Candle Box

A clever dovetailing approach yields an enlightening gift

Most woodworkers approach a time in their journey when they say “I’m going to learn how to cut dovetails by hand.” When I came to that conclusion, I began some research. The options? Let’s see: pins first, tails first, chopping waste, coping saw, western saw, Japanese saw, cut to the pencil line, cut next to the pencil line, cut the pencil line in HALF?  *#!%  THAT!

But I did try a lot of different methods, playing to my own strengths and avoiding my weaknesses. Eventually, I arrived at a friendly approach that combines traditional hand-cut techniques with the advantages of the modern machine-based woodshop.

If you’re currently traveling down the dovetail path, I think you’ll appreciate this method.

While you’re training yourself to cut dovetails, you may as well produce something other than scrapwood, and this candle box is a great by-product. It’s ambitious enough to allow you to hone your skills, but not so challenging as that through-dovetailed blanket chest you’ve got on your build list. The box makes a great gift. Even if you’re not angling for a tasty candlelight dinner, anyone appreciates knowing where the candles are during a sudden power outage. That’ll get you points for being both romantic and practical. 

A tabletop heirloom in 7 pieces

A great exercise in cutting dovetails, this solidly built box is made of just 4 dovetailed walls, a rabbeted bottom that’s doweled in place, and a 2-piece lid that slides in grooves.

Order of work:

  • Prepare the box stock
  • Make the bandsaw jig
  • Mark and cut the tails
  • Mark and cut the pins
  • Assemble the walls
  • Make the bottom and top

A template tends to the tail layout

Decide on the length of your box based on your choice of candles. This one will hold candles up to 101⁄2" long. If possible, resaw the box walls from a piece of thick stock for good grain and color match throughout. Use mild, straight-grained stock for easy pin-paring later. Orient the pieces as desired, number them on their top edges, and mark an X on the inside faces. Then scribe the joint baselines as shown. Next, set a bevel gauge to 80°, and mark out the tails on both faces of each board. I suggest making a plywood layout template for efficient layout of multiples.

Begin with baselines. After cutting the pieces to their finished size, set a marking gauge to the stock thickness, and scribe a baseline around the faces and edges of the tailboards and across both faces of each pin board.
Transfer tail cheek lines from template to tailboards. A template makes quick work of tail layout. After drawing lines across the ends of the tailboards as shown, use a bevel gauge to carry the angled tail lines down to your scribed baselines on both faces of the stock.

Make a dovetail sled for the bandsaw

A well-fit dovetail joint depends on tail cheeks being precisely perpendicular to the stock faces. After countless hours of errantly hand-sawing cheeks, I determined that it’s not worth the hassle. Why not use the bandsaw, which is designed to make square cuts perfectly? Outfitting it with a simple bandsaw sled works wonders to efficiently and repeatedly cut perfect tails. The beauty of the bandsaw sled is twofold: First, it automatically positions your tailboard at the proper angle. Second, after making the first cheek cut, you simply flip the workpiece, and your next cut is immediately placed for a symmetrical tail.

Tails first: Saw the cheeks, nibble the waste, and chop to the baseline

Start by loading a tailboard into the sled with the 3-tail rear of the box at the leading end. Adjust your rip fence to align an outermost cheek line with the blade, and then saw to just shy of the baseline. Make the same cut on the remaining tailboard. Then flip the board edge-for-edge and make the opposing cheek cut on each tailboard in turn. Reset the fence to make the follow-up cuts, as shown in the photo sequence.

After making all the tail cheek cuts, use the bandsaw to nibble away most of the waste between the tails, staying just a bit shy of your baselines. Move briefly to the table saw to trim away the half-pin socket waste at both rear edges and at the bottom front edge. To make the cut, stand the stock on edge against the miter gauge, and exactly trim to the baseline. Finish up by chopping back to your baseline between the tails as shown.

More steps for asymmetry. Because the 2-tail layout at the front isn’t symmetrical, you’ll need to exercise a little more care and patience, resetting the fence more often. Just work methodically, and remember to saw both tailboards in turn when making each cut.

