Quick-Spun Box

Turn an hour at the lathe into a sweet li’l container.

By Michael Kehs

Making a small turned box is a great way to hone your spindle turning skills while producing a very nice little project from scraps or cutoffs of larger works. A wooden container like this makes an impressive presentation vessel for bestowing a ring, memento, or other gift to a loved one. Or, it’s simply a great place to store tiny valuables. Boxes like this don’t take long to make, but each one presents a worthy little challenge of making the lid fit so perfectly that it creates a delightful little suction “pop” upon removal. People just love that pop!

You can use any wood you like, although it should be well seasoned to prevent warping. You can also create just about any shape. I have provided specific measurements for the box shown in the process photos in case that helps get you started. However, don’t be afraid to stretch out into other proportions or entirely different designs. Just make sure to carefully follow the lid fitting directions. Box size isn’t particularly important either, although your blank should be a minimum of 1-1/2" to 2" longer than your finished box height. The most important thing? Have fun!

Part away the body and turn the lid interior

Begin with a turning blank that’s about 2-1/2" square and 4" long, mounting it between centers. Turn it to a cylinder using a spindle roughing gouge (see p. 58 for my modified version). Then turn a tenon on one end, sizing it to mount securely in a 4-jaw chuck. Mount the tenon in the chuck, supporting the outward end with the tailstock center, and turn a similar tenon as shown. Part off the box body, and set it aside for now. 

Begin shaping the underside of the lid section, which remains in your chuck. True the face flat, create the bevel and hollow as shown, and then cut the mortise. Use a straightedge to confirm that the bottom-most section of the lid is flat before sanding your newly cut surfaces. Finally, apply a coat of finish before removing the not-yet-complete lid from the chuck. I use Mylands High-build Friction Polish.

Box-turning tool kit

To make a box like this, I use (l to r) a 1⁄4" parting tool, 1⁄16" parting tool, 1⁄4" bowl gouge, 3⁄8" spindle gouge, 11⁄8" Forstner bit, and a 1⁄2" round nose scraper. A vernier caliper (front) does the measuring.

Turn the 2nd tenon. Having secured the previously turned tenon in a 4-jaw chuck, turn a tenon on the opposite end of the blank using a 1⁄4" parting tool.

Part away the body blank. With a 1⁄16" parting tool, part off what will be the body of the box, leaving the lid blank mounted in the chuck. Make a series of progressively deeper side-by-side plunges to prevent the tool from jamming in the slot. Cut down to a diameter of about 3⁄16", then cut or twist off the bottom section. 

Shape the lid underside. Use a 1⁄4" bowl gouge to shape the exterior bevel and interior hollow. Leave a flat section at least 3⁄32" wide between the two. This is where you’ll cut the mortise in the next step.

Cut the mortise. The 1⁄4" parting tool does a nice job of cutting the step that will serve as a mortise for the tenon you’ll cut at the top of the box body.

Confirm the flat. Make sure that the flat is, in fact, flat because it will affect the look and fit of the lid on the body. 

Soft-sanding. A small scrap of neoprene makes a great sandpaper backer when smoothing the hollow. 

Fit and finish the lid

Now you’re ready to turn the tenon on the body in order to use it as a sort of jam chuck to hold the lid while you shape its top side. Mount the body blank by securing its tenon in your 4-jaw chuck. Then true the outermost face with your 3/8" spindle gouge, and create a tiny divot at the center. Use a vernier caliper to measure the diameter of the lid mortise, set a compass to half that distance, and mark out the tenon on the blank. Cut the tenon to snugly fit the lid mortise, attach the lid to the body blank, and then complete the lid shaping. Finally, sand and apply finish to the freshly cut surfaces.

Mount the box body and mark the tenon. Having set a compass to the radius of the lid mortise, locate its pin leg in the tiny divot you cut, and swing the tool to approximately mark the tenon diameter.

Double-check the diameter. The proper tenon diameter is crucial to a perfect fit, so check your cutline against the previously set caliper jaws. Note if your cut needs to be perhaps a bit shy of the line.  

Measure for the tenon length. Insert an accurate ruler or depth gauge in the lid mortise to establish the necessary length for the tenon. Then mark that distance on your body blank.


Turn and test the tenon. Use a 1⁄4" parting tool to turn the tenon. As you approach your cutline, occasionally stop the lathe and test-fit the lid. Recut as necessary, taking tiny passes until the lid presses on with just a bit of pressure. Ideally, removing it will create a little suction pop. Also make sure that the underside of the lid neatly mates against the end of the body. If you turn the tenon diameter too small, take another stab at it, effectively lengthening the tenon in the process, but making the new section wider. Then turn away the original, errant section. 

Finish shaping the lid. With the lid attached to the body blank, and the tailstock center in play, finish shaping the lid as far as you can go, using the 3⁄8" spindle gouge. Then back the center off to complete the work. If you did your fitting well, the lid will stay in place for this cut. Sand and finish the lid now too.

Flourishes

Augmenting a box with some paint or woodburning flourishes is a great way to dress it up, particularly if you want to personalize it for that special someone.

A shapely body completes your box

All that’s left is to shape the body and hollow it out. First, cut the top bevel as shown. Then shape the majority of the body and establish the bottom location while still leaving plenty of mass at the stem. Drill out the body, and then use a 1/2" round nose scraper to shape the interior. (See drawing p. 52.) The idea is to get rid of the drill bit imprint while shaping the interior to mimic the exterior. Next, sand and finish the still-mounted piece. (I use a long piece of neoprene-backed sandpaper stretched around my finger to sand the interior.) Part off the body, and turn the waste to create a jam chuck that allows you to finish off the bottom. Sand and apply finish to the bottom and you’re done!

Shape the body and establish the bottom. Still using your spindle gouge, shape the main section of the body. Then part in at the base just far enough to establish the perimeter of what will be the box’s flat bottom. Make a series of progressively deeper side-by-side plunge cuts to prevent jamming the tool.

Drill out the interior. Chuck a Forstner bit in your tailstock, with masking tape wrapped around the shank as a depth gauge. Then bore a hole, making sure the bit’s point is well clear of the box’s bottom. Follow up by shaping the interior with a round nose scraper.

Jam-chucked to finish up. Create a jam chuck by truing the face of the waste block, then turning a shallow mortise to snugly accept the tenon on the top of the box. After mounting the inverted box in the waste block, bring the tail center into play and finish off the bottom. 

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