Shaker Nesting Boxes

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This article is from Issue 56 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Make one or a batch in five sizes.

Shaker lidded boxes have a traditional charm, simplicity, and utility rarely seen in other storage systems. I like the reddish hue of cherry to give the boxes a beautiful old-time look. I also like using cherry because of its bending ability when steamed. I prefer cherry for the box bottoms and lid tops, though you can substitute sycamore, hard maple, lacewood, or just about any wood for these parts for a unique look. Keep in mind that quartersawn stock is less susceptible to expansion.

I like to build boxes in #0, #1, #2, #3, and #4 sizes, though several larger box sizes exist. When stacked, they’re quite eye-catching and don’t take up much display space. The boxes also nest within each other. That said, the #0 is small in size and easily splits due to the tighter bends. The #4 size requires a juggling act to get all the fingers aligned when driving the tacks. For these reasons, I’ll get you started by showing how to make a #2 box, as depicted in Figure 1. Once you gain confidence building this size, move on to the other sizes, trying boxes #1 and #3.

For the cherry bands in various box sizes, as well as the tacks used to fasten the ends of the bands together, see the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide. Buying the bands saves time. On the other hand, if you want to make your own bands, see “Cutting Your Own Box Bands” on page 50. For this, you’ll want a bandsaw and fence that’s set up for the perfect resawing.

To make the boxes, I use a disc sander, drill, utility knife (with a new sharp blade), tack hammer, tongs, wire cutter, #10 mill file, glue, and toothpicks. You’ll also need a boiling box (available through the buying guide), a heat source, such as a pair of electric hot plates or a two-burner stove, and a shop-made anvil. (See Figure 2).

Assemble the materials

In addition, you’ll need a set of finger templates in various sizes, solid wood or MDF cores to bend the heated cherry bands around, and shapers or driers (two per box) to give your box and lid their final oval shape as the bands dry. To make the cores and shapers, download the patterns at Apply the shaper patterns to a 3⁄4" piece of plywood, and bevel-cut their edges at 10° at the bandsaw. Sand the bevels smooth at the disc sander. Drill 11⁄4" ventilation holes where shown to help dry the formed oval hoops.

Cutting Your Own Shaker Bands

When cutting your own box and lid bands, select stock with fine straight grain, such as cherry or maple. Note the sizes for the box bands, lid bands, and the thicknesses of the bottoms and tops. Use a caliper for measuring thickness. A tape measure lacks the precision needed. If you cut your own banding, remember that any variation will alter the bending capacity of the wood.

Form the box and lid hoops

1 Order the cherry bands for the #1, #2, and #3 boxes and lids to get started. (Order bands for all five box sizes to make a complete set like the one in the opening photograph.) The purchased bands are cut to the appropriate thicknesses, widths, and lengths described earlier.

2 Make a copy of the template fingers. Now, cut out and trace the template fingers for the #2 box onto the sized bands for the box sides and lid with a pencil, as shown in Photo A. Be sure to mark the nail locations on each finger.

3 Using a sharp utility knife, cut out the fingers on the box and lid bands, as shown in Photo B. I like to use a scrapwood cutting board for this. Here, cut on the line, pulling the blade away from the hand pinning the workpiece down. Score the wood several times to free the waste piece.

4 Next, bevel the outside edges of each finger at 10° to soften their look, as shown in Photo C. Don’t make the rookie mistake of beveling at 45°. Cutting with the grain, move from the band body to the finger tips to prevent the fingers from splitting. For safety, I wear a protective leather thumb guard.

5 Drill tack holes through the band fingers where marked with a 1⁄16" drill bit, as shown in Photo D. Use a backerboard to prevent splintering.

6 Taper-sand the outside face of the square ends of the box and lid bands with a disc sander to a fine point, as shown in Photo E. I hold a pencil eraser to the end being sanded to keep my fingers out of harm’s way. Sand evenly across the face to about 3⁄4" in from the end. This allows the square ends to blend smoothly where they are overlapped by the finger ends. (See Figure 1.) It also makes for a neater fit when the tops and bottoms are inserted. You don’t want light shining through the seams.

7 Build the simple anvil shown in Figure 2 from 2-by stock and an 18"-long length of 11⁄2"-diameter galvanized pipe. The pipe rests in the cradle and lifts out when slipping on an oval hoop.

