Build a Classic Spice Box Part 1

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This article is from Issue 75 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Master challenging joinery details to create a masterpiece

Today you could easily use a spice box to store many things besides spices. But to appreciate the importance that this classic creation has for woodworkers, you have to go back several centuries, when spice boxes were true to their name. Back then, spices were a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. A family in Colonial America with financial means to purchase spices from around the world could also afford to have an exquisite storage cabinet designed and built by the best woodworker in the community.

Just as the spice box became a symbol of affluence for wealthy colonists, it also became a crowning achievement for a woodworker. It’s easy to understand why. With its dovetailed case, molding details and intricately divided interior, this piece showcases challenging joinery as well as beautiful wood grain.

This article is the first in a two-part series that explains how I build a classic spice box from start to finish. Associated articles are also part of this ambitious project—to cover special jigs and techniques.

Building the spice box from start to finish—a big project with 6 major construction steps

Covered in this issue (Spice Box, Part 1):

1. Make the case (sides, top, bottom)
2. Make and install interior dividers
3. Make and install the cornice and base

Covered in April/May Issue (Spice Box, Part 2):

4. Build and install the drawers
5. Make the door, install lockset, and then hang the door.
6. Make and install the back, then sand and finish

Excellent elements. From bottom to top, this small case makes a big statement about fine design and quality construction.

Track your progress!

The Project Tracking Icon provides an easy way to see where you are in the overall construction process.

Classic details & complex joinery

Though small in size, a spice box contains a large number of parts and a challenging variety of joinery details. The construction sequence corresponds fairly closely to the different assemblies described below:

Case (bottom, top, two sides, back paneling). The right side of the case is narrower to accommodate the door, which is hinged at its front edge. Both sides have rabbeted back edges to hold lap-jointed back panels. The case bottom contains the most complicated joinery: rabbets and dovetails.

Cornice (three pieces, mitered at case corners). The completed cornice molding is made up of 3 separate pieces that are profiled with ¼" and ½" round-over bits.

Base (three pieces, with through-dovetail joints at front corners). Quarter-round molding forms the transition between base and case.

Interior dividers (six main horizontal dividers, two vertical dividers, two short horizontal dividers). Each divider has a front edge of solid cherry glued to a main section made from poplar. Horizontal dividers fit in dadoes in case sides.

Drawers (Not shown in drawings; drawer construction will be covered in Part 2).

Door (Not shown in drawings; door construction will be covered in Part 2). The door is hinged to the right case side. It closes with a partial overlay on the case top rail and the rabbeted left side of the case.

Measurement and cut list details. Although measurements for parts are given in drawings, proper construction calls for most parts to be cut to fit once the case is assembled. Understanding the difference between “key dimensions” and “relative dimensions” can help you develop a cut list for this project and avoid errors in cutting material to rough and final sizes. See the Cut List article on p. 49 for more details.

Case joinery consists of dovetails & rabbets

Dovetail joints hold the case together. Through and stopped rabbet joints are required to accommodate the door, back panels, and to conceal the lower dovetails behind quarter-round transition molding. I lay out case dovetails with the on-center spacing shown, measuring from the back of the case. As shown below, my dovetailing technique combines machine-made cuts with some cutting and paring by hand. 

A sled for the tails. After laying out dovetails in the sides, I make the tail cuts using the sled featured on p. 46. I tilt the blade to 14° and line up each cut carefully by eye.

Top tails. I concentrate on the joinery at the top corners of the case first. After removing waste between tails on the scrollsaw, I pare to the base line with chisels.
Use tails to scribe pins. Make sure case pieces are oriented properly before beginning to scribe. Here I’ve got the left case side positioned over the top to lay out exact cuts to create matching pins.
Rabbets on the saw. With the stack dado in my table saw, I use the completed right side of the case to position the rip fence for rabbeting the front edge of the left case side.
Rabbet the bottom of the case. I clamp a straightedge guide to the case bottom to rout the stopped rabbet along each end. Refer to the detail drawing on the facing page to finish off the left front corner.

Cut the pins. I use a dovetail saw to cut just outside the lines in the case top and bottom (shown here). Then I remove waste between pins on the bandsaw, and pare for final fit.

Test fit first, then assemble

Case assembly is always a two-step process. The first step is a dry run to test-fit of the joinery and make sure the case is square. Now is also the time to work out any kinks in the order of assembly so that once the glue is applied things go smoothly. Once you’re sure that everything fits as it should, brush glue on all mating surfaces, drive the joints together, and apply clamps as needed.

Snug, but not forced. A well-fitting dovetail joint like this should go together with light mallet blows. Pare as necessary to alleviate forced fits.
Glue it square. As you tighten clamps to draw joints tight, check for square corners. The small size of the drawers requires a case interior that’s perfectly square.

