Walnut Dimpled Box

Texture and techniques wrapped up in a fun build

This box started out as an experiment in playing with texture. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go with it, but I had in mind power-carving a surface of random dimples using a ball grinder in a rotary tool. After playing some with the design, I decided to wrap a band of texturing around the box walls, bordering it with string inlay. Miter joints create clean corners that allow the grain to wrap around uninterrupted. Because miters themselves are not particularly strong, I reinforced them with splines, which are set into grooves in the miter faces. 

I found that the inlay lifted the box into a classy realm that seemed to demand an equally classy frame-and-panel lid. After dimpling the lid panel and framing the textured section in string inlay to complement the sides, I added a wooden handle that attaches with two dowel posts. The lid simply lifts off, as I didn’t want to incorporate hinges or other hardware. Removing it reveals a soft surprise inside: more texture in the form of a suede-covered bottom. A sliding tray sitting atop mitered ledger strips gives the box even more utility. 

Obviously, you can use any materials you like, but this piece sure does love to be built from walnut with maple stringing that really makes the textured surfaces pop!

Order of Work

  • Make and inlay box walls
  • Carve dimples
  • Miter and assemble walls
  • Make lid parts
  • Detail and assemble lid
  • Outfit interior
  • Handle and finish

Elegant and cute (with dimples) 

Splines reinforce the box wall and lid frame miters, while dimpled texturing bordered by string inlay provides visual character. Rabbeted bottom support strips create an inset “footing,” and allow inserting the leather-covered bottom after finishing. A sliding tray sits atop ledger strips, and the frame-and-panel lid sports a shop-made handle. 


Make and inlay the walls

Mill the stock for the walls. For the most attractive box, I resaw the wall material to allow wrapping the grain around the corners, as shown on the facing page. Begin with 5/4 stock about 24" long. This creates two workpieces—each of which include one long wall and one short wall. Before crosscutting the four individual walls to length, saw the 3/32"-deep inlay grooves using a thin-kerf (3/32") blade. Next, make the inlay strips, including what you’ll need later for the lid. Glue them in their grooves as shown, and then plane them flush. 

Making inlay strips

Table saw rip first. Having sawn the 3⁄32"-wide inlay grooves in the box walls, rip 3⁄32"-wide strips to fit in them. It may take a few tries to get a perfect fit. Using a caliper can help. You’ll also need a sacrificial push stick and a zero-clearance throat plate to do the job. 

Bandsaw rip next. Saw the individual inlay strips to a little more than 1⁄8" wide. This is best done on the bandsaw, feeding the work atop a wide zero-clearance board that prevents the thin pieces from falling into the saw’s throat plate opening or sliding under the fence. 

Install the inlay. Apply glue to the grooves and tap the inlay strips into place. Snug-fit pieces shouldn’t need clamping, but use painter’s tape to hold down any loose ones. Afterward, plane the strips flush, as shown in the piece as right

How to grain-wrap a box 

A mitered box looks best when the grain runs uninterrupted around the corners. To perform this trick, begin with stock that’s twice the desired thickness of your finished wall, plus 1⁄4" or so for milling. Rip it to finished width, and about 1⁄4" longer than the combined length of two contiguous walls. Lay the walls out to length in the order shown in the top drawing, lettering the individual parts for reorientation later. After resawing the stock, plane it to final thickness, and then cut the pieces to length. To lay out the miters, first swap the pieces as shown in the top two drawings, which effectively turns the blank inside-out. After cutting the miters and joining the letter-matched ends, one pair of diagonally opposed box corners will exhibit continuous grain, and the opposite corners will be book-matched. Nice!

Carve the dimples

Before crosscutting the four individual walls to length, do the dimpling. Outfit a rotary tool with a round ball cutter, and practice making random dimples on scrap. After getting a feel for the process, dimple the box walls, staying between the stringing. Afterward, smooth the surface through 220 grit using a random orbit sander.

