to look at our work and utter ‘Oh I do like that frame!’, which is something that I have heard on occasion’.

Whereas watercolours require mounts and glass, oil paintings (as a rule) don’t, so framing an oil painting is significantly easier with fewer processes to master.

Why make your own frames

‘You’ll be surprised how satisfying the process of making your own frames can be,’ says Alan, ‘and I find that it gives me a welcome break from the painting process. I’m totally self-sufficient, which I like, and it saves me quite a bit of money over the year.

'It's also about convenience though, I love to be able to construct a specific frame for a painting I’ve recently completed, and be able to do this in perhaps 20 minutes or so. We all know that the ‘right frame’ will enhance and show off our work to its full advantage’.

Top tip

Dropping an unfinished painting into a 'spare' frame helps to show how it’s all pulling together.

Framing different supports

For this article we are focussing on framing a solid support, such as MDF or the popular canvas and linen boards that are readily available.

Framing a stretched canvas is much the same, except that you won’t need a backboard, but you will need a deep-edge frame to accommodate the depth of the canvas edge.

Many artists don’t frame stretched canvases, but don’t be tempted to paint around the edges, that really isn’t a good idea, although many do.

Some basic guidelines before you get started

  • Having found a supplier, familiarise yourself with the choices available. This could take a number of visits and you do need to allow the time for this.
  • Obtain a catalogue and look at it in the showroom to ensure you can relate what is shown in the photograph to the samples on the wall.
  • Ask if you can have small samples of any mouldings you think may be suitable. There will be a charge for this and it is unlikely that they will be cut while you wait.
  • Unless you really like a challenge, avoid mouldings that have a moulded back edge as they have a tendency to break away at the back when cut. They are also difficult to clamp.
  • Begin by working with smaller square-backed mouldings and don’t be too ambitious size-wise: mistakes can be costly, and we all make them. You can experiment with larger mouldings and frames as your confidence grows.
  • Always check your moulding for twisting or other damage before you leave the showroom.

What equipment do I need?

You don’t need a huge workshop to make your own frames, you can start off with a small range of hand tools and if you want to progress further, there is some good second-hand machinery available, the sort that’s used by professional framers. Start with the basics (see below) and build up your equipment gradually.

You will need:

  • Your chosen moulding
  • A mitre block
  • A fine-toothed tenon saw
  • Strong adhesive
  • An underpinner
  • A mitre clamp
  • A flat surface
  • Thin hardboard or MDF
  • A tab gun or panel pins and pin hammer
  • Self-adhesive brown Kraft tape
  • D rings
  • Picture cord

More advanced equipment includes:

  • A hand saw and mitre jig
  • A mitre guillotine
  • An underpinner

What are mouldings?

A picture frame moulding is the material used to cut down to size to make a picture frame, every picture frame moulding regardless of its shape or size only ever has four measurements.

Mouldings can be purchased in either individual lengths or in packs, which will work out cheaper per metre.

Alan recommends Mainline Mouldings in Nottingham, who have an extensive range of mouldings at competitive prices.

Traditionally frames are made of wood but there’s a relatively new framing material now available known as Polcore, which is made from recycled polystyrene. It looks like wood and is considerably cheaper with and impressive range of styles and sizes to choose from.

How much moulding will I need? Cheryl Culver advises

Once you have selected a moulding you must decide how much to buy.

The wider the moulding the greater the wastage: a 5cm wide moulding will lose at least 10cm on cutting, and a 7.5cm wide moulding at least 15cm. Therefore, to make a frame 40cm square with a 5cm wide moulding you will need at least 2m. Most moulding comes in 3m lengths so you will have about 1m left over.

Bear in mind that moulding does not usually match from one batch to the next – this is often not just a colour mismatch but profiles also do not match, making it impossible to join the corners.

Always measure art work twice top and bottom, and twice side to side. This will pin point any discrepancies in the board size (see fig 1 below).

Check the board is square, this should not be a problem with purchased boards, but hand-cut ones can run off quite badly. The rebate overlap on mouldings is normally only 5 or 6mm, making this extra check worth doing.

Allow 1 or 2mm on your measurement so that your frame will not be too tight.

Always check your length of cut moulding against the work and make any adjustments at this point. Cut long lengths – they can be cut down if an error in measurement has been made.

The measurement for the moulding is taken inside the frame, rebate to rebate, (see fig 2 below).

Machines like the Charnwood and the Morso have a gauge system to read the 450 cut and relate this to the frame length needed (see fig 3 below). But these machines can also be used by marking off with a pencil. The Logan F-100 Pro has a measuring system, but some mitre saws do not. To use the Mitre Trimmer the mouldings would need to be cut a little longer than required and trimmed back with the Trimmer. It’s a case of trial and error.

