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Boxes - Working in Small Scale

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Blog entry by RogerBean posted 05-20-2014 04:49 PM 1728 reads 9 times favorited 24 comments Add to Favorites Watch

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.

Roger

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



24 comments so far

View shipwright's profile

shipwright

4983 posts in 1456 days


#1 posted 05-20-2014 05:10 PM

Good discussion Roger, but just so you know it can be done, here’s one of the finest boxes I’ve ever seen, probably the finest, and I know for a fact that it was all done with hand tools.

However, I think you may be addressing your comments to mortals, not Patrice and Patrick, so I can agree a little more.

Personally, I don’t believe in all the fine tuning gadgets so much but I’d agree that they are a great aid to those who are so inclined. I also don’t make as fine of boxes as you do but I do get great satisfaction out of obtaining my fits and matches (such as they are) without them.

I’m not disagreeing with your statements or advice as much as I am just allowing that it may not be for everyone.

-- Paul M ..............If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats he would have given us fiberglass trees. http://prmdesigns.com/

View whope's profile

whope

51 posts in 1103 days


#2 posted 05-20-2014 05:29 PM

Great post. One of the reasons for being here is to get insight from those who have gone before. Thanks!

-- Measure it with a micrometer, mark it with chalk, cut it with an axe.

View RogerBean's profile

RogerBean

1149 posts in 1611 days


#3 posted 05-20-2014 05:55 PM

Paul,
Good comment. No disagreement. We should each work as we are most comfortable. But, you sort of make my point. Marquetry, by it’s very nature, is the essence of “working in small scale”, and is done with tools appropriate to the need. As to the example, Patrice’s box is magnificent. And his marquetry is even better.
Roger

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

View Randy_ATX's profile

Randy_ATX

676 posts in 1100 days


#4 posted 05-20-2014 05:56 PM

Thank you for helping to share your knowledge.

-- Randy -- Austin, TX by way of Northwest (Woodville), OH

View Rick M.'s profile

Rick M.

3978 posts in 1038 days


#5 posted 05-20-2014 06:42 PM

Thanks for the post.

-- |Statistics show that 100% of people bitten by a snake were close to it.|

View BritBoxmaker's profile

BritBoxmaker

4372 posts in 1694 days


#6 posted 05-20-2014 07:58 PM

Very good discussion, Roger with many well made points. I concur on finishing mitres on a disk sander. That or cutting them with a razor sharp router bit ( with the router properly mounted in a table). I use a steel rule and digital calipers for measurement also. I think my largest chisel is 6mm. I also find needle files useful. In addition a drum sander is very useful for accurate thicknessing of stock combined with a tear free fine finish.

One thing I find people don’t seem to do is scale the wall thickness of their boxes to suit and a lot of them appear chunky because of this. I think they don’t take into account that small boxes don’t need to be as robust as an item of furniture, like a chair, which has to take a person’s weight.

Smaller joints also suffice and, whilst it is up to personal choice whether they are used, keys (slipfeathers, splines) are not essential for mitred joints. Not unless the box is to be used in hand to hand combat such as the marital (sic) arts.

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging. http://www.theartofboxes.com

View stefang's profile

stefang

13057 posts in 1992 days


#7 posted 05-20-2014 09:02 PM

Good blog subject Roger. while I agree that better and more appropriate sized/quality tools do make the job easier I still believe that top quality boxes like you make or let’s just say any small beautifully made projects can be made with larger/rougher tools, but the cuts then need refining. An example of what I’m talking about would be using a shooting board to tune up saw cuts, etc. That said, it is wonderful to have and use precision tools that reduce or eliminate refining.

I’m looking forward to seeing your new humidor.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Spoontaneous's profile

Spoontaneous

1318 posts in 1988 days


#8 posted 05-20-2014 11:43 PM

Size matters. If it ain’t big enough….. I can’t see it. I bought those goofy magnifying safety glasses and things are still shrinking.

I have to say though….. as for as boxes goes….. I love the smaller boxes. There is just something about boxes that you can hold in your hand… and they don’t have to be fancy…. well made is good… but I have a few in my collection from several different countries… and even though a couple of them are ‘folk art-ish’, they still have so much character.

-- I just got done cutting three boards and all four of them were too short. (true story)

View Ken90712's profile

Ken90712

14947 posts in 1847 days


#9 posted 05-21-2014 09:14 AM

Great points and ways that you have learned to hone your skills. While I agree and think your points are helpful, I have witnessed and watch some great box makers attack them from table saws and miters saws. We all want the best tools we can afford, while I’m fortunate to be able to buy what I want w/o Blondie caring. I fully understand others might be on a budget and/or starting off in this great hobby. Incra has helped me in many ways and we all want to get better.

Thx for the post.

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

View RogerBean's profile

RogerBean

1149 posts in 1611 days


#10 posted 05-21-2014 11:34 AM

Great comments, everybody. Thanks for adding to the thoughts.

