The Box with a Great View

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This article is from Issue 13 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Practice your miter joint skills while building this attractive mahogany box that features a glass window and a hidden compartment. 

This project is intended for people who either collect or turn pens or who wish to create a very personal gift presentation. (I originally designed this box for my wife.) Beneath the framed glass top lies a lined velour space which stores up to six pens, and below this is a secret compartment for one last, very special pen. The project is a real router workout, but the most visible joinery involves the mitered corners.  

My interest in building boxes dates back to my Army days when I was assigned for a time to a unit that made gifts, such as cigar boxes and pistol boxes, for visiting dignitaries and others. In order to make the joints in my boxes as inconspicuous as possible, I began using miter joints which achieved my goal when cut very true. The challenge in this project is to cut consistently accurate 45° miters.

Using a vintage Craftsman contractor saw, I cut 5/8"-thick pommele mahogany to build the main parts of the box. Pommele is a French term that means “dappled,” and your supplier may refer you to a specific species called sapele when you ask for mahogany with this figure. If you don’t have access to a thickness planer, rip the stock to a hair over 5/8" thick, and plane (or belt sand) to the final dimension.

The first step in actual construction is to rip the sides and ends (pieces 1 and 2) to 21/8" width. While the saw is set up, rip a few pieces of waste stock, which you can use to set up the mitered cuts. Crosscut the box sides about half an inch longer than their final lengths (see the cut list on page 23 for all dimensions), and then sand both faces of all four parts through the grits, working down to 220. It’s a lot easier to do so now, rather than waiting until after the project is assembled.

Now it’s time to use the scrap stock you ripped earlier to practice some miter cuts. The positive stops on your table saw’s miter gauge (or your power miter saw) might not be set perfectly. If the gauge won’t lock where you need it, try adding a couple of layers of masking tape to one end of the fence. This can open or close the angle a hair, and deliver a perfect cut. If you have troubles with your equipment that simply can’t be fixed, any error should show on the inside of your box, rather than on the very visible exterior. 

When you’re comfortable with your cuts, miter the sides and ends to length. 

Assemble the carcase

One advantage of mitered joints is the ease with which they can be assembled. Begin by laying all four components of the carcase (the sides and ends) end-to-end on the workbench. The inside faces should be down. Use masking tape to attach them to each other (Fig. 1). There should be enough pressure to hold the ends together, but not so much that the tape will retract and cause the mitered ends to ride up over each other.  Flip the assembly and place a piece of scrap material under each end, to prevent glue from dripping onto the bench. Apply a rather heavy bead of glue on each miter, and then spread the glue evenly over the surface (Fig. 2). 

Close the assembly to form a frame and secure the fourth corner with masking tape. Stretch the tape carefully to avoid breaking while pulling it down as far as it will go, and then press it onto the existing tape (Fig. 3). Check each corner to make sure the miters are even, and then check to make sure the assembly is square.  If your miters were cut correctly, the box will be square. Remove excess glue with a damp cloth. If necessary, you can feed a little fine mahogany sanding waste into any minor gaps, leaving you with a nice clean, tight joint. Check again for square and flat (place the assembly on a flat surface and look for a wobble) and, when you are satisfied with the fit, set the frame aside to dry. I like to do my assembly late in the day so that it can set overnight to dry. 

When the glue has cured, it’s time to sand the top and bottom edges flat. For this I use floor sander sheets that measure 12" x 18" and are available in several grits (Fig. 4). Lay each sheet on the work surface, using spring clamps to hold it in place. The idea is just to be sure both top and bottom of the box assembly are flat. When you’re done, decide which edge will be the top of the box. 

Veneer accents

I wanted to delineate the top and bottom of the box with a delicate reveal, which shows up as an almost black, very thin line. To do this, I glued two layers of veneer to the top edge, and one to the bottom. On the top, the first layer was black dyed boxwood (piece 3), and the other was madrone burl (piece 4). I could have used mahogany veneer for both, dying one piece black, but I happened to have the other species on hand and they look quite handsome. 