Jig-less edge-cut. To make the parallel cut in the half-pin socket at the top front of each tailboard, simply run the workpiece along the fence without the sled.
Nibble, then chop. After nibbling away most of the waste with the bandsaw, chop away the rest, working in from both faces to meet in the middle. Begin by chopping to within 1⁄16" of your baseline, and then tuck the chisel in the line and undercut by chopping slightly inward.

Precise pins: Scribe, rout & pare

Now you’re ready to use your perfect tails as a pattern to scribe your pins. To precisely position the tailboard, tape a ledger strip to its inside face, carefully aligning the strip with the scribed baseline. Then transfer the tail pattern onto the pinboard.

Mill two 2×6s straight, square, and to a width that equals the length of the pinboards. Then, working on a dead-flat surface, use a wooden handscrew to clamp the pinboard against the 2×6s. Outfit your router with a 3⁄8"-dia. straight bit, setting it to cut about 1⁄16" shy of your pin baseline. Now rout out the majority of the waste between the pins, beginning with a shallow cut run right to left across each waste area to prevent tearout. To finish up the pinboard, chop to the baseline as before, and then pare the pin cheeks. (Here’s where it pays to use straight-grained stock.)

Knife-tracing. Use a marking knife to scribe around the tails onto the end of the pinboard. Follow up by squaring the marks down both faces to the baseline.
Rout out the waste between pins. Clamp your pinboard against thick, dressed stock that will serve as a router platform. With cutting depth set 1⁄16" shy of the baseline, make controlled cuts to remove waste between pins. No harm’s done if you cut into your support platform (inset photo).

Chop & pare. Chop to the baselines, working in from one face, then the other (left photo).

Above, the face-grain knife cuts act as a path of least resistance for the chisel to follow when paring the pins.

Rout the grooves for the lid

The groove for the lid runs through the front ends of the long walls and terminates 1⁄8" beyond the tailboard baselines at the rear of the box. You could rout this stopped groove at the router table, but I prefer to use an edge guide as shown.

Glue up the walls

In preparation for glue-up, test-fit the walls without forcing them. If necessary, pare away the saw marks from the tails to create a push fit rather than a hammer fit. Ideally, a perfect fitting joint will need only to be glued and then tapped together. However, have some clamps nearby in case the parts don’t seat all the way.

Make and fit the bottom and lid

Cut the bottom 1⁄4" smaller than the wall assembly in both width and length, and rabbet its edges to fit into the box. Sand or plane a slight chamfer on the edges, and then attach the bottom to the walls with 4 dowels, as shown in the drawing on p. 41.

The 2-part lid consists of a runner and a cap. The runner has a projecting “tongue” that serves as a pull. The cap (a great opportunity to use figured wood) is notched at the front to provide finger access. Size the runner to slide easily in its grooves, cut the radius at the front end, and then shape the tongue with a spokeshave and sandpaper. Drill the notch at the front end of the cap using a 11⁄8"-dia. Forstner bit. Then shape the edge of the notch with a 1⁄4" round-over bit.

In preparation for gluing the two parts together, make a simple centering jig like the one shown in the photos. Then glue up the lid.

Two caps at once. For efficiency and neatness when drilling, lay out two caps end to end, then drill the hole at the center. Afterward, crosscut the board in half to create two notched caps.
Assembly centering jig. Using the unglued parts, tack scrap strips against the rear and sides to align the cap atop the runner during glue-up. Use a liberal coat of paste wax on the parts of the jig where you expect glue squeeze-out, then wipe away any excess. Make sure to include a thick cover caul to be placed over the cap during assembly.

Capping the runner. With the sanded runner in place in the assembly jig, sparingly apply glue to the underside of the cap to avoid excessive glue squeeze-out, and then clamp the cap down under a cover caul. Let the piece sit in the jig for 40 minutes, then pull it out to pare away any squeeze-out with a chisel.

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