I thought it would be a good time to take a break from rehabbing vintage tools to actually build a project with them. So I pulled a copy of “Basic Box Making,” by Doug Stowe from my bookshelf. I’ve always liked this book and have admired his creativity and craftsmanship.
I like to keep things simple. So to me, that means starting at the beginning of Stowe’s book. That has the advantage of slowly learning new skills in layers as projects become more complex. Flipping to the first project reveals a 3” x 3” box.
Power tool to Hand tool Dictionary
The one downside of Stowe’s book is that most every operation and technique he illustrates is power-tool centric. As a consequence, I’ve had to develop a sort of woodworking “dictionary”. But rather than translating from Spanish to English, I’m translating from “Power tool” to “Hand tool”.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
One of the keys to beautiful boxes is the concept of achieving a four-corner match. That means that the grain of the wood for the box sides matches at each corner. If you were to cut the sides from a single piece of stock only three corners would match because the first edge and last edge come from different parts of the wood.
The way to get a four-corner match is to resaw the stock. The Power tool definition for “resawing” would call for a bandsaw, or a tablesaw (if the stock isn’t too wide). The Hand tool definition for resawing calls for a ripsaw. If you’ve never done it, I heartily recommend you read the article on the subject at The Saw Blog.
Norm Abram—God rest his TV soul—taught me to build a prototype of my projects. That way a beginner like me can make horrid mistakes and learn fundamental techniques on “cheap” wood. I’ve noticed that I don’t cringe when my chisel slips to mar pine the way I do when it ruins a walnut/rosewood/nice-wood-of-your-choice stock.
So I mounted Jenny—my trusty Mini Cooper—to the local big box store to pick up some dimensioned lumber. I chose red oak 3” wide by 1” thick by 12” long. For the lid, I chose alder and sorted through the available stock until I found a piece with some interesting grain. Cheap doesn’t mean you can’t practice good wood selection skills.
The sides of this box are 3” long tracing the dimension along the outside edge with each of the two 45 degree miters on the inside. So allowing for the 45 degree miter cut and the kerf of the handsaw I would be using, I crosscut a very conservative 7” length. Keep in mind that two sides would come from each half of the resawn, 7” piece.
I measured the thickness of the stock (while it was stamped 1” the actual thickness was ¾”). Three quarters of an inch 3/4”= 6/8”—half of which is 3/8”. Stowe’s plan called for a thickness of 3/8”. After resawing, I would plane the cut sides smooth so the final thickness would be a bit less.
I set my marking gauge as close to 3/8” as I could then scribed a center line along all four sides using one face. To find the true center, I scribed a center line around all four sides using the opposite face. The true center in this case, is the space between the two scribed lines.
Next, I fixed the side stock in my vice at a 45 degree angle with the top tipped toward my cutting hand. Then I used my tenon saw, (filed rip) to start a kerf between the marked lines. From there I cut several inches at the 45 degree angle to establish a saw cut along two edges of the piece. Then I rotated the piece to vertical in the vice and sawed along the center line as far as I could before flipping the piece 180 degrees. After that I repeated the process until completing the cut. This worked ok with the tenon saw, but next time, I’ll use a rip handsaw for the task.
Now I have two pieces whose grain mirrors each other.
Note that the hand-sawn pieces were pretty close to being equal in thickness. Close wasn’t good enough however, and I took my smoothing plane to the pieces which I placed side by side against my 1/8” planing stop.
Once the box sides were dimensioned to the same thickness, I laid out and cut the miters using my precision miter box handsaw. It was necessary to track which sides and edges would meet each other so as to maintain the desired four-corner match.
I marked the inside, mitered edges with numbers to keep track of what would go where during glue up.
I don’t have a router plane so I used my router table to cut the 1/8” groove for the box bottom. Note that the router was OFF while I took these pictures. In the future, for safety, I intend to route the groove before making the miter cuts for the sides. It’s easier and safer to work with one 7” long piece than two 3” pieces.
I test-fit the box sides using rubber bands to hold them in place and took measurements to cut the box bottom. After cutting it to size, I routed 1/8” lip in the ¼” Baltic birch bottom to fit in the 1/8” bottom groove.
After test fitting the sides with the bottom in place, it was ready for glue up. Rubber bands served as clamps to keep the pieces in place as the glue set.
The next morning I looked over the piece of alder I had for the top and laid out the lid to incorporate some interesting grain. I crosscut the piece to length using my rehabbed, Disston #4 and a bench hook.
To add visual interest to the lid, I followed Stowe’s plans to add 12 degree bevel. The bevel can be set to 12 degrees by placing it atop compass. Once the angles were scribed on the lid, I used a block plane to gradually pare the sides to the line.
To ensure the lid would seat securely, I stepped to the router table to create a 1/8” lip that fit snugly into the box top.
Stowe’s project plans have you create a miter-slot cutting jig, which I used to create dual-miter key slots in the top of the box sides at my router table. One of his box samples used this decorative touch which I found visually appealing. In retrospect, I should have used a handsaw to practice the slot-cutting technique.
Some Indian rosewood scraps left over from a Stanley plane handle repair provided the stock for the 1/8” thick miter keys.
After gluing these in place and letting them dry over night, I used a sanding block to sand them flush to the box sides. It was easier to start with 100 grit paper then switch to 320 as the miter keys were almost level with the sides. A general sanding block scrubbing with 320-grit paper produced a silky-smooth surface.
I usually use BLO plus paste wax as my wood finish but wanted to expand my horizons and try other finishes. So I tested three different stains/finishes to see what they would look like on scrap stock.
Hmmmm. My standby finish looked the best in my view so two coats of BLO were followed by two coats of paste wax.
Here she is taking up residence in my home office.
And here’s a photo montage of the corner matches. Not perfect, but good for a first effort.
Rinse and repeat
I’m ready to make a second box and would love to track down some spalted pecan and white oak to model one of Stowe’s boxes. I also like his use of dowels to reinforce the mitered sides of one of his boxes. Not only does it look cool, it will give me a perfect chance to practice using my hand drill.
-- "People's lives are their own rewards or punishments."