Japanese Gift Box

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This article is from Issue 86 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Build this stylish box with a sliding lock.

It’s a tradition among Japanese woodworkers to build a box for their prized hand tools to keep them secure and close at hand. Although these utilitarian boxes tend toward very basic joinery, many feature a simple, but ingenious wedge-locking mechanism to secure the lid. Intrigued by this austere yet functional design, I set out to construct a scaled-down, modified version of these traditional boxes to house any small collection of keepsakes.

For my gift box, I added tapered legs and a pagoda-style handle on the lid to lend visual interest. I also chose to forgo the traditional nailed butt-joint construction in favor of mitered corner joints. The box battens and bottom serve to strengthen the otherwise unreinforced miters.

Traditional Japanese toolboxes typically feature lightweight wood to ensure they are manageable when loaded with tools. Without weight restrictions, my design criteria were different. I elected to use sapele for its subtle grain pattern and excellent joinery attributes. The contrasting maple used for the legs and handle lends another level of eye appeal.

This Japanese toolbox takeoff is a rewarding weekend project for woodworkers who enjoy creating appealing and functional pieces in their shop.

A mitered box with a few embellishments

Although a bit non-traditional in its construction, this “hardware-free” sapele and maple box is easy to build. Miters connect the sides and end rails, with the box ends glued to the rails with filler strips inserted between them. The box bottom and battens are glued in place to complete the basic core, and tapered legs overlay the corners to complete the structure.

The lid, with its graceful handle, incorporates a straight batten and a tapered batten that I call the “lock.” Both battens cantilever out to catch the top edges of the box sides. To insert the lid, first tuck the lock end under a box batten, letting the opposite end of the lid drop into place. Pull the lid toward the opposite box batten and insert the mating wedge-shaped “key” to lock the box.

Order of Work

  • Build the box.
  • Make the lid, lock, and key.
  • Shape and attach the handle.
  • Glue on the bottom.
  • Make and attach the legs.

Cut the sides and rails to size; the rest is cut to fit.

Mill the stock for the sides and end rails, leaving the parts oversized in length initially. Then saw them to final length as you cut the miters. Assemble the parts as shown, and let the glue cure thoroughly.

Cut the ends for a snug fit, sand them, and glue them to the end rails. Allow that assembly to dry before attaching the box battens as shown.

The filler strips span the gaps between the end rails to fill the space behind the legs. For safe handling, rip the strips from long stock about 2" wide. Tilt your table saw blade to 45° and set your fence to take off a 3/8"-wide strip that falls off away from the blade. Finally, fit and glue them where shown in the drawing, using tape as clamps.

Your basic box is together now, but don’t attach the bottom yet. You’ll need access through the inside of the box to fit the lid later.

Perfect miters. Since these case miters are not reinforced with splines, it’s critical to the integrity of the box that they are cut accurately. I use a table saw sled with a stop that ensures identical parts are cut to the exact same length.

Assembly roll-up. Align the sides and end rails against a straightedge, with painter’s tape spanning three of the box corners. Apply glue to the miter faces, roll up the pieces as shown, and then tape the remaining corner. 

Make the lid and add the lock and key.

Size the lid panel to the width of the box opening, and make it 3/8" longer than the distance between the box battens. Make and attach the straight lid batten, insetting it 3/16" from one end, and ensuring it’s square to the panel.

Now lay out the beveled taper required to create the lock and key, referring to the drawing below. I started with a 1/4 × 4 × 15" piece, which leaves enough temporary extra material for safe, secure handling when shaping the tapers. I used a handsaw to make the cut, guiding the tool with a straightedge that I beveled to 15° at the table saw. The sawing and planing approach shown here ensures perfectly complementary taper angles.

Bevel a taper. Create the lock and key parts from a single oversized workpiece. I guide a fine-cutting rip-tooth handsaw with a shop-made beveled straightedge clamped against my taper cutline. Lastly, crosscut the workpiece to length (removing the portion shown held in the vise above.)

Level the bevels. After double-face-taping the lock and key together with their tapered edges aligned, use a hand plane to smooth and straighten the bevels in unison.

Rip to final width. With the lock and key rejoined with tape on both faces, cut to one layout line. Then rotate the piece and rip the remainder to 11⁄4" wide, as shown.

Lid alignment. With the straight lid batten attached and the lid in place, upend the assembly. Clamp positioning blocks to the “lock” end of the box to flush the lid to the box top.

Attach the lock batten. Clamp the straight lid batten to a box batten. Smoothly wrap the key with packing tape, as well as the top edge of the box side at the key location. Align the narrow end of the key with the box side. Then glue the lock batten in place, weighting it down and loosely clamping it against the key and adjacent box batten. (With the tape removed, the key will insert further.) After the glue dries, trim the battens flush to the box sides.

An ornamental handle adds flair to a simple box.

The handle, which gets centered between the lid battens, could just be glued and screwed in place. However, in the spirit of a hardware-free box, I attached it with dowels instead. Rather than trying to locate and drill two pairs of perfectly offset mating dowel holes, I took a more foolproof approach. The trick is to shape the handle, fix a dowel to one of its “feet,” and then drill the mating dowel hole in the lid. This creates an anchor to register the handle placement while you drill through the lid and into the other foot for the remaining dowel hole. 

Scrollsaw the handle. With the pattern affixed to long stock for safe control, shape the handle, and then sand it.

Drilling for dowels. Use a 1⁄4" bit to drill a 5⁄8"-deep hole at the center of one handle foot. Then glue in a 1"-long dowel.

Handling the lid. After laying out the feet locations on the underside of the lid, drill the “anchor” hole, and temporarily attach the handle with its single installed dowel. Hold the handle parallel to the lid edges by pinching it between two blocks raised off the bench to allow spring clamp access. Drill through the lid and into the remaining foot as shown to create the remaining dowel hole. Then install the handle, applying glue to the dowels and underside of the feet. Saw the protrusions flush.

Finish with a bottom and legs.

Make the bottom a bit oversized in width and length, and glue it to the box walls. Trim the excess after the glue sets.

Begin the legs by cutting a 3/8" × 3/8" rabbet in two strips of 1 × 1 × 16" stock. Referring to the drawing on page 43, lay out the tapers for a leg at each end of each strip. After shaping the tapers with a hand plane, crosscut each leg to its 5-3/4" final length, and glue it to its box corner. When the glue is dry, use a chisel to trim any projecting sections of the filler strips flush with the leg faces.

Due to small discrepancies, the lid will usually fit better one way than the other. To indicate the proper orientation, I inlaid a maple plug at one end of the straight lid batten, and installed a matching plug in the adjacent box batten.

Sand everything through 220-grit and apply your finish of choice. I wiped on a few coats of Danish oil, scuff-sanding with 400-grit paper between applications. A little wax applied to the contact surfaces of the sliding parts ensures smooth operation.

Taper the legs. To plane a taper, start at its narrow end, taking short outward strokes near the end of the stock. Keeping an eye on your taper cutline, work backward, taking longer strokes until you reach the opposite end of the taper. Reverse your planing direction if necessary to avoid cutting against the grain.
A stop at the chop saw. Use a stop at your miter saw to cut each leg to final length. A zero-clearance insert and fence minimize tearout. For stability, register the non-tapered edges against the saw table and fence.

Attach the legs. Mask the faces of the legs to protect them against excess glue, and work with the box inverted on a flat surface to ensure the legs are flush with the box top. Spread glue liberally along the leg rabbets, and clamp them in place. Double check to make sure the legs don’t slip as you tighten your clamps.


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