Making Functional Jewelry Box Interiors

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This article is from Issue 1 of Woodcraft Magazine.

THERE ARE COUNTLESS BOOKS AVAILABLE SHOWING ALL STEPS necessary to create wonderful jewelry boxes, but few give much attention to the interior appointments. I’ve always found that odd, since a beautiful object that doesn’t work well is basically just a piece of sculpture. Don’t get me wrong, I love all art forms and three-dimensional forms are among my favorites. It’s why I studied industrial design in college.

A jewelry box without a functional interior is just a box to throw jewelry in. In this article I will show you how to make a box into a jewelry box. Be prepared: I’ll go into a lot of detail here.

Let’s start by saying there is no universal design, because all jewelry collections are different. When I do a custom box I always spend some time finding out what the clients have in their collections. Some have no big earrings, some have large bracelets, and some have lots of necklaces. I also advise them that one box, even a custom-built one, probably shouldn’t be relied on to hold everything – do they really want to sort through stuff they haven’t worn in 10 years? On the other hand, you need some extra room for future acquisitions.

Once size has been determined, configuration is the next choice. Something with drawers, lift-out trays, both or none? After all these questions have been answered, it’s time to design and build the dividers.

I like to use a softer wood for this; mahogany and poplar are two of my favorites. (I’ll explain why when we get into the actual construction process.) I don’t think this part of the box has to match other woods used in the box itself, but then I usually mix a lot of woods anyway.

You’ll need thin stock for this; I use 1/8" as it takes up the least space. I’ll generally make a quantity of stock about 21/2" to 3" wide and 2' to 3' long, then cut these strips to various sizes as needed. 

This can be tricky stuff to fabricate unless you have a thickness sander, because it has to be quite accurately sized. Most planers aren’t designed to go this thin without the use of a backer board. 

To make a backer board, select a flat, uniformly thick piece of stock like 1/2" good-quality plywood. Glue a “kickback stopper” piece of wood, slightly thinner than the thinnest stock you will be using, across one end of the board.

To make the strips, first surface the four sides of your stock using a jointer or sander, or both. Mark one end for grain orientation now, as it’ll become difficult to determine later when your material grows very thin.

Bandsaw off two strips at least 3/16" thick from opposite sides of that surfaced stock, resurface the cut sides, and repeat until you have as many strips as you need. Using a few tiny dots of thick superglue and a spritz of accelerator, fasten them to the backer board, remembering to use the grain orientation marks you made earlier. Position them so one end touches the kickback stopper. The strips can now safely be run through your planer to a thickness just slightly over 1/8".

Pop them off with a chisel and lightly sand the planed surface. As with everything, a little practice will make this whole process easier. If you don’t have a thickness sander or planer, or just don’t want to go through the hassle of making your own material, you can buy it from companies that specialize in it. Just search Google for “thinwoods” and you will find many sources.

Building the dividers 

Once you’ve milled the stock needed to construct your dividers, choose a construction method. The one used by most makers is the one I like the least, and never use. I call it the “two-notch interlock”: Make a vertical cut the thickness of the stock halfway through two pieces of wood, reverse them and lock them together; no glue necessary (Fig. 1).

The problem with this method is that it only allows repetitive, although variable, compartment sizing. Each row of compartments, no matter how many you have, is identical. I also think it looks cheap, as in, “I took the easy way out.” Your average clients might never notice the difference – unless they see examples side by side.

I much prefer the “dado it in” method using softer woods, as they can compress a bit, giving a nice tight fit (Fig. 2). This requires a sliding table or sled for your table saw. If you’re not using one already, I hope you’re not doing anything much more precise than rough timber framing. You won’t be satisfied with the results you get on repetitive cuts of this type without a sled. You’ll also need a blade that cuts a 1/8" kerf. Don’t worry; you probably already have one, as it was the standard before the thin-kerf craze.

The method described below allows for infinite possibilities when sizing compartments, and once you’re set up it takes little more time than the notching procedure.

I always work from the underside of the compartment I’m dividing, whether it’s a drawer, a tray or the box itself, assuming it has the same interior dimensions as the part it will be inserted into (Fig. 3). It’s easier to dimension your stock within this shallow area rather than the full depth of the part where it will ultimately end up. Choose a height for your dividers and cut more stock than you think you’ll need – the first few times you build these you’ll be surprised how much it takes. I usually don’t go higher than about 1", which is deep enough to hold ring/earring inserts. Also remember that small, deep compartments can be difficult to get stuff out of.

The next step is getting to know your table saw’s blade height adjustment well. Using some scrap, experiment until you find a height that cuts a kerf approximately halfway through the 1/8" stock. Remember where the wheel position is so that a full turn up will cut the material, and a half turn down will return you to the halfway height. You’ll be using these two settings a lot, so a little practice changing between them can save a lot of time. If you need to position some divisions opposite each other, make the cuts less than halfway, but be careful as these pieces will be very delicate until glued together.

The first two pieces you cut are the anchor strips, the ones that will hold the divider in position within the compartment. These should run either the full width or length of that piece. Next, lower the blade to the half-thickness height and make a kerf cut at each end of the anchor strips for what I call the spreaders, the two strips that will hold the anchors against the walls of the compartment (Fig. 4).           

Where you make these cuts is up to you, as they’ll make the first divisions in the divider. The length of the spreaders should be exact, as you want them to position the two anchor strips so the whole finished piece will have a comfortable press-fit into its proper location inside the box. You now have the framework for the divider and the rest of its design is totally up to you. I use superglue to hold it all together. When everything is dry, sand until all parts are flush.

