How to Build a Dovetail Picture Frame
I recently made two home decor crates to organize office materials on a built-in shelf in my front room. After the crates were finished my wife asked me to make a coordinating frame. She wanted to put it on a floating-shelf above her desk in the same room to hold one of our daughter’s 11” x 17” drawings. I quickly accepted the challenge and had a few ideas for how to make the project more interesting.
I knew that I would make the frame out of pine and stain it with diluted black paint to match the crates. I also knew that I didn’t want the frame to be too bulky or it would look awkward on the shelf. So I decided to use the ¾” thick edge-glued pine that was left over from the crates. The next question was what type of joint to use on the corners. I considered the three options shown below.
I decided the mitered corner with end insert wouldn’t stand out with the finish and the viewing angle. The butt joint would be easy to make and the simplicity would coordinate well with the crate, but it was too boring. So I decided to go with the dovetail design. I had never made a joint like this before so it posed a fun challenge and learning opportunity.
Making the Frame
I ripped the edge-glued pine board down into 2” wide strips on my table saw. Then using a miter gauge I cut a 45° angle on one end. I marked the lengths and cut a 45° angle on the other end. Next it was time to add the dovetail cutouts. After reviewing my dovetail bits, and realizing that I didn’t have one as large as I though, I decided to use two smaller dovetails at each corner instead of one.
I clamped the four pieces together making sure that the edges were flush. Then I lined them up with the bit on my router table and clamped them to a sacrificial board on my miter gauge. I marked the location with a pencil line so I could line it up to cut the opposite side. I cut the dovetail slot through the boards. Then I adjusted them down for the next cut , then marked the position on the sacrificial board, and cut the second slot. I unclamped the boards and repeated the process on the other ends using the pencil lines to align them.
My initial thought was to make the dovetail inserts was to trace the hole onto a piece of wood and then cut them out individually on the band saw. After a little thought I came up with a more efficient way of making them. I cut a long strip of pine down to the max width of the dovetail slot, by twice the height of the slot. I left the bit height untouched and I positioned the router fence as shown below. Then I ran the strip through the router four times flipping it each time to produce the hourglass shape. It was slightly over sized so I used a sanding block to remove material until I had a snug fit. Then, using the bandsaw, I cut the strip down into 1” pieces.
With the dovetail slots and inserts cut I switch the router bit over to a straight bit and cut a recess on the bottom inside edge of each piece. The recess was ¼” in from the edge and ½” deep to accommodate a 1/8” acrylic sheet and a ¼” backer.
To assemble the frame I laid out the pieces on a silicone mat and applied glue to the mitered edges. Then I applied glue to the sides of each dovetail insert and pounded them into the slots with a mallet. After wiping off the excess glue I cut the inserts flush with the face of the frame.
I sanded the frame using a random orbital sander and 120 grit sand paper. Since these boards didn’t have the bandsaw marks on their face like the crate slats I used a rasp to rough up the surface and edges. To finish the frame I applied a black paint diluted with water the same way as I had done previously with the crates.
I cut an 11” x 17” piece of ¼” fiber board for a backer. I bought an acrylic sheet from the hardware store and they cut an 11” x 17” piece for me. I also bought a bag of clear turn buttons to hold the backer in place. After letting the paint dry over night I went to put the acrylic sheet in and realized that my opening was about 1/8” too small (measure twice!). Since the pine was soft, I used a utility knife to remove material and cleaned up the corners with a chisel. I tried it again and everything fit great. Next I made six 1/8” recesses along the back inside edge of the frame for the turn buttons using a 1-1/4” Forstner bit in my drill press. Note: recesses are not required if you don’t mind the buttons sticking out in the back, you would just need to make a shallower inset. I screwed the turn buttons down until they no longer rotated freely. Then I inserted the acrylic sheet, artwork, and backer, rotating all the turn buttons to secure it all in place.
This was a fun project, and more importantly my wife liked it! If you are interested in building your own you can download my Free Plan. Please let me know if you have any questions or feedback in the comments section.
Tool and Material List
- Table saw
- Miter saw (or hand saw)
- Router Table
- 1/2-Inch Diameter 14-Degree Dovetail Router Bit
- 1-1/4″ Forstner bit
- 3/4″ x 4″ x 90″ pine board
- 1/8″ thick plexiglass cut to 11″ x 17″
- Picture frame turn button
- Wood Glue
- Silicone Glue Brush (optional)
- Foam Sanding Block
- Black dye stain or black water-based paint
- Cotton rag
- Nitrile gloves