Some Thoughts on Box Design

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Blog entry by RogerBean posted 11-24-2013 05:38 PM 2460 reads 4 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch

First, the disclaimer. I am just a hobby box maker, and these are nothing more than my opinions, and I have no interest in disparaging any else’s work. I tend to make a particular kind of box, and my comments surely reflect that. By all means feel free to disagree or comment. Hopefully someone will benefit from the discussion.

There is a nearly infinite variety of box types and designs. Nearly all have merit in one way or another. Even a simple pine box nailed together is better than no box at all. Most of us strive to make something better, and to do so, we implicitly or explicitly make a whole series of design decisions.

Regardless of how we get there, the resulting box is a “whole” rather than a disconnected series of parts. The best boxes reflect this “harmony” of parts. Masterpieces, whether furniture, boxes, or other, invariably reflect this harmony. When we see a box that lacks this cohesiveness, we mentally go “Oops, that part doesn’t look right. …doesn’t fit.” And, this cohesiveness of design comes from mental activity, not craftsmanship. It comes from the thinking we do before we begin cutting.

Perhaps it is fair to say that a box consists of two parts: The first resulting from “design skill” and the second the culmination of “woodworking skill”. When both come together, we have something special.

But, sometimes we think a lot, and the result is disappointing. Similarly, we might only begin with a simple idea and the result is great. My point is, that either way, there is thinking involved, and the better we do the thinking part, the better the result. Design quality is perhaps even more important than build quality. After all, if it’s ugly, craftsmanship won’t make it un-ugly. On the other hand, a great, though simple design buys a little forgiveness even if our craftsmanship is less than perfect.

How we Learn:

Most of us learn from seeing and experiencing things that have gone before. There is much to be learned from studying earlier boxes. (I much prefer this to trial and error.) Whether you choice is a period style, contemporary, art boxes, or whatever, much is to be gained by studying every one you can find. With so many web sites available these days, many many are readily available. For traditional English made boxes, is a great source. There are many others.

I grab screen shots of all the boxes I find interesting and file them in Keynote pages, sort of like a slide show. I also frequently mark LJ posted boxes as “favorites” hence making them available for future reference. Dissecting other’s work is very useful.

Reference Library:

Woodworkers who are also readers are at a significant advantage. I have a large reference library that includes just about every box book ever written. Ideas, solutions, and inspiration are only a few steps away. In my opinion, this kind of stimulation is important to being unusually good at anything, including box making. One cannot do it all by yourself. Every master has been carried on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

Working on Paper:

I keep a sketchbook of my thoughts and designs and ideas, so I can refer back later. I use it to work out my ideas for projects. These drawings are not works of art. Quite the contrary, they are rough sketches of boxes, fixtures, processes, set-ups and other details. For me, if I cannot draw it, I probably can’t make it. Works for me.

Here’s one that’s on my bench for the future: (I have hundreds of pages of this stuff.)


The more boxes we make; the more we study; the more we communicate with other box makers, the better we get.

I think I’ll stop here, before I get too windy. I’ll have a new box to post soon. Perhaps my best.

Make more boxes.


-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

15 comments so far

View CharlieM1958's profile


16276 posts in 4271 days

#1 posted 11-24-2013 06:27 PM

Nice post, Roger.

You are very fortunate to possess both the vision and the skill to create beautiful boxes. I personally find myself frequently having to tone down my creativity in order to stay within my ability to bring my ideas to fruition. I should probably spend more time on improving those skills, but alas, for me it is a case of so many hobbies… so little time.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Blackie_'s profile


4883 posts in 2565 days

#2 posted 11-24-2013 06:42 PM

A very interesting topic, first a little history on my woodworking, I’ve only been into box making for the past realistically 2 years before that I dabbed in cabinetry, two kitchens under the belt, it was coming to this site before finding my path and learning from others here on box making skills, I first started with bandsaw boxes then migrated into combining mitered with bandsaw boxes creating hybrids, there’s still a long road ahead for learning.

I can honestly say that for the short period, I’ve blossomed very well as the comments I receive show it.

I think we all have our different methods of attacking a project, first which woods to start with, type of joinery, design, etc… my dilemma is matching woods at start, the final outcome and I think that is due to the lack of time and experience.

