Banking on a ClassicComments (0)
This article is from Issue 1 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Your local post office probably replaced its original bronze and brass P.O. box doors long ago with modern, efficient – and unattractive – aluminum doors. But these old doors enjoy new life in this easy weekend project.
You’ve probably seen these banks before, cleverly made using old post office box doors, in gift shops and catalogs. They’re usually priced competitively with similar crafts, but I’ve seen them going for $60 and up.
As you’re about to see, not only are the banks easy and inexpensive to make, but retired post office box doors are more available than you might think.
Although this project is easy, you should be warned that it carries a certain risk: After building your first one, you’ll start getting requests for many, many more. In fact, you’ll probably end up with a substantial list of people who would love to have them as gifts. The good news is that this project lends itself quite nicely to a production process that makes it easy to turn out several banks at a time.
Made of brass, bronze, steel or zinc, post office box doors came in numerous styles. They could have a single dial or dual dials, or they could be keyed – although combination boxes were the most common until the latter 20th century. Some had a stylistic eagle embossed in the metal, while others were emblazoned with a large “U.S.” Some doors had both, while others had neither. Probably the most common door was the bronze single-dial Grecian, which appeared in the 1950s and eventually became the standard in post offices. Although most modern post offices have covered their walls with smooth, unadorned, keyed aluminum doors, you might still see some of these bronze Grecians in use today. When you start hunting for doors, you’ll find this is the one that is most commonly available, and least expensive.
It’s important that you get your antique doors before you start cutting.
Throughout the 20th century, post office boxes were available in fairly standard sizes, with the most common being the No. 1 box with a door measuring about 3-1/2" x 5", including the hinged mounting frame. However, there is a slight variance in door sizes, as well as the style of mounting frames; some frames use a series of drilled tabs only on the sides of the frame, while others have a continuous frame with mounting holes on all four sides. Once you have your door, you can take exact measurements and make adjustments to the dimensions included in the materials list so that the door fits snugly into the finished bank’s front opening.
You’ll find that the Grecian style No. 1 door is the most consistently sized. And because it uses a side-tab mounting frame, it’s also the easiest to work with, as only the horizontal measurement is critical.
You’ll need stock in three thicknesses. The sides and bottom of the bank are 5/8 ", the back insert is 3/8", and the top is 1".
Finally, while I used walnut for the bank shown here, I’ve also made them in red oak, quartersawn white oak, curly maple, padauk and zebrawood. Try using wood of contrasting colors for an interesting look that highlights the dowels or back insert.
Start with the sides and bottom. Choose a single piece of 5/8" stock at least 16" in length and rip it to a width of 4-1/2". If you plan to make more than one bank, a longer piece of stock can yield components for several.
Cut a 3/8" x 3/8" rabbet on one edge of your stock, using either a dado set mounted in your table saw, or a router.
I use both dadoes and rabbets frequently, and rather than constantly change out the table saw, I keep a straight bit mounted in my router table most of the time. Lacking a router table, you can mount a rabbeting bit with a guide wheel into a handheld router.
Since the back of the bank is rabbeted to accept an insert, you’ll find that it’s easier to cut one long, continuous rabbet in your stock before cutting the sides and the bottom to length. This is especially true if you’re making more than one bank (Fig. 1).
From the rabbeted stock, cut two 5-3/8" pieces for the sides, and one 3-7/8" piece for the bottom.
Again using either the table saw or router, cut rabbets in the inside bottom edge of the two sides, measuring 3/8" x 5/8".
With the rabbets cut, this a good time to do a test fit to be sure you’ve sized everything correctly to accept the door. Temporarily clamp the sides and bottom together and make sure the door fits snugly into the front opening. If it’s too loose, you can shave a bit off one edge of the bottom and reclamp to test the door’s fit. The Grecian door I used for this bank mounts with screws driven only through side tabs, so the width is the important dimension. Since the Grecian’s mounting frame overlaps the edges of the box opening, the height of the vertical opening isn’t as critical. (Keep in mind that any door style with a continuous mounting frame requiring a screw in all four sides requires exact sizing for both height and width.)
With the door still in place, mark the openings in the side tabs with a pencil. Unclamp, and drill pilot holes for the mounting screws. Don’t forget this step – once the box is glued up, drilling pilot holes will be far more difficult.
Cut a piece of 3/8" stock to 5-1/8" x 3-7/8" for the back insert, and test fit the four pieces. Glue and clamp till dry.
Topping It Off
From the 1" stock, cut a piece to 4-3/8" x 4-1/2".