Tool for the job. This round ball cutter mounted in a high-speed rotary tool such as a Dremel creates the dimpling that gives this box its distinctive texture. 
The dimple dip. Steadying the rotary tool with both hands, dip the cutter quickly into the wood surface, lifting it straight up afterward. Have fun practicing on scrap, creating a random pattern with dimples of slightly different depths. Stay close to your inlay lines without straying into them. Maintain the same angle of attack throughout so light reflects evenly on the surface. 

Miter and assemble the walls

The next step is to saw the miters while cutting the walls to their final length. I use a simple sled for the job, as shown. For enduring strength, miter joints need reinforcement, which I incorporated by installing full-length splines. Saw the spline slots first, then mill the splines to fit them. I made my splines from maple to provide a nice visual accent at the top ends of the joints. Fit the splines carefully. They should slip easily in their slots, but without slop, and should bottom out without preventing full joint closure. I tend to cut my splines a bit oversized in width, and then trim them to fit with a finely-set block plane. Dry-fitting before glue-up is crucial. After gluing and clamping the box, make sure to check it for square while sitting on a dead-flat surface.

Saw the wall miters. When mitering the box walls, first saw the outermost ends of each strip of wall material. Then use a stand-off block registered against the rip fence to cut each long wall to its final length, as shown. Clamp a stop block to the miter sled fence for the short walls. This helps ensure that your box will be truly square.
Cutting spline slots. To saw flat-bottom spline slots, use a 1⁄8"-kerf ATBR combination blade tilted to 45°. Clamp a stop block to your miter gauge to register the 1⁄8"-deep slots, locating them about 1⁄4" in from the tip of the miter.

Miter sled

This sled can be used in either saw table slot. It allows a miter offcut to fall safely away from the blade, while the zero-clearance fence minimizes exit tearout. Initially make the base oversized in width so that each side of the jig is trimmed when making your first miter cut with the jig in each table slot. Make sure that the fence is dead-square to the runner. 

Making short-grain splines

Stand-up job. For strength, the spline grain must run perpendicular to the joint line. The first step to making the splines is to saw them to a thickness that’s an easy friction-fit in the slots. 
Lying down on the job. Use a miter gauge to feed the spline-stock block on the flat to cut the individual splines free. A stand-off block placed against the rip fence registers the cut length while preventing kick-back from a freed piece pinching between the fence and blade.

Glue-up performance. After dry-fitting to rehearse your clamping dance and to ensure the joints draw up tight, glue up the box walls. Triangular clamping cauls previously glued to 1⁄4" scrap plywood strips allows applying very firm, controlled pressure directly perpendicular to the joints. Use a slow-set glue such as Titebond III to give yourself extra time to pull everything together.

Make the lid panel

Mill two lengths of stock to 3/4 × 1-1/4 × 24" to make the frame members. Saw a centered 1/4"-wide × 3/8"-deep groove into what will be the inner edge of each piece. Lay out one short and one long mitered frame member on each of the two lengths, and saw the four frame members to final length as shown. Measure the groove-to-groove distances in your dry-assembled frame, and saw the lid panel for a snug fit. Lay out the 1"-wide bevels and inlay grooves where shown in the drawing on page 33. To cut the inlay grooves, outfit your router with a 3/32"-diameter straight bit and an edge guide, and then rout the 3/32"-deep grooves. Afterward, square the corners with a chisel. Next, saw the bevels. It would be dangerous to feed a panel on end by hand, so I use a sliding tall fence, which I also employ for sawing tenons and other operations. (See sidebar on facing page.) After sawing the bevel shoulders as shown, fit the string inlay, glue it in place, and trim it flush to the surface. Instead of a plane, I use a chisel, as it’s a little easier to negotiate mitered intersections. 