This may be off key from the topic but… My objective is to produce a worthy appealing box of many different designs for the pleasure passion in building but also in hopes to turn a profit only sometimes keeping things simple seems to be the key, for instance during the year I’ve been on Etsy I’ve made just under 5k selling my projects after study and research I found another woodworking that has one standard design he keeps to it using just simple basic hardwoods nothing fancy, 11” x8” x 3 3/4” he attaches exterior 1” brass plated hinges to the rear of the box exposed (keeping it simple) with a tray on the inside, he adds an oval hole to the back of the box for phone charging he’s only charging $88.00 per box, I was able to monitor his sales through out the year and he’s doubled my sales making over $8000,00 to this date and the year isn’t over yet.

You have awesome designs Roger.

-- Randy - If I'm not on LJ's then I'm making Saw Dust. Please feel free to visit my store location at

View Dennis Zongker's profile

Dennis Zongker

2751 posts in 3645 days

#3 posted 11-24-2013 06:55 PM

Hi Roger,

This is a wonderful blog on exactly how the steps should be done to making beautiful heirloom boxes or furniture, or any type of artistic project.

This is why your boxes are so beautiful, it shows in your design and craftsmanship.

For me I spend about 30% of the time on each project designing and engineering my techniques on AutoCAD. Then after that I get to play with the wood.

I’m really looking forward to seeing your next box!

-- Dennis Zongker

View mauibob's profile


236 posts in 3120 days

#4 posted 11-24-2013 07:30 PM

Great post, Roger. You mentioned two parts to box making – “design” skills and “woodworking” skills. In many ways, I find the “design” part the most challenging, and often the most difficult to perfect. Not that I’m saying that the “woodworking” part is easy, but it is one where there are just so many resources on the web and elsewhere that you always have a wealth of ideas on how to build something once you’ve figured out what the heck it is you want to build!

My wife and I collect 18th century tea caddies—one of your particular specialties! Many of these 18th century caddies have the same basic shape and form, with few exceptions (e.g., pear and apple shaped caddies). The embellishments may be different—tunbridge ware, marquetry designs, use of tortoise shell, abalone or mother of pearl, spoon and hidden compartments, etc. —but in general they differ only slightly. When they do differ, however, they can be spectacular. It is this “design” skill that sets the box aside from all others, and contributes to its lasting value (and ultimately price).

To complement what Dennis said, I spend probably 70-80% of my time on the design elements of the boxes I build and sell. Like Blackie pointed out, woodworkers can certainly do OK making the same standard design over and over, but in my opinion, the design phase is what keeps me interested in woodworking and excited enough to do another one.

-- Bob, Potomac, MD

View mauibob's profile


236 posts in 3120 days

#5 posted 11-24-2013 07:39 PM

Forgot to mention—thanks for the great URL: What a cool site!

-- Bob, Potomac, MD

View grizzman's profile


7836 posts in 3356 days

#6 posted 11-24-2013 07:40 PM

Thank you for a well written blog, very much enjoyed, ive learned a lot from you roger, and am very thankful, as i’ve tried to change my box making from what i learned from you, yes our styles are very different, but the overall essence of the boxes is what counts, so much can be done with a box, and each of them inspire those who buy them , or those who make them, i look forward to seeing your next creation…and hope your well.

-- GRIZZMAN ...[''''']

View robscastle's profile


5144 posts in 2257 days

#7 posted 11-24-2013 09:34 PM

A well written broad spectrum article.

Regardless of our level of competencies something of interest for everybody.
Thank you Roger.

I can only speak for myself (but recognise the comments from the LJs above) fully agree with your opinion.

In my case I have gone from making basic butt joint boxes to the one I am currently working on, although it will be in the roughie category, it will be my best effort at the current plateau of learning that I am at.

This learning path is one I would have to give credit fully to the LJ website and contributions of members posted, and then the follow up encouragement given to try the same yourself.

The links as mauibob mentioned, the hygra is well worth a browse even if only to educate ones self on the history, little wonder why these treasures retain top value even today.

-- Regards Rob

View Jim Jakosh's profile

Jim Jakosh

20754 posts in 3158 days

#8 posted 11-25-2013 12:22 AM

When I make a box, I start by writing the 3 dimensions I need to hit and then sketch out a shape and write in any special features I want to put in it. Often I have never made those features before so I sleep on it. Invariably I dream about it and the design is worked out when I wake up so I can start cutting wood!