Compartment liners

Of course, there are times where you just want a plain, undivided, but nicely lined bottom to a box, or a box and its compartments, and you will usually want a bottom panel to place your dividers over. You’ll need three things for this; the lining material, some spray adhesive, and what’s called single-ply chipboard.

The lining material choices are many, with leather and fabric being the two most common. Whatever you choose, it should be thin and have a bit of stretch to it. 

I avoid velvet, because it has a nap that causes it to change color when folded around things such as the chipboard and ring holders. It also has very little, if any, stretch. Instead, I almost always use a fabric called robe velour, which comes in many colors and has just the right amount of stretch to allow a tight fit over both the chipboard and ring holders. Robe velour can be hard to find in smaller cities during the spring and summer, so I always buy a lot in the fall. 

You should already have the spray adhesive; a can belongs in every shop. The single-ply chipboard is a nice, stiff, cheap paper product available at all art supply stores. I use a paper cutter to cut it, but a sharp mat knife will do.

First, cut the chipboard to a size just a bit smaller than the compartment it will go into to allow the material to fold over the edges of the chipboard (Fig. 5). For most robe velour this will be about 1/8" on both the length and width. Once again, a little experimentation might be necessary, as all lining material will vary in thickness. Cut it too large and the panel will buckle up; cut it too small and you will have gaps around the edges.

Place your cut chipboard on your lining material and cut the material about 3/4" larger on all sides. Place the material, good side down, on some newspaper and center the chipboard on it. Spray the adhesive around all sides, making sure you coat both the material and the chipboard. Let the glue set up a bit, usually a minute or two (Fig. 6). 

Starting in the middle of the longest side fold the material over onto the chipboard and, stretching it a bit, work your way to one corner, stopping about 1" from the end.

Holding the chipboard down, stretch the material toward the opposite side.  Fold the material over as described above. Move to one end and fold the material over, again stopping about 1" from the corner. Move to the last side and once again, stretch and fold the material over.

You now have four corner flaps sticking up. Pull them up and pinch them together. Turn the piece over; if you have any puckers or wrinkles you probably have time to stretch them out, as spray glue takes some time to really cure. 

Trim off those corner flaps with some sharp scissors (Fig. 7), and you’re done.                

Ring/earring holders

Holders for rings and earrings can be somewhat tricky to fabricate, but they’re well worth the effort both in terms of their “wow” factor and their functionality. You’ll need a fairly dense foam rubber with no permanent memory. 

What is memory? Real foam rubber has zero-percent memory, whereas Styrofoam has 100-percent memory. In other words, poke your finger into foam rubber and it returns to its original shape almost instantly; poke a piece of Styrofoam and you’ll have a permanent impression forever. The world of synthetic foam rubber is large, but you must use one with no memory, or at the least very little. It needs to be fairly dense; the real soft stuff doesn’t work well with the method described here. 

Yes, foam comes in all degrees of memory. The one I use, I would call medium – if you pull a fat ring out you will see its impression for a few hours; but if you go back the next day you will have no idea where it was. Various types of this material are used in all the new high-tech mattresses.

Most large cities have companies that specialize in the various foam products available, but may require a minimum purchase beyond the needs of the causal builder. Ask if they have and sell scraps. I bought a “lifetime” supply 15 years ago (around 25 cu. ft.) when I ran a production box company. Large craft-supply stores probably have something suitable located just past the artificial flower/fern isle. Boy could I tell you some stories of a scarred-up biker/woodworker cruising craft and fabric stores. Anyway, back to the instructions.

Use a thickness of about 3/4" cut just a bit smaller than the size of the compartment it will go into, and cut a series of grooves that will become the ring holders. Make each groove by slicing a pair of parallel cuts 1/8" apart and about 5/8" deep with a razor or sharp knife. Carefully tear out the center between the two slices to create a 1/8" groove. When cutting multiple grooves, make them about 1/4" apart in the foam (Fig. 8).

To cover it with your lining material you’ll need spray adhesive and couple of sticks or wood strips slightly thinner than the grooves you’ve cut into the foam. Cut a piece of your lining material about 1/2" wider than your foam – the width being measured from the sides with the grooves running perpendicular to them. The length of your material will depend on how many grooves you cut, as it will be pushed down into each one. Give it a dry run without glue to make sure it’s long enough. Don’t worry if it’s too long, though, as it will all get trimmed later.

You have to work pretty fast during the gluing process. Spray the foam with a fairly heavy coat of glue and, holding the material down to your work surface on one end, push the material down into the first groove with a stick (Fig. 9). Hold that stick in place and use the second stick to push the material into the next groove, then just move your way down the foam until all the grooves are full (Figs. 10 & 11). Let the glue dry a bit, then flip the foam insert fabric-side down. Spray the sides of the foam and fold the fabric to the glued surface (Fig. 12).

Let the whole thing dry, and with a sharp pair of scissors trim the excess material. Don’t trim it too close to the foam; I like to have about 1/16" extra. Put a couple of drops of glue into the compartment where the insert will go and push it down with one of the thin sticks. I use a chisel to tuck any ragged edges down into the compartment. 

These fabric-covered foam holders also work well for holding small post earrings, an important function as small post earrings are often lost at the bottom of most jewelry box compartments. Simply push the clutch – the fastener that goes on after inserting the post in the ear – up to the earring and this box insert will hold it perfectly.

As I said at the beginning of this article, attention to the interior appointments of a box can transform a great piece of woodworking into a truly functional jewelry box. I wrote once that “boxes exclude space as well as include it.”  I hope this article helps you make the “included” part as functional as possible.

William McDowell

After more than 30 years of making high-quality boxes, William McDowell has “deconstructed” many antique jewelry box interiors, wondering, “How the heck did they do that?” This article is the result. See more of his unique work at www.teknodeco.com.

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