Build a Beautiful 3-Top Box

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This article is from Issue 90 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A distinctive design combines grain-matched sides, handcrafted handles, and painted accents.

When making small boxes, I usually design a box first, then select the wood I’ll use to build it. But this box is different. When a friend gave me some beautiful, vertical-grain Douglas-fir, I worked on a design that would allow the wood to be the most striking feature. My box has mitered corners that allow the grain to run continuously around the square perimeter. The grain display continues at the top of the box, with three different-sized lids that nest in rabbeted sides and dividers. Green paint accents the handle recesses and the edges of each lid. The handles themselves are made from cocobolo. Inside the box, the bottom is lined with a quilting square.

Order of Work

  • Mill rabbets in sides and divider stock, then cut sides to finished length.
  • Mill stopped V-grooves in sides. 
  • Miter the sides, then assemble. 
  • Make the bottom panel.
  • Cut dividers to fit, then layout and rout through V-groove in long divider.
  • Prefinish dividers and inside faces of sides.
  • Glue bottom and dividers in place.
  • Make lids and handles.
  • Add paint accents to lids, then glue handles in place.
  • Apply finish to lids and box exterior.

4 sides, 3 lids, 2 dividers, 1 bottom

All parts except for the bottom and handles are made from clear, vertical-grain Douglas-fir. Cut sides, dividers, lids, and veneer stock from a single board if possible; that’s the best way to achieve uniform grain and wood tone, along with grain-matched sides. Also make sure to prepare some extra stock (milled to 1/4" thickness) to use in setting up your table saw and router table for precisely milled rabbets and V-grooves. 

How to prepare grain-matched sides

1. Prepare a blank that’s flat, square, and large enough to be resawn into pairs of adjacent sides, as shown in the drawing. You might need to work with a longer blank (as I did), in order to run it through your planer. 

2. Resaw the blank and swing the matching pieces around, so that both freshly sawn surfaces face outside.

3. Mark the miter cuts to divide the two pieces into four sides, then write matching numbers or letters on the joints that need to match up when gluing up the sides, as shown in the drawing. Make sure to transfer your numbers to surfaces or edges that won’t be planed.

4. Plane your two boards to finished thickness. 

5. Complete joinery work on the sides, then cut their miters and glue up the box.

Building the box frame

Start with a blank that can be resawn to yield grain-matched sides, dividers, lids, and veneer for the bottom. Also prepare some extra 1/4"-thick stock to check joinery setups. It’s better to have longer workpieces when rabbeting edges, because you get more solid registration against the table saw’s fence.

Leave the bit in place on the router table after V-grooving the sides. You’ll need it later for V-grooving the long divider.

If you haven’t tried my “string-and-stick” clamping method before, do a dry run of clamping the box frame so you can get a feel for how the technique works. Basically, the tape holds the miter joints together, while the cauls clamp with increasing pressure as you move them toward the corners.

Mill rabbets in dividers and sides. Attach a wood auxiliary fence to the table saw’s rip fence, and set up a stack dado to cut at least 3⁄8" wide. Position the auxiliary fence to expose just 1⁄4" of the cutter, and set cutting height at 1⁄16". Test your setup on scrap stock and adjust if necessary. Then mill rabbets, using a push block to protect your fingers.

Cut sides to length. Clamp a stop block to the crosscut sled fence, 6" from the blade. Butt a square-cut end of each side against the stop to cut the sides to finished length. The sides still need their ends mitered, but the square-cut ends will provide more solid registration when routing V-grooves–the next step. 

Rout V-grooves in sides. Adjust the height of a V-groove bit so that finished grooves will be 1⁄4" wide, then set the fence 2" from the bit’s point. Mark the bit’s location on the fence so you can rout a stopped V-groove in three of the four sides (see drawing, p. 26). Use a backer board to guide these cuts, as shown in the photo.

For two of the stopped grooves, you’ll need to lift the side up before the bit exits the bottom edge. Make the final stopped groove by lowering the side onto the bit and routing through the top edge.