Center the brass coin slot on the top and pencil the outline of the slot opening to the top. Using the pencil mark as a guide, cut a mortise into the top, making sure the opening is only slightly larger than the opening in the brass slot. (If the opening is too long, you’ll have no room to attach the brass slot with the escutcheon pins.) Cut the mortise on the drill press by drilling continuous holes along the line, then true the slot with a chisel. If you have a hollow-chisel mortiser, making the slot is a one-step process. However you cut the mortise, be sure to place a piece of scrap under the top to avoid tearout on the underside.
Glue and clamp it to the top of the box. Since we’ll be adding decorative dowels through the top of the box, there’s no real need for fancy joinery here.
Drill three 3/8" holes at least 1-1/2" deep on each of the top’s side edges. The middle hole should be centered front-to-back; the outside holes should be set back 1/2" from the ends.
Cut six 2" lengths of dowel, apply glue to the holes, and insert the dowels until they bottom out (Fig. 2).
When dry, cut the top arch on the bandsaw “to taste” (Fig. 3). I used a dinner plate to scribe an arc on my bank before cutting.
Sand the top to remove milling marks from the bandsaw. A combination disc/belt sander is perfect for this (Fig. 4).
Sand the completed box up to 220 grit. For the walnut bank, I applied a coat of Danish oil to pop the grain a bit, then followed that with three coats of satin polyurethane, sanding with 320-grit paper between coats. When the final coat was dry, I went over the entire bank with 0000 steel wool for an even, satin finish. If you wish, you can top off the box with some paste wax or furniture polish.
Your choice of final finishing will vary, depending on the wood you used and the look you’re going for. I find that a dark wood (or a dark stain applied over a lighter wood) complements the bronze color of the antique doors nicely, but you might prefer the contrast between a bronze door and a light wood such as bird’s-eye maple.
When the box is completely dry, carefully bend the coin slot by hand to match the curve in the top. Mark mounting holes with a pencil and drill pilot holes for the escutcheon pins, then attach the coin slot (Fig. 5).
Before attaching the door, write the combination down and keep it somewhere safe. Once the door is mounted and closed, you’ll never get it open again without the help of a safecracker. I mark each of my banks on the bottom with a code number and letter, and keep a running file of banks I’ve made. In case someone loses or forgets the combination, I can always look up their bank’s code and retrieve the combination for them.
Slide the door into place (Fig. 6), and attach with four screws through the side tabs and into the pilot holes drilled earlier.
If you’re using a door like the Grecian No. 1, slight adjustments can be made in case of a poor fit. If the door is a little loose, carefully bend the side tabs with pliers until it fits snugly. Likewise, a tight fit can be eased a bit by bending the side tabs inward.
Again, before slamming the door shut, make sure you have the combination.
The real beauty of this project is that as long as you size the opening of the box to exactly fit your door, you can adjust just about every other aspect of the dimensions to fit your taste. The 5/8" stock I used here gave me a bank of the size and weight I was looking for, but thicker stock will yield a heavier bank. Increasing the depth of the sides, bottom and top will result in a bank that can be quite deep, much like original post office boxes. If you prefer a bank that is perfectly square, skip the step for curving the top.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try a mitered box. This works nicely with wood that makes a smooth, continuous figure around the circumference of the box, such as zebrawood. An example of a mitered box is shown in the lead photo on page 16.
The choice is up to you.
A. J. Hamler
After 25 years as a full-time broadcaster and part-time writer, A.J. Hamler flipped the equation 10 years ago to pursue a career in publishing. Formerly the editor of Woodshop News, Hamler has been a woodworker since high school. When not in the shop, you’ll find him in the kitchen, on a hiking trail, or taking part in a Civil War reenactment.
Sides (2) 4-1/2" x 5-3/8"
Bottom 4-1/2" x 3-7/8"
Back 3-7/8" x 5-1/8"
Top 4-1/2" x 4-3/8"
Dowels (6) 3/8" x 2"
Brass coin slot
Brass escutcheon pins (2)
P.O. box door
Flathead screws (4)
P.O. Box 60011
Harrisburg, PA 17106-0011
104 Batesview Drive
Greenville, SC 29607
Penn State Industries
Pen Making Supplies
Finally, if you use online auction services such as eBay, you can find good deals on large lots of doors. The one I used for this project was from a lot of 10 doors; including shipping, the doors in that lot averaged out to about $6 each. Most retailers sell the No. 1 Grecian door for $14.95-$24.95.
BRASS COIN SLOTS:
The slot used in this project is from Van Dyke’s Restorers, part # AL-02250310, $1.69. The company offers other curved styles of slots.
Little Woodworks, Penn State Industries and Pen Making Supplies also sell brass coin slots in a variety of sizes and styles.
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