Mix-and-Match Picture Frames

With magnetic personalities

Designer/Builder/Writer: Robert J. Settich

Overall dimensions: 4×6" frame, 5 9/16×7 9/16"; 5×7" frame, 6 9/16×8 9/16"; 8×10" frame, 9 9/16×11 9/16"

Everybody loves family photos, and now it’s easier than ever to create—and change—a dynamic montage of family, friends, and pets. Powerful rare-earth magnets imbedded in the edges make the frames grip together tightly for a secure display. But the magnets also release easily without tools, enabling you to change pictures in a flash.

The clever arrangement of the magnets (see Figure 5) allows you to link up the frames in a virtually unlimited number of configurations. You can easily switch between horizontal and vertical formats, and choose whether the corners of adjoining frames are flush or offset.

Perhaps best of all, you don’t need to pound nails into your wall to hang each frame. Simply mount the central 8×10" frame using its keyhole slots, and then magnetically join your other frames to create a grouping. If you want to adapt the frames for use on a table or mantel, make a pair of the simple feet shown in the photo above and in Figure 4.

Finally, if you’ve struggled with miters before, put an end to your worries with our easy-to-build table saw jig that cranks out crisp corners fast. In addition, the design cancels out errors, and a stopblock guarantees identical lengths. You’ll also love our easy spline-slot jig that uses a pair of toggle clamps for a rock-steady grip on the parts, ensuring smooth, safe cutting.

Note: See the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide on page 42 for supplies.

Prepare the stock

1 Joint one face of 4/4 project stock, then thickness-plane the opposite face until it’s flat and measures 3/4" thick. (Determine the linear feet needed by adding up the perimeters of the frames you want to build, allowing for about 10% waste.)

2 Joint one edge of your board. Then set your table saw’s fence and rip a strip 1" wide. Joint the board edge again and rip another strip. Continue this way until you have enough strips for all the frames you want.

Shape the strips

1 Mount a 3/8"-wide dado head in your table saw, and lower the cutter below the table’s surface. Attach a 3/4"-thick sacrificial fence to your rip fence with double-faced tape or clamps. Referring to the Corner Detail in Figure 1, adjust the fence and dado head height to cut a 1/4" rabbet 3/8" deep. Check the setup with a test cut in scrap stock.

2 Cut the rabbet along one edge of each frame strip as shown in Photo A.

3 Chuck a 1/8" round-over bit into your table-mounted router, and rout along the three remaining edges of each strip. Again, refer to the Corner Detail accompanying Figure 1.

Using a featherboard and a pushstick helps to keep the rabbets consistent and fingers away from the blades.

Make a precision mitering jig

Build the table saw mitering jig shown in Figure 2 to ensure accurate results. You may need to adjust the dimensions to fit your saw.

Position each fence at 45º to the blade, taking care that you set the fences at 90º to each other. As long as they form a right angle, any error in one side of the joint is cancelled by its mate to make a perfect corner.

Test the jig by cutting four identical pieces from a 2"-wide strip of scrap stock. If your first attempt isn’t perfect, adjust the angle of one fence and repeat.

To use the mitering jig, hold a frame strip against the right fence with the rabbet against the fence. Push the jig forward to make the cut, stop the saw, then pull it back. Turn the strip so that the tip of the first cut touches the stopblock on the left fence and the rabbet is against the fence. Turn the saw on, and move the jig forward to complete one frame side.

Miter the corners, drill the sides, and assemble

1 Make a table saw mitering jig as described in the sidebar on the previous page and shown in Photo B and Photo C. Make test cuts to establish the length of the longest frame side you need, and clamp a stopblock to the left fence of the jig to ensure identical parts. Miter the pieces as shown, making a spare or two of each size. The Cut List gives you the dimensions for each part. Make certain that the rabbeted opening of the frame is at least 1/16" larger than the nominal frame size. For example, the back opening of a 5×7" frame should measure 51/16×71/16". The extra space makes it easy to insert standard sizes of glass and photos.