Run a bead of glue around the top edge of the box and spread it evenly. Next, press the box down by hand onto the black veneer and hold it under pressure for a minute or two. Flip the box so the veneer side is up, and repeat the glue procedure on the veneer this time. Then press it back down onto the madrone burl veneer (Fig. 5). Put a piece of newsprint or wax paper between the veneer and your workbench, then clamp it all down and let it dry (Fig. 6). After it dries, trim the excess veneer with a bearing-guided flush trimming bit. For this, I used the router table. You can square up the inside corners with a file (Fig. 7). 

Glue a piece of the black veneer onto the bottom of the box and clamp it just as in the previous operation. Let the glue dry and then trim the excess. Wrap up by using a 45° chamfer bit to mill a 1/8" chamfer on the inside bottom edge (Fig. 8). This creates a well for excess glue, when you glue on the bottom later. Finish-sand the inside of the box using a sanding block, working your way down to 220-grit paper.

For the bottom (piece 5), I used an edge-glued mahogany board made up of three thinner strips. This is more stable than a single, wide board. After the glue dries, sand the part, apply glue and clamp it until the glue dries. Remove the excess material with your bearing-guided flush trimming bit chucked in the router table (Fig. 9), and the box is now ready for shaping. 

Install a 3/8" roundover bit into the router table. Shape the top of the box in about three passes, dropping the round shoulder 1/4"  below the top of the box (Fig. 10). You don’t want to make the cuts too fast or you’ll stress the bit, motor and material. But don’t let the cutter dwell either, or you’ll get a burn mark.

Install a 11/4"  furniture bit to do the remainder of the shaping operation. This is a specialty bit available online from Their catalog number for this bit is 8592, and the cost is around $25. Make three cuts from the bottom, raising the bit about 1/16" for each cut. After the third cut, turn the box over and make a cut on the top from the roundover area. Continue to do this on the next three or four passes, until you are happy with the shape (Fig. 11). I like to leave a 1/2"-wide flat area in the middle section of the box, and complete the outside contour during the sanding operation.

Sanding and finishing

A palm sander is an excellent choice for the outside of the box. Before sanding, I like to lay a small bead of glue on each corner of the box, whether the joint is open or not, and press the glue into the joint (Fig. 12). Remove most of the excess glue with a rag, and begin sanding before it dries. This assures a very tight appearance, since the sanding dust and glue mixture will fill any possible openings in the joint with material that is the same color as the wood of the box. Sand just enough with coarse paper to remove the flat area in the middle of the box, and then work down through the grits to 220. Don’t forget to sand the bottom. Break any sharp corners (Fig. 13), inside and out, and blow off the dust with an air hose. You can now place pertinent information on the bottom of the box (such as a signature and the year of manufacture, or a personal message), using an art pen with ink that won’t bleed out into the wood or react with the chosen finish. With that done, you’re ready to build the lid. 

Building the lid

The lid consists of two frames, which sandwich a piece of glass. The lower frame has smaller outside dimensions and fits into the opening in the top of the assembled box. The inside dimensions of both frames are identical.

Begin by preparing 3/8" thick stock for the lid’s upper frame. Allowing 1/8" overhang all around, this subassembly will measure 83/8" x 4 5/8". Cut the sides and ends (pieces 6 and 7) to size from solid stock, and then assemble them with a simple butt joint using glue and masking tape (Fig. 14). Place tape on both sides to equalize pressure. Light clamping pressure can also be applied, though it shouldn’t be necessary. You should check that the assembly is square and flat as you tighten any clamps.

Make the lower frame (pieces 8 and 9) using 1/4"  thick stock, remembering that the outside dimension will match the opening in the top of the assembled box (4" x 73/4"). The inside opening of each frame should be 17/8" x 53/4". Allow the glue in both subassemblies to dry, and then remove the tape. Glue madrone burl veneer (pieces 10) to one face of each frame, clamping it in the manner used earlier on the box. When the glue is dry, trim the excess veneer with your bearing-guided flush trimming bit (Fig. 15). Square off the inside corners with a file, and then glue veneer onto the opposite face of each and repeat the above process. You are veneering both sides of each frame to create equilibrium and avoid any warping down the road.

