Solid Hardwood Frames

Most commercially available wood grain frames use a thin layer of veneer or simulated grain that’s been printed, embossed and colored in a factory so that the wood of the frame itself can be chosen for economy rather than for its appearance. I build my in-house solid hardwood frames to allow you to choose the wood species for its color and grain in the size and shape I mill them to.  I join them raw then sand and/or carve the frame to create perfectly true corners and strengthen them with matching or contrasting splines.  Only then do I apply stain and finish for a truly custom frame with enduring construction and design.

During Arizona’s Territorial Period at the dawn of the 20th century, the ostentatiousness of Victorian decoration gave way to furnishings and architecture based on plain, self-effacing styles reflective of emerging design reform ideals that celebrated pre-industrial society and inspired the Arts & Crafts movement.  Instead of the stuffy Victorian homes of Armory Park, Tucson was building the Craftsman bungalows found in the West University area, structures that broke away from historical precedents and emphasized simplicity of form, local natural materials and handicraft.  The humble picture frames popular at this time had roots in the Middle Ages, a time when the vast majority of structures and furnishings in northern Europe and the British Isles were oak and any picture decorating them would have been painted directly on the wall plaster between exposed structural beams, thus the timber used to build these homes also comprised the first picture frames readily available to the working class.

The Renaissance popularized oil paintings on panels and canvas, creating a market that allowed the rising merchant classes of Europe to purchase secular pictures for their homes.  Significantly, their frames were produced in an age in which the arts were still unified, before painting and sculpture became “Art” and all the other arts mere “crafts.” Because these frames had been made by the same craftsmen who provided furniture and architectural fittings for homes and public buildings, they blended effortlessly—and helped pictures blend effortlessly—with their setting.  Simple and self effacing, yet expressive of an infinite variety of shapes and pattern and always reflecting the craftsman’s natural affection for the beauty of the wood itself, these early frames exemplified the Arts and Crafts ideal of art as an integral aspect of everyday life, not the isolated and precious trophy of the wealthy.

This great revival of framing in hardwoods like oak enjoyed at the end of the 19th century was also thanks to the wide availability of quarter-sawn timber.  The public embraced the effect of a subtly-shaped dark hardwood frame designed to protect and enhance, not show off and sell, the picture. As a type, the hardwood frame—made to connect art to life, not isolate it—served primarily the home, not the exhibition hall, museum or commercial gallery.  Reform-minded artists also recognized that the irregular grain suited the brushwork and often the rustic or natural subject matter of their paintings.

Beauty that Endures

Much of the beauty of a solid hardwood frame lies in the counterpoint between the wild activity of the wood grain, such as the distinctive ray flake of quarter-sawn white oak, and their restrained though intriguing shapes.  Just as important as their looks is my use of traditional cabinet-maker’s joinery methods like dovetails and splines for corners that are built to last.  This is an attention to detail that the factory system of today has chosen to abandon in favor of easier but less durable methods like glue and nails.  These frames have a beautiful austerity that restores the unity and simplicity of an earlier design era and a more thoughtful consideration of the harmony of frame and picture.

Hardwood Finishes

My four main wood species, (l) raw, (center) sealed and waxed, and (r) varnished and waxed.

Once my frames are properly joined, I use finishes that are integral to the wood, not superficial.  I believe the finish should enhance, not cover up, the wood’s inherent natural beauty.  A simple oil finish increases the contrast seen in the grain and may be all that is needed, while stains in earth tones not only darken the wood but generally mute it as well.  This is often, but not always, a benefit, since the native color of a wood with nothing but a clear or oiled finish can be too intense for a picture and make the frame too prominent.  Staining is intended to capture the character of wood that has naturally darkened due to exposure to a variety of factors including oxidation, ultraviolet
light from the sun, smoke and rain.

I strive for a frame perfectly keyed in color to the picture that reveals all the inherent beauty and character of the wood.  I know that when it’s done right, a good finish protects and enhances a frame just as a frame protects and enhances the picture inside it.