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Picture of How to Make a Box Joint Box
Anyone that reads my profile may notice that woodworking is first on my list of interests. So where are all the woodworking articles? Fact is I don't often document those projects. Making box joints is something I have done so much I have had a chance to photograph the process.

If you're really going to do this then read the entire set of instructions before you begin because some things are revealed later that you should be aware of earlier. This is done for reasons of brevity and conciseness. This is already long enough! Maybe that is why this technique seems tricky. Once you know it all it is actually pretty simple and easy.

I'm pretty sure with my instructions anyone can do this, but if you've any questions well, leave a comment, and I'll try to elaborate on anything you are unsure of.
 
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Step 1: Do a Jig

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I don't mean any Dancing With the Stars sort of thing. No, to make box joints a fixture jig is used.

Hopefully the graphics here will explain all but if not this is how I make mine.

First I take a piece of wood and screw it to my miter gauge for my table saw. Make sure the wood is flat flush with the table.

Now determine the width of finger joints desired, set a dado blade accordingly. Put blade into the saw, set height etc.

Run the miter gauge with the piece of wood screwed to it over the blade making a notch.

Remove wood from miter gauge and carefully measure the notch.

Step off the measurement of the notch and cut an identical notch into the wood piece.

Make a square pin piece that fits right into your new notch and affix it into there using glue, maybe a nail or something too.

Reattach your completed jig back onto your miter gauge exactly where you took it off. If you need to make a pencil mark to get it right back where it was whatever it takes. It is vitally important that your jig is in the exact right spot on your miter gauge though.

The accuracy which you construct your jig will transfer to the box joints you will make with it so do a good job. I measure my notch with calipers accurate to .001 of an inch. I'm not really too sure if anything else would work. But you're more than welcome to try. I undersize the stuck out part of my pin a little to make it a bit easier to get the box parts on and off it. I just sand the pin a little after it is put together.

The astute observer will notice that the jig is a pattern of one box joint that we will simply repeat over and over in order to cut the successive joinery.

Step 2: Cut Sides

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This sounds simpler than it actually turns out to be. This is where some experience will eventually pay off as you perform this task more. You see this joint chews into your wood stock somewhat. In that I mean with a simple butt joint in wood your side is your side, but this joinery uses up some of that stock material in it's nesting nature. What is more is in order to really make this joint well you should overhang the fingers a little. Then once the box is fully done sand the  fingers that stick out flush to the sides.

What I am driving at here is your completed box will have sides smaller than your cut sides are. How much smaller depends on the thickness of the wood, and the amount of overhang you allow for with your joint fingers. Initially this shouldn't be all that critical I mean just be happy you're making boxes, but down the road when you set yourself to some more demanding tasks it is something you'll have to work on.

For now focus on making two pairs of equal length sides for your boxes. Oh yes, your sides have to be square cut as well.

Step 3: Perform Test Cuts

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Every time I do this I always do test cuts on the stock I plan on making boxes out of. The kind of wood it is, the various adjustments, dado width, and blade height, all have to be dialed in to work with each other. Joints should fit together without being too loose, or too tight.

But if we're going to be doing test cuts I guess I have to tell you how this whole cutting box joints thing works now don't I? This is the abbreviated version, the full version will come later when we're making our actual boxes.

Take your two scrap pieces and set them standing up on your bench like they are the corner of a box.

Put an X or some other sort of a mark on the top edge of each piece where they come together.

Take one and butt it up against the side of the pin on the jig. Run a notch into it. (red in the graphics)

OK now this is the tricky part so pay attention:

Take that first piece (red) you just cut and put the notch in it, flip it over and put it's notch onto the pin. The one tooth should fill the gap between the pin and the notch on the jig. Now take your other piece (blue) and butt it to the edge of the first piece mark to mark. You should notice that if you pass the work over the saw blade your second piece (blue) is going to get it's corner notched out. If that is how it looks to you go ahead and do it, make the cut.

Now you're going to gang cut the two pieces together. Take the first piece flip it back around and put it's notch over the pin of the jig. Put the cut notch of the second piece onto the pin. Make a new notch through both pieces, then put that new notch onto the pin, notch, move, notch, move until you've gone the length of the pieces.

Now line up your marks again and put the pieces together. Don't tell me you marked the second piece where the saw cut the mark off. ha ha I do it all the time! We'll learn to back that mark off someday.

This is harder to explain in text than in pictures, so try to follow along with the amazing graphics I drew. Because it really isn't as hard as it sounds.

