Shabby chic picture frame: DIY tutorial

A few weeks ago I was cruising the internets, looking for birthday gift ideas for my mom, and came across this reclaimed wood picture frame on Etsy. My mom is one of the few people who still regularly prints out photos she takes on her digital camera. I thought this frame was very cute, and pictures could be easily changed out. But it’s not quite her style. What if I gave the Etsy frame design a shabby chic makeover?

shabby chic wood frame

I dug around in my garage and was thrilled to discover that I had most of the materials. We had the slats leftover from an old Ikea platform bed (which also came in handy to frame our Little Free Library). I had plenty of leftover paint in almost every color, including a lovely robin’s egg blue (which is on my office wall) and a brick red, which covers my kitchen cabinets. After trying out a test piece with different methods and paint types (I also tried acrylic craft paint [fail]), I had the best results with the following method.

Stuff you’ll need

  • Reclaimed wood (~2-3 in. wide for the frame part, and ~1-1.5 in. wide for the crosspieces)
  • Wood glue
  • clamp or heavy thing
  • 2 colors of acrylic wall paint, somewhere between matte and satin
  • a wax candle (I tried beeswax first, but the softer paraffin kind worked better)
  • medium-fine grit sandpaper (~150)
  • glaze (I used Ralph Lauren tobacco faux finish glaze, also leftover from my cabinets, but you could also use antiquing glaze, or possibly wood stain in a pinch)
  • Decorative mini clothespins from a craft store (this was the one item I bought)
  • Picture hanging wire and small eye screws


I assumed that my mom would be hanging 4×6 prints, so I aimed for a roughly 8 x 10 frame, which would set off the photos, but wouldn’t dwarf them. Because the boards were already 2.5″ wide and I didn’t want to rip them, the final measurements ended up more like 9.75 x 11 in. This  is fine with me, because I really hate measuring things carefully. Any project that can be measured by a “meh, looks good” is my kind of project.

I lined up the 4 boards evenly, and used 4 crosspieces: 2 on the back, and 2 on the front. Only 2 are needed for stability, but I liked how the crosspieces looked on the front (refer back to the Etsy picture), and on the back, I wanted to create a little space out from the wall for the picture hanger eye screws, so they wouldn’t dig into the wall (see pics at the end).

The unintended benefit of this two-sided process is that I started on the back, and it gave me a chance to hone my technique before moving onto the front, which would be visible.

To begin, I glued the crosspieces to my boards using wood glue, and then clamped the whole shebang together:

After the glue dried the requisite amount of hours, I “distressed” the boards by thwacking them with this thing:

fencing tool

Joshua says it’s called a “fence tool,” but I say it’s a wood banger upper. I used the pointy end to nick little pockmarks randomly, and the blunt end to bang at the edges of the boards.

photoframe05Now for the first layer of paint.

First layer of paintAnd here’s where the candle comes in. After the first layer of paint is completely dry, scrape the candle over the first layer of paint. Wherever you scrape on the wax, the second layer of paint won’t stick, so think about where the paint would naturally wear: usually along edges, and any broad surfaces that might be easily scratched.

candle wax

See the wax?

See the wax?

Ready for paint #2. I coated the whole thing with satin finish Robin’s Egg blue. I believe it was Behr paint, which is pretty high quality. If you’re using a paint with less dense pigment, and you’re painting a light color over a dark, you might need to do two coats.

Coat #2

Wait until this coat is absolutely dry, at least overnight. Use the sand paper to lightly scratch the places you scraped candle wax. I found that folding the sandpaper and using the crease was the best method. If you can’t remember where you scraped on the candle wax, sand lightly over the boards with the broad surface of the sandpaper. The top coat of paint should come off pretty easily and show you where to scrape a little harder.


At this point, I could have called it done, but I wanted the whole thing to look a bit more just-dug-out-of-the-back-of-the-attic, so I used the Ralph Lauren tobacco glaze, also leftover from the kitchen cabinets. After applying, I waited just a few moments and wiped it off, careful not to press too hard. The idea is to let the glaze settle into the grooves, as well as those dings and scrapes inflicted earlier.

You can see how it really helps the whole piece look aged:



After letting the glaze dry, you can apply a clear poly or acrylic finish if you want; I tried a clear spray-on “matte” acrylic finish and it came out glossy! What could be worse than spending days dinging and dulling and distressing an item, only to make it look shiny and new in one fell swoop? This is why you do test pieces first. Fortunately, I tried the spray finish on the back first, so nothing was lost. I didn’t use any finish on the front.

Once the whole process is complete for the back, flip it over and do it all over again.


Glue the little clothespins to the front of the frame. I stained mine blue and roughed them up a bit to be in keeping with the rest of the piece.


Although the front crosspieces are centered, I deliberately set the top back crosspiece lower to leave room for the hanging wire. Hanging a heavy piece of solid wood is a little different than hanging a picture frame. Without the back crosspieces, the hanging nail would have pushed the top of the frame away from the wall, causing it to tilt downwards. The crosspieces give 3/8 in. space from the wall for the nail. I used tiny eye screws  to mount the hanging wire, which are just barely recessed from the back crosspiece. Little felt pads will keep the whole thing from scratching the wall paint.



