Sassafras Box - a True Learning Experience

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Blog entry by cajunpen posted 10-17-2007 06:25 AM 5103 reads 0 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch

About 3 years ago my wife and I were on vacation in Arkansas. I appropriated a slab of Sassafras from a woodworker that I had befriended. We were actually in a State Park that had huts set up with demonstrations of the way things were done a century ago – very interesting. Anyway, I got this slab, which is about 2 feet in diameter and about 5” thick. I carried it onto the tour bus that was taking us back to our hotel – people thought that I was crazy, my wife was way ahead of them, she already knew I was crazy. Made it to the hotel, put it in the car and finished a great vacation.

The slab of Sassafras sat in my shop for the past 3 years – then I decided that maybe it was time to do something with it. I had never cut my own lumber from a slab, but heck I’ve got a bandsaw and should be able to do that. I actually was very satisfied with that portion of the project – the wood came off the slab very nicely. I did all of the milling that we do getting wood ready for a project and decided to build a box that would make Don say—WOW (I had heard that he loves small boxes)........well, that’s not likely to happen – but I did learn quite a few things with the project and that should make my future projects better.

First I cut all of the parts, mitering the corners – so far so good:
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Following information gathered from one of Doug Stowe’s great videos I cut the top to make a floating lid:
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Then I glued everything up, using some playing cards as spacers to hold my gap around the floating lid (don’t know what the heck I was thinking here – but I did it The glue and cards worked perfectly – I had about an 1//8” gap around the lid – but now I realize, why, what am I going to do with this gap?

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So I decide to try an epoxy called InLace= that I picked up a couple of years ago. You just mix it like any epoxy and fill the gap – let harden and then sand flush. This worked out pretty well for me. So off to the tablesaw to cut the lid from the body of the box. I used splines to reinforce the mitered corners. I thought I was using a contrasting wood (Hickory) but once the oil and shellac was applied the Hickory splines tended to blend with the Sassafras.

Time to put some hinges on this project. I picked out hinges that would have been better suited for anything but a fine box – but hey, what did I know – I’m learning here. I mortised out for the hinges, installed them then sat back wondering what I had been thinking – looked awful. Well, I’ve been dying to try to make some wooden hinges, and thanks to Doug Stowe’s video I thought that I could do it. I made my very first set of wooden hinges. Also in the Doug Stowe video was a foolproof way of mortising the hinges – using a router table – well almost foolproof you do actually pay attention to what you are doing. I cut my mortises over the mortises that I had already made for the smaller hinges – thought this would work great an “make them go away” Well the bottom of the box came out perfect, the top actually did too – only now I had 4 hinge locations mortised on the top…....what a dummy!!! So now what do I do? Easy, I’ll just go to my drum sander and sand down the hinges (all four of them) until I get a flat lid again. That worked for me, so now it’s time to mortise the lid hinges again. This time I can’t get it wrong – or can I? You bet I can. This time I mortised out the same as last time. The old (smaller) mortises are gone – BUT NOT THE SCREW HOLES from the smaller hinges. Man, what I dummy I am. Oh well, I’m going to have to live with that one.

I sanded down to 400 grit and applied a couple coats of Danish Oil. Let that dry for a few days, then sprayed several coats of Shellac on it for the final finish. I installed the wooden hinges using Titebond II. After waiting for a few hours for the glue to set – time to see if the box would actually one and close (more importantly stay closed) and Walla – the hinges worked perfectly!!!!
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In spite of it’s shortcomings – I really am proud of this little box. I learned to overcome some problems and accomplished a few firsts for me – milling lumber from the tree to the project, the Splined Miters, The Wooden Hinges and The Inlace application. The big thing that I can take from this project is that I have to PAY ATTENTION to every step of the project.

-- Bill - "Suit yourself and let the rest be pleased."

15 comments so far

View Jeff's profile


1010 posts in 4121 days

#1 posted 10-17-2007 06:55 AM

Excellent work Bill. I have the same Doug Stowe DVD (I think) and it is always a place I go for inspiration/technique.

It’s always great to have those learning experiences and you are now the better for it. I’m spooked by the hinge thing as well. Great save with the wooden hinges!