Step 4: Lay Out Sides

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Now hopefully you can still count to 10 without having to take your socks off, and you've dialed in your cutting setup too. If I am making a box out of one piece of wood I like to have my sides all in order so I line them all up so the grain wraps around the box. It is an extra little detail I just like to do it isn't important though.

What is important is that you lay out your sides so they do wrap up into a box.

Step 5: Box of Cards

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Some arrange their pieces in a flat cross like pattern I like to prop mine up. Propping them up helps me keep it all straight while I number all of the corners. I number my corners 1 to 4 and put the number onto each piece. Doing this will be important later on.

My numbers are a little hard to see in the image but they're all there.

Step 6: Cut Notches

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Stay with me on this step. We're only going to cut one notch into each board right now. But there is one other thing you have to think about with this step. You have to keep your parallel box sides identical to each other. By this I mean if you have a notched corner on one, you have to have notched corners on  the opposite side too. I'll draw another picture to explain what I mean.

The sides in the graphic that are the same color have to match. So you're either cutting them all first, or second. Remember butt number up to number in this step while notching. It is just like butting up mark to mark while test cutting.

Step 7: Gang Up

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If you got this far you are virtually done. All you need to do at this point is set your notched sides onto the pin and have at it! If your initial notches you made are right then this has to come out right as well. So just cutting down the line twice and you'll have all of your box joints done for a box.

I would just like to add that I clamp my sides together and this gets me more precise cuts. Saves me some effort in that I don't have to grip all the pieces together too. It'll work if you don't clamp all your sides together while you gang cut them, just not as good and it'll be tougher on you to do too.

Step 8: Stacked

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As I cut my boxes I like to keep them dry fitted together so I keep all the sets together. I'll leave it to you how you'll handle putting bottoms onto your boxes, tops, etc. I usually just cut a piece to fit and glue it in there myself.

One more thing, I've cut about a billion of these by now and over time I've concluded that you only really need to make two sizes 1/4" for thin walled boxes, and 1/2" for thicker walled ones. I've seen fancy adjustable jigs for making box joints but making one of those is kind of silly to me. Just adds to potential errors and general confusion as far as I'm concerned.

But that is just my opinion you're free to do as you choose.
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CherB15 months ago

Maybe you can help me out

I made a pfred2 1/4 inch jig for my router to the exact measurements.

The issue I am having is the joints are little too tight.

Is there some type of adjustment I can make to the jig in order to make the joints a little looser?

CherB1 CherB15 months ago

pfred

I think I figured out why the joints are so tight.

I have to make smaller tails, to do that the jigs pin has to be a little closer to the notch.

So if the test board comes out too tight like mine did move the jig pin closer to the notch

If the test board comes out too loose then move the jig pin away from the notch.

I hope this helps anyone else

Thanks!

pfred2 (author)  CherB14 months ago

One of the downsides to the non adjustable jig is you do have to make it very accurately for it to work properly. I use machinists calipers when I make them. Though making a long pin, and cutting it and using the cut off as a gauge block would work too. For this jig to work it has to be very close to perfect. That accuracy is what you repeat using it. So it is sort of the secret of the whole process. Do it right once, and then you can easily do it right a thousand times too. Then you need to cut the notches the exact right size too. Whenever I did this with an adjustable dado blade I'd spend some time making test cuts, just to get a good fit. I would make my pins a little undersized too. Because if it is really tight it is hard to index the work on the pin. What I do is sand the pin by hand a little after the jig is together, just for a little clearance.

The up side to the non-adjustable jig is when it is correct then there is no adjustment to get out of adjustment. Every time you use it you get the same results.

DennisO2 CherB14 months ago

Also, one can make the jig adjustable, so that the front can
be moved from side to side to change the size of the pins. Using a 10X32 screw
as an adjustment tool, one can get 1/128th of an inch per quarter turn
and that way dial the jig in post construction without messing with the pin and such.
Here is a picture of mine on a little (dirty) router table for ¼ cuts. The face can be
replaced to match other sizes.

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CherB15 months ago

Couldn't I use a router instead of a table saw? I cannot use a dado blade with my cheapo table saw.

So I make the jig with my router miter gauge the same as you did with the table saw miter and then cut the box joints with the appropriate router bit.

Do you see any issues using a router with your terrific box joint jig set up?

Thanks so much for sharing this.

pfred2 (author)  CherB15 months ago

I have seen this done with a router myself. The biggest problem is router bits cannot remove the volume of wood that dado blades can. Size matters. So stacking the pieces together might be too much to ask a router to do. I've made box joints both ways, cutting each side individually, and stacking. Stacking offers advantages over individual cuts. Besides the obvious reduction in repetition stacking causes the cuts to be more uniform too. The fingers just line up better when cut stacked, then assembled.

