Display Case for a Military Honors Flag





Introduction: Display Case for a Military Honors Flag

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first ...

When someone in the United States of America who once served in the armed forces dies, a military honor guard presents a folded American flag to the family at the graveside committal service.  Many people buy or make a wooden three-cornered flag case with a glass front.  Although a cheap flag case can be had for as little as $20 US, a decent case made of solid wood can cost over $100 US. 

At this link you can read about the significance of the folds in the flag and other things related to the ceremony.

Step 1: Take Dimensions

I chose to make a case for the flag that draped the coffin for my wife's father when he died a few years ago.  He served in the US Army during World War II in the Philippines.  The first step is to measure the folded flag.  I am using a piece of newspaper to make a paper pattern.  The flag is positioned with 3/4 inch of space around it for the wood that will make the case.  Unfurled, the flag measures 5 feet by 9 1/2 feet.  Folded, two sides are 17 5/8 inches.  The third side is 25 5/16 inches.  The folded flag is 3 1/4 inches thick.  See the second photo.  Your measurements may vary, depending on how tightly the flag is folded. 

Step 2: Begin Truing the Lumber

Over the years friends have given me pieces of black walnut lumber that I have kept.  Finally, it is time to use some of them.  The edges are not always true, even though the pieces may have been planed once.  Here is a description of the process I use on my radial arm saw to get a straight working edge on a piece of lumber that may not be straight.  

Most flag case projects are made with a table saw and some special jigs.  I do not have a table saw, so I am using my radial arm saw.  Click on this link for step-by-step instructions on making a flag case with a table saw.  If you would like to see photos of the process with a table saw, click on this link.

Step 3: Initial Cutting

I know the lengths of the three pieces I need.  The width will be 3 1/4 inches for the thickness of the flag plus 1/8 inch for the thickness of the glass plus 1/4 inch to make a finished formed edge in front of the glass plus 1/4 inch for the plywood back of the case.  That comes to 3 7/8 inches.  (The pieces shown here are a bit larger than the dimensions above.  After a discussion with my wife, I measured again and realized I needed to trim these a little to make them the dimensions quoted above.)

Step 4: Rotary Planer

I discovered my walnut pieces also have some bowing in them.  I could ignore it and hope for the best, or I could establish a flat surface on both sides of each.  The simple way to do this would be with a large planer, but I do not have one.  I can do a credible job with a rotary planer attachment on my radial arm saw.  The photo shows the rotary planer attachment on my saw with the motor shaft moved to the vertical position.  I used a fence and two stops to keep the work piece locked down.  The fence and the stops are slightly less in thickness than the work piece.  The bright green lines show where the ends of the work piece are secured.  The blue line shows how the fence secures the work piece.  I am pulling the planer across the width of the work pieces while holding them down with one hand. 

On the right front side of the work piece you can see something blue in color pushed under the corner of the work piece.  This is a piece of cardboard from a 12 pack of canned soft drink.  When I pressed on the corners of the work piece I discovered this corner rises up from the work table.  I folded a piece of thin cardboard and pushed it under the corner as a shim until the work piece could not be rocked.  Then I began making light cuts with the rotary planer while holding the work piece down firmly.  After each cut I moved the saw arm, locked it down, and pulled the planer over the workpiece again.  This process will shoot a relatively flat and true surface on the top of the work piece.  The rotary planer does leave marks and swirls that will need to be removed later.

Step 5: Marks and Swirls

Here you can see the marks and swirls left by the rotary planer.  It would be possible to remove these with the careful use of a hand plane.  A very sharp blade would be necessary.  I chose to use a belt sander.  Try to keep the sander moving so one part of the work piece is not sanded a great deal more than any other.  That would introduce more of the error you are trying to remove. 

When one true face has been achieved on each work piece, turn them over and plane the other side.  This time there will be no need for cardboard shims.  The work pieces should now be able to rest evenly on the flat work table, assuming the work table is true.  You do not need to plane the second side by pulling the planer over the work piece, but can lock the motor down and push the work piece under it using a fence as a guide as you would if you were ripping a board.  Make several light cuts.  Use the belt sander to remove any marks. 