2 Clamp a fence to your drill press table to center a 3/8" Forstner bit in the edge of a frame sides and ends. (You’ll later press-fit the magnets into the holes.) Referring to Figure 1, clamp a stopblock to the fence to position the frame side. As shown in Photo D, drill the holes. After completing all of the holes at one stopblock setting, move it to drill the remaining holes. Note that the short side of a 4×6" frame has only three holes, while all other sides have four.

3 Glue the frame miters, then snug a band clamp as shown in Photo E to hold them while the glue dries. Wipe excess glue out of the rabbeted frame opening so that it will not interfere with the glass. Also make sure that the assembly sits flat.

Make the first miter cut by holding the strip against the right fence of the mitering jig.

Use a stopblock when cutting the opposite miter and the part to length.

Set up a fence and stopblock system to ensure accurate hole locations.

Shop-made corner blocks evenly distribute clamping pressure while preventing corner damage.

Reinforce the corners with splines

1 Make the Spline-Cutting Jig shown in Figure 3. Many table saw blades have an alternate top bevel (ATB) grind that produces a kerf bottom shaped like an inverted V. This would result in objectionable gaps when you insert the spline. To avoid this gap, choose a blade that has a square-topped tooth, such as an ATBR grind or one made for a flat bottom kerf. Another option is to use one of the side blades from a stack dado set. Cut the spline slots into each frame corner as shown in Photo F.

2 Thickness-plane a 1"-wide strip of contrasting wood to the width of your spline slot (about 1/8" thick). Bandsaw the strip into triangular splines that project about 1/8" from the sides of the frame. Wipe a thin film of glue onto each spline and press it in place. Use tape to hold the splines in place as shown in Photo G.

The toggle clamps in the spline-cutting jig immobilize the frame for a clean cut while keeping your hands safely away from the blade.

Taping the splines ensures that they won’t creep out of position before the glue grabs.

Trim the splines flush with a plane, working from the corner in to avoid tearing out any wood.

Routing a pair of hanging slots in all four frame edges enables you to hang the 8×10" frame in any orientation.

3 Trim the splines flush to the frame as shown in Photo H. (You may want to first saw away the excess spline material.) Finish-sand the frames to 150 grit. Angle your sanding block at the corners of the frame to avoid cross-grain scratches.

4 Rout hanging keyhole slots into the back edges of the 8×10" frame where shown in Figure 4. Photo I shows the plunge-router setup using the keyhole bit and edge guide. The smaller frames don’t require hanging slots unless you use one of these as the starting point for your arrangement. If you plan to stand the frames on a table or mantel, skip the slots and instead make a pair of the feet shown in Figure 4.

Now, the finishing touches

1 Stain the frames if desired. Then apply a clear finish. I sprayed on three light coats of a water-based finish.

2 Press in the magnets with a C-clamp as shown in Photo J. Refer to Figure 5 for the polarity of the magnets. Install the first magnet into a + location, then use it as a reference to check the polarity of all other magnets.

(Don’t worry about the usual north/south magnet designation. You can insert the first magnet either way as long as you consistently use it as a benchmark to establish the polarity of all the other magnets.)

3 Choose your arrangement of the frames. You’ll note that the polarity of the magnets may require you to rotate or invert a frame to attach it at the desired location.

4 Fill the frames with your photos or artwork. Hobby stores usually sell single-strength glass to fit the standard frame sizes of this project: 4×6", 5×7", and 8×10". A glass shop or hardware store are two other sources. The glass should be at least 1/16" smaller in both width and length than the rabbeted frame opening so that seasonal wood movement doesn’t crack a too-tight pane. Plastic is another choice. Glazier’s push points (available at hardware stores and home centers) are an easy way to secure the contents.

5 Drive a pair of screws into the wall, spacing them to match the keyholes in your frame. Hang the primary frame, and then magnetically add the others to complete your arrangement. 

Align the axis of the clamp’s screw with the magnet to squeeze it in. Protect the outer edges of the frame and inner rabbet with scrap.

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