So what I'm saying is it will work, but not quite as good.

DennisO2 pfred24 months ago

One can use a router and a jig and the joints come out fine.
Use a spiral bit and go slow . . it works for me.

jimmiek1 year ago

Always wondered how these things could be made so perfectly and easily, now I know. Great 'ible

pfred2 (author)  jimmiek1 year ago

Thanks! There are other ways of making them. Commercially they are made with gang saws. A whole bunch of blades spinning all at once. The way I do it here is easy for someone in their home shop to do it though.

macgyver712 years ago
Thank you for an excellent instructable, and double thanks for recycling pallets into something beautiful
mikeasaurus3 years ago
Thanks for showing us how this done, your finished box looks great!
pfred2 (author)  mikeasaurus3 years ago
Would it look any better if I told you I made it out of an old shipping pallet? Because I did :)

I'm thinking about writing an article on this site about how to break old pallets down. I even made a special tool for doing it.
ripper.jpg
Yes, that tool is nice! I want to make one. Is that welds I see? I don't have a welder. Is there a way to make it with nuts and bolts, without welding anything? My brother has torches and the like, maybe he will help out! Thanks again! Triumphman
pfred2 (author)  triumphman3 years ago
I welded it. If I had to use a torch I'd probably braze it together. If you are going to try to make one here is another picture where you can see the tool more clearly. The other picture I attached to my comment on this page is more a how it is used picture:

http://i.imgur.com/2QnxS.jpg
drewgrey pfred23 years ago
Its amazing how good pallet wood can be. I planed down a bunch today that is almost like rosewood.
pfred2 (author)  drewgrey3 years ago
It'd be more incredible if people were so foolish as to use inferior materials to ship valuable merchandise on. What is amazing is how few put the fact together.

Most hardwood pallets I see are poplar and oak, though sometimes I run into other unidentifiable woods as well. I think this is flame maple. It really blew me away after I stained and finished it.

Before finishing it didn't look like anything special to me.
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drewgrey pfred23 years ago
A friend of mine scored a pallet for heavy machinery that had a few oak beams about 16 feet long. Best freeby ever
pfred2 (author)  drewgrey3 years ago
Your friend must have a big truck.
I love your pallet 'breaker upperer', I could have used that on a number of occasions!
pfred2 (author)  bricabracwizard3 years ago
Just one more tweak and it is ready to market! heh
Really, pallet wood?!  That box is now new measures of awesomeness, I think it was the worn pallet grain that totally drew my eye.

I've been brainstorming projects for pallets for some time now, I definitely think you need to post your pallet-deconstruction tool and tutorial; it's got to be better than my hammer/crowbar method.
pfred2 (author)  mikeasaurus3 years ago
While I was making toothpicks out of many pallets using a crowbar I kept thinking if I could just get a hammer shot up under the board. So I made that tool out of 3 inch C channel and some scrap pieces of angle iron. I smack the top of it with a heavy hammer, it goes down, and the board pops up!

Here is another picture of it:
ripper1.jpg
I used to know a guy in Atlanta who went around collecting and repairing pallets or 'skids' as they're called back here in Michigan! At any rate, he would be able to make a nice pile of greenbacks selling these pallets when repaired. "Primitive, yes, but he was effective for his wife and kids' appetites! He fed his family. I like what you've shown me here, today, and will remember what is means to me, in the future. I am a pretty good carpenter, too. What I like to do is collect old dock wood from the beaches of Lake Michigan and build tables of them. You would be amazed at the kind and amount of great, usable wood, that washes up on the beach after a long winter. pfred2, you have shown genius in your work, and a knack for using solid and strong wood for good purposes! It's manner or source, only adds to the brilliant way you have used what otherwise would be scrapped! That is where the 'genius' comes in! The perfect joints you make for the boxes are incredible and clean! I'm not surprised you found "rosewood" on some of the skids; I'm shocked just short of miraculous wonder! Keep up the magic work, pfred2. You are my hero, man! Thank you! Kind Regards, Robert T.
pfred2 (author)  Robert T.3 years ago
Thank you for your kind comments.
kenbob pfred23 years ago
Like!
pfred2 (author)  kenbob3 years ago
Primitive but effective is my motto.
Eromanga pfred23 years ago
Excellent - thanks for that photograph of your pallet tool. Looks very practical and better than my current method. I'm a pallet collector too, for the cheap wood source.
pfred2 (author)  Eromanga3 years ago
To use it I smack the top with a big hammer about a 2 pound hand sledge.
skylane pfred23 years ago
Nice job on that!