Chuck a 3/8" cove bit in your router table and shape the outside top edge of the upper frame (Fig. 16). While the bit is still chucked in the router, the bottom edge of the lower frame can be shaped. This part is too thin for a bearing, so you’ll need to temporarily add some scrap 1/4"-thick stock to give it a 1/2" thickness (Fig. 17). Holes made by small brads used here will not be visible after assembly.

Replace the cove bit with a 1/4" roundover bit and shape the inside top edge of the upper frame. Then change to a 1/4" rabbeting bit and mill a rabbet for the glass in the bottom face of the upper frame (Fig. 18). Square the rounded corners with a sharp chisel.


To dry fit the lid, first cut a block of 3/4" stock the same size as the inside opening of either frame. Lay the upper frame, top down, over this block. Next, use an awl to mark the bottom face of the lower frame for four screws. Locate these screws 3/8" in from the outside edges and 11/4" in from the ends. Lay this frame, bottom face up, over the 3/4"

thick block (which you placed earlier in the opening in the upper frame). 

With a 1/16" bit, drill pilot holes through the lower frame and halfway into the bottom face of the upper frame (making sure not to drill through the top frame!). Now lift the lower frame from the block, turn it over, and pencil an “X” on a corresponding corner of each frame. This will help you reassemble the two frames in the correct orientation later on. Enlarge the holes in the lower frame with a 1/8" bit, and then countersink them (on the bottom face) to accept four #4 x 5/8" brass screws (pieces 11). Place this frame back over the block and onto the upper frame. Pre-assemble the lid with the screws (Fig. 19), rubbing a little wax on the tip of each to lubricate it. 

Disassemble the lid and lay the screws aside. The lid parts are ready to be sanded. As you sand, replace those two critical “X” marks with small pieces of masking tape. And when sanding the outside edge of the smaller frame, bear in mind that the more stock you remove, the looser the finished lid will be in the box.


I used Deft clear wood finish (available in semi-gloss or satin) for the box, and brushed it on. Brush the first coat over the entire outside surface of the box. Then, turn it upside down on a can and let it dry. Next, sand it lightly with 320 finishing paper and wipe off the dust. From then on, brush a coat on one side of the outside and the opposite inside, letting them dry before turning the box to coat the next side. After all four sides are coated and dry, put a coat on the bottom. When this is dry, lightly sand again and recoat, following the same sequence as before. Two coats usually suffice for the inside, but the outside will require a minimum of four coats.

When the finish is thoroughly dry, the box is ready for detailing. Again, lightly sand using 400-grit paper and then rub the surface down thoroughly with #0000 steel wool. It will be very smooth with a dull luster. Next apply a light coat of good paste wax and buff immediately with Turkish toweling. I favor Howard’s Citrus Shield furniture wax, which is a natural paste that contains orange oil (a light cleaner), and carnauba wax for a hard, protective coating that repels water. The inside of the box should not require detailing. 

Lay the box upside down and apply a 3/8" felt dot to each corner.

I find it easier to spray the Deft when finishing the lid components. The product comes in an aerosol can, so I spray on a couple of coats, then sand and recoat. Continue to do this until the amount of finish corresponds to that on the finished box. When you are satisfied with the finish and it is completely dry, sand lightly and rub down with the steel wool, and then wax the lid. 

Now you can complete the assembly of the lid. Place the upper frame of the lid (with the face down) on a clean, soft surface. Lay the glass (piece 12) in its rabbet, and then attach the lower frame with the four screws. Place a 3/8" felt dot over each screw head. The felt dots hide the screws as well as providing a cushion when the lid is removed and replaced. 

That concludes the construction of the box. 

Building penholders

I designed a hidden compartment in this box to hold a special pen (Fig. 20). It was turned in figured pink ivory by our son-in-law, who made it for my wife. The pen measures 47/8" long and is 5/8"  in diameter. The compartment could be just lined with velour if, for example, it was being used to store a special piece of jewelry. For a pen, it requires a penholder. This is a piece of  1/2" plywood (piece 13) with a large groove milled in the top face. The groove is plowed with a 3/4" core box bit. Taking two or three passes, mill a practice cut in scrap to check your depth (Fig. 21), then cut a piece of plywood to 315/16" x 5".  Set your router table fence to locate the groove in the exact center and mill it, again taking two or three incremental passes to reduce stress on the bit. 

