Frames are about more than making a picture or a painting look good, says Jeffrey Sarver, a former U.S. Geological Survey cartographer. They can also preserve history and protect sentimental pieces that tell a personal story.

“I’ve had so much experience with a wide variety of artwork — everything from an African blowgun to a Japanese kimono dress to lawyers’ certificates to people bringing in cross-stitches, newborn babies’ dresses and even stuff from Mardi Gras,” Sarver says.

That’s why it’s important to know how to frame your pieces correctly, he says. His “Build Your Own Picture Frames,” a Fairfax County Public Schools adult and community education class he has been teaching for seven years, is part carpentry, part math refresher and part social hour.

No experience is necessary for the five to 10 students ages 18 and up who usually sign up for the class, which meets three times for three hours each. Before the class starts, participants receive a list of places to buy sticks of ready-made molding that they must bring in to create a frame at least 5 inches by 7 inches. Anything smaller and “I get a little afraid that they’ll get their fingers a little too close to the saw blade,” Sarver says.

The rest of the materials — pencils, rulers, putty, wood glue, a mitre saw and a handheld sander — are provided as part of the $15 supplies fee.

Sarver starts the class by showing students how to properly measure their frames. “For example, if they want to make a 16-by-20-inch frame, I explain to them that they have to be 16 1/8 by 20 1/8 because you don’t want the artwork to fit into the frame real tight. You want a hair of space between on each side,” says Sarver, who worked in Michaels framing department for 13 years. “It’s a skill in paying attention to what you’re doing as far as measuring. The challenge for a lot of younger students is that they’ve learned to do things in decimals and use calculators. In framing, it’s more in inches, in fractions.”

Next he gives a demonstration of how to cut the molding, sand it to 45-degree angles at the ends and connect them using wood glue or a V-nail, which is pressed into the wood to hold it together.

“I’ll usually stand there and walk them through it. Then, I let them take the reins and start cutting, but I’m standing right there with them,” Sarver says.

The process repeats itself at the other two sessions. “It takes a little bit of time to do this,” Sarver says. One of the key things to have is patience. To do a good-quality frame, you have to take your time.”

Plus, he has only so much equipment. “When you get between five and 10 students and you have to cut four pieces of wood and sand them (and I’ve got one electric saw, one sander and three joiners), the key is to get someone started cutting and then let them sand and then get a second person started cutting, and just rotate them around,” the retired Army reservist says. “It’s all geared toward how fast they pick things up.”

At the end of the nine hours oftraining, “students learn how to take a piece of wood and mold it to their needs,” Sarver says. “They gain the knowledge of how to measure, cut and sand it, and then join the frame together and use putty and clean up the corners.”

Students can expect to walk out of the class with at least two completed frames, meaning just the molding, no glass or matting. To get the whole picture, students can take Sarver’s classes in mat cutting, art attachment and glass selection.

“A lot of people who go to a frame shop say, ‘Look how expensive it is,’ and I explain to them that with a little bit of equipment, if they are willing to do this on a long-term basis, they can save a lot of money.” And make some money if they sell them. A few of his students got into the business of building frames.

Students who are serious about making frames for a living should buy all the tools and materials, such as a saw and sander, to set up a home workshop. “I tell them if they’re really interested, to go and apply and get a part-time job in a frame shop,” he adds.

The next “Build Your Own Picture Frames” class ($104 plus $15 materials fee) is July 7-21 (classes begin at 7 p.m.) at Woodson High School, 9525 Main St., Fairfax, Va. Register online at

Written by Express contributor Stephanie Kanowitz
Photos by Kris Conner