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How to Make Frames Without Miters

Miters make a great choice for frames because they hide end grain, and the joint lines direct your eye to the framed item. But miters can be finicky to cut and clamp, and they make a relatively weak joint. Instead, try these techniques to create simple, strong, handsome frames for pictures, mirrors, and more. Each of these frames shows end grain, but that’s not necessarily a negative. 

Butt joint

The simplest joint to cut

End grain doesn’t provide a strong glue surface, so butt joints must be reinforced. If the rear of a frame will be visible, choose one of the hidden options listed below. Hanging a frame on a wall hides the less eye-pleasing visible choices.

Hidden Reinforcements

Biscuits require a biscuit joiner, which plows mating semicircular grooves in each frame piece. Gluing a football-shape biscuit into those slots aligns the workpieces and provides strong face-grain-to-face-grain glue surface [Photo A]. The shortest slot cut by a biscuit joiner dictates rails and stiles at least 214 " wide. 

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Offset the biscuit slots closer to the front face of the frame so you don’t rout into them when rabbeting the rear face.

Installing dowels requires a little more time and effort than biscuits, but dowels create the strongest butt joint. Drilling the mating holes in each piece requires a jig to align them accurately [Photo B]. Dowels can join pieces too narrow for biscuits. 

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Use two dowels at each joint to prevent the pieces from twisting out of alignment during glue-up.

Visible Reinforcements

To assemble a butt-jointed frame quickly, choose pocket screws. Use a pocket-hole jig to drill angled holes toward the end of each rail, then drive in washer-head screws to pull the rails tight to the stiles [Photo C].

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Drill pocket holes on the back faces of the rails only. Pocket holes can be plugged to reduce their visibility.

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Splines (shown above) bridge the joint, providing face-grain glue surface. This approach can be purely functional and hidden on the back of the frame [Photo D], or used as an accent on the front [Photos E–H].

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Inset a round spline on the rear face by drilling a 1⁄4"-deep recess across the joint with a Forstner bit. Use a holesaw without the pilot bit to cut a disc from 1⁄4" material and glue the spline in place.

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Set a straight bit 1⁄4" above the table. Mark the edges of the bit onto the fence. Then move the fence back the desired distance to position the slot. (We centered ours on the width of the frame pieces.)

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Mark start and stop points for each groove on the back face of the frame. Align the left frame mark with the left fence mark, and, with the frame against the fence, carefully lower the frame onto the spinning bit.

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Move the frame until the right frame mark aligns with the right fence mark. Shut off the router and wait for the bit to stop before removing the frame.

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Square up the ends of the grooves with a chisel, or round the ends of the splines and glue them in place. We sized ours to stand 1⁄16" proud of the frame.

Half-laps

Sturdy and self-squaring

With lots of face-grain-to-face-grain gluing surface, half-laps make a strong choice for large frames and those that need to support heavy objects such as mirrors. Traditional half-laps have flush ends, edges, and faces. To cut this joint, follow the steps in Photos I–L.

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Set the rabbet width using a frame rail or stile as a gauge. Adjust the fence so the frame piece’s outer edge aligns with the outermost point of the tooth.

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Rabbet the end of two scraps the same thickness as your frame pieces. Lying on a flat surface, the two rabbets should meet, with their top faces flush.

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Rabbet the ends of each frame piece. An auxiliary miter-gauge fence steadies the workpiece and prevents chip-out on the trailing edge of the cut.

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Glue up the joint with a clamp in each direction pulling the shoulders tight, and others pressing the joint faces together.

Customize half-laps for a variety of looks without sacrificing strength. For example, make one pair of frame pieces slightly thicker to create a frame where the rails or stiles stand proud of the mating pieces [Photo M]. Or cut dadoes, rather than rabbets, to create a frame with rails and stiles extending past the mating pieces [Photos N, O].

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Thicker stiles (or rails) keep the back faces of the frame pieces flush so you can rout a rabbet for the photo or artwork.

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To cut and align dadoes, clamp to the fence a stopblock the width of the workpiece less the width of the blade. The gap between the blade and stopblock determines the length of the “ears.”

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Move the stopblock back from the blade. Cut one shoulder with the workpiece butted against the stopblock. Make additional cuts to remove the waste until the piece butts against the rip fence.

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Stub tenon and groove

Often used for doors, but great for frames. 

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With this joint, a tongue on one piece fits a centered groove on the mating piece [Photos P, Q]. After gluing up the frame, rout around the frame, removing the back of the groove to form the rabbet for the artwork. 

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With a rip blade set between 1⁄4" and 3⁄8" above the table, make a pass on the inside edge of each stile, roughly centered. Center the groove by making a second pass with the opposite face against the fence.

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Measuring to the far side of the blade, position the rip fence to match the groove depth. Cut tongues by making passes on each face of the rails only. Sneak up on the blade height to get a tongue that fits snug in the groove.

If you have a cope-and-stick router-bit set [Photo R], it cuts a similar joint with an attractive molded edge that appears mitered around the interior.

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A cope-and-stick router-bit set contains two matched bits. One bit, right, creates the groove and molded edge on all four pieces; the other, left, copes the ends of two pieces, making a mating tongue and profile.

The chase is on

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Another way to create an eye-catching frame without miters is to assemble it with a chasing or pinwheel pattern, rather than capturing the rails between the stiles. Use or adapt any of the joinery methods described in this article.

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