-- Jeff, St. Paul, MN

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18615 posts in 4188 days

#2 posted 10-17-2007 12:31 PM

and you SHOULD be proud!! Nice.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 3990 days

#3 posted 10-17-2007 01:27 PM

Great show, Bill. I had fun just reading. I think you did a great job of learning. Now on to the next one. Never be afraid to try something new. If it doesn’t work out , that’s what we have stoves for. I need to keep warm and the mistakes help.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View herbr's profile


141 posts in 4096 days

#4 posted 10-17-2007 02:54 PM

Beautiful box even if the route was long

-- Spread love with our work

View Mark Mazzo's profile

Mark Mazzo

352 posts in 3940 days

#5 posted 10-17-2007 02:59 PM


The box looks nice. However, if I understand what you did, I’m a bit worried about the top. Did you say that you epoxied the top panel into it’s groove? If so, depending on how big the panel is and how much it may try to move in the future, you may see some cracking as the top expands and forces the frame of the top out.

In a design like that, the panels should not be glued in (unless they are plywood). They are meant to float in the groove so that as the conditions change and the panels acquire/loose moisture they can expand and contract without blowing out the frame. If you want to keep a solid wood panel from rattling, you can put a single dab of glue in the center of each of the end grain sides of the panel because it will expand an contract across the grain not with the grain. For plywood panels you can go ahead and glue them in all the way around.

Having said all of this, if the panel is fairly small, you may not experience any issues because it may not expand/contract enough to cause an issue. Just some food for thought on the next box ;-)

-- Mark, Webster New York, Visit my website at

View mot's profile


4911 posts in 4064 days

#6 posted 10-17-2007 03:13 PM

Great work, Bill. When I looked at the project post, I didn’t pick up on the splines at first…then you mentioned them and they become quite obvious. Nice writeup.

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

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John Gray

2370 posts in 3913 days

#7 posted 10-17-2007 03:38 PM


-- Only the Shadow knows....................

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4563 posts in 4338 days

#8 posted 10-17-2007 03:48 PM

Nice story and great looking box.

-- Jesus is Lord!

View Karson's profile


35125 posts in 4428 days

#9 posted 10-17-2007 10:10 PM

Nice box. Great start on it. Thanks.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View cajunpen's profile


14575 posts in 4093 days

#10 posted 10-17-2007 10:11 PM

Thanks to all for taking time to read about my journey and for your positive comments. I appreciate the feedback.

Mark, I was aware of the floating panel and the potential consequences of using epoxy in the gap – I was simply at a point where I had nothing to loose and decided to go for it. I think that I will be fine, it is a small panel, about 3 1/2” x 6”, and should be o.k. in the long haul. If it does fail, I can either pitch it or maybe I’ll just make a new top and learn something new :-)).

-- Bill - "Suit yourself and let the rest be pleased."

View mrtrim's profile


1696 posts in 3908 days

#11 posted 10-18-2007 12:01 AM

not only a great little box but a wonderful story as well ! have i seen you on t v ?

View cajunpen's profile


14575 posts in 4093 days

#12 posted 10-18-2007 04:27 AM

Yes, I coached the Dallas Cowboys last year – that may have been where you saw me :-)). No, just kidding – but I have had a bunch of people tell me that I look like Bill Parcells – the former Dallas coach.

-- Bill - "Suit yourself and let the rest be pleased."

View HallTree's profile


5664 posts in 3795 days

#13 posted 02-14-2008 06:08 PM

Nice little box. My brother-in-law has a Sassafras tree in the back yard in SE Okla. I often wondered what the wood looks like. One thing that I thought was strange about that tree is that it has two different shaped leaves.

-- "Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life" Solomon

View Don Newton's profile

Don Newton

716 posts in 3646 days

#14 posted 07-02-2008 04:42 PM

The grain of the material is outstanding! When you cut the lid off did you take care to mark the pieces so the lid sits back in it’s original position? Don’t worry about the errors….that’s called experience. Great project! Now to investigate the Inlace…..

-- Don, Pittsburgh

View sIKE's profile


1271 posts in 3782 days

#15 posted 07-02-2008 07:35 PM

Your box looks very nice, did you build a jig to cut the splines? I can remember helping my father clear land as a kid, I not sure of how many Sassafras, Sweet Gum, Oak, and Cotton Wood trees we cut down and hauled to the burn pile. 25 years later and it just makes me plain sad to think of all that hardwood that was burned.

-- //FC - Round Rock, TX - "Experience is what you get just after you need it"

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