The trickiest part of the project: horizontal & vertical dividers

It helps to be well-rested before tackling this part of the project, and primed with a fresh cup of coffee. Dividing up the interior of the box requires some very precise work. The plywood strips I use to guide the base of my trim router ensure that the dadoes in my case sides will be perfectly aligned. To calculate the width of these strips, refer to the on-center spacing of the case dadoes (p. 38), and subtract the distance between the edge of your router base and the center of the bit.

Check out the drawing at right before you begin, and follow the Order of Work (below). Getting the pointed dividers to fit correctly in their V-grooved dadoes requires two conditions: 1) The bottom of the V-groove must be at the same depth as the flat-bottomed dado it joins. 2) The point of the divider must be even with the flat edge that it joins. Prepare some extra divider stock so that you can test your router setups in case small adjustments need to be made.

Order of Work

  1. Rout stopped dadoes in case sides for all horizontal dividers.
  2. Make dividers by gluing cherry strips to poplar divider stock. Plane dividers to fit snugly in dadoes. Round over leading edges of dividers with 1⁄8"-radius round-over bit.
  3. Notch all horizontal dividers at front corners to extend beyond stopped dadoes. Dry-fit  horizontal dividers, then lay out dadoes for vertical dividers.
  4. Rout a stopped dado for a vertical divider, then finish the last 1⁄2" of the dado with 90° V-groove bit (see drawing). Repeat for all dadoes that will hold a vertical divider.
  5. Cut vertical dividers to fit, then rout a pointed profile about 3⁄4" long at front corners, using V-groove bit.
  6. Follow the same procedure to lay out, cut and install the 2 short horizontal dividers.

1. Stopped dadoes. For foolproof dado alignment, I cut a series of plywood strips (see photo right) to insert in the case and guide the base of my trim router. Stop all dadoes 1" from the case front edges.

2. Scribed notches. With a divider in place, I use a chisel to mark where the divider’s front edge will be notched.
3. Vertical divider layout. With horizontal dividers dry-fit in the case, I use a pair of squares to lay out the dadoes for vertical dividers.
4. Bushing-guided dado. Double-stick tape secures plywood strips across the horizontal divider. One strip guides the bushing that surrounds a 5⁄16" straight bit; the other strip supports the router base. A feeler gauge enables me to duplicate depth settings for the 2-part dado.
5. Straight, then V-groove. The 2-part dado begins with a stopped dado made with a straight bit. Complete the last 1⁄2" of the dado with a 90° V-groove bit (inset).

6. Make the point. With the V-groove bit in the router table, create a symmetrical point that extends about 3⁄4" from the front of the vertical divider.

Add the cornice...

I built up my cornice profile from three separate pieces, creating curves with two round-over bits (1/4" and 1/2"). By ripping shallow kerfs on the back of each piece, as I’ve done here, you can eliminate glue squeezeout when assembling the molding. Install the mitered side pieces first, gluing only the front inch of the molding to the case side. Secure the back end of the cornice as shown in the drawing. This allows the case to expand and contract independently of the molding.

3 into 1. Curves made with two round-over bits create three separate pieces to assemble the cornice molding.
Sides first. I want wood movement in case sides to show up at the back of the case and not where cornice molding is mitered at the front. So I glue only the front portion of each cornice side piece to the case, securing the glue joint with a couple of pin nails. Glue the front cornice piece in place last, along its full length and at each miter joint.

Joints before curves. I use a 1⁄4"×20 tpi blade to create the cutouts in the three base pieces. Follow the lines as closely as possible and use spokeshaves and/or a spindle sander to clean things up.

...then the base

Make base sides 5/8" longer than the width of the case bottom. The base front should be 1-1/4" longer than case width. I complete the dovetailed corners of the base before making the curved cutouts. After gluing the base together, install front and rear blocking so you can screw the base to the case. Make sure the pocket hole in each rear block extends all the way through the block. This predrilled hole will provide a measure of clearance around the pocket hole screw to allow for wood movement.

Rabbet with a pin. A plastic starting pin in my router table helps me control the glued-up base when rabbeting the front corners for triangular plywood inserts. 

The length of the rabbets isn’t critical but rabbet depth should equal plywood thickness. Glue pocket hole blocks to base back corners, then install front inserts with glue and pin nails.

Screw the base in place. Make sure that the cabinet is centered in the base opening, and install it with four screws. Once this is done, you can flip the project upright and install the quarter-round transition molding between base and case. Use miter joints at the front corners, and make the assembly with glue and pin nails. But avoid gluing the side molding pieces to the case because of cross-grain wood movement.

Halfway there!

Take a well deserved break, and check out Spice Box Part 2 in our upcoming April/May issue.


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