Design & Carving Procedure for Custom Frame

In a recent blog I talked about my process for getting a design onto a picture frame for carving.  Whenever I share the methods I’ve come up with there are two reactions I get.  First of all it’s a thank you (like those!) but the other one is where I’m told I shouldn’t give my methods away, someone will use them.  So I’m stymied, when I first got into the framing there wasn’t a lot written about how to carve and finish them.  Through the many years I’ve been doing this it’s been a lot of trial and error plus gleaning information from various sources like YouTube, workshops at the West Coast Show held in Las Vegas, online courses from Mary May and Chris Pye, and the Picture Framers Grumble.  Very little though focuses primarily on carving picture frames.  Since my career spanned 31 years as a woodshop teacher I suppose sharing what I do is second nature so that’s the path I’ll take.  Always appreciate comments and feedback from those of you that read my blog.  Another aspect of blogging is selfish on my part; having almost 7 decades under my belt I find that being able to refer back to my own blogs refreshes the memory!

Let’s start with the design phase.  Not being super artistic I’ve found that going to any internet image search works for me.  You can copy, grab, and paste them to your desktop and then manipulate the design to fit your size.  For example on this motif the number of leaves needed to be reduced to be able to ground out the design.  I use the plastic from salad containers as a template since they are flexible enough to conform to the molding and easy to flip over for a mirror image.  Simply spray glue your paper on them and cut it out.  The Olive Motif needed two templates, one for the stem and another for the leaves and olive.

As you can see in the second picture the actual gouge used to cut the design is also used to cut and annotated on the pattern for reference.  Now comes the carving of the design.  I’ve learned that although it’s possible to do curves freehand with v-tools or parting chisels having the proper sweep guarantees consistency.  The leaves were cut with a #7 sweep in 10, 14, and 20 mm widths.

Here’s a photo essay of going from a flat molding to a low relief carved one:

The carving was followed by a light sanding, this frame was primed with a yellow clay burnisher/sealer.  Each corner took approximately two hours to carve.  Next up is the gilding process.  For this frame a 1/3 piece of leaf was laid first on the sight edge.  It went from the cove to the inside.  Luckily, my little finger is a perfect size to press the leaf into both coves!  Once the inner edge was complete on one leg, a full sheet of leaf went from the inner cove all the way around the molding.  I only use slow set size as I believe it gives a better bond then the quick set does.  I’ve done a couple of YouTube’s demonstrating my technique, here’s a LINK to one of them.

To end this blog I want to stress that I’m no expert when it comes to carving but rather have learned what I can through lots of trial/error and experimentation. I doubt I’ll ever be as good as I want to be but as long as I’m challenged and see improvement in my work I’ll be satisfied.  Personally, I think the mindset of always wanting to improve on what you did before harbors craftsmanship and artistry.  Diane recently took a workshop where the instructor stated that being self-taught gives most people a set of bad habits!  So, bottom line I hope my journey helps anyone who’s trying to do what I’m doing along the way.  I’ll end with this picture of the “freshly gilded frame”.  I’m fighting a cold but at this stage the brassiness has been knocked down and a very light grey wash applied.  Final step in my toning process is to wax and highlight portions of the frame.  I’ll share that next week.




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Mid-Century Modern Dresser to Double Vanity

Dresser to Double Vanity (It does have legs and base)

This project is finally complete and I’ve mentioned it a few times in previous blogs.  The same client I recently made the 15 picture frames for was also in the process of buying and remodeling a new home fairly close to me.  To be honest, this could have been the type of project you wish you hadn’t taken on but I could see the potential of turning their mid-century dresser into a vanity — I mean; it was just a cool looking piece!  I didn’t have to make a commitment when first asked since the new house was under renovation and this was crowded along with everything else in the rental house they were leaving.  Besides the picture frames had priority which gave this project time to come to fruition in my head!

