Simple joinery, exotic materials and some rare earth magnets come together in a custom-designed paint box that doubles as a portable studio. It provides safe storage and space for finished pieces and supplies — all an aspiring Van Gogh needs to create masterpieces anywhere.
My brother is an artist, so I built him a nice paint box for his birthday a few years ago. He showed it to co-workers at Disney Animation and before I knew it, I was in the paint box business. The version shown here is designed to hold three 11" x 14" canvas boards, as well as a pallet of the same size, without any wet surfaces touching each other. The top of the lid is hinged to reveal slots for the canvases, and the pallet rests on four posts in the corners of the box. I've included an option for a tripod mount on the bottom of the box (see sidebar at the end of the article). Another unique feature is the use of rare earth magnets in several locations. These are very powerful, so it’s important to read the warnings on the packaging.
If you know a fine artist and you’re ready to tackle a little metal and leather work in the woodshop, this beautiful box is an exciting project to build. It’s a good idea to have all of your hardware on hand at the beginning. The most obvious piece of hardware, the handle, is handcrafted leather. I’ve explained later how it’s made, but you may wish to purchase one instead. The handle is held in place by two brass plates, and these will have to be manufactured. See the sidebar on page 24 for instructions.
I used two species of wood in this project: a large board of curly maple, and a small piece of padauk. The maple wasn’t cheap, but it was a prize. When I see stock as figured as this, I buy it even if I don’t need it immediately.
For stability, you’ll need to glue up panels to make the sides of the box. These glue joints will be seen, but aesthetically it’s more pleasing to see several glue joints in a panel rather than one up the middle, unless it’s possible to bookmatch the joint. Rip your stock to 2½" wide and edge-glue two panels (Figs. 1 & 2). Note that one panel will be slightly wider than the other after trimming, as one of them will be hinged later on. Ordinarily, I would plane these panels to 1/8" over their final thickness when the glue is dry, but because figured wood tends to tear out when planed, I decided to run them through a wide belt sander (Fig. 3). A local cabinet shop will be happy to do this for a small fee.
Trim stock for the top, bottom and edges of the box to 1/8" oversize in the width, and cut them to their finished lengths (Fig. 4). Now you’re ready to do some joinery.
Finger joints are used to join the edges of the box to the top and bottom, which creates a frame for the side panels. This is an attractive, strong joint which is relatively easy to build. The basic setup I use for 1/8" finger joints (also known as box joints) is a simple jig clamped to my table saw (Fig. 5). The base of the jig is a piece of ½" Melamine-coated stock with a strip of 1/8" thick by ¾" tall hardwood glued into a saw kerf that’s centered in the top surface of the base. This strip acts as a rail along which a push block (with a matching kerf in its bottom face) runs. The rail also guides the workpiece. The saw blade protrudes through a slot that is 1/8" to the left of the rail, and the blade height is the same dimension as the thickness of your workpiece, plus 1/16". There should be enough play in the blade slot on either side of the blade to allow for a small adjustment to be made by shifting the jig a bit to the left or to the right, and re-clamping it.
The blade I use is a 7½" carbide-tipped blade that I had custom ground to give me a flat-bottomed cut. Many standard blades will deliver an acceptable cut, too. Some ATB (alternate top bevel) blades cut a kerf with tiny channels along the sides, depending on the angle of their bevel. But a flat-tooth blade, or an ATB blade with a raker tooth, or even most triple-chip blades will work just fine. However, you don’t want to use a thin-kerf blade. Run some test pieces when the jig is set up and check the fit. Make sure the test stock is the same dimensions as the actual workpieces, and use a less expensive species.
To use the jig, hold one wide face of a test piece (the same dimensions as the box top and bottom) against the push block, butted up tightly against the rail, and make the first cut. When you’re past the blade, remove the stock (not the push block) instead of pulling it back through the blade, or you’ll have tearout. Slide the push block back without lifting it, and then use the notch you’ve just cut to locate the part for the second. Proceed this way until you’ve gone from one side of the part to the other.
