Geo Boxes

The perfect gift for anyone from anywhere.

Personalized presents are the best presents. Unfortunately, you may not always be able to target someone’s particular personality or interests. However, you can always honor their geographical roots with a geo box.

This concept of geo boxes arose when I wanted to make a special present for a Hungarian woodworker friend. I had been making bandsaw boxes at the time and figured Frank might appreciate a box of his native country. However, I soon realized that my bandsaw blades just weren’t capable of finessing the detail of Hungary’s borders. (If only he hailed from Colorado.) No problem; the box was small enough that I could cut its neatly detailed profile on my scrollsaw. I augmented the lid by insetting a star for Budapest and painting in a knifed Danube river. When I presented the box to Frank, he happily recognized his mother country.

Here, I’ll provide the road map for you to send a bit of treasured wood for a ride across the scrollsaw and bandsaw into someone’s birthplace, adopted home, or other well-loved land. Bon voyage!

Scouting Land

Millions of maps are available on the Internet. Just type “Map of (your choice)” into your search engine. Free software, like Adobe Reader, allows you to easily resize the pictures for printing to suit your needs. If you like, visit our Patterns page to download ready-made patterns for the U.S., Texas, and British Isles boxes seen on these pages.

Tip Alert

If you want to try something like making a state box from the wood of that state’s official tree, I recommend performing some test cuts first.

Prepare the pattern and blank

1 Select your map pattern and size it, keeping in mind that the widest part should be at least 1⁄8" less than the resaw capacity of your bandsaw.

2 Select an appropriate wood for the project. I’ve had the best success with walnut, which is beautiful, not too dense, and not prone to burning. Cherry is also pretty and only moderately hard, but it tends to burn, so I don’t use it for boxes with complex edges that would be hard to sand.

3 Dress the stock to 13⁄8" thick, and use spray adhesive to attach the pattern. Orient peninsulas or other narrow projections to follow the grain as much as possible. In some cases, areas of short grain will be unavoidable; just keep them to a minimum. (Leaving the interior solid in these areas adds strength, too.)

4 Saw out the rough blank. Maintain at least one reasonably straight edge on the blank for safe slicing on the bandsaw later.

Detailing the lid

Augmenting the lid of a geo box affords the opportunity to further personalize it, to teach geography, or even to show the paths of history. For example, you may choose to feature the recipient’s home town, a state capital, or perhaps major cities. In the upper photo at right, a 1⁄4"-diameter paint-filled recess indicates London, England, while a series of 1⁄16"-diameter painted holes denotes Ireland’s major port cities. Austin, Texas, is represented by a carved star. Instead of filling holes with paint, you can plug them with shop-made dowels (see page 22) or the same plastic side dot material used for the box locator pins.

To portray large bodies of water, I rout a 1⁄16"-deep depression, color it with several coats of paint, and then sand the surface of the box lid. (Note: If a recess borders the box, it’s wise to first saw that section of the box perimeter before routing away the border cutline.)

Very narrow rivers, streams, and creeks can be knifed in, painted, and then sanded over. You can even include historical highlights, such as the dark line on the Washington Crossing Park box, shown in the lower photo above, indicating the path that General Washington and his troops traversed during the Revolutionary War. Use your imagination to come up with more ideas.

Make the box

1 If you choose to detail the lid, do it now, while the box blank is at its largest. This allows for easy clamping in a vise and provides maximum footing for a router base when cutting recesses (Photo A). (For more tips on detailing, see the sidebar at right.)

2 Outfit your scrollsaw with a 13 TPI, #9 skip tooth, or other blade suited to smooth cuts in thick wood.

3. Saw out the exterior profile (Photo B).

4. Mark out locator pin hole locations on the underside of the box. The location isn’t critical, but begin at the extremities, spacing the holes a few inches apart, roughly equidistant from each other, and inset about 3⁄32" from the outside edge.

5. Drill 1⁄16"-diameter × 3⁄8"-deep holes at the marked locations (Photo C).

6. Guiding the work off a bandsaw fence, slice the 3⁄16"-thick bottom from the block (Photo D).

Tip Alert

A 1⁄4" or wider bandsaw blade with 4-6 TPI cuts easily and produces a surface that requires very little smoothing.

