Adventures in Boxmaking

I made a box once. I was in year 8 at school and they were forcing us to take woodwork. I was one of the few in the class who actually enjoyed being there but I can’t say I was very capable even having grown up around a father and grandfather who were both very good with their hands.

The box I made was a shoeshine box with a sloped front hinged at the top. The idea was that you could store your show cleaning supplies inside and polish your shoes while they were on top. I’ve got no idea why I choose this project. I don’t think they made us all do the same thing and I don’t recall seeing anyone else try the same project.

The box was made of wood grain veneered MDF, something I’ve never seen again to this day. The sides were rebated on the router table and I actually got to use it myself under strict supervision even though most of the class wasn’t considered responsible enough to do so.

Everything was glued and nailed. It was actually square, and the only real problem was that the door wasn’t bevelled to match the angle of the slope so it never sat quite right, if someone had introduced me to a jack plane back then I could have fixed that problem in a matter of minutes.

That box is still around at my parents place and is being used for the purpose it was built. It’s also been used as a stool when changing light globes and has shown no sign of ever falling apart.

For some reason though even with that success story behind me I’ve avoided making boxes since I took up woodworking. They have always just scared me a little. I’ve made a few open front cabinets and drawers which are nothing more than boxes with another name but I’ve always found a reason to avoid boxes even though I admire others who can do them.

Part of it has to do with the problems I have with making things square. I just never seem to nail every cut so there’s always some sort of issue when it comes time to put things together. It’s one of the reasons I love spoon carving so much, everything is from one piece and no joinery is involved. If you make a mistake you just change the design a little and nobody ever knows the difference, where with a box everyone knows that the sides should join perfectly at 90 degrees and there’s a lot less room for error.

Another part of it has to do with dovetails. I know they look lovely but the one set I’ve ever cut were less than perfect so I never gave it another go. And what’s the point of making a box without dovetails, surely it can’t be any good right?

I decided a few weeks ago that I was going to face my fear and try to make a box. I wasn’t going to try and do dovetails this time around, it was going to be simple butt joints with glue and nails. I can only face one demon at a time and wanted to get at least one finished box under my belt before I tried something more fancy.

I started with some meranti that was in the wood pile. This piece of wood has had quite a few lives now. It started as the safety rail of my childhood double bunk beds, then was part of my very first plane till. Then it was slated to be part of a wooden toolbox I was building. I’m pleased to say it’s finally found a place in a finished project now. This is how it looked when I started.

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A quick sand and it’s looking better. I didn’t mind that it wasn’t totally clear of marks, the goal was to finish a box and in this case the process was more important than the end result.

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The next step was to cut the pieces to length. I had a couple of pieces that would do for a top and bottom so based the lengths on them. This is where it all started to fall apart though. I used my powered drop saw to make the cuts and while the fence is square to the blade, I made a mistake in assuming that the sides of this piece of timber were parallel and they weren’t so the angle of the cut was slightly off on all of them. Lesson one learnt – joint every board you use just in case or at least check them with a square.

The next mistake I made was not correcting the small error from above, which would have been a simple thing to do on the shooting board. Instead I let myself get flustered and almost give up. Lesson two learnt – don’t try and rush just to get finished or the quality of the end result suffers.

I managed to calm down, step back and look at what I had done and decided to put it together anyway. This is what it looked like at that stage. Small gaps at the joins but structurally strong enough after the glue and nails were put in. It actually almost looks like a box!

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I gave it a sand to see what it looked like then. Still a few gaps but overall not too bad.

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Because the board wasn’t jointed before starting there were some small height differences at the top, so I decided not to make the same mistake as before and fixed them so the top was all level. I also decided that the shape was too heavy so put a large bevel on the top to try and make it a look a little less…well….boxy

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I added the other piece as a top, and using a couple of small offcuts from the woodpile made a handle for it too, held in place with glue. I also added another bevel on top and a smaller one underneath.

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Two smaller bits of the same offcut were glued on the underside of the lid to make stops to hold the lid in place

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Then I put it all together to see how it looked

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A coat of shellac with an oak coloured stain mixed in started the finishing process

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A rub down with fine steel wool and another coat of shellac got it looking pretty good

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Finally the outside got a couple of coats of beeswax, buffed in between, to fill in the small gaps and to bring out the shine

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I think I must have sat and stared at it for at least 15 minutes once it was finished. I couldn’t believe it, I actually made a box! It’s now sitting proudly on my bedside table and is used to hold all of the items I take out of my pockets when I get home.

The actual process wasn’t that hard, and it was only a couple of very minor mistakes that caused problems and I know how to avoid them next time. I wish I hadn’t waited this long to try to do this as it’s put a lot of unfounded fears to rest. I know it seems strange to take about fear in relation to a woodworking project but that’s what it was – fear of failure, fear of not doing a good enough job, fear of wasting time and material.

I know that if it hadn’t turned out well it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it still mattered to me so I kept putting off trying it and somehow turned it into something a lot harder in my mind than it was on the workbench. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this way, I’ve shown some of my spoons to friends at the local woodwork group who were terrified at the idea of working on something that was made up of curves  and I know others who won’t try any of the sample projects in front of the more experienced woodworkers for fear of looking foolish.

While the end result was good, I think what I learnt about having a go at something, taking my time and correcting the little errors before proceeding to the next step is the important thing. I’ve also learnt that boxmaking is a lot of fun and I can’t wait to have a go at my next one. This time though, there will be dovetails!

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