When cutting a test piece for the matching edges of the box, you have to start with a notch at the edge of the part, instead of a finger. This is done by holding an 1/8" thick scrap wood spacer against the side of the part (Fig. 6), for the first cut only. This piece of wood must be held firmly because as soon as the blade removes the material from your part, the part will tend to drift toward the rail. I often clamp the workpiece to the push block, just for this initial pass. Subsequent cuts can be made as before. When you’re finished cutting both test parts, check the fit (Fig. 7). They should slide together easily, but be nice and snug. You may have to move the jig closer or further from the blade to make the fingers wider or narrower. Make more test cuts until you have a good fit. Before cutting the actual parts, I make another plate for the front of the push-block. This ensures there will be no clearance between the blade and the block, which keeps tearout to a minimum.
Sizing the box
You’ll be making up two frames — one for the main box and one for the lid. The one for the lid must be 1/8" wider than the other, because you’ll be ripping it and installing a hinge in it, and a standard table saw blade is 1/8" wide. Both frames are exactly the same length. The inside of the box must be 1/16" larger than the store-bought canvas boards that your artist uses. You can check the inside dimensions by measuring from the bottom of the finger joint cut at one end of each part to the bottom of the cut at the other end. I like to set my blade height and make my joints so the fingers protrude slightly on the outside, to be cleaned up in final sanding. Mill all the frame parts and dry fit them, but don’t glue them up yet.
Before assembling the box, there are a few things that must be done. Using a dado head and your table saw’s miter gauge, plow ¼" dadoes for the inside dividers at the locations shown in the drawing on page 23. Then drill recessed holes for the nuts that will go on the machine screws that hold the handle (Fig. 8) in place. These locations and their dimensions are given in the drawing, too.
Glue up the frame (edges, top and bottom) as shown in Fig. 9, but don’t put much pressure on the clamps or the frame will bow in toward the center. Check that the frame is absolutely square by measuring diagonally across the corners; the diagonal measurements must be the same length. When the glue has dried, remove the excess fingers on the outside corners by sanding them flush. Use a belt sander and work from the middle to the corner, so that the sander is supported and doesn’t dip.
There’s one bit of metalworking to complete up front. You’ll need to fabricate a metal strip, which will be inserted under the lid. A couple of magnetic buttons will stick to it, to hold the canvas in place during painting. Cut a piece of 1/8" x 1/2" cold-rolled steel to a 121/2" length and round the ends. This steel can be purchased at almost any hardware store. Next, plow a stopped groove for the steel strip with a 1/2" router bit. The piece of steel is set flush with the inside face of the panel and it will lie behind a canvas. To create the groove, set up the router table with two stops to locate the length of the groove (Fig. 10). Test your setup on scrap. To test the depth of the groove, use a small piece of the actual steel strip (Fig. 11).
Check again for square, and then you’re ready to glue the side panels onto their frames. Note that my panels are a hair shorter than their frames, and you can see that the ends of the individual boards don’t line up. (Having done this a few times, I’ve discovered ways to save a little lumber here and there.) For your first time through the process, use the outside dimensions of the frame to determine the length and width of each panel, and trim it accordingly. I put a piece of ¾" plywood under each panel during glue-up, in an effort to keep them flat and eliminate any twisting that might have occurred (Fig. 12).
Scoop up the glue from the inside corners with a plastic straw (Fig. 13), and then wipe away any remaining residue with a damp cloth. In the photo, the darker colored wood with the pencil marks is just a clamping block. You can also see the recessed holes for the nuts on the machine screws that will hold the handle in place.
When each assembly is dry, drill holes in the edge of the larger one for the pallet-cup holder (Fig. 14). See the drawing on page 23 for dimensions and locations. I like to do this now because sometimes a drill bit will tear out a little at the start of a hole, and this will be cleaned up when the box is trimmed to final width.
The box has padauk accents which are just strips of stock glued into rabbets. Cut the rabbets around the outsides of the assemblies on a router table with a straight bit, following the dimensions in the drawing on page 23. The fence should be set to give a depth of cut that is 1/8" away from the inside corner of each assembly. The last thing you want here is to cut too deeply and accidentally separate a panel from its frame!