The first time I saw this piece in the house was when I met the plumber.  It was placed in the bathroom and he was trying to figure out what to do first.  This is a really well constructed piece of furniture!  Full inset plywood back (nailed not stapled) with dust panels between each drawer which were supported by a drawer web and wooden center mount slides.  After popping the back off the plumber was able to roughly locate where the tailpiece for each sink would be and drilled holes through the top and each of the dust panels.  It would have been the best option to have him do the plumbing hookup and then modify the drawers but as with many construction projects — wrong parts were ordered or delivered so there was that inevitable delay.  Decided to take a chance and modify the drawers based on the rough measurements.  I took two of them home experiment.  Luckily, there was enough room between the drain and the center mount slide.  After marking the location, a piece of the drawer was cut out on the bandsaw.  Then pieces of 1/2″ Baltic Birch plywood were mitered, glued, and nailed inside of the drawer to tie everything together.  Drawer bottoms were wood, if this had been a modern mass-produced piece these modifications wouldn’t have been possible.

I figured okay, if one of them works my process must be working so took the rest of the drawers home to modify them.  It was a couple of weeks before the correct parts arrived and the plumber finished it all up.  Drawer one — good; drawer two — good; and so it went until the drawers seven and eight at the bottom of the right side!  They just hit the P-trap where it went into the drain, had a bit more angle to it.  Luckily after taking them to the shop and removing the bottom right up to the center mount guide they both fit with just the slightest bit of friction on the very bottom.  I was happy, my client was happy and things looked good.

My client, Christine; is an artist who I met through Diane.  You can see some of her work, including a few of the frames I made for her, on Instagram.  The reason I bring that up is to tell you about an upcoming show at the  Rees Atelier Academy located in Mesa, AZ.  Christine is in the program there and her work will be on display. With Christmas right around the corner this show could be just the place to find that perfect gift for that special someone!  Tim Rees (owner of the Academy) is having a Holiday Show and Sale on December 9th. from 9:00 am to 5:00pm.  Here’s  a LINK to the show flyer.






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November; Another Month Gone!

This has been a good and very warm month here in Phoenix.  My work is increasing as more people hear about me and decide to ask me to work on their projects.  One that is 99% complete that I had hoped to share was the Mid-Century Modern dresser that has been modified to become a double vanity.  Unfortunately some of the parts required to complete this job were the wrong ones so we’re waiting on those to come in so the plumber can finish the installation.  I can give you a teaser picture of how the drawer was modified so the drain has a way to through each drawer.  My client has all of the drawers and has promised to send pictures of the completed vanity, I’ll explain and give you details of how this problem was solved then.

Robert Lemler Painting 4″ x 10″

A commission I had for picture frames and one I really enjoyed was to frame two nudes painted by Robert Lemler for a client.  Robert Lemler’s work is fantastic and I know him personally. He teaches at the Scottsdale Artist School and is represented by a number of galleries.  His work is on several websites and is easy to find with an internet search.  Here are the two frames.  Both of the moldings were custom milled from Basswood.  The first measures 4″ x 10″ and is a custom milled profile.  The finish is Japan Black over red clay which has been rubbed strategically back to expose the clay and replicate years of wear and handling.  The other nude is larger, measuring 12″ x 24″.  This one was framed in a floater style frame that has been gilded.  Again, the frame was slightly distressed, this is commonly done to add age and authenticity to the piece.  I always feel honored when a client trusts me to frame their valuable art work

Robert Lemler Painting 12″ x 24″

Rockler Speaker Kit

A quick and fun project this month was to make a blue tooth capable speaker for Diane to use in her studio and car.  Rockler Woodwork sent an email showing this little speaker so decided to give it a try!  The radio went out in her car and the price of this kit was way less than the repair cost for that.  Made a little holder for the speaker that fits in the cars cup holder and it works great.  Now she can do Pandora on her iPhone and hear it.  I’ve always wondered it Baltic Birch Plywood could be finger jointed and now I know — yes it can!

Last of all, work has begun on a new frame for one of Diane’s paintings titled Cheers.  It’s on stretched canvas and measures 20″ square.  In it, the lady is holding a Martini and my first thought was olives!  After a bit of image searching I had enough information to design a gently flowing design that’ll go in each corner.  Again, my go to source for making a pattern is the plastic containers used for salad that you get at the store.  After drawing it out, the pattern is spray glued to the plastic which is then cut out with the appropriate chisels.  Here’s a photo montage of the process.