One other thing I failed to mention above, is the number of small shop-made fixtures I’ve come to rely on for all manner of operations. Well designed fixtures add precision to all kinds of woodworking operations, but for fine boxes they are particularly helpful. I have several glue-up fixtures that greatly aid in getting tight glue joints. My mitering fixtures for the disk sander have become essentials in my shop. The forms necessary for forming and veneering curved surfaces have also become a well-used part of my shop. All my boxes seem to make use one or more of these simple little fixtures, sacrificial fences and the like. They greatly increase precision, and I’d hate to be without them.

In parting, I should also say that I’m hardly the authority or arbiter of either good taste or best practices. I’m merely sharing how I do some of these things. There are certainly other ways, and probably better ways as well. But these work pretty well for me, though I’m always learning and adapting new methods as well.

Roger

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

View dclark1943's profile

dclark1943

156 posts in 845 days


#11 posted 05-21-2014 01:15 PM

Roger, I just arrived in Church stretton and had lunch with Andrew, where I passed your greeting on to him. He then delivered me to the B&B where I am now catching up on emails. I read your blog and couldn’t agree more. I’m finding all those things out as I progress. I now realize my 16” Mini Max is just too big – - A great tool, however I’m now looking for a small 3 wheeler. I’m sure that the subject of “small scale” will come up. The weather is absolutely beautiful here today, cool air and warm sunshine, We had lunch outdoors at the Raglith? in Little Stretton. The landscape here is absolutely stunning! Looking forward to the week !

-- Dave, Kansas City

View Boxguy's profile

Boxguy

1474 posts in 925 days


#12 posted 05-21-2014 01:28 PM

Roger, sorry to post so late on your well done and well thought out plea for precision. I needed time to consider my reply. I agree with your premise that precision takes smaller, finer tools. Especially in your case where you are working in fine veneers and producing beautiful high-end boxes.

I also agree with your second addition that having jigs is essential for making boxes. In my first year of making boxes I spent more time designing and making jigs and modifying tools than I did making the boxes themselves.

As to routers, I now have 7 of them that are each mounted on boards or sticking up through tables. Changing bits in routers and adjusting for the cuts is time consuming. It is so much easier and more fun to just walk up to a tool, do the job and then walk up to the next tool.

However, since I fundamentally work with solid wood and rounded corners and edges, I find random orbital sanders to be essential, and have built imprecision into my designs. By that I mean that the rounded corners and edges allow me room for error or for correcting errors.

I find that when you have tailored your shop to work on boxes you have to move tools around when you have that odd project that involves something larger scale like furniture. It is amazing how many thing just don’t fit your space any more.

One of the most satisfying parts of box making is that you are working on such a small scale that you can afford to be extremely precise and accurate in your work. As I aged, I moved from building houses, to furniture, to boxes. I have moved from a tolerance of 1/16 to 1/32 to practically zero. Boxes are definitely easier on my back, and much more suited to this stage of my life.

As to Martyn’s comments about splines…I get his point. But boxes take a good bit of wear and tear. The best boxes I make are the ones customers tell me they use every day. They hold tea, jewelry, watches, medicine, and the like. They get banged about, dropped, and bumped. They need to be sturdy. While my work will never be mistaken for the high artistry of your work, I am making a more utilitarian and much less artistic box than the beautiful creations you are producing. I strive to make my work attractive to the eye, but it will never be mistaken for he artistry of your work. Surely there is room for both approaches to the craft.

I completely agree with Martyn when he comments about how clunky smaller boxes look when they have 3/4 inch thick sides. It is one of my main peeve with many of the boxes on this site. If you are making a toy or tool box 3/4 is OK. Those tend to be bigger boxes.

Boxes with a long dimension of say 12 to 18 inches look better to my eye if they are about 5/8 thick. Below that dimension they look better in the 1/4 inch range to me.

Roger, thanks for posting this. It gave me an opportunity to work on some thoughts about making boxes. That is one of the joys of this site. Contributors come from a vast range of skills and ideas and all can share in the exchanges. It is nice to see the appreciation for the struggles of those in all the steps along the journey as we move from our first box to the high artistry of box makers like you and Martyn. All of us at every level are striving to move along the path and improve. Striving to make our individual vision of the perfect box. There is something noble in that.

-- Big Al in IN

View RogerBean's profile

RogerBean

1149 posts in 1611 days


#13 posted 05-21-2014 01:54 PM

Al,
Thanks for the kind words and the added thoughts. I’m sure many readers benefit greatly from your numerous well-written blogs on box making techniques and fixtures. And I agree with you that there is room in box making for many different approaches. Each offers something useful and adds to our collective knowledge.
Roger

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

View abie's profile

abie

598 posts in 2429 days


#14 posted 05-21-2014 02:23 PM

Thanks for this discussion
I cannot agree more with all of it.
TNX

-- Bruce. a mind is like a book it is only useful when open.

View Northwest29's profile

Northwest29

758 posts in 1148 days


#15 posted 05-21-2014 07:14 PM

Roger and other posters – Thank you so much for sharing your insights to all types of box making. I have never thought of box making at such a detailed level previously. I would like to take on the challenge of making one of those beautiful boxes like Roger does, but it will be a bit longer before I have my skill set up to speed. This discussion have provided much ‘food for thought’ and I greatly appreciate the input from all contributors.

-- Ron, Eugene, OR, "Curiosity is a terrible thing to waste."

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