When the rabbets are cut, make up the strips of padauk about 1/16" oversize in width and depth, miter the corners to fit, and glue them in as shown in Fig. 15. When the glue is dry, trim the oversized strips flush with the face and sides of the box by setting up a high fence on the router table and using a flush-cutting bit. Set and test the fence location (Fig. 16). I use a “climb cut” here to prevent the padauk from tearing out. This is when the material is fed to a cutter in the opposite direction of normal. The cutter wants to grab the material being cut, and climb up it. There are times when a climb cut comes in handy, but it also can be very dangerous when using larger cutters because the cutter wants to pull the material away from the operator. Sometimes, a climb cut can cause worse tearout than a conventional cut, as when milling certain kinds of endgrain.
When the inlaid strips of padauk are trimmed down flush, chuck a roundover bit in the router table and break the outside edges. This, too, is done with a climb cut. Now trim both parts of the box to their finished widths on the table saw (Fig. 17). This will clean up the holes for the pallet-cup holder and the ends of the divider dadoes.
We are now ready to separate the upper and lower halves of the lid. I put a strip of masking tape over where the saw cuts will be (on both sides of the part) to prevent any tearing out from the table saw blade (Fig. 18). If you’re using a smaller table saw, be aware that the assembly may dip unexpectedly when the leading edge reaches the end of your saw table. To prevent this, run it through with the panel facing down. I also use a thin-kerf blade so that, when the parts are separated, I can trim each to finished size with smaller cuts (Fig. 19) if necessary. When all three parts of the box are aligned together, they should fit perfectly.
Installing the hinges
A single piano hinge, cut in half, is all that’s needed to hinge the two halves of the box, and also the two halves of the split lid. When I cut hinges, I line my cut up with a segment. That dictates the length of the hinge groove, which is actually an open mortise.
Set up the router with a fence and a straight cutter set for a very shallow cut (half the thickness of the closed hinge). By first running a couple of test pieces through, you can establish the depth of your cut. When both test parts are clamped together, you should be able to push the closed hinge into the slot with very little effort, and have no play on either side of it (Fig. 20). If the slot is a little too loose, you can put a piece of tape on the underside of the hinge. This is easier to fix than a slot that is too tight.
Begin cutting the long mortises by establishing their ends. Set the fence and make one pass on each end, using a miter gauge if you have one (Fig. 21). After making the two end cuts in each mortise, clean out the material between the two notches (Fig. 22). Be careful that you don’t overshoot the notch. If a hinge is a little too long for its mortise, you can grind a bit off the end of it with a bench grinder.
Mark the positions of the holes for the screws and scribe a mark with a marking gauge (Fig. 23). This will help guide the drill bit when drilling pilot holes for the screws, and ensure that the hinge is installed uniformly. The pilot holes should be about two-thirds the diameter of the screws for brass, and half the diameter for steel. Brass screws are very soft, so set the clutch in your drill or screwdriver to a low setting to avoid stripping them. Many continuous (piano) hinges use #1 Phillips-head screws, and they don’t work well with a standard #2 screwdriver bit. When the hinges are installed, sand the box flush on the sides with an orbital air sander or belt sander.
Lid support and dividers
Now that the hinges are attached, they will stay on until the box is completed. Normally I would take the hinges off to apply the finish, but because the fit of these hinges is so critical, I like to leave them on once the fit is perfect.
You’re now ready to counterbore for the lid support washers. These washers are flush with the outside of the box when installed. Clamp a piece of plywood across the drill-press table with a few inches protruding over the edge. Then hang the paint box on the end of this plywood and use it as you would the drill-press table to drill the countersinks (Fig. 24). Use a Forstner bit for a flat-bottomed hole; the dimensions and locations are shown in the drawing on page 23.
The inside dividers are H-shaped. After machining them to size, plow the dado for the small divider in each of the longer ones. On the ends of the longer dividers, I sand a ramp at the bottom (Fig. 25). This will be hidden inside the dado, but serves to direct the glue under the part. If it were not there, the edge of the part would simply push the glue ahead of it like a snowplow when installed. The dividers are then pushed into the dadoes with one steady movement (Fig. 26). It’s important that you do a dry-fit before you proceed with the gluing, because if they go halfway down and stop, you’ve got a problem! The small divider is then clamped in place, as shown in Fig. 27.
