Boxed, Mitered and Mighty NiceComments (0)
This article is from Issue 3 of Woodcraft Magazine.
A typical box project might feature solid box joints, or instead, the smooth lines of mitered corners. Doug Stowe’s walnut stationery box combines both techniques to achieve a handsome look with rock-solid construction.
Making what appears to be a simple box might actually involve a wide range of complicated techniques. Sometimes, that means some degree of learning and possible frustration for a beginning box maker. This particular box is the culmination of many years of box-making experience and involves a number of the techniques and features I consider important in making a box.
For instance, I want my boxes to be sparing in the use of materials, and the box sides to be reasonably lightweight. This box is made from black walnut resawn on the bandsaw, with material for the sides planed to 1/2" thick.
I also like my boxes to be strong enough to last beyond my limited lifespan. Box joints are very strong and relatively simple to cut with the right equipment and with some time invested in careful setup. Box joints have also become one of those techniques that people associate with quality craftsmanship. I want my boxes to say something about who I am as a person: that I care about my work, that I relate to the beauty of wood, and that I extend my own caring into future generations through techniques that guarantee lasting beauty.
I’ve cut box joints at different times with a dedicated router jig and with the table saw; either way, the keys to success are to getting the perfect spacing between the cutter and the guide pin, and having adequate backing material in place to prevent tearout. A simple sled made for the table saw will keep its perfect adjustment for making many boxes accurately and efficiently. For a single box, a board and guide pin mounted to your saw’s miter gauge can suffice.
Adding mitered top edges to conventional box joints is an uncommon touch that gives the box a refined look and also allows me to add decorative inlays. The miters at the top edges of the sides are actually quite easy to cut using a miter gauge on the table saw, but the procedure requires careful planning as you’ll see directly.
In making a box as complicated as this one, I find it is best not to cut all the pieces to size as described in either a drawing or cut list beforehand, as very small errors in measurement can add up as a variety of operations are completed. Instead, use the drawing and cut list as a rough guide only, and be prepared to adjust sizes to fit as you make your box.
Start with the inlay
Making the inlay for the top edge of the box is very easy using thin veneers bordering a 1/4"-wide piece of stock to make a “sandwich” block. I choose maple and cherry veneers to contrast with the color of the lacy quartersawn sycamore inner banding and the walnut used for the box. The thickness of the veneers can be varied to suit your taste, but the resulting strip should be no wider than 3/8".
I cut the center strip and veneers to 3" x 12", but it really only needs to be large enough to feel comfortable cutting on the table saw and long enough to do the longest sides of the box. Regular shop glue works well, but I use Elmer’s because it is thinner and spreads more quickly. Backing boards help distribute the clamping pressure. I glue up two inlay blocks at once to provide extra for future box projects (Fig. 1). Be careful not to get any glue between the two blocks. After the glue has dried, rip the inlay strips from the blocks on the table saw. Cut the strips at least 1/8" thick so the lid of the assembled box can easily be beveled without sanding through the strip.
Installing the inlay
Cut the box sides slightly oversize prior to inlaying; this way you can cut both the sides and inlay strip to exact size together for a clean edge.
Use the router table with fence to rabbet a channel sized to fit your inlay (Fig. 2). Spread glue in the routed channels and press the inlay in place as in Fig. 3, then clamp the sides edge-to-edge to clamp the inlay in place as the glue dries (Fig. 4). The finished inlaid sides are now ready to make into a box (Fig. 5).
Cut the box sides to exact length on the table saw. A crosscut sled, as shown in Fig. 6, makes the cut easier, while using a stop block clamped in place will ensure that opposing sides are the same length. It’s a good idea to cut the box joints for the base at the same time the joints for the sides are cut, so adjust the stop blocks to cut the base parts to the right length now. One of the features of the dedicated box joint jig that follows is that setup requires only that you change to the dado blade, adjust the blade height, and put the jig in place.
Cutting the box-joint fingers
Using a dedicated box-joint jig (see sidebar, “Making a box-joint jig” on page 47), cut the box joint one finger at a time. After each cut, carefully lift the newly formed fingers over the guide pin (Fig. 7). On normal box-joint boxes, you’d cut right to the end, but for this box do not cut the final finger – that will allow you to miter the top edge in the next section.
To cut the matching parts, use one of the parts cut earlier as a spacer to position the parts for the first cut on each of the matching pieces (Fig. 8). This is one of those tricks of the trade that took me years to discover. If you prefer, you can use a piece of scrap wood in place of one of the actual box parts. Next, remove the spacer and continue cutting fingers as before. Again, stop short of the last finger on the top edge to allow for the miter to be cut.