Set this holder aside for a few minutes while you use the core box set-up to mill the main penholder (piece 14) that holds six pens. This is designed for turned pens that are 51/4" long and a light 7/16" in diameter. Cut the holder to 51/2" in length, locate the grooves according to the drawing on page 23, and mill all six in several incremental passes.

You will need two pieces of mahogany for spacers (pieces 15) in the hidden compartment. One resides at each end of the lower penholder and together they provide a base upon which the larger holder lies. Sand and apply a couple of spray coats of finish on one face and one edge of each piece. When the finish is dry, glue them in place.

Now it’s time to cover the penholders with velour (piece 16). This is a textile that looks like woven velvet. Begin with the larger holder and a piece of black velour measuring a generous 6" x 12". On the bottom of the holder, draw a pencil line down the center, lengthwise. Spread a very thin coat of glue over one-half of the bottom up to the line (Fig. 22), apply the velour and press it down. If your glue coat is too heavy, it will bleed through. Spread a very thin coat of glue along the 1/2" side and turn the holder over, groove side up, on a flat surface. Put a very thin coat of glue into the first two grooves (I spread it with my forefinger). Pull the velour up over the side, pressing it down and then over the top. You will need two 3/8" round objects (I'm using a thick marking pencil and a pen, but dowel rods would be great). With one of these objects, press the velour down into the first groove. Holding the velour down in the first groove with the first dowel, press the fabric into the second grove with the second dowel (Fig. 23). Continue holding the second dowel while you spread glue into the next two grooves. 

Repeat this process until all six grooves are covered. Then pull the material down over the side, after spreading a little glue on the side. Wrap the excess velour underneath, but don’t glue it to the bottom yet. Let the glue dry for a little while.

Next, turn the penholder up on its side (the side with the excess velour). With a razor knife, cut a 1/2" slit in the fabric at the midpoint of the holder. This slit is for the pull-tab.

Now that you’re familiar with the process, cover the top and sides of the single penholder with velour. At this point, you can glue this part between the two lower spacers, and the hidden compartment is complete.

Adding a pull-tab

You’ll need to cut a 6" pull-tab (piece 17) from 3/8" polyester ribbon (black, of course). First make a loop of the      ribbon and glue the cut ends together for about 11/2 " (Fig. 24). Push the glued end through the slit in the velour and glue the ribbon onto the bottom of the holder. Press it down for a minute or two with your fingers. Spread some glue over the rest of the uncovered half of the bottom, on the ribbon too. Gently pull the velour over the area, and press it down. Let it dry, and then remove any excess velour with a sharp pair of scissors. 

Back at the table saw, the next step is to make two L-shaped pieces of mahogany (pieces 18) to support and cap the ends of the large penholder (Fig. 25). Their length will be the same dimension as the width of the covered penholder. I started with a two-foot length of 3/4" square stock, just to keep my fingers away from the blade. On the table saw, I removed a 3/8" x  5/8"  section, thereby leaving the L-shaped piece I needed. 

Cut two pieces to the length required, about 315/16". Now you can sand a 1/4" x 45° bevel on the bottom of each end of each piece (Fig. 26). Without this bevel, the pull-tab won’t work. Cover the 3/8"  part of the L with velour and trim off the excess with scissors.  Glue these pieces onto the ends of the penholder (Fig. 27) and secure them with spring clamps. Give the glue at least a couple of hours to dry.

After removing the clamps, measure the overall length. It should be 67/16". The inside length of the box is 73/4", so there’s a difference of 15/16". 

You need to cut two more pieces of mahogany for secondary spacers (pieces 19), each 5/8" x 7/8" x 4" long. Fit these into the ends of the box, and then sand and finish the two visible sides. When the finish is dry, glue these pieces into the box (Fig. 28).  And after the glue dries, you should be able to press the penholder gently into the box, to complete your project.

Vern Bonham

Vern Bonham began making boxes while assigned to the U.S. Army Exhibit Unit, continuing in civilian life with a part-time business that became full-time after he retired from Caterpillar in 1996. Bonham, also a master gardener, lives with his wife Charline in Clarkrange, Tenn.  


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