There are two rails on each side of the inside of the lid that form holders for the canvas boards. The first pair of rails are just ¼" x ¼" padauk stock, and they’re glued and clamped in place using small temporary spacers to create a 5/16" gap (Fig. 28).
When the clamps from gluing the first rails are removed, the second pair of rails are glued in flush with the outer edge of the lid (Fig. 29). These rails have protrusions at their ends that serve two functions (Fig. 30). They maintain a gap and prevent contact between the wet pallet and the painting when the box is closed. And they help keep the lid lined up with the lower half of the box. I also put a small screw into the end of these rails, for added reinforcement. If the box is being carried and should be accidentally banged against something like a doorframe, then these small protrusions at the ends of the rails would dissipate the impact of such a blow. These outer rails are machined by first cutting the stock to finished length, but leaving it about 2" wide. Set up the router with a 5/8" straight cutter and a piece of scrap wood as a fence into which you’ve cut an opening with the same cutter. You want the fence to be as close to the cutter as possible (Fig. 31). Clamp a stop in place so that when the part is against it, the cutter will be 3/8" inside the end of the part, producing just the right shape. Set the fence for a ¼" depth of cut. Start in slow, and take light cuts until you’ve gone full-depth, to just past the halfway mark (Fig. 32).
Then turn the part around and repeat the process for the other side. Rip the parts from the wider board on the table saw (Fig. 33), and drill and countersink the holes in the ends.
After the rails are glued in place, drill pilot holes for the screws. I use a flexible-shaft drill here because it allows me to work in the confined space a little better (Fig. 34). Now you can glue in four corner posts to support the pallet when it is not in use. Use corner clamp blocks under the clamps on the outside of the box. They don’t have to be tightened down very hard (Fig. 35).
Making the accessories
The pallet-cup holder is made up of six parts. I decided to make the main ledge out of a piece of hard curly maple because it is so thin, and I wanted extra strength. Machine it down to 5/32" and then glue the ¼" x 9/16" piece of padauk to one edge (this part is rounded on the inside). Drill holes for the two dowels by clamping a piece of hardwood to the top, and drill from the bottom to the top (Fig. 36). This will prevent the holes from tearing out.
Cut the top of the cup-holder to size and round the corners with a sanding drum on the drill press. Split the end of each dowel by cutting it on the scroll saw or bandsaw, then glue them in along with the wedges (Fig. 37). It’s important to drive the wedges in at a right angle to the wood grain. Otherwise the force of the wedges could split the part. After the glue dries, sand the protruding ends of the dowels and wedges with a belt sander, and trim off the other ends of the dowels with a bandsaw.
The lid support is machined to size and the recessed holes for the ring magnets are drilled out (Fig. 38). I like to have the magnets just slightly proud of the part to ensure good contact with the washer. I trace a semicircle around the last hole and sand to the line with a sanding disc (Fig. 39).
For the magnetic hold-down buttons that will keep a canvas in the upright position, you have two choices. You can just use a crosscut piece of dowel, or you can do something a little special. I wanted to glue them up with both kinds of wood used, just to make them a little more decorative. So I glued up the stock by sandwiching the padauk, along with maple and walnut veneer, between two pieces of maple (Fig. 40). When the glue was dry, I cut it down the middle and repeated the same configuration of woods the other way. This part is later cleaned up on the table saw, put on the lathe and the buttons are turned.
I had enough material to make four buttons, which helps to ensure that I get two good ones, and helps to offset the “screw up” factor (Fig. 41). They are then drilled for the magnets to be slightly proud of the part (Fig. 42).
Before applying a finish, drill the holes for the rubber bumpers on both the bottom panel and hinged side of the box. I use a piece of tape on my drill bit as a depth gauge (Fig. 43). On the bottom of the box I drill a second set of holes 1/8" inside the first set. This second set of holes will be used for #6 screws on which the box will sit for spraying and drying. I don’t like to put the “finishing screws” into the same holes used by the bumpers, and the bumpers will cover up this second set of holes.
