Introduction: Navy Master at Arms Shadowbox
I don't often get the opportunity to build shadowboxes for Navy retirees, usually because I find myself around more Air Force guys than anyone else. My first thought upon being asked to build a box in the shape of the master-at-arms badge was that this would be quite a challenge. Due to my construction techniques, the box would require a number of precise cuts and careful assembly in order to be successful.
If you'd like to build one similar, please join me for the ride, otherwise, these techniques are similar to many of the shadowboxes I've constructed over the last few years.
Step 1: Planning the Box
Most of my boxes begin life in MS Publisher. In the case of the Master at Arms along with several others, the shape needs to resemble an established image or design. Import the largest copy of the image that you can find and scale it to match the full size you're looking for. It helps to also have a scaled version of a folded flag (generally 10.5-11" on the short sides).
The box will consist of a face frame in the exact shape of the symbol you're designing to, as well as a deeper case which will hide behind. You'll also insert a layer of plexiglas in the front and seat a piece of 1/4" plywood in a rabbet from the rear.
I was also requested to add space to jab two Navy sabers through the box. I included the relative placement of the blades in my plan but their lengths drove the size of the box as well.
Next, draw some rectangles that are 3/4" on the short sides to represent the case and begin to snake them around the picture. The goal here is to keep them from hitting the inside of the image; we can always extend it outwards to make room for anything that doesn't match. You'll also want to use the shift-rotate combo which will snap rotations at 15 degree increments... Cutting this in half across a miter means that all of your cuts will be multiples of 7.5 degrees which is far easier than measuring each one free-handed. I also recommend standardizing the lengths of each piece down to an eighth of an inch. Again it's easier to cut a board at 7 3/8" than at 7 29/64". For any measurements and angles, copy them down on the pattern before printing.
For the symbol on top, scale the image until it is about 14" wide and print around 3 copies along with the rest of the full-size pattern. Either use a large-scale document printer or plan on doing some cutting and taping to get everything lined up.
Step 2: Building the Case
Once you have a physical, full-size pattern, you can begin to build the case that will give your shadowbox its depth. Start at the bottom with a board ~3.5" wide and cut the pieces that will snake their way around the rear of the box.
If you're starting with 3/4" material, you can cut each piece individually and make each miter at the final angle. You can flip each board and only cut the miters once but this requires precision to make sure the left and right sides match up in the end. Conversely...
...If you're starting with material that is over 1 1/8" wide, you can cut the pieces for one side with 90 degree miters, resaw each piece on a bandsaw and then cut the final angles. This was my system, due to the material I had available at the time. I also finished up by passing each one through the portable planer before cutting the last of the miters. This gave me a final thickness of ~1/2" on the case which helped keep the weight manageable (important, since this guy was getting shipped).
Once your case is trimmed to size, use your favorite joiner to attach the pieces together. I'd suggest either Biscuits or Festool Dominoes. Glue the pieces up in pairs so that you can make sure the left and right continue to match. Let the entire assembly dry and then go back to your pattern.
Step 3: The Face Frame
The most important part of the project is the face frame. It is the part that everyone sees and every mistake will show.
Sit your completed case on the pattern and trace the inner and outer lines for where the case meets the paper. Determine if you will need to extend the pattern out. I ended up adding 3/4" to the outside, which worked well since that's what I was planning to use for the final routing anyway. Also add any splits where you will need 2 or more pieces to follow the profile.
Cut the pattern down on your established cut lines and adhere them to 1/4" plywood. Carefully cut and sand the parts so that you can match the lines you drew before.
Trace the patterns onto the material you will use for the face frame. Again I resawed mine from thicker material but that is up to you. Make sure all of the edges match from left to right and glue the assembly together (again I used dominoes).
At the same time, glue the assembly to the rear case. This will allow the frame to flex if needed and not be strained if you attach it after the glue dries.
Step 4: Routing, Front and Back
Time to make the box look pretty! Use a 1/8 to 1/4" rabbeting bit in a router to cut a notch along the back to allow the plywood to rest upon assembly. If you're a perfectionist, switch to a chisel to complete the inside corners.
Flip the box over and route the face frame however you'd like. I went with a 45 degree chamfer with the bulk of the removal on the outside to retain the clean image of the shield that I was looking for. Sand and smooth the edges as needed.
From here, I also used a 1/4" chisel to carve the notches in the corners for the sabers.
Step 5: Building the Flag Box
If you're planning this for a normal military retiree, you'll need room for a 3x5' flag. These are generally 10" or so to a side.
I planned for a second floor at the bottom of the case where the triangle could sit flat. This also required a small piece to fill the gap at the far bottom. Cut these in the same way as the rest of the case, making sure to remove some material from the width to account for the rabbet and plexiglas. The outside angles were cut on the bandsaw since they were too shallow to hit with the miter saw. Due to the close tolerances, I attached these parts together with #0 biscuits.
Don't glue this to the box. You'll need to get around it to install the glass and add the stain.
Step 6: The Officer's Badge
I've built several boxes using different occupational badges as ornaments. They aren't incredibly difficult but do add a fair amount of detail to the projects.
You'll want to layer several parts together in order to create the effect; generally I use a central element at full thickness and then attach other parts from the back at 3/8" or so in depth.
Use your first copy of the pattern to cut the central badge. Mark some tabs on the surviving pattern and cut the outlying elements out of contrasting material (resawing is recommended if you have mirrored components). Smooth the parts down and add any relevant details with a wood burner.
Flip the central badge over and mark the location of the tabs you left on the other elements. Use a router and a straight bit to cut those areas away to make room to sink the parts in place. Don't glue them until everything is stained and ready for finishing. You'll also need a 3/8" hole in the center to mount the badge to the box.
Step 7: The Glass and the Back
Sit the box on a piece of plexiglas and trace along the inside using a thin marker. Carefully cut this line using a 1/8" straight bit in a trim router or very carefully on a miter saw. I'd suggest practicing first so you don't scratch the good side. Trim everything to fit.
Similarly, cut the back using a jig saw and 1/4" plywood. Use spray paint on the back and spray adhesive to attach ultra suede to the front. I get mine in bulk from The Fabric Exchange.
Complete your staining and varnishing of all the parts before final assembly.
Step 8: Final Assembly!
For assembly, drop the plexiglas into the box from the back and hold it in place with glass retaining clips or small screws. If you're planning on shipping the completed box, leave the protective film in place except for the corners so the recipient can remove it. Continue by attaching the flag box by using small self-tapping screws through the bottom of the case where they won't show.
Finish up by dropping the plywood back down and adding turn buttons at each joint to hold it in place.
With that you're all set to honor your favorite Navy veteran and/or pirate.
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