Top tip

If your frame is rectangular, particularly if it is nearly square, but not quite, mark the two identical length sides on the vertical edge of the rebate. Joining the two short sides (or long sides) together can lead to tears or the throwing of missiles.

How do I cut my moulding?

The most basic of tools, but still quite adequate as a starting point, is a mitre block, which should be used with a fine-toothed tenon saw to cut the 45° angle. Or you could consider the larger and more sophisticated combined hand saw and mitre jig. This has an adjustable length stop, which makes cutting equal lengths easier.

Draper mitre block and tenon saw - basic but adequate equipment for cutting mitres

Hand saw and jig - a Draper hand saw and mitre jig is inexpensive and will cut accurate mitres

Accuracy is paramount, as each 45° angle must be perfect to ensure that they fit together to form a perfect 90° right angle. Whatever method you are using, allow a +2mm tolerance from the painting size as this allows for any expansion at a later date.

Top tip

Do practise cutting accurate mitres (angled cuts) on scrap moulding first; the technique is to let the weight of the saw do the work – don’t force it!

More advanced cutting equipment

If you eventually decide to go into home framing on a larger scale, you may want to consider a mitre guillotine.

The industry standard is the Danish company Morso. These are highly engineered, precision pieces of equipment and they can be categorised into two types: the large floor-standing foot-operated models and the more manageable bench model.  Both are manually operated and will cut extremely accurate mitres to the standard and speed required by professional framers.

Alan’s bench model is the Morso BA, which comes with detachable side bars with measuring scale. There is also the Morso B model, which is smaller and doesn’t have the side bars; either of these two will serve you well. The Morso BA costs £1700 new, but if you keep a close eye on the auction websites, you could pick up a good one for under £400. These are extremely popular and don’t come on the market as often as the floor-standing models.

The Morso bench guillotine - the industry standard for cutting precision mitres both quickly and accurately. It has a small footprint but is rather heavy to move at around 35kg and really needs to be sited in a small workshop. Dulled blades need to be sent away to be precision honed by a specialist - spare sets of blades are available.

Top tip

Unless you’ve got a large workshop, don't buy a floor-standing one.

How do I join my sections?

Whichever route you decide to take, the next process – joining the mitres – is exactly the same.

Modern adhesives are so strong that you probably wouldn’t have any issues if you simply glued the mitres together, but it would be preferable to staple in at least one V-wedge for peace of mind.

Make the frame up in two ‘L’ sections, then join these both together.

Glue each section together and hold the right angle secure in a mitre clamp. You’ll need a flat table or bench so that all four clamps sit flat, otherwise it will distort the frame.

Mitre clamp - corner clamps will hold glued, mitred joints firmly until set. Most of the modern adhesives will bond fairly rapidly, often in minutes.

Once all the corners have set firmly, use an underpinner to drive in at least one V-wedge to hold the joint secure.

Logan F300-2 underpinner - a useful desktop underpinner can fire-in two V-wedges at a time. An idea machine that does the job with little effort, though not fast enough for production work.

The Logan Graphics F300-2 (see above) is a handy piece of kit and does a more than adequate job, albeit a bit slowly for multiple production work. There’s also the F300-1, which is a cheaper alternative.

'As well as this handy table-top machine I’ve got a foot-operated underpinner, which I use if I’ve got a batch of frames to make up,' says Alan. 'They’re cheap enough to buy, but they do take up some space and are quite heavy to move around. They’re easy to buy from online auction sites'.

The final assembly

Having cut, glued and secured the moulding with V-wedges, the next step is to assemble all the components together within the frame. The good news is that this part of the process is really simple.

For the backboard, cut a piece of thin hardboard, MDF or even stout cardboard (not recommended for galleries), 2mm smaller than the inner frame dimension to allow for expansion.

Position your painting within the frame, followed by the backboard. Now secure both layers into the frame using a tab gun, which fires either a rigid or flexible tab, or drive in a small panel pin using a pin hammer if you don’t have one of these. Follow this by using self-adhesive brown Kraft tape to keep everything looking neat and professional; don’t use masking tape as it will dry out and peel off in no time.

The reverse side of a finished frame with Kraft tape, D-rings and cord in position, ready for hanging.

Finally, screw in the D-rings, (these come in a range of different sizes including double D-rings for large and heavy frames). Position these around a third of the way down the frame, secure a length of picture frame cord (see above) then sit back and admire your handiwork!

Tab gun and bits - a mitred, glued and stapled joint showing a Fletcher tab gun, brown Kraft self-adhesive picture framing tape, D-rings, screws and cord.

Top tip from Alan

None of these stages is difficult but you need to work with some degree of accuracy, particularly when cutting the mitres.

Discover how to frame pastel paintings

Presenting your artwork in the best possible way is a must for all artists. As well as the advice on framing, Cheryl Culver also shares top tips for photographing your work.