Frame with Piping

A twice-passed beading bit creates a detail borrowed from the upholstery trade.

Of all the picture frames I’ve built in my career, this remains one of my favorites. With its lovely but understated detailing, it conveys a simple elegance that respects a photo or painting without clamoring for attention itself. I particularly like the tube-like rounded detail that runs around the outer perimeter. Created by feeding the stock’s edge—and then its face—against a specially set up beading bit in a router table, the shape mimics piping, the decorative edging often found on upholstery cushions and pillows. To complement the piping, a small chamfer runs around the inside edge of the frame, stopping just shy of the corners to create a subtle detail that delights the eye.

As for joinery, corner splines ensure that this piece will last for generations. For this frame, I used Santos mahogany, which suits the purpose due to its rich color and mild figure. Any wood will work, but I’d avoid wild grain for best aesthetics. The splines here are ebony for an attractive accent. You can amend the proportions of the frame members if you like, but the 1-1/4" width works well with the detailing, as does the 1" thickness. Also, 1" is deep enough to accommodate a painting canvas stretched over a typical 3/4"-thick frame.

Order of Work

  • Cut the frame pieces to finished size.
  • Rout the piping and rabbets. 
  • Saw the miters and assemble the frame.
  • Install the splines, rout the chamfer, and sand.

Shaping: Rout the piping and rabbet

After dressing the frame pieces straight and square, cut them to precise finished length, adding 2-1/16" to the width and length of the item to be framed. (Make extra for cut set-ups.) Then rout the piping. It isn’t complicated, but it does require careful set-up and feeding, as shown. Next, saw or rout the 1/4"-wide rabbet in the inner rear edge of the pieces. To determine the depth of the rabbet, add up everything you plan to mount in it, including glass, mat board, a backer, and stop strips or other retainers. A 1/2" depth is usually enough, unless you’re mounting a painting on a stretched canvas frame.

Bit adjustment. Raise the bit so that the shoulder of the flute is level with the table (left).

Then adjust the fence tangent to the deepest section of the cutter’s cove. A strip of plastic laminate serves as a straightedge that won’t scratch the bit’s cutting edge.

A bead just right. A test cut on which the bead meets the uncut surface at a point will produce nicely rounded piping. If, instead, the bead exhibits a flat, move the fence inward. If the bead is fully stepped back, move the fence rearward.

Cleaner rabbeting. Many types of woods tear out where the shoulder of a rabbet meets the edge of the work, so I take a multi-step approach to minimize this splintering. I first adjust my fence and bit height, and take a full-width cut that removes at least half of the rabbet waste. I then use double-faced tape to attach 3⁄32" plywood facing to the fence, and adjust my bit height for a full-depth cut. The resulting shallow cut minimizes tearout when making the following, final cut.

Frame assembly: Miter with a sled, then clamp with a band

Cutting neat miters to precisely 45° can be fussy. Do yourself a favor and make a dedicated table saw sled for the job. (See onlineEXTRA below) With its twin fences at a perfect right-angle to each other, the sled ensures precise miter joints that won’t need any finessing afterward with a hand plane. I glue up the frame using a band clamp, but miter clamps of various sorts will work too. Take pains to align the show faces of the pieces. Any discrepancies in thickness should be planed away on the rear face after assembly. Make sure to immediately clean up any glue squeezeout at the piping corners. After wiping the joints with a wet rag, scrub the recessed area with fresh, clean water and a toothbrush.

Sliding to success. A miter sled makes fast work of cutting precise corner joints. To set up for the cut, align the tip of the frame corner with the edge of the sled’s blade slot (inset above). Make sure the “show” face of the stock is facing upward. Then hold the inside edge of the piece firmly against the sandpaper-faced fence, and slide the sled forward slowly and steadily (inset right).

A hand from a band. A band clamp does a nice job of pulling well-cut miters together. I usually let this assembly—with its unreinforced miters—dry overnight before moving to the next step.

Final frame work:   Splines, chamfers, and sanding

In my experience, unreinforced miter joints are not to be trusted. I always bolster them with splines to ensure they’ll stay intact for generations. Here, I use exposed key splines, with their grain running perpendicular to the miter joint line for strength. I cut the 7/8"-deep spline slots using a table saw jig, and then rip 1"-wide key spline material for a snug fit in the slots. Bandsaw the keys slightly oversize, and then glue them into their slots. After the glue dries, level the splines to the frame edges using a flush-cut saw, chisel, and block plane. (See page 47 for an alternative approach.) Then rout a 1/8"-wide stopped chamfer on the inside edge of the frame. Finally, finish-sand the frame. It’s best to sand the piping last, so that you can round over any small flats created when smoothing the faces and edges. Apply a few coats of wiping varnish, and get the picture!  

Splining jig. This saddle jig is outfitted with two fences installed at 90° to each other, and at 45° to the saw table. The right-hand fence includes a sacrificial backer to prevent exit tearout. To make the cuts, mount the frame with its show face against the jig. 
Key layout. With your spline stock inserted in a slot, mark lines at least 1⁄8" proud of the frame edges. Then rotate the stock 180° and lay out an adjacent spline. Repeat as necessary, then bandsaw to your lines to create the oversized keys. 

Flush-cutting. On a flush-cut saw, the teeth are set to one side only. By placing the opposite face against the work, you can trim protrusions without scarring the work surface. Clean up the cut with a chisel and a few swipes with a block plane.  

Stop that chamfer. Place a 3⁄8"-wide strip of wood against a far inside corner of the frame to serve as a stop as you climb-cut backward to begin the chamfer cut at one end of a frame member. Then rout in the normal direction, pushing the stock forward until you reach the opposite end, and abutting the stop there. 

Sanding detail. When it comes to smoothing the piping, a concave rubber sanding pad wrapped with self-adhesive sandpaper is the perfect tool for quick, accurate work. 

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