Big Ideas!: The Non-Mitered Picture Frame

Frame Sketch

Proportions exaggerated to show detail.

I keep a running list of ideas for projects. The name of the list is BIG IDEAS!. When I’m working on one project, often I have another idea for something totally different. It could be for a work of art, a piece of furniture, a method of determining prime numbers, whatever. Some pan out. Some do not. Today I’m sharing one that is somewhere in between. The non-mitered picture frame.

You know by now that I am a guy who makes art. However, I am also a guy that collects art. I don’t always have the funds to buy the art I want, and it’s even more rare that I have the funds to buy frames. Right now I have a good half dozen pieces that are awaiting frames and you know what, frames are expensive.

I might not object so much to paying good money for good frames, but so many frames you find in stores are not good frames. They are made in China of pressed wood and lousy finishes and I can’t bring myself to buy them. I’m sure there are much better frames in frame stores and I’m sure they cost quite a bit more. So I started to think about frames and the pressed wood and lousy finishes are the two things that bug me the most. What could be done to bring the cost down of solid wood frames? What are the obstacles in manufacturing and shipping frame parts?

The first thing that could be done to bring the cost down is make them DIY. Lots of places sell frame kits of varying quality, but solid wood is always going to cost a bit more. They could be less expensive by not applying a finish to them. The end user could apply a wax, tung oil, varnish or other finish of their choice. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for me.

It also occurred to me that mitered corners are a bit of a problem. Those corners have to fit pretty well. In metal frames it isn’t as much of a problem, but in wood frames if that mitered end gets a ding it is game over. You now have to get out sanding block and sand that piece (at an exacting 45 degree angle) and its parallel side to the same length to eliminate the damage. That’s when I came up for the idea of overlapping corners as shown in the picture above.

Another goal of the design was to eliminate as much hardware as possible. This design calls for four wood screws, one in each corner.

Frame Piece 1

Frame Piece #1: Proportions exagerated

In this first design of a frame side you can see the channel for the artwork and the screw holes at each end. There is also a notch in the middle (probably too small here) for hanging the frame. However, I didn’t think this would be solid enough to be held together with four screws, so I made a modification.

Frame Piece 2

Frame Piece #2: Proportions exagerated

Above you can only see one end of the frame piece, but imagine there is a reciprocal joint at the opposite end. In this scenario the screw goes through each piece twice, making a stronger joint. With the right tolerances those finger joints would grab hold of each other pretty well even before the screw is secured.

Frame Mockup

Digital mockup of non-mitered picture frame in maple

And that’s about where the design is now. It’s mostly something I dabble in between projects. Is it brilliant or stupid? I’m not sure, but here are some parting thoughts.

  • There is no one universal frame design meant to meet any framing application.
  • The amount of machining required to make this is such that many would have to be made at once on a CNC machine in order to be cost effective.
  • Originally designed for hardwood, it could still work for other materials (machined aluminum, plastic, carbon fiber), but in most of those scenarios I would suggest a different way to secure the joint (machine screw, locking or snapping pin).
  • Bamboo might be a good alternative to hardwood.
  • It just looks neat to me, different. The proportions shown in the first sketch are a little weird, but I like a very plain modern frame. Also, a person could opt to make the pieces different colors for an even different look.
  • Just because I like the DIY option, doesn’t mean a pre-finished version couldn’t also be available.
  • It isn’t super ideal for archival framing, but the package of glass, matt, artwork, and backing could be bound on all sides by archival tape to keep out the residual acidity in the wood.’

What do you think? Should I work on this some more or store it in the circular file?


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