Years back, I had quite a few oak pallets. I'd seen a back yard shed made of used pallet wood that was pretty impressive.
Unfortunately for me, the pallets I acquired were put together with "twisted" nails.
I'd tried every which way I could think of to get them apart without destroying them. I even tried a hydraulic (jack?) that fit in the 4" space. I found nothing to work.
Sadly, they ended up making some pretty nice firewood... :-(
pfred2 (author)  skylane3 years ago
All pallets I run into are put together with twisted nails. Depends what style they are how I rip them apart. Block riser types I jack apart. But stringer style I use my fork device after I saw off the ends with a circular saw and a cheap carbide blade I don't care if I hit a nail with.

Usually the heads pop off the nails. I use vise grips on the nail shanks and a pry bar to salvage the stringer wood.
triumphman3 years ago
I made some honey bee hives that way. I have a video of some guys who show that very same setup. I had to write it down from each step, pause the video, write, then watch the next step. I finally got to make the jig and try it on my old craftsman table saw. They don't make them like that anymore. New stuff is junk! I can't believe how cheap the new saw are! The quality has gone to a new low of "made in china" ! Even Craftsaman saws are cheesy quality! I also go yard sailing and flea marketing! I have found some great old tools out there that just needed a new power cord or switch. Old is better ! I always say. New is junk! For sure. Our landfills are getting full of stuff made in china. I heard a guy say "when in doubt throw it out", what a looser he was! He lost big time because he kept throwing out stuff and buying more junk to replace it! I got away from him fast. He made me angry, he and many others today have the same attitude. The Wally movie hit it right on the head! Keep up the good work. Love your ideas! Triumphman
jefeickert3 years ago
I am trying to find some way to cut an circle out of 3/4 plywood. 12" dia
check out this video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wxbzrf4z_cg
pfred2 (author)  SWV17873 years ago
That is one variation of the trammel point method that is used with a router, band saw, or jig saw.
pfred2 (author)  jefeickert3 years ago
A band saw, jigsaw, or router would do it. I've even seen people do it on a table saw come to think about it. It is even possible to make a disc that big on some wood working lathes. So I guess it depends what tools you have and how you'd like to go about it.
shazni3 years ago
Is there anyway i can make a box joint without dado blades? i have a table saw...and a jig saw with a jigsaw table(it's like a band saw). Dado blades are very expensive here and since it's just a hobby i'm starting on i don't want to spend more as i just bought a circular saw ( which i have converted to a table saw i have mentioned!)
your help would be wonderful. thanks
pfred2 (author)  shazni3 years ago
When I first started out I did not have a dado blade myself so I stacked regular blades together and it worked. Just try to use a group of the exact same blades. You also need to stagger the teeth a bit from each other for it to work best.

Then for a long time I used a wobble dado blade. The one I have is not very expensive at all. If I had to characterize it I'd have to say it is a cheap piece of garbage. But it got the job done.

Just recently I finally managed to run across a nice chipper dado blade set at a yard sale priced very reasonably. I made a throat plate out of phenolic sheet for my new to me tablesaw for it. I still have not done anything more than a test cut with it, but the results of that were promising. So I'm looking forward to enjoying using it in future projects.

I should also add that some people use routers mounted in router tables to make box finger joints. I tried it, I did not care for it myself. Perhaps if my router table was a bit different I'd have liked it more? I still like how circular saw blades cut better over router bits though.

When I get the time my next box project will be to make a storage box for my chipper dado set. The cardboard box I got it in is a bit beat up. Guy even threw in some other circular saw blades with it too. He was a cabinet maker who moved into just sales.

I've a picture of all the junk I bought running around that day that I will attach to this post. I used it in my magnetic motor starter article because it was the same day I bought my contactor. I got all those saw blades for $10 USD I think. Might have been $20 I can't remember.
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shazni pfred23 years ago
Thanks for your reply....I'm from sri lanka....where the cheapest blade is $10+ !
garage sales are practically non existing for these items.. :-(
Woodworking here is like only for professional males! not the average male as the cost for a circular saw is very expensive!
pfred2 (author)  shazni3 years ago
I find the price of items to be flexible and dependent on what I am willing to pay for them. If one object is too much I keep on looking until I come across another more to my liking. It is a big world so someplace everything can be had if I just look hard enough.

It does help to look at the right times in the right places though. I work hard to make it happen for me. A lot harder than the average male.
Another question, Fred - when you do your overhang - do you do it for both sides and how much do you do? I experimented with overhanging 1 side only and then using a router to smooth it out - but i didn't account very well for blade kerf. I was thinking I would make one overhang longer than the other so that i could route one and sand the other. any tips there?
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