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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy and Breezy
The Paper
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Give your walls a makeover with thrifted art
Hang time
Janesville treasure: 'Village of Ecuador,' a signed woodcut, was $1 at Carousel Consignments. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Cheryl Breuer

Thrift stores, garage sales and auction sites like eBay can be great places to find affordable artwork for your home. Some of my favorite art pieces were thrift store finds, including a 40x40 signed abstract painting for $7.99 at St. Vincent de Paul, a large red vintage glass vase for $10 at Savers, a signed woodcut titled "Village of Ecuador" for $1 at Carousel Consignments in Janesville, and three vintage Tiki-style dessert plates for 69 cents each that I repurposed as wall art to fill an oddly shaped niche in our living room.

Sometimes the art I find at thrift stores is ready to display as is. I just bring it home and find a spot for it. For the dessert plates, all I had to do was buy three plate hangers for around $2 each and hang them on the wall. More often, though, my thrifty scores require a little bit of extra work to make them ready for the spotlight, so to speak.

I might like the artwork but not the frame, or vice versa. Some frames are even pretty enough to display empty. I'm currently building a collage of empty vintage frames along my staircase wall.

Before you buy an unframed print, painting or photograph at a thrift store, it's a good idea to measure it first, to determine if the piece will fit into a standard frame, such as 5x7, 8x10 or 11x14. If it's not a standard size, decide if you like the art enough to pay for custom framing, which can easily cost $100 or more. Or consider whether the right mat could help you fit the piece into an existing frame.

My latest thrifty wall art project involved a wooden picture frame and a photograph (purchased at Goodwill on separate occasions), a custom mat and a can of spray paint. For less than $30, I ended up with a beautiful and unique piece. Here's a step-by-step project description.

I bought a large, wood frame, with the glass, at Goodwill for $4.99. I liked its clean lines and the subtle ridge detailing around the picture opening. What I didn't like, and what I suspect had kept anyone else from purchasing the frame, was its color: Pink just doesn't go with the rest of the colors in my house.

The frame is also not a standard size, a fact I discovered only after I got home. I had forgotten my tape measure that day, and assumed the frame was 11x14. The opening is actually 10 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches - so close! If I wanted to put an 8x10 photo in the frame, I would need to have a mat custom cut to fit. It made my project a little more expensive, but still a bargain compared to buying wall art new, and a lot more interesting than something mass-produced.

A few weeks later, I was at Goodwill again and found a framed 8x10 photograph for $3.99. The oak frame and forest green mat made the art look dated, but the photo itself was beautiful. It reminded me of my 2008 trip to South America, but was much better than most of the photos I shot. It was the perfect piece to use in my pink frame makeover project.

I felt a light color would be best to bring out the frame's details and complement the photograph. I chose Rust-oleum Satin indoor/outdoor enamel in shell white. Before I painted the frame, however, I wanted to get the mat cut. I didn't want to risk scratching or denting the fresh paint by hauling the frame to the store for measuring.

I brought it all - the pink frame, the framed photo and my can of spray paint - to the U-Frame-It on Mineral Point Road. The store has a laser mat-cutting machine, and will cut a custom mat while you wait. The salesperson helped me remove the photo from the '80s frame, pick the right color mat, and cut the mat to fit. She then used acid-free tape to affix my photo to the new mat so it was ready for framing. (I donated the photo's original mat and frame back to Goodwill.)

The next step was to clean and repair the pink frame. I removed the glass and set it aside. I then washed the frame with a mild soap and water solution. There was a small split in the wood on one edge of the frame, which I filled with wood putty and sanded smooth when dry. I was ready to paint.

It took two coats of paint, plus a little extra in a few spots in order to get a nice, even, creamy white color. Make sure you work in a well-ventilated area, and protect nearby surfaces from overspray. Spray outdoors if possible.

Once the paint had thoroughly dried, I cleaned the glass on both sides and returned it to the frame. Next, I added the matted photo, put the back on the frame, and - voilà! - my thrift store frame and photo were ready to hang.

This entire project cost $28.42, which is a little more than most of my projects because of the custom mat cutting. If you know how to cut your own mats, or if you're working with standard frames, you can complete a project like this for much less. It took a single day to complete, allowing two to three hours drying time between coats of paint.

Paint by Numbers

  • Framed photograph from Goodwill $3.99
  • Pink frame from Goodwill $4.99
  • Custom mat from U Frame It $14.77
  • Spray paint $4.67
    TOTAL $28.42

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