With sides completed, use the same procedure to cut the box-joint fingers on the four base pieces.
Cutting the top edges
With the miter gauge set at 45 degrees and with a stop block in place to position the cut, cut the miters. Use a combination blade with a square-topped cut for the best results, and make several small cuts to achieve the smoothest surface (Fig. 9). Reverse the miter gauge and reset the stop blocks for cutting the matching miters on the opposite sides (Fig. 10). This is an operation requiring a great deal of precision. I find it useful to work gradually into the perfect fit through a series of smaller cuts rather than risking open miters on the corners of the finished box. Repeat the same operations to cut miters for the base pieces (Fig. 11).
Top and bottom panels
The panel for the top of this box was resawn from thicker stock and then planed to the final thickness of 3/8". Use the router table and a straight router bit to form the tongue on the sides and ends of the panel. I use a 11/4" diameter bit, as smaller bits tend to have greater tearout and offer less control in the cut. Rout the tongue 1/8" thick, and 3/16" long. Do the same with the Baltic birch bottom panel.
Install a 1/8"straight bit into the router table, and use the table fence and stop blocks to rout 3/16"-deep grooves in the sides for the top panel and bottom panel to fit. The grooves are located 3/16" from the top and bottom edges of the sides (Fig. 12). The stop blocks are set up to prevent the routed cut from appearing on the outside of the box. With the same 1/8" bit, rout another groove 2" from the bottom edge of the two box end pieces so that a tray support can be installed after assembly.
Assembling the box
Be sure to sand the inside of the box prior to assembly. As the box is assembled spread glue carefully on the fingers. I use a squeeze glue bottle to apply the glue (Fig. 13). With the top and bottom panels in place, push the fingers together (Fig. 14). Use clamps to hold the corners tight while the glue sets. Observe that the miters at the top corners have closed properly and that the inlays have matched (Fig. 15). Measure corner to corner to check that the box is square.
Shaping the top
After sanding the sides flush, use a bench-top disc sander or a sanding disc in the table saw to slightly bevel the top. Since I used the table saw, I moved the fence closer to the disc in small increments until reaching the right amount of bevel. Be careful not to sand through the thickness of the inlay (Fig. 16).
Cutting the lid from the base
To cut the lid from the base, use the table saw with the blade raised slightly less than the thickness of the sides. This will keep the lid from completely separating and pushing in on the blade during the cut (Fig. 17). Once you’ve cut all the way around the box, use a razor knife to finish the cut. Some careful block sanding will be required to smooth the cuts.
Making the sliding tray
Before making the tray, cut a pair of tray supports measuring 1/8" x 5/16" x 7" and glue them into place in the box ends (Fig. 18).
The sliding tray adds a place in the box to keep smaller loose objects like pens, paper clips and stamps or could allow the box to be adapted for jewelry. To simplify making the tray – and because the sheer strength of box joints isn’t required – I used keyed miter joints for the corners, which I’ll describe in a moment.
Use the table saw set at 45 degrees to cut the parts for the sliding tray (Fig. 19). I use a dedicated miter sled with stop blocks to make accurate cuts. Cut a saw kerf in each piece 1/8" from the bottom edge for the tray’s bottom panel to fit (Fig. 20).
Use a 1/8"router bit in the router table to rout for the tray dividers, with stop blocks clamped to the router table to control the amount of travel and length of cut. I located my divider about 21/2" from the end of the tray, but where you locate your divider (or even if you use one at all) is up to you. Careful adjustment allows both the left and right sides to be routed with the same setup (Fig. 21).
Cut the tray bottom from 1/8" Baltic birch, measuring 31/8" x 8 7/8". Assemble the tray with the bottom in place, using plastic tape to secure the miter joints while the glue dries. Several layers of tape can apply a great deal of pressure to the joints.
When the tray has dried, you can cut the slots for the miter keys. For these slots, I use a custom-made sled that holds the assembled tray at a 45-degree angle as it passes over the saw blade. The jig itself is straightforward and easy to make. Similar to a crosscut sled, it has hardwood runners that fit the miter slots on the table saw, which causes the saw blade to pass through the jig at the same point each time it’s used, reducing unnecessary tearout at the back side of the cut. Attached to the top of the sled is a simple cradle that holds the box upright so that only the corner passes over the blade (Fig. 22). The C-clamp and stop block allow me to adjust the location of the cuts by sliding the tray to the left or right.
