Frames - 15th century-style, hand-carved, solid-oak, silled frame

Paintings look better in a frame - even paintings that go over the edge, onto the side of the canvas, look better in a tray frame. The value that a frame adds to the look of a painting - whether it is for sale or not - by far exceeds the cost of the frame itself. So, what are the options with frames?

There are a number of options that you can choose from:

1. Ready-made frames.

Swept frames.Bought ornate frame on 'The Bedroom in Derby' oil on canvas panel. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse These can be simple: like the sort of thing you might buy in a supermarket for framing a photograph; or, they can be as ornate as you like - the disadvantage to this is that you are rather limited for choice in size and style.

The one here is a commercially available 10"x12" (25.4x30.5cm) and cost around £35.

2. Frames made from commercial mouldings.

Double frames with gilded inner frame.'Bella' - AEtatis Suae vij. Anno domini mmxvj (Age seven, 2016AD) - Ginger and white female cat (unusual as ginger cats are almost always male although she does have quite a cobby face for a female) wearing traditional 15th century Netherlands headdress and blue and gold brocade top with white fir and ermine trim to cuffs and collar. Copyright (c)2016 Paul Alan Grosse Online, you select the moulding that you want and the supplier can either make the complete frame for you or you can buy the lengths ready cut (a 'chop service' or mitre them yourself from the original lengths) and then underpin them yourself. This allows you to put a frame within a frame if you want and gives you a great deal of choice although you are still limited to the 'currently fashionable' mouldings and you are usually stuck with minimum order quantities that can be enough for anywhere between five and twenty frames.

The frame above is made from lengths that I mitred and underpinned myself - a 2.125" (5.4cm) brown patterned driftwood framing a 1" (2.54cm) oak spoon (cavetto) with gold leaf around a 3"x4" (7.5x10cm) miniature on panel - some chop services don't go this small.

3. Carve your own mouldings

Silled frames hand-carved from oak. Hand-carved solid oak silled frame - 15th century-style. Copyright (c)2020 Paul Alan Grosse This is one corner from a real silled frame. You can see how the way that the sill forms part of the joint means that the shape of the moulding works perfectly at the joint. This is carved completely from rectangular cross-section wood without any rebates or anything. Moulding, grooves for the panel and the joints in the corners are all hand carved. However, we can't always have the luxury of being able to carve all of it, sometimes you can only create the impression of that the corners are cut like this...

Hand-carved solid oak silled frame - 15th century-style. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan GrosseYou can take a 'blank' moulding - one that is fairly featureless - and carve it yourself using your own tools. In that way you can make a frame that is totally non- standard or one that conforms to standards that are not current such as the silled frames that existed up until roughly half way through the fifteenth century.

This frame is a double cavetto with sloping, flat bottom sill, made from 35mm unfinished flat oak that is 20mm deep with a 12mm deep rebate, giving 8mm depth. The supplier had already mitred it so I couldn't do a lap or other joint with it. The reason that the corner between the flat sill and the sight-edge curve looks curved is that it is a planear cross-section of a cylinder which, of course, is an elipse.

It is this last example that I am going to cover here because it is the most interesting to do and to look at - limiting the front-facing moulding to manufacture using only the tools (or modern analogues) that were available 600 years ago: a plane; a gouge; and, a chisel. I used a modern drill because I couldn't get hold of one that was the same as what was around 600 years ago but there are no nails used in the frame itself - it is held together with oak dowels and glue.

Hand-carving from a commercial 'blank' profile

Tools used

Wood-working tools used to make this frame. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan GrosseThese are the tools I used for carving the wood. On the top: a plane, set with the cut very small because I was cutting into oak, and on the bottom, left to right: Mortise gauge; 8mm gouge; Marking knife; and, a 25mm chisel. The marking knife has a short, thick blade that comes to a point and is good at cutting right into sharp corners.

Frame component profiles

Profiles of the blank, the cavetto stiles and upper rial; and the lower, 'sill' rail. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan GrosseThe first profile is the solid oak moulding that I started from - a cross section of 20mm deep by 35mm wide. it has a rebate that is 12mm deep giving an 8mm sight edge to the frame which is just about right for what is going to happen to it. The wood itself is not treated at all so no wax or oil to mess things up. The second and third profiles are what is going to be made from this wood with the flat, sloping sill being the sort of thing that went at the bottom of a frame up until around half way through the 15th century - the idea being that the frame joins the inside of the room with an alternative universe which in this case is whatever the painting is about or, in the case of a normal window, the outside world. By looking like a stylised window frame, it enhances the illusion.