Also, the metal strip inside the lid of the box can be cut to size, and the ends filed round to fit into the slot. This is glued in with epoxy, and will be lacquered along with the inside of the box. We can now do a final sanding with the orbital sander, using 180-grit paper.
Because I wanted to bring out the dazzling appearance of the figured wood, I gave the box a light and very diluted coat of an amber colored NGR dye, right on the bare wood. Normally I would put the dye between the sealer and the topcoat, but putting it on first brings out the figure better. You have to be careful when doing this because any dye that is accidentally spilled on the project will be permanent.
The finish I used was a high-gloss nitrocellulose spray lacquer, applied with a cup gun. I first sprayed two coats on the inside, sanded it, and then gave it another coat. The next day, I masked off the inside edge of the two halves (Fig. 44), closed the box (it may not close all the way because of the tape, that’s okay), and put a thin strip of masking tape over the spine of the hinges. Then I laid it on a clean surface to spray the bottom, and then set it upright on the screws to spray the top and sides. I gave it two coats this way, waited a few hours, sanded it with 320-grit paper and gave it another three coats, making sure it was dry to the touch between coats.
Even if it is dry to the touch you must still be very careful when turning it over to spray the bottom. I laid it down on a vinyl cushion over which I had stretched clear plastic wrap. Any kind of cloth might transfer lint to the soft lacquer. Then I pulled the tape off, propped the lid open a little and left it to dry for a week. Although lacquer appears to dry very quickly, it actually takes about three months. This is why you should avoid using any kind of wax polish on the finish for at least that long. Some resin activated finishes will harden much faster.
A week after spraying the lacquer I sanded the surface (outside only) with 1500-grit paper using kerosene as a lubricant. Some lacquers react to water, so I wanted to use an oil-based product for sanding. The high mirror shine is obtained with a foam polishing pad in the drill (Fig. 46), and a pure automotive polishing compound that does not contain wax. While polishing the sides, I sat on the floor with a towel draped over my lap, holding the box between my knees.
With the box completed, I simply attached all the hardware and secured all the magnets in place with epoxy. Be sure to orient the magnets in the canvas-holding buttons so they will stick to one another. This way they are less likely to get lost when not in use. And, if there is too much epoxy in the holes of the ring magnets, it may prevent the magnet from making good contact with a washer. Also note that the use of multiple magnets in the lid support allows for more than one open position (Fig. 47). The draw catches are simply centered between the handle and the corner of the box.
TOOLS USED IN THIS PROJECT Waxed thread, leather needles, table saw, router, ¼" straight router bit, ½" straight router bit, edge trimming bit, planer or wide belt sander, Forstner bits, drill press, F-clamps, square, glue, flush cutting router bit, roundover router bit, lathe
Wolf Moehrle is an award-winning craftsman and custom furniture designer from Ontario, Canada. He has taught cabinet making at the same high school where he took woodshop. He is also a musician, and sometimes performs on weekends.
MAKING THE HANDLE
All of the materials and tools for making the handle can be purchased from the Tandy Leather Company, which also stocks many books on leatherwork. While I could have used a “D” Ring from Tandy, I already had a couple of square rings that I had purchased from a local saddle and harness shop. You might have a similar shop in your area that sells these supplies, too.
Start by cutting a 24" strip of 8 oz. carving leather to 1½" width (Fig. 1). From this strip, the handle core is cut first. This will do double duty as a spacer between the two rings, and as padding to build up the thickness of the handle to make it comfortable to hold. The core will be completely covered by the actual handle. Establish the length of the handle by wrapping a thin strip of waste leather tightly around the metal rings and the core, and marking it with a pen where the end overlaps (Fig. 2). Cut this and the two tabs that will hold the handle to the box. These can be longer than needed, as they will be trimmed to size after they’re glued.
The inside openings of the rings that I used are only 7/8" across, so before assembling the parts, you’ll need to remove some of the leather at the points where it meets the rings. You can do this with a small sanding drum on the drill press (Fig. 3).