Step 6: Check for Twisting

I wanted to check how well I did at getting a flat surface without any twists in the work pieces.  An old trick is to hang two squares on the piece of wood, one at each end.  Then stoop down and look to see if the top edges of the squares are parallel to one another.  See the red lines.  You would stoop more than this photo hints, but I wanted the viewer to see both squares and the work piece in relation to one another.  Make corrections with the belt sander until the edges of the squares are parallel.  This will be the surface of the wood that will be finished.

Step 7: Joint the Edges

I jointed the edges by passing the work pieces between my sanding drum and a fence.  See this Instructable for more detail.  If you have a planer, you can do this on it.  I do not have a planer.

Step 8: Rabbet

The back of the flag case will be of 1/4 inch plywood.  Carefully choose which face of each piece should be the finished side and mark them.  Rabbet so the back will fit into the finished case.

Step 9: Shape the Edges

I chose to shape the three remaining corners with a rounding bit.

Step 10: Miter the Shorter Pieces

Miter one end of each shorter piece.  I clamped each piece to the table and placed a stop at the end of each before cutting because the work piece is sometimes pulled into the saw a little.

The pieces are cut from opposite sides of the saw because one must be the mirror or reverse of the other.  I always mark the profile of the cut on the edge of the wood with a pencil so I am less apt to become confused and ruin a good piece of wood by cutting the miter in the wrong direction.  See the second photo.

Step 11: Kerf for Glass

I have some Plexiglass from another project and want to use it rather than real glass for the front of this flag case.  The thickness of one of my 7 1/4 inch circular saw blades is closer to the thickness of the Plexiglass than is the 10 inch blade I normally use on my radial arm saw, so I am using the smaller diameter blade.  Make the kerf at least 1/4 inch deep.

Step 12: Touching Up Miters & Making 22.5 Degree Cuts

Sometimes miter cuts are not as true as intended and I need to make very slight adjustments.  By clamping a straightedge fence to the work piece, I can pass it against the straight edge of a small raised table I made as an accessory.  The work piece moves over a sanding drum attached to my saw to do the cutting.  The sanding drum is at the angle I need on the miter.  The sanding drum cuts very lightly on each pass and allows fine tuning for a better fit.  The work is pushed from the left side of the photo toward the right side while holding it firmly against the auxiliary table top as well as pressing down firmly against the top of the auxiliary table.  The angle of the sanding drum can be adjusted in very small increments to make corrections for a better fit on the miter.

The lower corners of the flag case form a 45 degree corner.  This means the pieces forming these corners must be mitered to 22.5 degrees each.  When I tried to set up my saw for a 22.5 degree cut, the blade guard obstructed the work piece so I could not pull the saw motor along the arm to make the cut.  It would be possible to set up the cut with the blade guard removed, but that would place my hands in just too much danger.  I carefully marked the profile of the cuts with a pencil.  I cut the miters with a handsaw while leaving plenty of extra material.  Then I trimmed the pieces to length and to the correct angle by sanding the excess away with the sanding drum setup you see in this photo.

Step 13: Checking 22.5 Degree Miters

The photo shows a T-bevel square set to 22.5 degrees with a common protractor.  It is resting on a common 45 & 90 degree aluminum speed square.  One of the pieces I cut and sanded to 22.5 degrees rests against the blade of the T-bevel square.  You can just see the edge of the speed square along the length of the work piece.  The miter appears to be just about right, but did need a little fine tuning later.

Step 14: Cutting the Back and the Plexiglass

When the parts have a pretty good preliminary fit, it is time to cut the Plexiglass front and the plywood back.  I used a circular saw and a straightedge to cut both.  The plywood back has already been cut, as you can see from the missing triangular piece under the Plexiglass.  Be very careful.  It is very easy for the saw's shoe to scratch the Plexiglass, even through the protective film.    

The second photo shows (taken after the fact) how I determined the size of the Plexiglass.  The process was the same for the plywood back, except that measurements were made on the rabbet rather than on the kerf for the Plexiglass.  When I had all of the wooden pieces glued and screwed into place, I dry fitted the Plexiglass and did find I still needed to trim a tiny amount from one side so all of the joints fit properly.