8 Place a metal boiling box on a heat source (such as an electric hot plate or camping stove), and fill it two-thirds full of water. If heating water this way seems unsafe inside, do it outside.) Heat the water to boiling. Soften the bands by dropping them in the boiling water, as shown in Photo F. Keep them in there for a minimum of 20 minutes. Leave the bands you’re not working on in the boiling water so they remain pliable.

9 Remove the box body band with tongs, wrap it around the appropriate core for sizing, and make a pencil mark on the edge where the sides overlap each other, as shown in Photo G. The band begins to cool and dry right away and does not require special gloves for handling. Remove the core and set it aside. Now bend your box back into shape, aligning the pencil marks.

10 Fit the anvil’s pipe through the center of the box band, and insert a tack in a predrilled nail hole. While slowly pulling the band toward you across the anvil’s pipe, hammer lightly on the tack, as shown in Photo H. You want the curved pipe to bend the point of the tack back toward the wood and lock the ends together. This is called “clinch-nailing.” Similarly, drive a tack in each of the mating nail holes in the box band.

11 Press a beveled shaper into both ends of the box openings, and then tightly hold the box band in its final shape, as shown in Photo I. Position the box band on the shaper with the fingers slightly to the right of center. (Regardless of box size, you’ll want to position all the boxes in your set the same way.) If needed, the first shaper can be rotated to bring the main tack line into the center of the oval. Then, insert the second shaper.

12 Remove the lid band from the heated water, and wrap it around the box band, as shown in Photo J. Mark where the ends overlap with a pencil. Now, remove the band, and rebend it around the anvil pipe, aligning the pencil marks. Clinch-nail the finger to the tapered square end. Place the lid band back on the box band, and set the assembly aside to dry overnight. Be sure that all fingers point in the same direction and that the nails align, as shown in the Inset.

Complete the box

1 Once the box and lid hoops are dry, remove the shapers. Place the box and lid hoops

on 1⁄4"-thick pieces of cherry,

and lightly trace around their insides, as shown in Photo K.

Make matching witness marks on the box bottom and box hoop for alignment when the bottom is inserted. Do the same for the top and lid hoop.

2 Trim off the excess wood at the bandsaw, staying back 1⁄4" outside of the cutline. Next, angle the disc sander table at 4°, and bevel-sand the box bottom and lid top to the line, as shown in Photo L. Test-fit these pieces to their respective hoops. You want the box bottom and lid top to wedge tightly into place and be flush with the hoop edges. Use your sander sparingly to sneak up on the final fitting.

Note: Drilling the holes along the bottom and top edges of the lidded box can be done in several ways. I made a drilling jig that fits my drill. Check out the notes in the drawing for construction help.

3 Build a custom drilling jig for your portable drill similar to the one in Figure 3. Install a 5⁄64" bit in your drill’s chuck, and attach your drill to the jig using its clamp. You want the bit parallel with the surface of the box bottom or lid top and 1⁄8" in from the edge. Adjust the thickness of the jig’s upper base to achieve the correct hole height. Place a piece of masking tape 1⁄2" under the bit and on the upper base to serve as a stop.

4 Now, drill four to five 5⁄64" holes 1⁄2" deep about every 11⁄2" to 2" around the perimeter of the box band by pushing the box onto the bit, as shown in Photo M.

5 Lightly dip one-half of a round toothpick in glue, and insert it into one of the holes. With the box resting on its side on your benchtop, tap the toothpick gently to seat it snugly in the hole. Do this around the box bottom, where shown in Figure 1, to securely anchor the hoops. Repeat for the lid. Carefully snip the excess toothpick material with a wire cutter, as shown in Photo N. File the protruding stubs flush to the box and lid. (A file is necessary for this step because it is difficult to sand the end grain of the toothpick flat with the container’s surface.)

6 Apply a finish. (I wiped on natural Watco Danish Oil on the outside only to let the cherry age and darken with time.) Let the boxes dry overnight, and then put them to good use.  

About Our Designer/Builder

A woodworker for 40 years, Al Huls currently manages the Woodcraft store in Indianapolis, Indiana. Over the last several years, he has taught classes on routers, tablesaws, cabinetmaking, and building Shaker boxes.


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