Weekend Project: Little Free Library

After we had lived in our 100-yr old bungalow for about a year, I looked more closely at the kitchen (which had seemed so spacious and charming when we toured with the realtor), and realized that it was cluttered,  the cabinets were dated (clearly installed in the 60s), and the walls had been painted an unattractive muted tone that one helpful friend coined “mushroom basket.” Ick. I subscribed to This Old House magazine and saw an “easy” cabinet redo that involved gluing on a veneer trim to make dated cabinets have a Shaker-style look. Perfect! I showed my husband the magazine photo and argued that this project would take one weekend, two tops.

Although he was right not to believe my time estimate, he agreed that the kitchen looked horrible. So we took off the cabinet doors and got them stacked up in the garage, bought our wood veneer trim, and began to sand the old paint to accept the glue and new paint. That was one weekend. In total, it took about 1.5 months to get the cabinets veneered, painted with a snazzy tobacco-stain glaze, and rehung, and those mushroom basket walls repainted a chipper snap-pea sort of green. The result was totally worth it, but it was not a weekend project.

So when I told Joshua that I wanted to build a Little Free Library and we could totally build it in a weekend out of stuff we had laying around in the garage, he was dubious. Nonetheless, he’s a good sport, so we dove in. We surveyed the garage and saw that we didn’t have any appropriate material for siding, nor appropriate hardware, so we headed to the Re-Store and bought $17 worth of old fir tongue and groove flooring, a solid 4×6 post for mounting, a piece of glass, and some hinges. My goal was to spend $0, but less than $20 isn’t bad.

The library is now up, and it’s so stinkin’ cute. Our neighbors have all had positive things to say about it, but none of them have dropped off books yet…it’s still pretty sparse in there. Hopefully the neighborhood will think of our little free library as a first stop before the used bookstore!

Linked up at: Making Skip To My Lou The Chicken Chick

Learning to bead from the masters

I love to try new projects, and instead of collecting salt shakers or Elvis memorabalia or hiking gear (*cough cough*, ahem, Joshua), I collect hobbies themselves. These include gardening, travel, home remodeling, paper crafts, cooking, writing, fitness, chicken-rearing, knittingsoda-making, fermentation, sewing, …. I could go on. Really. There are a lot more. I excel at mediocrity in my crafts, because I haven’t the patience to master any one of them.

Mom’s beaded necklace

This necklace was my foray into beading, a birthday/Mother’s Day gift for my mom, made mostly of jasper and agate. No complicated techniques here, but I found that my existing beading tool–a needle nose pliers from the garage–wasn’t up to the task. I mean, it could have gotten the job done, maybe…but instead of crimping crimp beads, it smashed them, and when I curled wire around the nose, one side was always flattened. Not to mention the bits of glue and epoxy and wood shavings from the pliers ended up stuck in the beads…

In short, in addition to the spendy stone beads, I bought a bunch of beading tools, including a crimper (amazing) and six different things that look like pliers but have slightly different functions. Not my fault, they came in a set. The beading wire itself is an engineering marvel, with nylon-coated braided stainless steel fibers that could be used to suspend a piano, I’m pretty sure. So now I’ve got all this stuff, just in case I ever get another beading itch.

I lived in Kenya a decade ago, where the Maasai and Turkana tribes have a reputation for being incredible bead crafters. They put my little strands to shame.


Though I lived and worked among a more modern tribe in western Kenya, I had the privilege to spend a few afternoons with some Maasai ladies while they beaded in the shade of an acacia tree, just as they had for centuries, and I got to see their artistry up close. The elaborate collars are often stitched on top of a piece of goat-skin leather with thin wire. Though the women spend hard cash on the beads themselves, everything else is made from found materials.

The wrist cuffs, which are often 4-6 in. wide, are strung together between strips of hard plastic, cut from used up jerry cans. These strips stabilize the rows of beads. The holes are punched through the plastic with whatever sharp thing is on hand–a bit of bone, a sharp thorn, a broken needle. And the spacing is exact, each row mathematically precise in relationship to the other rows.

One woman handed me the tough strip of plastic and the broken needle and let me try drilling one of the holes. I eyeballed where the next hole should be and started twisting, using the needle like a drill to bore into the plastic. The dull end poked through my fingertip a half dozen times, and between the blood and sweat, I had a hard time gripping the needle tightly enough to put any real pressure on it. After ten minutes of this, I successfully wiggled that needle through the plastic. (There are 306 needle-drilled holes in the bracelet below). I handed the needle and plastic back to the woman who examined it closely and winced a little. My hole was a fraction of a millimeter off, and not perfectly straight. She would have to toss the piece and start over.

Beaded cuff

Beaded cuff

They didn’t have engineered beading wire, and they certainly didn’t have six different fancy pliers for yanking and twisting wire, but the craftsmanship of their beadwork rivals anything I’ve seen stateside at craft festivals. These women are self-taught artists, with skills built on centuries of collective knowledge. Compared to them, I’m a pretender. But that’s Ok, I’m happy just to pretend, and leave the masterpieces to the masters.

Linked up at: Making Skip To My Lou  The Chicken Chick