Diane’s painting has been accepted in a show but I have until the beginning of January to get it finished.




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Black Limba Dovetailed Box

Seems as if I’ve been quite busy in the shop with commissioned projects which is a good thing but …. I keep telling myself that the Etsy Store needs to have more inventory for the hopefully good Christmas gift season.  I’ve been working on this Black Limba box off and on and finally finished it.  Love the character, grain, and coloration of this piece. If you’ve ever worked this wood you know it’s fairly easy to work with sharp hand tools which is how I really like to create these projects.  As usual, the size of the board pretty much determines the size of the box I’ll make and the piece I had gave me a box that is 3 1/2″ tall by 5 1/4″ wide and 12″ long.  The thickness of this box is 5/8″.

Tails cut, note Rabbet aka “Stanley 140 trick”

Once the pieces were milled to the needed size the first step was cutting a rabbet on the ends of the front and back piece.  When making boxes or drawers I utilize the old Stanley 14o trick which is great fun to create with my recently purchased Veritas skew rabbet plane. If you haven’t seen it, in this BLOG I demonstrated it and also made a short YouTube video.  Once that step is complete it’s time to clamp two boards together to cut the tails on both sides at one time.  Since this box will have a lift off lid there is only one groove cut for the bottom.  I find that cutting this first (with a small plow plane) helps to keep the pieces organized.  The pin boards were cut in the usual manner, in this instance they are the short sides for the box.  You can see the difference in them before and after trimming with a low angle block plane.                                                                                    Love the grain and coloration of this wood — Agree?

Once the box was assembled and the dovetails planed smooth it was time to create the lid.  Again, this started out by cutting the rabbet with the skew rabbet plane from Veritas.  This was followed by planing an angle on all edges of the lid with a low angle plane by Lie-Nielsen, similar to making a raised panel for a door.  Remember to cut across the grain first so that your final cuts with the grain take care of the inevitable tear out.  When cutting with the grain it’s more important to plane until a line is formed that goes from the center of the lid to the outer corner rather than trying to cut to any penciled in line.

Mortising in the handle


The final hand work on this box was to mortise in the handle.  Since I only have a 1/4″ mortise chisel (but Christmas is coming!) that’s what I use for lids.  After selecting a cut off piece from the box the tenon is roughed out on the tablesaw with a rip blade, usually this piece of wood is too small for hand planing so it’ll be cut slightly oversized and fine tuned by pulling the piece of wood over a rabbet block plane.

The finish used on this box was the same I used on those recently completed sliding doors.  That was Osmo PolyX which has all of the characteristics of a hand rubbed oil finish without the smells or environmental concerns.  The way I used it was to apply one coat, let it penetrate for 15-20 minutes or so and then wipe completely dry.  The next day an additional coat was wet sanded in with 320 wet/dry paper and again wiped completely dry.  This yielded a super smooth finish without the lingering turpentine odor of my 3 part finish.  I’ve mentioned many times how formulation of Watco and other finishes I’ve used for 40+ years have changed to meet EPA standards, their performance just isn’t the same.  The only negative I can think of with the Osmo product is that it darkened the wood more than I’d like.  They do have another product called Top Oil which I may experiment with next.  Well, let me get this published, the next step is adding it to the Etsy store!



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Creating Custom Profile Picture Frame Moldings

Remember I once referred to myself as wanting to be known as a “boutique framer”?  Maybe a bit overly ambitious but it’s something that has evolved as much out of necessity and as a challenge to see what I can accomplish.  There are few places that carry or mill custom profiles, here in the west Foster Planing Mills comes to mind.  I’ve used them several times and they once created a custom profile for Diane and I.  Also visited them in Los Angeles to check out their seconds area where they have a selection of moldings that are discontinued or left over from other production runs — great prices!  You can order any length you need but at $2.00 – $10.00+ per foot plus shipping it can get to be a bit much!  Here in Phoenix there is Barger Molding  that has milled a hundred feet of another custom profile but they don’t stock moldings like Fosters does.