Before assembling the handle, you can tool a logo or name into the handle to add a custom touch. This is just a matter of acquiring the right letter punches and using a mallet to impress the pattern into the leather.
The handle leather will be glued and stitched together, and you should read this entire section before beginning, as things need to happen in quick succession and you must be ready. Buck stitching leather is a subject that warrants its own article, but I will touch on it very briefly here. First, use a ballpoint pen to draw a line exactly where you want the stitch line to be. Don’t draw anywhere else because the ink won’t come off. Use a V-shaped Lino block cutter (from a craft supply shop) to plow a small channel that removes the pen line (Fig. 4). Before you glue the parts together, make a tiny mark at the center of each with a pen, on the edge of the leather. This way you’re sure to bring the parts together exactly where they should be. Apply contact cement anywhere a leather part will come in contact with itself or another (including the seam on the underside of the handle), and glue the parts together (Fig. 5).
Mark where the stitches will be with a spacer-tool to ensure even spacing (Fig. 6), and make the holes with an awl. Then begin sewing before the holes have time to close up again. Use heavy, waxed linen thread and two special leather needles, one at each end. Begin with the middle of the thread in the first hole (which is usually in the corner), and start sewing with a figure eight pattern. Work your way around. Sometimes the needles are hard to pull through the holes and I use a surgical clamp that has the locking mechanism ground off to grip and pull them. When I get to the end I usually backtrack about four stitches to ensure that it will not come undone.
Trim away the excess 1/8" from the sides, giving you a nice clean edge and your finished width (Fig. 7). The handle should now be flush with the outside width of the rectangular rings. Using the brass plates you made earlier to mark the position of the holes, punch them with a leather hole punch (Fig. 8). Trim the outside tabs that hold the handle to the box, using a semicircular guide that is in proportion to the brass plates (a fender washer works). Then all the edges can be rounded off with the sanding drum on the drill press.
I wanted to give the handle a color to match the darker species of wood in the box, so I treated it with leather dye and gave it several coats of a leather preserving oil. Wear rubber gloves (yes, I forgot!), because the leather dye does not come off your fingers.
Solid brass is sometimes hard to find, so I cut up a large brass hinge to make the plates. Discovering whether a hinge is indeed solid brass and not brass-plated steel is easy: just hold a magnet against it. From the drawing on page 23, transfer the outlines of the plates onto the hinge (Fig. 9) and then cut them to shape with a hacksaw I used a large washer as a pattern to get the round parts right. And if you’re using a metal vise, you might want to tape small pieces of wood to the jaws, to avoid marring the brass.
Locate the two holes in each plate and bore them on the drill press, with a piece of hardwood scrap underneath (Fig. 10). Make a custom tool to break the top edges by chucking a short length of 1/2" diameter dowel in the drill-press with a small piece of cloth and some 1500-grit emery paper wrapped around it. Buff the plates to a high shine with a buffing wheel in the drill press or on a bench grinder.
A tripod mount on the bottom of the box was my brother’s idea. It lets him create a portable studio by attaching the box to a standard camera tripod. I wanted something substantial (Fig. 1), so I had some made up by a machinist. This is attached to the bottom panel of the case. Simply find the balance point of the case with the top open (about 1/3rd of the way from the back), mark the center, drill and countersink for the tripod mount. Attach with brass screws and you’re done. I have a few of these mounts left for $16.99 each. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested.
An alternative, and hidden method, is to take a common 1/4"-20 T-Nut and mount it in the bottom panel before glue-up . Since all T-Nuts tend to be slightly different in size, you’re best off having the nut in hand before starting this process. Locate your mounting position, 1/3rd of the way from the back edge and centered, and drill a 1/16" pilot hole clear through the panel. From the bottom side, drill the hole for the threaded part of the T-Nut half way through the panel.
From the other side, with a forstner bit, drill the proper sized hole for the wide base of the T-Nut (Fig. 2). The depth of this hole is critical, the T-Nut should fit so that the threaded portion is just a 1/64th or so shy of the outside face of the panel. Epoxy and screw the T-Nut in place and fill the inside hole with a turned plug from the same stock. Plane and sand until the surface is flush and the plug hidden.