7. Hand-plane the sawn surfaces or scrub them against 150-grit sandpaper adhered to a dead-flat surface.

8. On the underside of the blank, lay out the locations for three or four lid locator pins, insetting them at the extremities about 1⁄2" from the box perimeter.

9. With the box upside down, drill 1⁄16"-diameter holes through the core section and lid locator section and into the lid section, stopping about 1⁄8" shy of exiting through it (Photo E).

10. Slice away the lid (Photo F), and then smooth the sawn surfaces as before.

When drawing the wall thickness along fairly straight sections, use your fingers as a marking gauge.

The more carefully the inner wall is cut to mimic the outer wall, the cooler the box will look when open.

11. Draw the wall thickness on the wall/core section, offsetting the line about 3⁄16" in from the box perimeter (Photo G). The inner wall doesn’t have to be perfectly parallel to the outer wall, but try to keep it relatively consistent as you freehand it. If you like, you can create a reduced size pattern to do the job.

12. Drill a scrollsaw blade starter hole just inside the inner wall line, preferably at a corner or other junction. Then saw out the core (Photo H).

Survey Your Alternatives

A person’s native country or state is always a popular choice for a geo box. Unfortunately, the shape or proportions of the land can make for a difficult job. But don’t let that stop you. If a person’s state isn’t suitable, for example, consider using their county, city, or town. In fact, I recently made a box of Washington Crossing State Park on the Delaware River. And (I cannot tell a lie), I chopped down a cherry tree for the wood.

Fine-Tuning From The Guitar World

A while ago, I made a geo box for my friend Darin Lawrence, who used to make guitars. He decided to put his hand to making a couple boxes of Japanese prefectures (provinces) to give to his hosts during an upcoming trip there.

He showed me later how he used plastic side-dot material (made for guitar finger board inlays) as locator pins to keep box parts aligned during glue-up. At first, I suspected this was unnecessarily fussy, but when I tried it myself and realized how much easier and cleaner this made the glue-ups, I was just as delighted as Darin’s Japanese hosts were when they received their gifts from him.

13 At the bandsaw, use the same setup as before to slice the lid locator from the top of the core (Photo I).

Press the wire-cutter section of needle-nose pliers against the box wall when snipping off the side dot strand. This leaves the necessary 1⁄16" projection. 

Wash away excess glue squeeze-out on the box exterior using a wet toothbrush, dipping it in clean water frequently as you work.

14. Insert a length of side dot material into a wall hole, pressing it in firmly, then nip it off about 1⁄16" proud of the surface (Photo J). Repeat for all other wall holes.

15. Judiciously brush glue onto the bottom edge of the wall, and then clamp the bottom to the wall using lots of clamps. After about 10 minutes, remove one clamp, and use a wet toothbrush to scrub away any glue squeeze-out on the exterior in that area (Photo K). Shift an adjacent clamp to the cleaned area, and repeat the washing process. Clean your way around the entire box in this manner. Replace the first clamp removed, and let dry thoroughly.

16. Firmly insert side-dot material into the lid holes, nipping it off to a 1⁄16" length as before. Then, apply glue judiciously to the lid locator to prevent squeeze-out at the edges, and clamp the lid locator to the lid (Photo L).

Spring clamps placed at the perimeter of the lid locator do a good job of pinching it to the lid as the glue dries.

Sandpaper wrapped around a rubber contour sanding pad makes for effective smoothing of detailed edges.

Finish up

1. Fill the locator holes with a mix of 5-minute epoxy and fine sanding dust.

2. After the epoxy cures completely, sand the box through 220 grit. I begin by hand-sanding the edges (Photo M). Then I move to the top, first carefully power-sanding the pattern off while taking care not to erode away any recessed detailing.

3. Apply the finish of your choice. I applied several coats of a wiping varnish. (If you intend to flock the interior surface, don’t apply finish there–only to the top edges of the wall.)

4. For a nice final touch, flock the interior. Simply paint the surfaces with undercoat adhesive, shake flocking fibers inside the closed box, let the adhesive dry, and then tap out the loose fibers.  

About Our Author/Builder & Designer

Geoffrey Noden has been working wood for over 30 years. The first American graduate of the John Makepeace School for Craftsmen in Wood in Dorset, England, Noden now builds custom furniture in Trenton, New Jersey. He is also the inventor of the Adjust-A-Bench and the Inlay Razor. For more info, visit

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