This box has an inlaid wood exterior with a custom mermaid design, padded satin lining, and secret compartment in the bottom that is held closed magnetically and only opens if you know how to do it. I looked at a lot of historical furniture pieces for inspiration - Jefferson boxes, letter boxes, captain's desks and spice cabinets were all often built with very clever hidden compartments. The mechanism I used isn't based on anything historical, but it works well and isn't noticeable if you don't know to look for it.

I lack the time and inclination to become skilled at true marquetry. Anyone who knows anything about early furniture making knows how much time, effort and specialized skill is required. I used the precision of a laser to make up for a lot of that skill and effort. That said, this still isn't a project I would call 'quick and easy.' There is a lot of sanding, drying and finishing time involved.

I chose a mermaid motif for this box. When I was doing the design I just kept coming back to the idea of mermaids. I chose a beach glass green for the lining to keep with the theme.

*Check step 2 for a non-laser alternatives update!*

Step 1: Supplies, Equipment and Safety


Wood Veneers - a few square feet
I used Birdseye Maple and Bubinga

1/8 inch plywood - about 5 square feet
This is kind of a specialty product - it's primarily for model airplanes and dollhouses.

1/2 inch diameter dowel - a few inches is enough

Wood Glue
Not a good place to cut costs - cheap glues get brittle and your tiny pieces will chip off.

Sandpaper - 1 sheet each:
220 grit
320 grit
400 grit
600 grit

Woodfiller - light and dark to approximately match your veneers

Tack Cloth

Varnish - water based satin finish is my choice

Clear Contact Paper (clear low tack vinyl)

Rubbing Alcohol

Magnets - two very strong 1/4 magnets

Epoxy - a few drops to glue in the magnets

Metal - 1/2 by 3 or so, has to be magnetic. Soup cans are a good source for this.

Wire nails - a few of them 1/2 long

Satin - about a yard (half a yard would have been enough but it would have been close)

Batting - about a yard

Cardstock - acid free and matched to your satin is best

Thread - to match the satin. Standard sewing thread is fine.

Fabric glue - ideally one that glues fabric to other porous surfaces well

Assorted household type supplies - paper towels, masking tape, scissors, pins, etc.


Laser access - if you can't find one locally there are quite a few services online that you can find with an internet search. There are some veneer specialists - I didn't use that but it would be worth looking into.

Clamps - all the clamps you can track down in all the sizes you can find (up to about 6 inches of clamping ability.) You'll be using these to hold the veneer as it dries so you'll want a bunch.


Needlenose Pliers

Small saw - coping saw or other small, thin hand saw

Tin snips

Utility knife with fresh blades

Small Wood Chisel

Brush for varnish - golden taklon is my first choice because it leaves a smooth finish and is easy to wash out.

Spreader/squeegee/cut cardboard for glue spreading

Letter opener or other dagger shaped non-sharpened instrument

Some scrap flat pieces of wood to protect the veneer when gluing

A few heavy books (Gardner's History of Art works well.)

