Shed Some Light on Hand-Built Simplicity

The strength of dovetails, the beauty of miters and the elegance of oiled cherry all work together to make this candle box a labor of love that will be cherished for years to come.

As the instructor at a school special-izing in traditional woodworking, one of my jobs is to design attractive classroom projects that emphasize fundamental hand tool skills. I often design Shaker-inspired projects because I admire the principles of simplicity, practicality and fine craftsmanship exemplified in Shaker furniture. My appreciation for Shaker furniture began when I read “Making Authentic Shaker Furniture: With Measured Drawings of Museum Classics” by John G. Shae. I remember how impressed I was with the elegant, strong, functional and beautifully proportioned cabinetry, chairs and tables in this book. Over the last 10 years, I’ve built many Shaker-inspired pieces. Each was simple enough that I could understand the steps needed for their construction and yet complex enough to challenge my growing skills. My students find building this candle box a valuable and enjoyable learning experience because they use most of the hand tools in the toolbox, complete the project in one day and find the end result pleasing.

Because candles were once made with tallow and were edible, they were stored in boxes to protect them from rodents. Although candle boxes were not exclusively a Shaker idea, many examples exist displaying their exacting craftsmanship. These boxes were made in great variety but often incorporated dovetails. Variations featured hinged lids and bottoms attached with nails. 

This candle box is not a reproduction of a Shaker piece as much as it is inspired by such designs. Dovetails strengthen the box and grooves cut into the sides create a framework for the bottom panel to support the contents of the box, and for the top panel to slide in and out. Miters at the corners prevent the grooves from showing through to the outside surfaces.

The process of cutting the joinery for this candle box uses hand tools, but many of the steps described here can be accomplished using power tools. For example, I use a plow plane to cut grooves, but they can also be cut using a router or a table saw. I leave it up to you to choose the tools you are most comfortable using.

Getting started 

I used cherry for my candle box because it is attractive and one of the more pleasurable woods to work. Resaw a 3' length of 5/4 board into two boards, then plane them to 3/8" thick. Select one of the boards for the sides of the box and mark the surface that will face outward with a triangle. This will allow you to maintain the orientation of the sides of the box after they have been crosscut so that the grain will wrap around the outside. I used the other 3/8" board to make the top and bottom, but a contrasting wood like figured maple would also make a good choice. Edge joint, then rip to width the board that will become the sides, front and back. Edge joint and rip to width the board that will become the top and bottom.

Layout and grooving

Crosscut the pieces that will become the top and bottom of the box and put them aside for now. Crosscut the sides, front and back of the box to length from one board so the grain will wrap around the finished box as described earlier. Lay them flat on your bench with the outside surfaces facing up. Use a pencil to number the corners of the box one through four; these marks will help prevent confusion when cutting the joinery a bit later. Set a marking gauge to the exact thickness of the sides and cut gauge lines completely around the ends of the sides, front and back (Fig. 1). 

Sometimes, the surface grain of a board isn’t perfectly parallel to its edge, and plowing grain that angles across a board like this can result in tearout. Severing these fibers with gauge lines ensures a cleaner cut. Set the distance between the pins of a mortise gauge to the width of the 1/4" cutter that will be used to plow the grooves that house the top and bottom of the box. Set the fence of the mortise gauge so that the grooves will be spaced 1/4" from the edge of the boards, and cut two sets of gauge lines into the inside surfaces of the sides, front and back (Fig. 2).

I used a Record 050C combination plane configured for plowing to remove the waste between the gauge lines to a depth of 3/16". (Again, if you prefer, a router can be used to cut this groove.) 

The cutter is clamped between two skates and an adjustable fence is positioned to guide the cut. If you use a combination plane, make sure to adjust the skates and fence so they’re parallel with each other, and lubricate them with wax in preparation for plowing. Begin plowing into the far end of the board and gradually bring the starting point of each cut further back (Fig. 3). When the depth stop contacts the board along its full length, shavings will cease to exit the plane, indicating that the groove is completed.

Cutting the dovetails

Cut the tails into the sides of the box first. Use a combination square to divide the distance between the grooves in one side of the box into three equal spaces. Start by placing the zero mark of the square on the inside edge of one groove and pivot the ruler diagonally until the 6" mark intersects the inside edge of the other groove. Place pencil tick marks at the 2" and 4" marks (Fig. 4). Use your combination square and a pencil as a marking gauge to extend these pencil lines to both ends of the board (Fig. 5). These marks will serve as centerlines for marking your dovetails in the next step. You need only mark one side because you will clamp the sides together and saw both at once.

