As I look through the pages of projects on various woodworking sites, I see a fundamental misunderstanding as to the basics of box making. As I once shared this same misconception, perhaps these thoughts will help someone seeking to create fine boxes. This “misalignment” has to do with what might be called “working in small scale”.
On my first visit to Andrew Crawford’s workshop in Shropshire, England, only minutes into our conversation, he pointed out the importance of learning the elements of what he called “working in small scale”. This insight struck home. I was used to making larger things: furniture, cabinetry, and other house type projects. I was trying to make boxes the same way, and I was creating problems for myself all over the place.
“Working in small scale” is as much a mindset as a work process. Trying to make fine boxes with furniture size tools is akin to trying to build model airplanes with a chainsaw. Might be possible, but it sure isn’t going to be easy. I always read with amusement when novice box makers speak proudly of having made their project completely with “hand tools”. This is possible, of course, but it mostly just introduces about a hundred new variables into an already difficult and precise process. I don’t know of anyone today who produces really fine boxes entirely with hand tools. Simple boxes, yes. Fine boxes, no. It’s hard enough to try to do precise work with even the best of tools, powered or not.
I used to use a tape measure. Today, I rely almost entirely on Incra rules and a digital caliper. When building a deck, I can be off a 1/16th and it will never show. If a box is off 1/16” it looks like a cavern. I’m used to working in metal as well, so moving to more precise measurement in my woodworking isn’t a huge leap, but still, I’m always thinking about it.
I used to cut miters on my table saw …and wonder why it was so hard to get perfect joints. Sometimes I did. Mostly, I knew they weren’t really perfect at all. I bought the best miter gauges and a digital angle gauge. Better, but not consistently right. Then, Andrew introduced me to the process of finishing off my miters on the disk sander using a simple fixture. Wow!! All the difference in the world. That big whirling blade on the saw is just not as precise as the sander. Simple as that.
I now use an inexpensive 7 1/4” Diablo blade on my Unisaw for almost everything related to boxes (except miters). It has 1/16” kerf and with a zero clearance ply insert cuts clean as a whistle.
I used to rely on my utility knife to make cuts on most things. For box work, I might as well use a hatchet. I now use a Swann-Morton scalpel with 25A blades and Voila! my cuts are clean and precise. I used to use any old thing available for a straight-edge. I now use a good straight-edge and throw away less material.
My first routers were all used hand-held, as I had seen carpenters and cabinet makers do. I made shelves and other stuff and this worked fine. When I started making boxes, I quickly realized this was all but useless. I built my first simple router table in the shop and all of a sudden my box work improved markedly. For box work, the router table is not optional, it’s essential.
The router table doesn’t have to be a complex, sophisticated one. Fine work can be done on the simplest of router tables. I confess, though, that I do use a shop made router table with an Incra PRL-2 lift and LS positioner fence. Not necessary, but very precise and convenient.
My 20” Delta bandsaw does get used a bit for resawing later boards, with a 1/2” Timberwolf blade, but most of my box bandsaw work is actually sone on a little 12” Craftsman band saw.
I next quickly learned that my cheap Chinese router bits were not going to cut it either. I now rely on razor sharp WhiteSide bits exclusively. I also make lighter cuts, and move more slowly and carefully. A little tear-out on a cabinet is bad, …on a box it is disaster.
My full size bench chisels hardly ever get used these days. They are just too big and clumsy. I have a smaller and more manageable set that are on the bench all the time. Same is true for my planes. I have a full set of razor sharp, tuned Record and some Lie-Neilson hand planes. They hardly ever see any use.
Even sanding blocks. I have three little (the largest is about 1.25×3”) sanding blocks of MDF with neoprene rubber glued to one side. My random orbital sanders are never used for box work. They just cut too fast and too indiscriminately. I do all my sanding with the little blocks.
Everything is just smaller. And, more precise. And more appropriate to box work. At least to fine box work. I find myself buying tools from instrument builder suppliers like Stewart-MacDonald more than traditional tool suppliers. Once I began moving in this direction, I was amazed how much my work improved. Andrew was certainly right. It is one of the first things for the fine box maker to learn. Of course, I’m still learning.
I hope someone finds these thoughts helpful to their box making.
BTW, I have a new box to post soon. It’s a walnut humidor, and has an accompanying eBook. I should have it up shortly.
-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)