Tiny Treasure Box

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This article is from Issue 83 of Woodcraft Magazine.

treasure box

Shaped sides and box joints make this small-scale container a unique gift.

I developed this small treasure for a class several years ago. I wanted to show students that you could take a relatively simple rectangular box and make it more sophisticated by shaping the sides after assembly. Starting with a rectangle keeps the joinery straightforward. Then the key to success is to make the shaping cuts in the proper order so you don’t cut away your reference surfaces before you’re finished with them. The corners are joined with box joints. I cut these joints at the table saw with the assistance of a shop-made jig (see page 57). Shaping the box after the pieces are glued also adds another layer of intrigue by adding curves and tapers to what is usually a uniform and rectilinear joint. And making the small parts from longer stock is a great opportunity to make multiples to give as gifts.

Order of Work

  • Cut the corner joints
  • Groove the ends and sides
  • to fit the bottom
  • Cut out the feet in the ends
  • Glue up the box
  • Shape the box
  • Make the lid

Choose woods with subtle grain

You can make the this box from nearly any hardwood. I made the box here from cherry with a curly maple lid. But its diminutive size makes it an ideal project to use up some treasured scraps, or maybe try a bit of exotic lumber without breaking the bank. I would suggest, however, finding wood with fine grain and tight figure. The bold grain patterns found in woods such as oak may prove overwhelming in such a small form.

Cut box joints on the table saw

The final pieces are too short to mill on their own, so begin with stock that’s long enough to safely rip, plane, and joint. (For the sake of efficiency, it’s wise to make several boxes at a time anyway.) After milling the stock to finished thickness and width, crosscut the parts to final length.

The box joint jig I used (see p. 57) has a removable indexing key, which is necessary to make this box. Arrange the box pieces and mark their top edges with an “X” for proper orientation as you load the jig. Adjust your dado set for a 1/4"-wide cut. Set the dado’s height to slightly less than the thickness of the box sides. Remove the indexing key, and then clamp a stopblock to the jig to make your first cuts. Return the indexing key for the remaining cuts in the end pieces.

Reset the dado stack’s height to slightly less than the thickness of the end pieces. Make the mating cuts in both ends of both side pieces, keeping the marked edges to your right.

treasure box

Start with the stopblock. Remove the indexing key from your box joint jig, and clamp a stopblock to the jig fence to make a cut 5⁄8" in from the top edge of the box ends. Keep the marked edges facing to your right. Make the first cuts in both ends of each end piece before removing the stopblock. 

Complete the box ends. Reinsert the indexing key, and make the remaining three cuts (four cuts, total) at each end of both end pieces.

Finish the joinery. Orient each side piece with its top edge against the indexing key. Raise the cutter to match the thickness of the end, and then cut the sides.

Groove, pre-shape, and assemble

With the joinery cut, it’s time to rout grooves for the bottom. Note that the grooves run full on the ends, but are stopped on the sides. To groove the ends, position your router fence so the 1/8"-dia. straight bit is centered in the bottom notch in the end pieces, and groove both end pieces. Making two successive 3/32"-deep passes prevents straining the bit. Then dry-fit a corner and mark the location of the grooves on the sides. Rout the stopped groove as shown.

Setting up to pre-shape the feet isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Chuck a 3/4" straight bit in your router table to make a 1/4"-deep cut. With the power off, rotate the bit until one of its flutes is about to disappear behind the fence.

Slide the marked end piece along the infeed side of the fence until it contacts the disappearing flute. Make a mark on the fence that corresponds to the layout line for the inside of the leading foot. Repeat the process on the outfeed side of the bit, this time using the layout line for the trailing foot. Now make the cut as shown.

Lay out the curves along the top edges of the ends. Bandsaw along your layout lines, then sand away the saw marks. Finally, cut the bottom to size and rabbet its edges to fit in the grooves you cut earlier. Spread glue on the mating surfaces of the box joints, assemble the box, and clamp the joints tight.

Groove the sides. After grooving the ends, relocate the fence and mark on it the bit’s outside diameter. On the outside faces, mark the bottom fingers 1⁄2" in from the ends. Then lower the piece onto the bit, aligning the mark on the face with the left-hand line on the fence. Feed the piece right-to-left, stopping when the right-hand marks align. As with the ends, make the cuts in two successive passes.  
Shape the feet. Set your bit to make a 1⁄4" cut, and position the fence so 1⁄4" of the bit protrudes from the fence opening. Mark on one end piece the foot’s inside edges. Use these marks to lay out the start and stop locations on the fence. Align the end’s left edge with the left mark on the fence, and pivot the piece from the right into the spinning bit. Then, move the piece left to right, through the bit, stopping as the right edge of the piece aligns with the right most mark on the fence. Now, flip the piece over and cut again. Repeat the process with the other end. Then raise the bit to make a 1⁄2" cut for the third and final pass.
treasure box

Glue up the box. Clamp the box together using cauls to distribute the pressure. Wrap the cauls with packing tape to keep them from sticking to the glue. 

Shape the box and make the lid

Lay out the end curves and bandsaw them to rough shape, finishing up on a stationary belt sander. Bevel the sides on the table saw as shown, and sand away the saw marks.

Cut the lid to size, and drill a 1/8" hole through the center for mounting the handle. It’s easier to do this now while the piece is still rectangular than it would be after it’s shaped. Rabbet the long edges of the lid so it sits securely atop the box, nestled in between the ends with the rabbets resting on the sides. Set the lid in place, and trace the curves from the box ends onto the ends of the lid. Saw away most of the waste, then hand plane and sand to match the end curves. Drill a pilot hole in the handle so you can join it to the lid with a screw. Then bandsaw the handle to rough shape and finish up on the sander. To complete your box, sand everything to 400 grit, and apply several coats of wiping varnish.

treasure box

Trace the end curve. Scrape away any excess glue so the box lies flat on its sides. Lay out the end curves on the sides using the dimensions in the Side and End Details (P. 27). Bend a flexible length of scrap at each mark and have a helper trace along the curve.

treasure box

Carefully cut the sides. With the blade angled to 86° and raised to the height of the sides, saw the angle on each side. When cutting the second side, make sure to hold the piece tightly against the fence and firmly against the table.

treasure box

Shape the lid. Feed the lid on edge as you cut away most of the waste with the blade angled at 75°. Saw close to the line you traced from the box sides, and then finish shaping with a hand plane. 


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