Cut miter joints in sides. Make these cuts with a stop block clamped to the fence. To position the block, align the top corner of a side (already cut to finished length) with the zero-clearance kerf in the jig’s fence. The correct cutting set-up will create a sharp miter without shortening the side. 

Clamp with tape, string, and sticks. Working on a flat surface, apply glue on the miter joints, and tape the box frame together by applying painter’s tape at the corners. Tie some common household string to loop twice around the frame, with just enough slack to insert a pair of rectangular cauls near the center of each side. Carefully move the cauls toward the corners, aiming for symmetrical placement on all sides. Don’t force it; stop when the string is taut and joints are tight. 

Finishing details

Prefinish the inside faces of the box sides. You can do this before gluing up the sides (keeping finish from mating surfaces), or after the sides have been glued up. Also take the time to prefinish the dividers again, avoiding mating surfaces. I like finishing small boxes with 1 lb. cut shellac. I apply several coats, sanding with 800-grit sandpaper between coats. For painted accents, I use milk paint (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 69). 

Related Articles

Flip to page 51 to build your own version of the sled shown here.
See WoodSense p. 58 for more on Douglas-fir.

Add the bottom and dividers

Cut the plywood bottom panel slightly oversize, glue veneer to one side, then cut the bottom to final size before gluing on the fabric. The finished thickness of the bottom allows it to sit slightly proud of the sides. This elevates the sides, creating a delicate shadow line that gives the box a floating appearance. 

Use your mitering sled to cut the pointed ends on the dividers. For the long divider, point one end by making two symmetrical miter cuts with the opposite end butted against a stop block. Before removing the workpiece, make a vertical mark on the fence, upward from the miter shoulder, as shown in the drawing. Then mark the piece to fit, as shown in the photo below. To set up to point the remaining end of the long divider, align your mark on the workpiece with the mark on the fence, and clamp a stop block to the fence against the previously cut end of the divider. Make the two remaining miter cuts, then use the same technique to complete the short divider.

Fabric goes on fast. Adhere the cloth by spritzing the plywood with spray contact adhesive, then pressing an oversize quilting square in place. After the adhesive dries, trim the excess with a craft knife or rotary cutter.
Mark to fit. After cutting the point on one end of the long divider, tuck it in one of its V-grooves, and mark the shoulder of the point at the opposite end. Align this shoulder mark with the vertical mark you’ve made on the sled’s fence, then set up a stop block to make a pair of symmetrical cuts. 

Mark and rout the last V. Set the center divider upside down in the box and use a square to lay out the location of the final V-groove. After routing, reinsert (right-side up) and trim the short divider to fit.

A perfect fit. To complete the short divider, repeat the same cut-to-fit technique used on the long divider.

Finish up with lids and pulls

After cutting the lids to fit in their rabbeted openings, mask both faces of each lid with painter’s tape. Then lay out a centerpoint for drilling a 1"-dia., 1/16"-deep handle hole in the top of each lid. Use a sharp Forstner bit, and clamp each lid firmly in place before you start to drill. Remove the tape when the paint dries, and lightly sand lid edges to soften corners.

I use my crosscut sled to make the cocobolo handles. After cutting three handle blanks to finished dimensions, set the blade height to 1/16" above the sled, and clamp a stop block 1/2" from the far edge of the blade. With the bulk of the blank on the opposide side of the blade, set an end against the stop to cut the shoulder, then shift the piece away from the stop to nibble away the rest. Be sure to use a hold down. Repeat on the other end, then clean up the notches with a chisel.

Touches of color. Coat all handle holes and lid edges with milk paint. Painter’s tape masks the unpainted sections and reduces the chance of tearout when drilling the stopped holes for the handles.
Tiny, T-shaped handles. These handles are cocobolo, but other dark hardwood is equally suitable. Cut notches for a snug fit, mark a centerline on the lid to align your installation, and attach each handle with CA adhesive. 

The finishing touch. The dividers and the inside faces of the sides have already been finished with several coats of 1# shellac. Once the box is assembled and the lids are complete, I apply several coats of shellac to all remaining surfaces, sanding with 800 grit between coats. As a final step, I buff on some paste wax.


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