I have one in the works right now with a hidden hinge and have not dreamed about how I’m going to put in the hidden pin but I like to have an idea I think has a chance of working before I cut any wood. Many times it is a design as I go, but there is a basic design in the back of my head if not on paper.

I really enjoy that talent seen here for making boxes of ALL KINDS! It is just amazing who we have gathered here on this LJ site!! If you want to make a box, you needn’t look anywhere else!! Somebody here has nailed it with a sweet project!!!!!!!!!!!!!

cheers, Jim

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View gfadvm's profile


14940 posts in 2743 days

#9 posted 11-25-2013 02:01 AM

Your sketches may be “rough” to you, but they look artistic to me. Being able to visualize and sketch out a project are my short suits.
I admire your work and consider your boxes to be an ideal to strive toward.

-- " I'll try to be nicer, if you'll try to be smarter" gfadvm

View JeremyPringle's profile


321 posts in 2527 days

#10 posted 11-25-2013 03:35 AM

Thumbs up on this post.

View kiefer's profile


5619 posts in 2720 days

#11 posted 11-25-2013 04:29 AM

Well that is quite a post you presented here .
I find a lot of good reasoning in this but I have had to develop my own way of approaching a box design ,I admire the boxes that you have made and presented here and am just astounded with the quality .
My approach to a box is usually a piece of lumber to my liking and I start with the size and appearance of the board to get a feel of what it want’s to be .
The other approach I take is that a box design develops from a idea for a part like the hinge I made for my Empress box .
The original application was to use it on a box with the lid swinging front to back with the hinge blades and a cross piece to serve as a handle .
As time went by I had the notion to build another box with sideways opening lids and thought that the hinge would maybe work in this application and I drew up a design as you see here .

I just thought I would take a pic of the original drawing I made and had laying around in the shop .

This is a pic of the box completed with all the details and wood choices .
I my case the box develops in the shop as I go .
I find this way I can visualize which I can not from a sketch .
The technical details are easy but design details are another matter .
At the moment I have a couple of boxes on the go which have come about because of the material I am using and a theme that I like to address with the design .
So I guess what I am trying to say is that there is no standard approach to all of this and It would be a shame as we would be copying from each other .
I enjoy the work of others and admire their work and craftsmanship and find inspiration but I also like to develop my own designs .
Thanks for the excellent post and the conversation you started ,it is a great subject and will be of great interest to many .

-- Kiefer

View jbschutz's profile


542 posts in 2744 days

#12 posted 11-25-2013 01:15 PM

Roger, well said. Your designs and craftsmanship are admirable, and your thoughts on the processes are on point. When those facets of box making come together, the result is artistry. Your boxes are a testament to that. The posted design sketch illustrates the process and I look forward to seeing this one come to life.

-- jbschutz

View Roger's profile


20929 posts in 2857 days

#13 posted 11-25-2013 01:24 PM

Well spoken. Thnx for sharing your info.

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed.

View Philip's profile


1277 posts in 2592 days

#14 posted 11-25-2013 03:22 PM

Great design blog, thanks Roger!

-- I never finish anyth

View BritBoxmaker's profile


4611 posts in 3089 days

#15 posted 11-25-2013 03:39 PM

Thank you for having taken the time and effort to write this all down. A well thought out and expounded blog.

Personally I find thinking, initially, inhibits creativity. I like to take in as much as I can from my surroundings, study, likes etc and just let my mind wander, where it will go. Its all too tempting to seize on the first idea that comes into your head and run with that. If I let my mind wander on often ideas will unfold or spark off each other. Its then a rush to get all the good stuff down on paper (initially) or CAD.

Mostly how its going to be done comes after the design idea. That’s where the thinking is needed. Sometimes an idea is not possible to realise, sometimes not yet. If you’ve jotted it all down in sketch/note form its easy to come back to it later, when gained experience or new materials and processes are available to look at it again.

I now find that I love both parts of the process of design. The initial wandering and/or inspiration and the detailed working out of how its going to be made/making it.

I look forward to seeing your next box.

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging.

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