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.