The miter keys are just 1/8"-thick pieces of walnut glued in place. I spread glue inside the slot and then put the walnut piece in place (Fig. 23). For a contrasting detail, instead of walnut keys you could use another species of wood that complements the walnut. When the keys are dry, trim and sand them smooth.
Finally, with a straight bit in your router table, rout a 1/2"-high by 1/8"-deep rabbet on the bottom edge of each end of the tray, which will allow it to rest on the tray supports installed earlier.
Use a 1/8" straight router bit to rout a 1/8"-deep groove in the front of the lid for a lift tab. The stop blocks and the position of the fence provide exacting control on the placement of the slot (Fig. 24). My lift tabs are usually 11/4" long and protrude 3/16", but you can size yours to taste, or eliminate it altogether if you prefer a box without one.
Making the base
Shape the bottom edge of the base pieces with a 3/4" straight bit in the router table. The fence controls the depth of the cut, while a stop block controls the starting point of the cut. Rout by moving the stock from right to left along the fence, stopping in the middle of the stock so that the workpiece can be flipped and the balance of the cut can be made from the opposite end (Fig. 25). This is necessary to prevent the router from tearing up the work piece at the end of the cut. Additional cuts can be made in the same manner to increase the decorative effect.
Before assembling the base, use a straight router bit and fence to rout a 1/8" rabbet on the top inside edge of the four base pieces to create a ledge inside the base. Rout a matching rabbet on the bottom of the assembled upper box so that the two nest together (Fig. 26). This will create a strong glue joint to attach the base securely to the box without nails or screws.
Hinges and final finish
I use 3/4" Brusso brass hinges with a built-in stop at 90 degrees, but your choice of hinge type and finish is up to you. Mortising the hinges on three sides helps to ensure accuracy in installing the brass screws.
Using one of the hinges as a guide, locate and trace a pair of outlines onto the back edge of the box. Cut the mortise out to the depth of the hinge, either by hand with a sharp chisel or with your router. If you use a router, you’ll still need to square the corners of the mortise with a sharp chisel (Fig. 27) Using the hinges in the box as a guide, mark and cut matching mortises in the lid.
I like to apply the final finish before installing the hinges. Danish oil is a favorite of mine for boxes, and I apply three coats, rubbing out thoroughly between applications. Polyurethane, shellac and lacquer are other good finish options. When the finish is cured, install felt lining if desired.
Use an awl to mark the location for drilling pilot holes for the screws (Fig. 28). Lubricate the brass screws with a bit of beeswax to ease their way into the wood. This helps keep the screws from shearing off in the wood, and keeps the heads from being damaged by excessive force with the screwdriver.
This can be a challenging box to make, with a variety of things to learn, and perhaps in many cases, operations to be performed for the first time. With the many steps required, some small mistakes are nearly inevitable. The important thing, however, is not necessarily the finished box, but the lessons learned in making it that can be applied throughout a lifelong adventure in woodworking.
Making a dedicated box joint jig for the table saw
To make a box joint jig for the table saw, start with a piece of 3/4" plywood and cut a dado for the fence to fit. You can either widen the cut to fit the hardwood board for the fence, or plane the fence down to fit your dado (Fig. 1).
Position the hardwood runners under the sled while holding the sled board in alignment with the top of the saw (Fig. 2). Drive screws down through the plywood into the hardwood runners placed into the table saw’s miter slots.
Use three screws in each, but be careful on the length of the screws!
Before permanently attaching the fence, put the sled in place on the saw, and with the dado blade stacked to 1/4", make a preliminary cut into the sled. Drill a 1/4" hole in the fence just above the surface of the sled base to accept a 1/4" guide pin. You can use a hardwood dowel, but I prefer an old router bit shaft or 1/4" drill bit as the guide pin, as they won’t wear with constant use as a wooden dowel will. Locate the hole for the guide pin carefully, adjusting the distance between the pin and the cut you just made equal to the width of the dado blade. Drive a single screw through the bottom of the jig into the fence (Fig. 3).
To fine-tune the jig, make test cut pieces and check their fit. If they are too loose, loosen the screw and bump the space slightly wider between the pin and cut. If the fit is too tight, bump the pin closer to the cut. Once you are satisfied with the fit of the fingers of the joint, drive additional screws through the bottom of the sled to hold the fence in place.
A 30-year maker of furniture and wooden boxes, Doug Stowe teaches at the Clear Spring School, Arrowmont, Marc Adams School and the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. His most recent book is “The Complete Illustrated Guide to Box Making” by Taunton Press.
Brusso 3/4" small box hinges, #145286, 19.99 (pkg. of 2)
Veneer sample pack, #123211, $11.99 (pkg. of six 8" x 12" sheets)
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