Miter the frame pieces. A stop block clamped to an auxiliary miter gauge fence ensures that the lengths of opposing frame pieces match exactly to create a square assembly. Extending the fence past the blade backs up the cut to minimize exit tearout. 
Saw the bevels. This sliding tall fence, which straddles the table saw rip fence, holds the box lid panel securely when sawing the bevels on the edges. After tilting the blade, set the rip fence so the blade is cutting to the layout lines. To minimize exit tearout, cut both ends first, then the edges, all at the same blade and fence setting.
Saw the shoulders. With your blade at 90°, set its height to intersect the thick end of the bevels. First saw the end shoulders, registering the cuts against a stand-off block as shown. Then reset the fence to saw the long-grain shoulders, keeping the waste piece on the “away” side of the blade to prevent the offcut from kicking back.
Fit the inlay. Miter the ends of the stringing to meet in the corners. Use a frame offcut as a chisel guide. Start with the long pieces, cutting one end then tucking the piece into its groove to gauge its length. Cut it slightly oversize initially, then pare to an exact fit. Glue the long piece in then repeat the process for the short pieces. 

Detail and assemble the lid

You’re almost ready to assemble the lid. But first drill the 1/4"-diameter dowel through-holes 3" apart in the panel using a brad point bit at the drill press. Then dimple the area within the string inlay border. Afterward, sand the panel and the inner edges of the frame. Do a test fit, and then glue up the frame as shown. Do not glue the panel in its grooves. Lay out a corner spline slot, offsetting it 1/8" down from the top face of the frame. Saw the spline slots in the corners using the sliding tall fence. Mill the splines, install them, and trim the excess. Finally, set up a dado head and sacrificial fence on the table saw, and rabbet the underside of the frame for a snug, but not too tight fit in the box opening.

Slot for the splines. Screw a 45° fence to the sliding tall fence to support the lid. Position the lid on the angled fence, securing it with the dovetail clamps. Adjust the blade height and rip fence, then saw a 3⁄4"-deep slot in each corner. 
Install splines. Having cut your splines for an easy friction fit, glue them into their slots, making sure they seat fully. After the glue sets, saw and plane them flush.

Sliding tall-fence

This table saw jig provides a great way to hold work on edge for feeding it across the blade. The dovetail slots in the panel accept Micro-jig dovetail clamps to secure the work, and custom fences can be attached to help support the work in any position. The panel is attached to a saddle that fits snugly over the rip fence, with spines to stiffen it and keep it vertical. 

Outfit the interior

To safely make the bottom support strips, cut a 1/4 × 1/4" rabbet into the edge of a 1/2"-thick board, and then rip that edge to 1/2" wide. Miter and fit the strips into the underside of the box, glue them in place, and secure them with tape. The strips create an inset base that lifts the box up while creating a nice shadow line underneath. Mill the ledger strips and tray sides to thickness and width, but leave them oversized in length for now. Groove the tray side material before mitering the tray ends and ledger pieces for a snug fit within the box walls. Then assemble the two components as shown. Lastly, glue leather to both sides of a slightly oversized bottom panel, then trim the bottom at the table saw to tightly fit the box interior, but don’t install it yet.

Handle and finish

Make the handle, drill it to match the lid holes, and sand it for comfort. Cut the dowels, install them in the panel, and then attach the handle as shown. Afterward, saw the dowels at 3/16" above the handle, then dimple the top of each. Apply the finish of your choice. I begin by applying boiled linseed oil, which I let dry for five days. Next, I rub paste wax into all the surfaces using 0000 steel wool, after which I buff off any excess with a rag. I let it dry a few minutes, then chuck a stiff-bristled burnisher brush into a hand drill and buff out the wax for a beautiful look and silky feel. When you’re done with the finish work, assemble the box by pressing in the bottom and ledger frame. No need to glue them.

Dowel Dimple. Using the same round ball cutter and rotary tool that you used for dimpling the box, carve a shallow concavity in the top of each dowel.
Buff-out. A burnisher brush buffing the surface at high speed converts the tacky wax into a hard, smooth surface, and brings out a lovely sheen, reaching even into the textured areas. 
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