Friday, October 21, 2011

how I made a kids' art wall with only $10 and some crap I found in the attic

Near our front door, we have these cubbies for the kids.  The open cubby is for school papers that we need to look at -- school work, report cards, permission slips, notes about peanut allergies, and the like.  The colored bins are for each kid's hats, gloves, and other outerwear accessories.  The only trouble with our cubbies, as far as I can tell, is the gigantic, blank beige wall above them.  So Kathy and I decided this would be the perfect place frame and hang some of the kids' artwork.  And this project was born.  The thing was, I didn't really want to spend more than $10 on it.  End of the month, and all.

Up in our attic, we had random old pictures in random old frames.  The only problem was, none of the frames matched each other, and they also weren't the right sizes for any of the art.  Apparently, the teachers planning the projects tend to think more about the sizes that construction paper comes in, and less about the sizes of standard frames and mats.

The first issue I tackled was the fact that none of the frames matched.  I chose my favorite, this funky metallic frame, and used it as the starting point.  I then grabbed a black plastic frame and a plain wooden frame that were the right sizes -- or at least, were big enough to hold the work I wanted to use. My plan was to use the metallic frame as inspiration, and paint the other frames to coordinate.

If you don't happen to have old picture frames in your attic, you can get cool and cheap picture frames at a thrift store, and paint them to match or compliment each other to make a grouping -- just make sure you write down the measurements of the frames you need, and bring something to the thrift store to measure with, since it's unlikely they will have a sticker telling you the size. Don't forget you can buy cheesy pictures of beach landscapes just for the frame! I personally think textured frames look best.

I went to Home Depot and got a can of metallic spray paint to paint the frames to match each other.  There were a few varieties, but I went with this hammered metal option because I thought it would look a little "used," and go better with my funky metallic frame.


I then went to Michael's to try to get mats that would make the pictures fit properly in the frames.  No dice.  I guess 11x17 is standard for construction paper, but not so standard for a mat opening.  There were lots of 11x14s, so if your child's art teacher anticipated that Poopsie was about to create a masterpiece, and therefore had the foresight to lop off three inches of paper before your junior Picasso went to work, these would work great (ahem, art teachers out there).  Sadly, ours did not.  You can also buy a sheet of matting and either cut it yourself or have a custom framing job done, but this was (1) much harder to cut if you lack crafting skills, and (2) more expensive than what I ultimately chose:  large, heavy art paper, at around $2 a sheet.

First, I took off the shiny finish of the wooden frame so that the paint would adhere better.  I don't anticipate that the picture frames will get a lot of hard usage, but better safe than sorry -- it would be terrible to do this whole project and have your paint flake off after a short while.  I waffled as to whether I would also paint the black frame, since it was plastic and I wasn't sure the paint would stick.  I finally decided to go for it, so I also scuffed up that frame with some fine-grit sandpaper.  I figured, if worse came to worst and the paint flaked off, I could always get a new one, since it was a cheap frame anyway.  If I was spray-painting something that would get handled or used, I would have used primer, even though the can says no primer is necessary.

When spray-painting, you should always work in a well-ventilated area.  Unfortunately, we seem to be in the middle of a windstorm or something, so I had to close the garage door.  Luckily no one was home but me, so I get all those VOC fumes all to myself.  You will see, in the pictures below, that there are leaves everywhere from the times where I briefly opened the door to air it out.

The most important thing to remember when spray painting (other than to keep kids away from the fumes) is to use several thin coats.  As Sherry from Young House Love says, if you're a-sprayin, your arm better be a-swayin.  I took a picture of the edge of the wooden frame after each of the six coats, so you can see how thin they need to be.  The first photo actually does have paint on it, if you look closely.  Another advantage to using many thin coats is that you get it from every angle, so you are less likely to get bare spots.

Here are the finished frames:

Now, if you're anything like me, at this point you would have two picture frames begging you, begging you, to touch them.  DO NOT FALL FOR IT.  Not only are you not allowed to touch them until they are actually dry, you have to wait between coats, not just spray on one coat and then immediately spray on another one.  I took advantage of the lull/distracted myself to prevent ruining my project, and created the mats for the artwork.

I used the glass I had popped out of the frame I was painting as a template, and cut around it with an exacto knife (or some off-brand variation thereof).

I then very carefully measured the art I wanted to put in the frame.  There ensued all manner of complicated calculations to figure out how far in from the edges the inner rectangle needed to be.  If you have a fifth grader, you can show them this as example of why they need to learn common denominators and adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing fractions.

I measured, and drew lines where my cuts would end up.  They say you should measure twice, cut once, but for me it's more like measure 147 times, cut once.  I also did a gut-check to make sure it looked about right before I cut by holding up the art on top of the mat and making sure I didn't see any of my lines, since apparently the measuring thing is trickier than it looks.  I used my glass as a straight-edge again, although I understand they sell long straight-edges at craft stores for this purpose.  But since I am not generally all that crafty, I do not own one.  And purchasing one would not fit with my "$10 and crap from the attic" theme.  So I used the glass.  Also, maybe this goes without saying, but draw the lines on the BACK of the paper.

The one drawback to using the glass as a straightedge, was that when I cut very close to the edge, there was a grinding sound, and it seems like I shaved off microscopic pieces of glass.  So now I have not only poisoned the children with the spray-paint fumes, I have also sprinkled tiny shards of glass all over the kitchen table.  Watch out!

I did have one or two oopses as I was cutting, because I guess my hand is not as steady as I would like. But when all is said and done, they are not that noticeable.

After the frames were dry, I reassembled them with my mats, and hung them above the cubbies. 

When all is said and done, I wish I had gotten two different colors of metallic spray paint in the same family, because the two frames I painted match each other perfectly, and the inspiration frame only sort-of.  I think this would be less noticeable if the larger frame were a lighter silver.  I may re-paint it, but it's much lower on the priority list now.

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