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Spaceman Spiff Picture Frame


This project started with boards in search of a project.

I bought this boxelder board several months ago, mostly on a whim. I was picking up some cherry from a guy and he had a stack of these boards. The grain is just phenomenal, so I bought it, figuring that I'd want it for something eventually.

Note that the two boards in the picture are both about 5-1/2 feet tall, and 12 inches or more wide. It was originally one big slab that I had cut in half.

But here's the problem: The stuff is as soft as butter. Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration. But in this photo I am leaving marks in the wood just by using my fingernail. Boxelder is soft. If I used it in a table or cabinet, it would get dinged and banged up in no time.

This is a drawing of Spaceman Spiff. If you have no idea who Spaceman Spiff is, or the Calvin-and-Hobbes comic strip where it came from, I'm sorry about your sheltered upbringing. You might want to go do some reading. You won't regret it...

I asked my wife for a Spaceman Spiff drawing long ago back when we were dating. Drawing cartoons is not her type of art at all, but we were dating, and she did her best. She would say it's not her best work. I thought it looked great, and really appreciated what she did, and I've kept it for all these years.

I figured that after 25 years, Spaceman Spiff deserves a better picture frame, and my wild-grained boxelder boards should do the trick. As a picture frame, the fact that the boards are soft should not matter. As well, I've made a picture frame from spalted maple before, and so I know that wild grain can make for a very striking and gorgeous frame.

But it can't be a boring rectangular frame. Because those are boring. And I've done enough of them. Spaceman spiff is kind of a retro-modern type of thing -- and by retro-modern I mean Spiff and his Spaceship look sort of like something from the 1950s or 60s when they envisioned the future.

I thought about making a frame shaped like an old time imaginary spaceship. But this picture is 18x24 inches. When I mocked one out on paper it resulted in something that would be about 48x32 inches in size. That would be huge.

So I kept thinking and looking for ideas. I searched online for mid-century-modern and steampunk inspiration, and so on. Finally I found an image of a frame with an inside-out curve on it and adapted it to my project. I mocked up a few ideas in Sketchup, and came up with something that I liked, which gave me key dimensions to take into the shop and get going.

As an aside, as you can see I took a photo of my drawing, and imported that into Sketchup. Being able to do something like that really helps with visualizing how the final project could turn out.

Don't be shocked, but I used over half of the boxelder for this one picture frame. First of all, I wanted a very wide frame -- I aimed for pieces 4-1/4inches wide -- to allow for the curves that I would later cut in the frame. But more importantly than that, I really wanted to take advantage of the wild grain. So I cut the boards in half, and then ripped them (roughly) down the center on the bandsaw.

After the bandsaw I jointed the boards, planed them, and then ripped them to final width.

With each successive cut, I made sure that the best-looking grain was selected and preserved. Some might call that wasteful, but I think it was key to making this project pop. Here is a look at the final five boards that I ended up with -- one board for each side of the frame, plus a spare.

I installed a dado stack in the tablesaw and clamped a sacrificial fence to the tablesaw fence. I then set the saw to take a 1/4 inch wide by a 5/8 inch deep cut and used that to make a rabbet along all the inside edges of the frame stock. This gives a pocket to receive the acrylic (or glass) front, the picture, and the plywood back.

I then used a miter sled to cut the 45-degree miters in the frame stock. I'm sorry, but I do not have a better photo of this operation. In this project I was more focussed on the design and the curves, and not so much on the mechanics of making a picture frame. If check some of my other projects (some are referenced below) you can see other picture frame type projects.

I don't have strap clamps. They're not terribly expensive, but neither are they free, and I just don't have a set. So, one technique I have hit upon is to drill one or two dowel holes into the miter of a picture frame. These dowels will provide strength the joint. However, my main reason for using them is that they also lock the joint together, so it cannot slip when it is being glued and clamped together.

Here is an overview shot of the frame being glued together and the dowel is just visible in the gap between the pieces.

After the frame was glued up, came the fun of adding the curves. First I drew on the curved corners. I measured in 1" from each edge of the corner and made a mark. Then I set a compass to make a 1" circle, and drew a 1/4 circle at the corner.

I then made another mark 1-1/2" inches in at the center of the frame, and used a flexible piece of plywood to draw a curve which would connect to the rounded corners that I drew in the previous step.

Since I was doing this alone, and this operation needs at least three hands, I carefully positioned those two clamps in the photo, such that their front edge aligned with the corner curves. I then placed the plywood against the clamps and pushed in to make a curve. Note that I am only applying pressure directly in the center, in order to make the curve as undistorted as possible.

I then cut out the curves on the bandsaw, and smoothed them using a spindle sander and a handheld Random-Orbit sander. After that I took it out to the garage and hit it with a few coats of spray lacquer. The next day I buffed it with some 3M pads (equivalent of #0000 steel wool) and some furniture wax.

And that was pretty much the end of that. I fitted the frame with a piece of 18x24 acrylic and a skinny bit of black matting. I read online that a picture should never touch the glass, so the mat should give a small bit of air gap. As well, the small black of band adds a nice visual break that really sets things off.

Here below are some photos of the finished project. I think it turned out exceptionally well and am really happy with it. Yes, it is "just" a picture frame, but I think the wild grain, combined with the prominent inward curves, as well as the subject matter, really works well together.

I really think it has a strong retro-modern look to it, which I like a lot.

Some of the Tools/Supplies Used In This Project: (Affiliate Links)

SensGard ZEM hearing protection
Stanley Leverlocks -- love these tape measures
Other auto-locking tape measures
Rust Oleum clear Lacquer
Dowelmax Company
NOTE: at the time of publishing (May 2023) Dowelmax is not currently available on amazon. It has been in the past, so I am keeping the following links, but right now only the link above to "" is known to work.
Dowelmax Dowel Joinery Kit
Dowelmax Drill Guides for 1/4" Dowels
Dowelmax Dowels

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See Also:

Designing Picture Frames

Picture Frames Build

Hello Internet Nail and Gear Plaque

Epoxy T-Shirt Experiment