With a bevel gauge set to a slope of 1:7, use the centerlines to pencil in the tails (Fig. 6). Be sure to allow space between the tails for a 1/4" chisel to pass through. Don’t let the fun drain out of your woodworking by overanalyzing the layout with measurements and calculations. Just relax and trust your eyes. The space between the outer tails and the grooves should also be 1/4". This makes the outer tails slightly smaller than the center tail but eliminates the need for a 1/8" chisel to pare out the waste. I find the variation in the size of the tails attractive.

Clamp the sides back-to-back in a vise with the grooves facing you and all sides flush. With the layout marks facing you, use a square to extend the marks across the endgrain of the sides (Fig. 7). 

To cut dovetails, I use a backsaw with 15 teeth per inch, sharpened for ripping and with almost no set. First cut a kerf on the waste side of the layout lines drawn on the endgrain. Don’t concern yourself with the pencil lines on the side of the board at this time. Use your free thumb to accurately place the saw teeth by holding it against the blade throughout the stroke, and pull the saw back to cut the kerf. Place the saw back in the kerf and turn your attention to the pencil line on the side of the board, leaning the saw to one side to match the angle of this pencil line (Fig. 8). Saw the pencil line on the side of the board in half, making sure to cut on the waste side of the line. Stop one stroke short of the gauge line. Don’t saw into the groove, but instead on the waste side of the groove so that the full width of the groove remains.

Use two cuts with a coping saw to remove most of the waste. Begin by placing the saw into the kerf on the right and saw to the lower left corner of the waste (Fig. 9). You will hear a change in pitch in the sound of the sawing, as you are about to complete the cut. Slow your strokes in order to avoid cutting into the tails when the waste gives way. Begin the second cut by placing the coping saw onto the upper left of the remaining waste and sawing to the lower right corner. Stay 1/16 " wide of the gauge line. Rotate both sides in the vise and repeat the process of sawing the tails on the opposite edges.

The remaining waste in between the tails is removed using a 1/4" razor-sharp chisel with a flat back. Place one side of the box on your bench with the grooves facing downward. Hold the chisel as you would an ice pick and pin the board against your bench using the back of your other hand, and remove the waste in thin (about 1/32") shavings while cutting at right angles to the bench surface (Fig. 10). Alter the amount of weight you place on the chisel in order to control how fast it cuts through the wood. If the chisel offers a lot of resistance, either you’re paring a chip that is too thick or your chisel is dull. 

Make the final paring cut by first placing the chisel into the gauge line and paring as before. Lift the board and see if the gauge line on the other side is split in half. Beginners often cut wide of the gauge line on the opposite side. To correct this problem, begin the next paring cut in the gauge line, paring from the outside to the inside and creating a shaving that starts thin and ends slightly thicker. Repeat this as necessary until the gauge line on the bottom of the board is split in half. Resist the urge to flip the board over and pare from the inside to the outside. The risk of breaking out wood at the end of this cut and damaging the outside surface of the box is very high.

Cutting the pins

Place a hand plane on its side with its sole facing you on the bench top and clamp the front of the box into the vise with its witness marks facing you and with the endgrain level to the side of the plane. Then slide the plane about 3" back from the vise. Place the side of the box with corresponding witness marks so that it rests on both the front of the box and the side of the hand plane, aligning the edges of the side and front of the box. Holding the side in place using firm pressure applied downward with your left, use a marking knife to trace around the tails onto the endgrain of the front (Fig. 11). Then place the side of the box and the hand plane aside. Using a square and pencil, start at the knife lines and draw a line on the outside surface of the front to guide your sawing (Fig. 12).

Do not saw near the two knife lines nearest the grooves at this time. Use a backsaw to split the remaining knife lines and pencil lines in half, making sure to cut on the waste side of the lines. Remove the majority of the waste with a coping saw as before. Take extra care to angle the coping saw as needed to prevent sawing into the pins. Pare to the gauge line with a 3/4" chisel using the methods described earlier. Cut and pare the remaining waste in the front and back pieces similarly (Fig. 13).


Mark the top front corners of the sides with the word “no” written in pencil to remind you not to miter these corners. The top edge of the front of the box must be removed to make way for the lid to slide in and out. Cut two equally spaced stopped cuts using your backsaw, then split off the majority of this waste in three chunks using a chisel and mallet (Fig. 14). The remainder of the waste can be removed with a hand plane, stopping just as the groove is removed (Fig. 15).