I experimented with drilling holes for short dowels to make a stronger joint at the 90 degree top corner of the flag case, but there were too many inaccuracies to use wooden dowels.  I have another plan for those holes to be explained later in step 17.  The flag case plan linked in step 2 uses large kerfs and splines running across the miter joints in order to add extra strength.  I wanted to avoid these because I do not find them aesthetically pleasing.

Step 15: Begin Gluing

I have seen a Public Broadcasting System woodworking program in which the host built a flag case.  I have also seen plans on-line for a flag case.  Those are linked in step 2.  Both did some things differently than I chose to do them.  I chose to glue the shorter two walnut pieces to the plywood back.  That makes the case back a structural member of the final assembly.  Begin by gluing one of the shorter pieces as shown in the photo.  

Step 16: Making the Miters Fit Very Closely

During assembly very small discrepancies can suddenly appear, despite good technique and careful planning.  The miters may need a little trimming and fitting to compensate even beyond what was done in step 12.  Test fit the mitered corners and look for gaps during each step of the assembly.  Further refinements in the fit of the miters can be achieved by pulling a piece of sandpaper between two pieces aligned as they will be when the flag case is done.  After a few strokes pulling the sandpaper through the joint to remove irregularities, hold the joint up to a light source to see if more cutting action is needed in any one part of the miter joint.  Examine irregularities in the joint to determine on which side the grit should be while pulling the sandpaper through the joint.  It may be necessary to have the grit on one side for a few pulls and then turn it over.  

This precise fitting should be unnecessary, but my joints had tiny flaws despite my most careful precautions, and I needed to make corrections before final assembly.  This is a joint between the base piece and one of the sides.  The other side has already been fitted for a good tight joint.  I already drilled for woodscrews and inserted the screws to hold the base piece firmly in place.  This makes a good result on the remaining corner more predictable and more precise.  See steps 18 and 19 for details on the placement of the screws.

Step 17: Liquid Dowels

When you are satisfied with the fit of the miters, prepare to glue the second piece in place to form the 90 degree corner at the top of the flag case.  Although not shown in the photo, smear woodworker's glue on the mating surfaces.  

I had tried to drill holes for short dowels to make a stronger joint.  But, it proved too difficult to get the proper alignment on the holes.  I decided to fill each hole with hot glue and mate the pieces quickly before the hot glue began to set up.  My theory is that the hot glue from each side will flow into the hot glue from the other side and fuse together.  This will form a dowel of hardened hot glue that aligns perfectly from one side to the other, even if the holes do not.  I am calling these liquid dowels.  Do they work?  The joint went together as would normally be expected.  I held it tightly for several minutes until I thought the hot glue had begun to harden.  Then I clamped the joint in the traditional ways.  I would need to rip the joint apart with my hands to know what the exact effect was, but I am fairly confident these hot glue dowels will make it more difficult for the joint to come apart.  This is the first time I tried my liquid dowels.  They are a new idea I just developed during this project.

Step 18: Attaching the Base Member

Some careful thinking needs to be done about how the base member will attach to the other two frame members and to the back.  You may want to remove the flag in the future for some reason.  The Plexiglass could become scratched and you would want to replace it.  Or, if real glass broke, you would want to replace it.  Also, you want to finish the wooden pieces before installing the glass and the flag, or wood stain and varnishes could leave residue on the flag or the glass.  I wanted a way to open the flag case at any time to replace the glass or to adjust the flag, and yet I wanted the base to provide additional structural integrity to the flagcase.  I chose to use four 1 1/4 inch long #6 brass  woodscrews with beveled heads.  The photo shows approximately where and how the screws will be positioned inside the wood.  The screws angle inward at the top end even more than shown in the photo.  They will provide plenty of grabbing power, but will not poke through a finished edge.  This joint appears to have a gap, but that is only because nothing is clamping the joint together.  It actually fits very nicely with no gap when the two pieces were pressed together.

In step 2 I linked information on making a flag case with a table saw.  In those plans the base member was glued to the other two members, but the glass was still removable by means of a slot through the base.  The slot is closed with a loose spline.  The spline is held in place by means of two feet made of square stock.  Although an option, it is not what I wanted in my flag case.

