Contemporary Take on Vintage Photos

This originally appeared as a guest post on Seattle Magazine’s website. We recently were asked a question about working with large format graphics so thought we’d re-post the article here.

Here’s a relatively easy project to display old family photos in a contemporary way. Enlarge, mount on plywood, and frame with flat steel bar.


My parents met when they were in first grade. Family legend has it that in the second grade my mom said she was going to marry “Jimmy” and about 15 years later, she did. We’ve had these great photos in our family and I’ve always loved them – especially the one where they are standing in front of a brick wall of the post office. It’s graphic, simple, and the composition is so great with them off to the side and the window off the edge on the other side.

I wanted to blow it up really (really) big and frame it in a simple contemporary style. With Monica and Mary Jean’s help, this is what I did:

Ordered the Print

I enlarged the original photo in Photoshop to the final size (making it about 1″ bigger on all sides to wrap around the plywood). The quality of the photo held up surprisingly well. I decided to leave all the imperfections from the original photo, including the cracks and rips.

I did some research online, especially looking into the idea of having an “architectural print” made. They are large-scale, cheap, but unfortunately the print shop down the street couldn’t do it for me and the price they wanted to charge for a regular oversize 40″ x 60″ print was prohibitive. I probably could’ve tried harder, but I am lazy and impatient, so ordered a print from Zazzle, who was coincidentally having a great sale, so the large-scale print turned out to be about $50.

Built the Backer Board

We knew we wanted to use plywood for the backer board, but we also knew that we wanted it to stand away from the wall for some dimension. The way we did this is similar to what we did it for the “Big Impact Artwork” post, but simpler. This time, we had 1/8″ birch plywood cut to size at Home Depot. To build up the edges, we attached lengths of wood to the back edges of the plywood. We used some lumber we had hanging around from our house remodel. We cut the 4 lengths, mitered the corners, and glued/clamped them to the back, aligning the edges. No screws, just glue. (This post could be titled “glue like a girl”.)


Using scrap lumber, we cut the 4 side lengths, mitered the corners and glued and clamped them to the plywood.

Prepared the Poster

  • When the print came, it was rolled inside a large cardboard tube, image side out. We removed it, made sure it fit the plywood, carefully rolled it around the tube image side in. We taped the edge and let it sit a few days so the poster would lose its curl and flatten out.

Attached the Poster to the Plywood

  • Rolled out the poster onto the plywood and positioned it carefully, then taped the underside bottom edge to the plywood frame. Then we rolled the poster back up onto the cardboard tube so that most of the plywood was exposed.
  • Sprayed the plywood with Super 77, first wiping off all dust from the board.
  • Leaving edge taped, carefully unrolled the poster onto the sprayed surface, smoothing as we went.
  • There was a small area towards the bottom that was covered by the rolled poster which didn’t get sprayed with adhesive, so after the majority of the poster was attached, we lifted up the bottom edge and sprayed, careful to avoid getting over-spray on the poster.
  • We flipped the board face down and sprayed adhesive on the 1″ poster overhang, then pressed the poster onto the side of the frame. We folded the corners like you would wrap a present. The edges would eventually be covered up by the steel frame, so it didn’t have to be perfect.
  • Last, we applied a polyurethane (Verathane) as a top coat with a foam brush in an arced “swoosh” pattern to give the surface a more interesting texture than a regular glossy, stippled photo print.

Created Frame

  • Measured and cut the 2″ wide steel bars with a hacksaw, securing the bars in a vise. We did not miter the corners but we did cut the top/bottom slightly shorter and the sides slightly longer so they would overlap at the corners.
  • Applied E6000 glue to steel bars, and clamped in place, every 4″ or so. We did one side at a time and let each side dry for about 8 hours.

How it turned out:


Things we learned for next time:

  • Be careful to get all (and I mean all) the dust off the surface of the poster and plywood. Even though the poster paper was relatively thick, some dust crumbs telegraphed through. In this case, the image is so distressed you can’t really notice it, but if you have a simpler image, you probably would.
  • Use extra spray mount on the perimeter of the plywood to make sure the poster sticks. We weren’t careful and some of the edges did not adhere very well.
  • I would recommend “scoring” the edge of the poster where it wraps around the side so it bends at a 90° angle and stays down better. We didn’t. (Did I mention I was lazy and impatient? Not a good combination sometimes.)
  • When you are applying the verathane, be careful not to go over the same area multiple times when the surface is wet, the image can start to peel off. Do a test if possible.
  • Be careful when you cut and measure your steel bar, you want your corners to meet nicely.

To see more of Heidi’s artwork, visit her at Old Stuff. New Stories.



3 thoughts on “Contemporary Take on Vintage Photos

  1. Thanks for the details. I remember your original post here. Hows the Varathane working? Do you think it will yellow at all. Our new house has a very tall wall going up the stair to a landing and then turns again up more stairs. I’ve been trying to think about what to hang there. This is one idea I like. I have some fun old pictures, it’d be hard to choose. Your mom is a cutie-pa-2-t, I love their story.

    • Yes, my mom was super cute, love the little scarf and flower. People think that it is a picture of one of my daughters. The verathane doesn’t seem to have yellowed, although there isn’t much white in the photos so it’s hard to tell. It’s held up well and it’s a great sentimental piece. I made one similar for my friend with her dad playing the guitar. You should do it! It was a little hard to choose – I ended up putting them all together on the screen and comparing – I ended up with the most simple and graphic one. Good luck, let us know if you have any questions if you decide to do it!

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