Place one side of the box into the vise with the grooves running horizontally and facing toward you. Cut on the waste side of a line connecting the outside corner of the box with the corner made by the intersection of the gauge line and the inside surface of the box. Make this miter cut with a backsaw, leaving some waste to be trimmed later with a chisel (Fig. 16). Miter all the corners of both sides similarly except for top front corners that are labeled with the word “no.”

Clamp the front piece into the vise with the grooves running vertically and facing outward. Tilt your backsaw upward at about 45 degrees and use the inside of the groove to start your backsaw. Carefully saw a kerf into the front using a few backstrokes (Fig. 17), but stop at the gauge line without sawing through to the outside surface. Reclamp the front piece into the vise with the grooves running horizontally and facing outward. Miter the corner with a backsaw but leave some waste to be trimmed later with a chisel.

Use a wooden block mitered to a precise 45 degrees to guide a wide chisel and trim all of the miters. Line up the sharp edge of the guide block carefully with the gauge mark of the miter you’re trimming and clamp both boards to the bench. Take care that the back of the chisel remains flat against the guide block throughout the cut. If you’re confident of your chisel skills, simply pin the guide block onto the piece to be trimmed with your left hand and trim the miter using several 1/8" wide paring strokes (Fig. 18).

Making the top and bottom

The top and bottom of the box are panels that fit into the frame made by the sides, front and back. The top is beveled to fit into the grooves and the bottom is rabbeted.

Dry-fit the box together and trim the joinery as necessary to obtain a good fit. Hold the bottom against the assembled box as if it was the top and you were about to slide it into place. With one edge against the bottom of one of the grooves, mark the necessary width to allow the bottom to slide into the box (Fig. 19), then saw or plane the bottom 1/8" narrower to allow for expansion.

Use a marking gauge to lay out a rabbet 3/16" deep by  5/16" wide on two sides and one end of the bottom. I use a rabbet plane and a backsaw and chisel to remove the waste (Figs. 20-22). Slide the bottom into the box as if it were the top and mark it for length. Cut the bottom 1/16" shorter than your mark indicates and cut a rabbet into this edge. 

Hold the top against the dry-assembled box and mark the width for a correct fit, then rip or plane the top to width. Use a pencil and a square to lay out the bevels in the top that will allow it to slide into the grooves in the box sides. Mark the inside edges of the three bevels at 11/4" from the back and the two sides. Clamp the top of the box onto the bench with bench dogs and vise, and use a bench plane to remove the waste between your pencil lines until the top slides into place (Fig. 23). 

Don’t cut the top to length quite yet.

Finishing and final assembly

Disassemble the box and scrape the inside surfaces with a card scraper and sand to 220-grit, carefully avoiding the dovetails. Apply two coats of tung oil and allow it to dry. Mask the dovetails with masking tape, put on a respirator and spray the inside surface with two coats of satin lacquer from an aerosol can and allow to dry. Polish lightly with 0000 steel wool and clean thoroughly between coats.

Apply glue to the dovetails and miters and clamp the box, making sure to pull the miters together as well as the dovetails. After the glue dries, remove the clamps and slide the top in as far as it will go. Use a pencil to mark the length of the top (Fig. 24). Crosscut the top just a hair longer. Then, with the top in place on the box, plane the front of the top until it is flush with the front of the box.

Plane the outer surfaces and the edges of the sides, front and back. Use the edge of the sole of your plane frequently as a straightedge to detect any high spots. When planing the edges of the sides, front and back, keep the plane in contact with at least two edges at once – this will keep the plane stable and the edges coplanar so that the box won’t rock when sitting on a flat surface. 

Lay out the shape of the thumb pull with a pencil and a marking gauge (Fig. 25) and use a gouge and bench chisel to carve it out. Clamp the top of the box onto the top of your bench between bench dogs. Make several light cuts and keep the bevel of the gouge in contact with the workpiece (Fig. 26). Periodically use the corner of the bench chisel to sever the curved chips made by the gouge.

Scrape the outer surfaces of the box with a card scraper and then sand to 220 grit. Sand all sharp edges until they are touch-friendly.

Apply two coats of tung oil to the outside of the box and allow it to dry. Put on a respirator and spray the outside with two coats of satin lacquer from an aerosol can and allow it to dry. Polish lightly with 0000 steel wool and clean thoroughly between coats. Finish the top similarly.

George Huron

As the owner and instructor of a woodworking school specializing in traditional hand tool methods, George Huron spends most of his time teaching, designing new classes and performing live demonstrations. He is also currently producing, filming and editing woodworking videos. 

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