Step 19: Drilling Holes Carefully

I used a flag of masking tape on my drill bit as a drill stop to keep me from dilling too deeply and risking a hole in the finished surface. I used two bits and a countersink.  The first drill bit was chosen for the thickness of the threaded portion of the screw and went the full depth.  Then I drilled a larger diameter the depth of only the screw shank's length.  Finally, I used a countersink to embed the screw head slightly below the finished surface.  The second photo shows the screws fully in place on one of the corners.  

Step 20: Finished

This is the flag case after it has been sanded and finished with Danish oil.  We may yet add an engraved brass nameplate at the front center of the base piece.  



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    Hi! I plan on making this for a woods class project. Do you know how much wood you used? (In board feet?)

    1 reply

    Thank you. See my comments below to PerryW2 about whether to use 22.5 degree cuts (more difficult to do right) or 45 degree cuts (does not look as nice, but what most people do). Someone below made 22.5 degree cuts very nicely by making a jig to hold the pieces vertically and at 90 degrees to the fence on a chop saw. Then he set the saw at 22.5 degrees.

    In this time there are on-line calculators for everything. You can find one for calculating board feet here- http://extension.missouri.edu/scripts/explore/g055...

    I took the dimensions in the Instructsble and did a little rounding up. I also converted fractional dimensions to decimal equivalents because that is what the on-line calculator requires. The figure I got is 2.39 board feet. (Nominal thickness is 1 inch. Nominal width is 4 inches. Length of all pieces combined is 86 inches, but that may not allow quite enough for the waste from saw cuts.)

    Thank you for looking and for your comment. Many who make flag cases do not attempt 22.5 degree angles for the lower corners, but use 45 degree angles. The 22.5 degree angles are more difficult. I have often thought about a jig that would be used on a table saw or a hand circular saw would ride across it. The blade would bisect the opening. The jig would hold the pieces at a 45 degree corner and a final trim cut would pass between both pieces to remove any little irregularity for a nearly perfect fit.
    There are a coule of other issues to resolve with a flag case. One is making sure all angles meet. The usual process is to cut the bottom angles, which some make easier by using 45 degree cuts and laying one over the other rather than bisecting the corner with 22.5 degree cuts, as I mentioned above. Tommy MacDonald on the PBS program "Rough Cut" made the cuts for the two bottom corners, knowing their might be a little inaccuracy, even with 45 degree cuts rather than 22.5 degree cuts. Then he made the top cut fit, even if he had to adjust the length of the pieces or trim the angles a tiny amount. Another issue is hw and when the glass goes into the cases it probably needs to be removable so the flag can be placed inside the case after the finish on the case is ready and dry, some use a spot in the bottom member of the case and may insert s long thin strip to close the slot. I made the bottom piece removable, but that called for some very careful drilling of the screw holes. Finally, the back may be removable, but if it is, it does not aid the structural integrity of the flag case. Again, making the bottom removable allowed me to derive structural integrity from the back in the top corner and still have a way to place or remove the flag.
    I wish you well.

    I am starting my second flag case for a friend of the family. I made my first a few months ago and also had to come up with a creative way to cut the 22.5-deg angles for the bottom corners. My miter saw has this great notch for 22.5-deg that's actually 68.5-deg from the fence, right? What I really want is to put the saw on that notch and hold the board 90-deg to the fence, but you can't just hold a board like that. I ended up creating an auxiliary fence for my miter saw that is 90-deg to the miter saw fence. I did it by screwing a scrap 1x3 on edge near the center of a piece of OSB about as big as the table on my miter saw. I would rather have used MDF or plywood, but that wasn't around at the time. With the OSB against the miter saw fence and clamped to my miter saw table, the 1x4 "fence" allows me to safely (don't quote me on this) hold my work in an orientation that makes the 22.5-deg notch on my miter saw work. If everything is dead square, you can manage a good cut. A lot of things could be done to make this jig better, but this quick, two-board version will help with those corners. (I shared my case also to show the results. The person it was for asked for a professional backing, so those are the cases leaving the framer's.)


    Excellent work! I wish my flag case had turned out as well as yours. You could do an Instructable on your way of making a flag case.

    Those are kind words. Thanks Phil. I can't take all the credit though... the wood does a lot of the aesthetic work on its own. My next will be in walnut like yours; it's quickly becoming my favorite species.