Safety Gear

Safety Glasses
Dust Mask

Use all of these all the time. It's easy to get hurt using tools. If you don't know how to use something find someone who does. Protect your eyes from flying debris, protect your lungs from dust (you don't know what's in the plywood glue or varnish) and keep your hands safe. Sharp tools are always better than dull ones, use the least force required to complete anything.
How big were your veneers for the cutter? I've found relatively cheap 6" x 10" on ebay, would they be suitable?
I use veneers in all sorts of sizes, you'll need a few pieces at 6x10 but they would definitely work. Sometimes really large pieces will spring into a curve when you're laser cutting sections out of them.
for the metal, you say " Metal - 1/2 by 3 or so" and the magnets are "1/4 magnets". are these in inches?
Yes, those are inches, I'll fix the text. Thanks!
This is beautiful done
great work<br>absolutely beautiful<br>keep up the good work<br>
stumbled upon this instructable, and I think it's brilliant. I'm not familiar with any of the items you worked with...veneer, contact paper, etc... I mostly re-utilize stuff... but I am gonna give this a shot. I will definitely start off with a very elementary box though. No designs or secret candy compartment... awesome gift box idea!. Great job girl!
HAHA I have the same book and use it for the same reason. I've been shlepping mine around for over 12 years
You are a genious! love ya!
&nbsp;How did you carve those notches (dovetails?) They look extremely precise for being carved into 1/8 inch wood.
You can make it precise like that by hand by using a jig that you can buy. my dad has one. Also those aren't dovetails, dovetails look more like triangles. or /_\ .
They're laser cut. I've cut some delicate notches by hand before but it's not easy!
hey look in to making a a mayan secret box. there really cool.
Will do! There are so many amazing possibilities in the 'hiding things cleverly' genre.
I have an idea to lock the secret compartment by using the top as a kind of &quot;combination lock.&quot; Once I work it out and try it i will try to post photos.
great instructable, technoP! and a fabulous bit of work too. Only one thing I'd like would be to have more comments in your photos, helps me keep up with what you've done in a more visual way. But thanks for the effort you've put into the instructable!
very nice.. i once made a jigsaw puzzle from mdf with a hinged outer box, but that was a sophisticated as i could manage. Would be nice to try out your box. very nice. (for brief moment it reminded me of some kind of pandoras / hellraiser puzzle box) - have you ever tried making one of those? :o)
I haven't tried any other puzzle boxes - aside from junior high industrial tech and framing paintings I haven't really done any other woodwork. I'm really looking forward to playing around with some other designs with secrets, though!
ok cool
there are very cool puzzle boxes available. my dad is making me some soon. hehe
Fine Woodworking has a build a box contest:<br/><a rel="nofollow" href="http://finewoodworking.taunton.com/item/7591/build-outside-the-box-official-contest-rules">http://finewoodworking.taunton.com/item/7591/build-outside-the-box-official-contest-rules</a><br/><br/>Could be a contender!<br/>
You're so sweet to tell me! Thank you - I'll totally enter that (and the gallery has tons of inspirational ideas!)
You're welcome! Glad to help out- hopefully you'll win a really nice table saw.
Creative and well done!
Who chose this project to be a winner? I don't understand the criteria.
hey i love this project but could you please put the design in a word document im afraid i don't have the software to use this but i would really enjoy doing it
I love your box and only wish I could make something as beautiful. 2 questions. How much did this cost you to make? roughly.... and Do you have any plans or tips for making such a box (with less detail but still have the hidden compartment) for someone who knows nothing about wood working? lol
Congratulations! Nice project. I hope you enjoy the tools.
any one know if there is a wood burning Instructable out there ?? if not , race you to it!
<a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.instructables.com/id/Pyrography-Burning-Pictures-into-Wood/">cough!</a><br/>
wow what a beautiful piece of functional art ! Do you sell these by any chance?,I'm interested in purchasing one or two.Great job.
Very nice inlay work! Good luck in the next round!
Thanks! I'll need it - there were a lot of great projects!
What a beautiful piece of work- amazing!
Thank you!
"No more games Kirsty"
Do I know you in real life?
Lol, there's a story behind this, I'm dying to hear.
Ha. no. its just something i probably misquoted from hellraiser 2. you know, the whole puzzlebox thing
That's awesome! I will explain my confusion: I've never seen Hellraiser (I know, I just don't watch that many movies.) My first name is Kris, and 'Kirsty' wouldn't be the most it's been butchered. My sister spends her hacking time modding board games (at least lately.) I think you can see how these three things combined into confusion. I get the visual connection to the box now, and I really want to see that movie...
i was gonna say this is very hellraiser-esqe
the legendary illustrator, jeweler and inlay artist Kit Williams (Masquerade) said in this old woodworking magazine from 84, he uses a scalpel to cut his veneers. My guess is the round bottom helps for small turns, etc. Beautiful work!
Thank you! Even though I keep a slew of syringes for glue, I don't have single scalpel. I can definitely see how that curved bottom would help keep you from catching in the grain, too. I'll have to track some down and try them!
This is an outstanding Instructable! If you don't mind my asking (and I know YMMV), how much did the shop with the laser charge you to cut the wood for this project?
I don't mind you asking but I really can't give you a good number. This was part of a fairly large order (I have jewelry parts laser cut for my 'day job') and I didn't get a breakdown on the order. I know that veneer cuts very quickly on a laser - much more easily than acrylic, for example - and that any laser service will give you an estimate before you have to commit to an order.
Okay, I understand. I'm just trying to get a rough idea of the cost involved.
My best guess after looking over a couple websites/previous invoices would be (if you provide files) between $20 and $35. You're going to get a better price if you plan a few pieces and have them all cut at once. I hope this helps a little more!
Yes, that's really helpful. Thanks!
Very nice. Other options for those sans laser would be a fret saw or a scroll saw. If cutting a number of the same shapes you might try stack cutting. It does waste a bit more wood, but all the pieces cut would be the same.
wouw cool i try it after one other project :D

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