Securing the rails and stiles - no nails

Pre-mitred mouldings supplied

Pre-mitred mouldings supplied. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan GrosseLike all chop services, the mouldings were sullplied pre-mitred so that all I would have to do was to butt-join them to make them into the frame. With softer woods, this is done by underpinning the joint using 'V' nails which are the little 'w' shaped clips that hold the corners together. These are put in using a machine but there are two reasons why not to use this method of making a joint: firstly, it is oak and too hard to underpiin manually without a machine that would need its own workshop; and, secondly, there was no such method 600 years ago.

Fixing methods

Fixing methods. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan GrosseHowever, a glued butt joint is not very strong and six centuries, ago, they would have made a lap joint or a mortice joint and pegged it with wooden pegs like in 'a' or, a clever joint that is one of the two but where the face and internals of the joint are shaped differently say 45 degree cut at the front between the stiles and the upper rail but with a different cut between the sill and the stiles - one that lays the profile of the stiles over the sill. Here however, I haven't got the luxury of having been supplied mouldings that are square-ended so I can't play around with that but I can still strengthen the butt joint with dowel by going in from the side 'b' - still no nails but strengthened with dowel.

Oak dowels

Oak dowels. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan GrosseHere are the 6mm oak dowels that I used - the diameter of the dowels used in the Van Eyck self-portrait are around 6mm so this is about right. You can see the Van Eyck self-portrait for yourself in the National Gallery.

Cutting the Mouldings

Interaction of profiles and why, when using chop-service mouldings on a silled frame, you can't just extend the profile to the end. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Here is how the plane of the 45 degree cut from the chop service interracts with the required surface, showing why you can't just extend the cut to the end of the moulding. You can see that the profiles both extend beyond the mitre cut so we can't just cut up to the end of the moulding, we are going to have to do that bit when it is all stuck together.

If instead, we had the opportunity to use mortice and tennon or lap joints, we could just extend all of the mouldings to the end and for the top rail/stile joints, use a mitre and for the sill/stile joints, extend the profile of the sill into the joint just like they did six hundred years ago.

Looking back in hindsight, I would have ordered the chop-service mouldings so that they were longer by twice the width of the moulding and then make all of the joints myself or better- just order the plain, rectangular cross-section wood and then instead of having a rebate, cut a groove for the panel.

Cuts that you need to take out of the 'blank' in order to make the requried cavetto moulding. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Next, we are going to cut the profiles of the mouldings:

  1. This is the cross-section of the moulding as it was received from the chop service - face on the left.
  2. Start off by marking out on the face, the distance from the sight edge for the chamfer then remove it. This feature is common to all of the mouldings so it can go right to the edge all all off them.
  3. Next, mark out on the face the depth of the first cavetto contour and then remove it all the way along the top rail and from the top down to around a couple of centimetres from the bottom of the stiles
  4. Then, mark out and remove the next cavetto contour, limiting its extent in the same way.
  5. Finally, remove the sharp corners from the 2mm-wide bit of face between the two cavetto profiles.
  6. This is the final profile for the top rail and the stiles.

Sill Cut-Order

Cuts that you need to take out of the 'blank' in order to make the requried sill moulding. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Now, for the sill.

  1. Again, this is the cross-section of the moulding.
  2. First, mark out on the face and remove the chamfer - along the fill length of the sill as it is common to the sill and the cavetto profiles.
  3. Next, mark out the sill chamfer. This needs to reach across the face as far as the cavetto profile did across the cavetto profile so that at the corners where the two profiles meet, they match up correctly. However, you cannot extend it to the ends of the rail because at the corners, it meets the other profile. That is gonig to have to be completed after the frame has been assembled
  4. This is the final sill profile.

Gluing the rails and stiles

Making the glue

Heating up the gum Arabic/ honey mixture above hot water so that it doesn't overheat. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Next, we need to make some glue. For this, we'll use 4g of powdered Acacia resin with 3g of acacia honey and 10mls of water. Mix them all together and then place over a pan with some hot water in it.

