DIY Gallery Wall with Thrifted Frames

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I’ve always loved the look of an eclectic gallery wall. They emanate this feeling of a story that is sprawled across the wall, so much so that you can’t help but be drawn in to look a little bit closer.

I’ll be the first to admit that creating a gallery wall has always seemed like a daunting task. Where do I find art to fill the space? How do I make sure it flows visually? How many frames do I need? How do I plan the gallery grid? Is there a proper way to hang the frames?

Now that I’ve finally tackled one myself, I can happily report that it’s actually not scary at all. Piecing a gallery together is more of an art than a science. There’s definitely no right or wrong way to approach it. Let me walk you through how I created my gallery wall with thrifted frames and free downloadable vintage art.

Supplies & quick links:

 
Watch the instagram reel

Step 1: Gather a collection of frames

 

I personally love a mixed gallery. In an effort to save money and harness that look, I visited my local thrift stores and collected a bunch of frames varying in size and style for under $5 each. The quantity you need will vary depending on the size of the space you want to occupy and the size of frames you choose. I recommend grabbing more frames than you think you’ll need. If you don’t use them in the gallery, you can use them elsewhere in your home!

Look for:

  • Different shapes (Rectangle, square, round, oval)
  • Different frame depths and thicknesses (this make for a more interesting layout)
  • Quality (I try to avoid plastic frames – looks cheaper and harder to change hardware)

Don’t worry about:

  • Art in the frames (this is easy to swap out)
  • Color of the frame (you can paint it)
  • Broken/missing hardware or backing (this is all easy to replace)

Step 2: Remove old art & clean the frames

 

When you thrift frames, most, if not all, will have art you’ll want to replace. Some frames are easier than others and have those little metal tabs you can bend back to pop the art out. Others have a glued paper backing. To remove this, take an exacto blade or box cutter and carefully slice through the paper around the edge of the frame. Don’t worry about the paper backing still glued to the frame itself – no one will see that side!

You may opt to keep mats and backing boards that are in nice condition and reuse them. The more you can save, the less work you have to redo. Once you’ve removed the art, carefully take the glass front out and clean well with a glass cleaner and paper towel. The edges of the glass are sharp so be sure to handle them with care!


Step 3: Trace each frame onto roll paper & cut out your tracings

 

I found this to be the most helpful step in creating my gallery plan! Lay each frame on your roll of paper and trace it with a permanent marker. Use tape to label the frame you traced and the tracing you made so you know they belong together – I used letters (A, B, C, etc.). Cut out each tracing so you’re left with a stack of paper that corresponds with the shapes and sizes of the frames you’d like to use.


Step 4: Use your tracings to plan your gallery arrangement

 

Begin by taping each tracing up on the wall. Move things around to create an arrangement you’re happy with. Try rotating tracings or switching out smaller/larger tracings to fill in gaps or create more space. I went with a random, asymmetrical layout so my gallery doesn’t fall on a perfect grid. Step back to see your grid from a distance and evaluate if you want to move anything around. Keep noodling until you’re satisfied with the layout! Snap a picture (always good to have a reference photo) and leave your tracings on the wall to follow as a template when you hang.


Step 5: Fix and adjust hardware on your frames

 

Now that you have your layout you know which direction each frame needs to hang. Some of your frames will have existing hardware that’s ready to go. If you rotated the direction of a frame on the wall or a frame doesn’t have any hanging hardware make sure to add a hanger on the proper edge. The frame hardware kit I used includes hangers, turn fasteners and screws. On the back of each frame, measure to find the center of the top edge and screw in a hanger..

You’ll also want to make sure you have secure tabs or fasteners to hold your art and backing in place. If they’ve broken off or you removed the old glued on paper backing that previously secured the art in place, be sure to add a few fasters on the back of each frame edge. The bigger the frame, the more fasteners you’ll need.


Step 6: Print (or order) your art & cut your mat board

 

You may already have some artwork around your house that you can use, but if you’re starting from scratch check out some of my favorite sources to download free vintage art that you can print right at home.

I liked the idea of picking a theme so my gallery felt somewhat cohesive. This could be a color theme, a subject theme, or even a style theme (photos, paintings, etc.). I selected a collection of art that all felt like or reminded me of New England. I mixed some existing pieces with some vintage pieces I sourced online to fill out all of my frames.

You might decide to mat some artwork if you’re printing everything from your home printer and need a mat board to fill the space in larger frames or if you like a mix of matted and unmatted art. Measure the size of the frame insert (the space where the art sits, NOT the outside edge of your frame), subtract 1/16” from the height and width and cut your mat board. That 1/16” just gives you a little wiggle room to slide the mat into place. Next, measure your art to determine what size window you need to cut out. Make sure your window is always a little bit smaller than your art to ensure the art is fully covered. If the window is too big, your art will pop through and it won’t look as clean. The trickiest part of cutting your mat is centering your window, so just be sure to triple check all of your measurements before using the mat cutter. A mat cutter will give you a beveled edge around the window, but you can also just use an exacto or utility blade for a simple, straight cut.

Pop the window out, use some masking tape to hold your art in place on the mat and you’re on your way!


Step 7: Cut cardboard to replace missing frame backings

 

Before we hang the frames, we have to secure the art with a backing. You may have saved some of the old frame backings in step 2. If so, just pop those back in and secure the tabs or fasteners. If you need to replace a backing grab some spare cardboard and cut a piece to the size of your frame insert (subtracting 1/16” from the height and width again!) Place the cardboard on top of your art and secure the fasteners. The nice thing about cardboard is you usually have it on hand, it has a little bit of thickness to it to fill extra space and it’s also flexible so you can squish it down if it’s a little bit tight. If your cardboard isn’t big enough to fill the frame insert, tape a few pieces together!


Step 8: Hang & admire your gallery

 

Remember the tracings we put on the wall? Align the corresponding frame and tracing to eyeball where the hanger will fall. If you put a little pressure on the hanger location you can make a small mark on the tracing so you know exactly where to hammer in your nail or insert your wire hook. A lot of your frames are likely small and light so a single nail installed on a diagonal or wire hook will hold the frame just fine. If you’re working with larger or heavier frames make sure to use an appropriate picture hanger for that weight. I have a hanging hardware kit on hand for various sized frames. If you are hanging extra large or heavy art or working on a stone wall, be sure to research appropriate methods of hanging to ensure your art doesn’t fall of the wall!

If you’re like me, you might get ahead of yourself and start hanging the frames before you even finish putting art in them because you just can’t wait to see what the gallery looks like (that’s why some of the my frames are empty – ha!)

And that’s it! With a little bit of time and effort you, too, can create your very own unique gallery wall. Be sure to tag me if you try this DIY yourself!

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