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DIY Recycled Frames For Big Savings

Sustainability Meets Thrift Shopping Meets Arts and Crafts

You know that friend with amazing artwork covering every wall of her house? She probably spent thousands of dollars amassing her collection. I am going to let you in on my wall-decorating secret: creating artwork does not have to break the bank. Sure, there are certainly times when you want to spend more on your artwork, but many of us just want beautiful decor without having to spend our kids’ college savings. 

When creating art for your home, much of the expense is in the framing. The bigger and more elaborate the frame and mat, the more expensive it is. Here’s a hack that will save you oodles while giving you a one-of-a-kind, bespoke piece of art: recycle used frames and make them your own. I suggest starting small to get the hang of it. Once your comfort level has increased, GO BIG (this is where you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars)! And here are the steps you need to follow to create your masterpiece.


If you already have a piece of art (i.e. something your kindergartener created), measure the piece so you know what size opening you need to find. Otherwise choosing a photo or picture that you own the right to is by far the easiest way to go. You can crop and print it to the exact size you need. This, in turn, enables you to pick any frame you like. If this is out of your league, find a friend with some Photoshop skills to give you a hand.


Next, head down to your favorite thrift store, charity, or consignment store and find yourself a frame that you can customize for your own home. When buying a recycled frame, try to find a solid wood frame and avoid plastic or pressed chipboard as they are much harder to customize and damage easily. Also, you get bonus points if you find a frame with quality mats and liners. Remember, you are picking a frame to paint, so don’t judge the color of the frame itself. The mats, on the other hand, need to be a color you’ll want to use. If you have specifically sized artwork, be sure to take a tape measure with you so you can get the right size opening.


Does your recycled picture frame have a mat and/or liner? If so, be sure to consider this when selecting your paint color. Most importantly, look at the photo or art you are framing. If you want to be clean and simple or are challenged with color coordinating, pick a neutral tone (black, white, or gray). I find spray paint is the easiest and fastest medium, though a paintbrush and can of paint also work.


Time to disassemble your purchase! With surgical precision, separate the picture from the frame. This may mean using a razor blade to cut away the backing or prying staples or nails to release the picture. Treat the frame and the mats with the utmost care.


Wipe away dust and dirt carefully from the wood so that the painting doesn’t reveal undesired textures or bubbles. Let dry completely.


Spray paint is the easiest and fastest medium. Find a large cardboard box that you can use as a paint station. Be sure to hold the can about a foot from the frame and use long sweeping motions to avoid too much paint. Let it dry for at least half a day. You also want to pick a dry day to do your painting. Humidity will cause big delays in your drying time.


After a coat of paint, the secret ingredient is a rubdown with superfine steel wool or a Scotchbrite pad. Be sure the paint is fully dry and doesn’t feel tacky to the touch. This process will make the shiny paint dull (this is temporary, don’t worry). In my example, I painted a gold frame black. By being a little more aggressive with the steel wool, I was able to expose bits of gold for a more custom, high-end effect. You can also achieve this by using two layers of paint and rubbing off small amounts of the top layer. After the steel wool, be sure to brush away any steel or paint residue.


The final step before reassembly is to apply wax to the frame (Johnson’s Paste Wax is the best!). This will give the dull paint a beautiful satin finish. Make sure to rub off any excess wax.


Now it’s time to assemble your frame. Attach your art/photo to the inner boards or mat that came with your frame. Take extra care to avoid dust, debris, or other dirt from the art & mat. You will also want to give the glass or plexiglass a good cleaning before you reassemble. Be sure the glass is 100% dry before reassembly to avoid damage to the picture.

And VOILA!! You have changed a bargain, out-of-fashion frame into an updated, elegant portrait. My $14 thrift find combined with a little elbow grease and creativity resulted in what would have cost at least $200.

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