In this way, it won't get so hot that it starts to decompose and will remain strong.

Watching the temperature

Make sure that it doesn't overheat. Here, I'm using an infrared thermometer. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Here, you can see me using an infrared thermometer to display the temperature of the water and the glue.

After around half an hour, it goes clear and you can filter it through a piece of muslin cloth to get out any bits.

Holding it together

The frame with the glue, held in place on a flat surface by a strap. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Brush on the glue to all eight ends and then, on a flat surface, position them so that they are as good as you can get and put them in a device that holds them in place whilst the glue sets solid but before you leave it...

Now with the solid oak panel in place so that we know that the angles are correct and that it is going to fit. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse ...put the panel into the rebate (wrap the edges with clingfilm so that they don't stick) so that we know that it will fit.

Once the glue has hardened and the panel and the clamps have been removed, carefully drill the holes and glue the dowels in place, finishing off with the marking knife to get a nice flat finish.

Finishing the carving between the cavetto stiles and the sill

Now that the corners are secured, we can finish the carving of the moulding at the corners where sill meets cavetto. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse You can see here, how the two profiles meet up and all that has to be done is extend the existing profiles from the sill and the stiles so that they meet each other to form the intersection that is determined by their shape and not by the mitre. Remember that the mitre is not going to be seen once the painting is covered with paint.

Use the marking knife to get nice sharply defined internal corners.

Incidentally, it is at times like this where oak really comes into its own because you can make nice fine cuts with this stuff that softer woods would not allow you to do as they would just splinter.

Sizing the frame

Making the Size

Same mixture of gum Arabic and honey as before but with a little bit of red bole in it. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse This is the same mixture of gum Arabic and honey as before but it has around four times as much water in. The purpose of this is to sealed the porous wood so that things can be painted on the surface of it and anything in the paint that is mobile will stay with the paint and not soak in.

If a liquid that binds the pigment soaks into the wood instead of staying on the surface, it leaves a weakened paint on the surface which, apart from not being as strong, can be weak enough to either fall apart or separate from the surface it was painted on.

In this case, the red bole is there so that you can tell where it has been painted and when you have something like this, it is very useful.

Painting it on

Paint it all over so that the wood is sealed. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan GrosseHere, you can see me painting the frame with the size from above. The pink appearance means that I can tell where it has been painted - apart from that it is pretty straight forward.

The thing to note in this picture is that the wall fixture has been attached and I am bracing my hand between the cord and the frame itself. This allows me to have a firm grip of the frame which makes the exercise a lot easier.

Applying first coats of Gesso

Make up some gesso with a bit of red bole in it as well as the precipitated chalk. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Make up some of the glue mixture and add some red bole and chalk to it so that it is pink. This is your first coat. Paint it on fairly evenly and let it dry.

Subsequent Layers

Next, make up some gesso without the bole. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Now, make up some normal white gesso and paint on as many layers of that as you think is necessary, letting it dry out each time.

When you make up the gesso, try not to get any air bubbles in it as these will stay in there (although you can filter out most of them by using some muslin) and when you paint on the gesso, they will dry in there.

Final sanding

Sand it down and note that if you have got through to a pink layer of gesso, you are close enough/too close to the wood. Copyright (c)2017 Paul Alan Grosse Finally, sand it down so that the contours that you want come through the way you want them to. You will notice any bubbles that have stayed in there as they will turn into little craters that need filling with something.

When you are sanding, you might notice that the surface turns pink if you take off too much. Don't bee too worried about seeing this - it is just letting you know that that is the last layer of gesso before you hit wood.

One thing to remember is that the first layer of gesso you put down had an irregular surface (as did all of them but subsequent layers fill in the depressions left by previous layers) so if you do see some pink showing through, don't worry about it. The job of the gesso is to even out the surface, not make the frame heavier.

And there you have it. Next thing is to paint it and varnish it. To finish it off, get some 'rotten earth' in some water with a little bit of acacia gum in it and paint it on then wipe almost all of it off. This will dull the glossy varnish surface and will also 'age' the frame.

All images and original artwork Copyright ©2017 Paul Alan Grosse.