So, what’s all this leading up to?  A commission for two more frames that I thought I’d share with you.  You may recall that for me it’s all about the process.  The profile for one of the frames is similar to the Christine Profile but thicker to accommodate the painting which is on 1/2″ thick Gatorboard.  What I really enjoy is knowing that a project started with what you see at the left picture and, after a number of hours culminated with what you see on the right.

Flattening One Face

Unfortunately no one carries any 6/4 Basswood here in town so buying the 8/4 meant a lot of waste.  I do need that thickness for the other frame so not a total waste.  The lumber was purchased at Timbers in Mesa and I ask them to sweeten one edge since I don’t have a power jointer — my #7 Stanley works well though; yes. I could do the whole process with it but sometimes it’s worth a couple of bucks to have them start it. The edge they gave was fairly square but nowhere as smooth as a hand plane will get it.   As you can see in this picture, the board needed to be flatten which was done with my shop made scrub plane and winding sticks.  Now they could be run through the power planer to the required thicknesses.  I won’t bore you with the step by step details of milling this profile but basically after the stock was brought to thickness it was first ripped to width.  Then the sight edge is cut on the router table followed by the two passes to route the grooves.  There is also a slight chamfer on the outer edge which is initially cut on the tablesaw then planed smooth after assembly.  The frame for my client is only 4″ x 6″ and so not to hide too much of the painting behind the rabbet it’s only about 3/16″ deep.  When routing grooves you’ll find that one side may be rougher than the other which is due to the bit cutting against the grain on one side of it and with the grain on the other.  A tadpole sander is the remedy for that.

While machining the wood for my client I also machined enough in 1 1/2″ thickness for a 20″ x 20″ frame for Diane.  The time factor for much of this type of work is related to machine set up so I like to make more of a molding than what my client needs at the time.  The goal is to eventually have enough custom molding that I’ve made on hand to frame someone else’s work.  My luck I’ll be 8″ short and have to start fresh anyway!

Cutting Miters, large frame in foreground


Now it’s time to miter all of the pieces which is accomplished with the jig I’ve made for the SawStop.  Frames are joined with a glue and a #20 biscuit in each corner for strength.  Although this takes more time than using V-nails pneumatically driven into the bottom I’m convinced my frames will stand the test of time and not separate.


Fine tuning the chamfer


Once the frame is removed from the clamps (overnight) the final step was to smooth out the chamfers and do any touch up sanding.  The last step done today was brushing on a coat of traditional red burnisher/sealer.  This will be burnished and top coated with Japan Black.  The painting for this frame is a nude on a predominantly red background.  The Japan Black will be rubbed back to expose the red clay in a hit or miss fashion to replicate what many years of age and handling would have naturally done to the frame.

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Utilitarian Project: Miter Saw Stand


This was one of those projects I’d been meaning to get around to for quite some time but it seems something more interesting always came up!  I don’t use a “chop saw” too often in my work so maybe that’s why it’s been on the back burner.  Years ago I decided that for my work a 10″ or 12″ sliding miter saw just wasn’t needed.  When the 10″ Hitachi I used to have finally gave out it was replaced with this Makita 7 1/2″ model that I really like.  Back in the Las Vegas shop there was a dedicated station for it but since moving here it’s been mounted on a piece of plywood and clamped to the workbench whenever needed — a real pain!  The unit you see on the left will make using it quicker and easier for sure.

It’s mounted on Harbor Freight urethane wheels which roll quite nicely.  The two in front lock.  Construction was pretty straight forward using leftover Alder from other projects.  Honestly, it was a challenge taking the random width and thickness stock I had and mill it to somewhat uniform dimensions to make the framework.  Basically it’s panel and frame construction with 1/4″ Douglas Fir plywood from Home Depot. There wasn’t enough material to make a separate unit for the front so assembly was kind of tricky, those crossmember are lap joints and glued/clamped together while the plywood is held in place by grooves.  The finish is also some left over General Finishes EnduroVar in a satin, 3 coats.  That was from the laundry sink project so should be more than adequate for this shop cabinet.  In keeping with my “whole world is my spray booth” philosophy the finish was sprayed outside.  It’s been in the mid to upper 90’s here so drying time was short!