    You are thinking about adding a brass plate. Make it a triangle plate the same angle as the top of the case. you can purchase these from a jewelry store, my jewelry store said he would charge me about $3 for this.

    1 reply

    Thanks. I still have done nothing about a brass nameplate. I have done some thinking about good jigs for cutting accurate 22.5 degree and 45 degree angles. A lot of people skip the two 22.5 degree cuts and and replace them with one 45 degree joint because the 22.5 degree cut is more difficult. But, it is worth the effort in my mind, and I would like to make a nearly foolproof way to do it. Thank you for your comment.

    I guess someone has to say it. Don't refold the flag! The spirit of the fallen is contained within or some such nonsense. Anyhow it is bad form to unfold the flag! Must be why these boxes are so popular. Helps people resist the urge. I just saw a show on TV where some guy made one of these boxes. he did a great job and had lots of neat little tricks. Not that I remember a single one of them but I do remember the whole deal about not unfolding the flag.

    6 replies

    You probably saw Tommy MacDonald on "Rough Cut Woodworking" from WGBH, Boston broadcast over PBS. I have seen a number of his programs and saw part of the one on making a flag case and made reference to it in one of the early steps. My wife needed a flag to fly at church for some event, and there was no other flag. So, she unfurled this one from her father's funeral, and we had to fold it again afterward. I am a pastor and have seen quite a few honor guard ceremonies up close at the cemetery, so I know how they do the folding step-by-step. There is a web site that has neat information about the significance of the folding and each part of it. I meant to include that in the Instructable, but forgot.

    No! You didn't! I suppose a little more spirit at a church event can never hurt. Anyhow that sounds about right, the Tommy MacDonald on "Rough Cut Woodworking" from WGBH, Boston part. I think he was pretty good. His box came out real nice. Though he said he'd made about 200 or something silly like that beforehand. I guess after doing something 200 times we all get pretty good at it.

    Were I to do a second flag case like this, there are some things I would do differently to make less work and maybe achieve better results at the same time. I would also make some jigs that would allow me to do it right everytime with minimal bother. I once visited the furniture factory at Iowa's Amana Colonies. Special jigs and fixtures for specific tasks were hanging from the walls and the ceilings.

    I love the way you made your flag case. I have made 2 one for my wife (her dad's flag) and one for my mom (grandad's) flag. I've read some of your posts and love the writing style also I don't have all the nice tools and have to be creative when working. The flag cases that I made were out of pine ripped to a 2x3 for the top pieces and a 2x4 for the bottom with a skirt ripped at 45 degrees to match the width of the uprights (i don't have a good camera at the moment so I cannot take pictures to post) I like the thicker wood to compliment the size of the flag and the beveled edge is a good place for the brass plaque. I also fashioned a cross to go in the center of the glass up to about a 1/3 height as I've never seen this done before but it looks nice and I have received many compliments on it. One day maybe I'll write an article and post with pictures.
    Again good work and your posts are an inspiration for making the most of what I have to work with.

    Dan, Thank you for commenting. I really appreciate your comments. I would very much like to see a photo of your flag cases one day.

    Many years ago I bought a copy of Woodwork for Secondary Schools in a second hand bookstore.  My copy was published in 1910.  It made the point that anything you can do with power tools, you can also do with hand tools.  It just takes a bit longer.  The 1915 edition of that book is now available as a free download here.  I shamelessly stole and idea from it and made an Instructable from it at this location.

    I found a link with information about the significance of the folds and other things related to the ceremony. I embedded the link in the Introduction, but here it is one more time:

    Thank you, Stelios. I felt embarrassed to admit all of the things that did not go as planned. But, it seemed good to share some helpful ways to overcome them. Thank you for looking at it. I hope the physical ailment we discussed in e-mail has improved by now.

    IMHO woodworking is not about flawless projects but overcoming the difficulties or mistakes and still make a nice piece of work. Sorry about that typo mistake above instructable should have been the word :-) Thank you Phil for asking about my health, I am not fit yet for woodworking but is getting there.

    When I was a boy in the State of Iowa I knew two brothers who were carpenters and known for their very fine work. They often said, "Every carpenter makes mistakes. A good one covers them up." I hope you can get back to your woodworking projects very soon. They are good mental therapy for the stresses of life.