The final step was to figure out an easy way to make extension wings.  The top of the stand is that 3/4″ coated Baltic Birch plywood so using that for the wings made sense.  They are simply hinged to the sides which extend from the plywood about 1/4″ less than the table height of the saw.  To support them the remaining scrap of the plywood is used, you’ll notice a cleat screwed onto the bottom of the wing.  By clamping a straight edge to the saw table and then clamping the wing to that all I needed to do was measure how long the support needed to be.  The support sits on the horizontal member of the side and under the cleat on the wing — picture’s worth a thousand words:

Storage capabilty

Besides needing a stand for the miter saw another thing needed was a place to store the boxes I have on my Etsy Store.  No sense leaving them in the garage and the extreme temperature variations we have.  Now they, and much of the packing can be kept in boxes in this unit.  It’s all good now — next projects are to make some more boxes as my inventory is pretty low.  Hopefully that’ll be done before the hoped for and anticipated Christmas season.


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Christine Profile Frames Completed!

If you recall from the last POST about this particular series of frames I was getting down to the finish line.  Many steps required to complete this series of 15, 4″ x 6″ frames.  In that post the process of making the molding was talked about and I’ve received several questions on my blog asking what I use to create the profiles.  When you look at picture frame molding they are basically a series of coves, outside curves, and angles arranged in a pleasing way.  If the work requires a number of frames like this job I tend to use more of power tools like the tablesaw, router table, or cutters in my antique Rockwell Shaper.  My personal preference though is to go “hybrid” and use power tools for the roughing out but hand tools for the finish work.  I’d rather work with the quietness of a beading plane than the noise and dust of a router anytime! This POST illustrates that process.

Christine Profile

This picture shows the Christine Profile, you can see that there are a couple of coves, a chamfered outside edge, a decorative sight edge, and a rabbet.  Whenever a job like this is taken on it’s best to come up with a systematic approach — discussed that in the first blog.  Prior to assembly everything was laid out and ready to go.

My favorite clamp is the Merle band clamp.  I’ve had one of these forever but knew that if I could only glue up one frame at a time it would take a long time to complete this job.  Luckily, found 2 of these used from one seller on eBay for less than $50.00 including shipping — nice!  All of my frames are assembled with biscuits/glue and clamped for at least 4-6 hours.  That way 3 were clamped in the morning and the other 3 late afternoon.  I’ve only had one joint like this fail and that was on a frame (for my daughter no less) that went from the dry desert up to Spokane, Washington!  The frames were then finished, five at a time.

The finish process on these was with spray paint.  The technique for them was to apply a red primer followed by a satin black.  Timing is everything and unfortunately, paint manufacturers are constantly changing their formulas which means timing is everything.  Can’t stress enough to make test pieces.  The goal is to create a finish that looks as if it’s been around for some time, if you want a new looking frame buy the plastic ones at your local big store box!  I was given artistic license on this job and wanted to rub back some of the black to reveal the undercoat.  This is accomplished with wax and a white scotch pad.  Very difficult to photograph that but I’ve tried here.  This process is one of the few times I’ll wear gloves, that black gets into my pores and is hard to remove.

Tried to be random in the rubbing back process.  Some frames I concentrated on sight edge, outer edge, coves, the face, etc.  I’ve seen commercial frames where the same “rub out” occurs every 6″ or so.  It’s always wise to mold a bit more wood than what you think you need.  Murphy’s Law right? Seems that if I don’t make extra I need it but make the extra and you end up with more.  In this case it worked out just fine, Diane needed a 14″ x 18″ frame for a recently competed painting and also liked this profile.  There was enough left to make her frame, however; gold was on her mind!  For a comparison here is the same profile finished two ways.  For her frame there is a base coat of red burnisher/sealer followed by a brushed on coat of Japan Black.  Between those two processes the sight edge was gilded with composition gold.  This was all rubbed back with oil and rottenstone.  Other than the appearance, the major difference is that her frame took about 3 times as long to finish as the others but wanted to show how the same profile can be finished in different ways.

My client has been pleased with what she’s seen through the blog with her frames and will be picking them up soon — looking forward to seeing her reaction when she sees them in person.




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