Introduction: Dovetailed Keepsake Box

About: Growing up in a rural area in the East of England I've always been interested in nature and trees and eventually found myself building things from the wood I could find. This has led me to follow my passion of…

I was asked to make a keepsake box for my newly born great nephew by his dad, my nephew. Never having attempted anything this polished before I knew it would be a challenge and some parts were bound to be rough. Despite my doubts I went ahead and gave it a go. The box is made from a plank of wood which came from the top of an old piano, I've been told its either Oak or Beech, the end grain appears to be similar to Oak. I bought the hinges and leather cord online, the front knob is a piece of Sapele offcut.

As always I've made a video of the build on my YouTube channel and more detailed instructions will follow below.

Step 1: Tools and Materials Used


- Pencil and rule

- Combination square

- Smoothing plane/hand plane (or planer/thicknesser)

- Crosscut saw and Tenon saw (or table saw)

- Dividers

- Dovetail guide or bevel gauge

- Set of chisels from 5mm to 20mm (roughly)

- Clamps

- Knife

- Coping saw

- Marking gauge

- Router plane

- Block plane

- A few different sized gouges

- Hand drill, 2mm bit and 6mm bit

- Socket set


- Board of hardwood (to whatever length you need for the box)

- Small block of sapele or other dark wood for knob

- Short length of leather cord

- 8 X 1cm screws for hinges

- 2 X hinges

- 2 X 12mm screws for knob

- PVA/ Wood glue

- Sandpaper

- Danish oil (or whatever finish you desire)

Step 2: Preparing and Cutting the Board to Size

This part is entirely dependant on the size board you have available or on the size of box you want to make, or both. I made mine about 25cm long and around 15cm wide. The board itself was about 20cm wide. I made sure to plane them all to the same thickness (or as well as I could) and find out their best orientation by lining them up against each other. I then labelled them on the inside part so that I could keep them in that order when making the dovetails.

At this point it would have been a good idea to mark the thickness of each board onto the end of the board it would connect to, to get the dovetails as accurate as possible. I opted to do this step later which I think made my dovetails less accurate than they could have been.

Step 3: Marking Out the Dovetails

There's a few methods to marking out dovetails but I quite enjoy doing it with dividers as when you get used to it it becomes a fast way to repeat a pattern. I decided to put two boards together and then marked a half pin on each side, the width of this is whatever you want it to be and its best to just look at the wood and try to gauge what you think will be suitably strong but also look appealing, this is different from person to person of course.

After you mark the half pins on both sides you can then use the dividers to mark the dovetails. I wanted three tails so I kept adjusting the dividers until I could do two "steps" from the left line with the third "step" going about half way over the line on the right side. I then repeated the steps from the right line to the left line. When you're done you'll find that you have small dots which you can then strike across with a square and pencil.

After the lines are squared across the ends of the boards you can use a dovetail guide to mark the angles of the dovetails. This could also be done with a bevel gauge. After this I marked the thickness of the board that each board attached to, I should have done it first though.

Step 4: Cutting the Dovetails

After repeating the marking process on each end of the longer boards you can cut them. I find it best to use a very fine toothed tenon saw, but of course everyone will have their own preference. Cutting on the waste side of the line I left about 1mm of material left to trim. I clamped the board down to my bench and used a couple of chisels to slowly chip away at the waste material. I find it a good idea to really take your time with this as any little mistakes will really show up once the joint comes together (as I always find out!).

Step 5: Marking and Cutting the Pins

Its even more important to be accurate with the cutting and trimming when marking and making the pins. Its also very important to make sure you keep the boards in order. Even though the dovetails you've cut may all look identical, they wont be (in most my case). So for that reason its important to mark up each board with its matching board.

To make the marking up as accurate as possible I clamped the board to its matching board at a 90 degree angle, then I used a knife to mark where the dovetails are and therefore where I can cut the pins. Once you have the lines there you can square them off and cut down the vertical lines with a fine saw. You can break the waste away again with a chisel if you wish but I find that using a coping saw and then a chisel is faster and just as accurate.

After I cut most of the waste away with a coping saw I clamped the board to the table with a straight and square piece of wood clamped on top of it. This piece of wood follows the bottom line of the tails meaning that I can line a chisel up against it and get a very straight cut, as can be seen in the last photo.

Step 6: Marking and Cutting the Dados

After the box is all together I clamped it to my bench and used a plane to make the top and bottom flat. Even though I measured and cut the dovetails as accurately as I could there were still very small discrepancies with the height of the sides. When this was completed I got a marking gauge with two marking points and marked the dados on the inside of the box. Its obviously important not to glue the box at this point as you need to take it apart again!

It was then just a case of chiselling out the dados and using a router plane to make them nice and even. These dados will house the top and the bottom of the box.

Step 7: Cutting and Fitting the Top and Bottom

I decided to pull one of the sides off the box and then move the other sides until it was square and measure the width of the box between the dados. I then made the top and bottom of the box about 2mm thinner than that measurement to leave room for any expansion in the wood. I marked the depth of the rebate I wanted on the top and bottom pieces and then cut them to size with a tenon saw. Afterwards I planed each board with chamfers to match the design I was going for.

Step 8: Carving the Top of the Box

Times New Roman, whilst a rather boring and overused font, is a wonderful choice for carving. I'm really rather inexperienced with carving and so I knew the result would be rather rough but I wanted to challenge myself. After printing off my nephews name I taped it to the top of the box and then used a knife to cut out the letters which marked the wood underneath. Most people glue their templates on and then cut around them but I didn't want the bother of cleaning glue off afterwards. This method does seem to make the paper ride up at times though, but its still preferable for me.

This is where you need to find every small and curved chisel in your arsenal to help you pick out all the little details of the letters. I find it easiest to imagine a centre line on the inside of each letter and cut a "V" shape down into it from both sides.

Step 9: Gluing the Box and Cutting the Lid

Gluing the box together can be rather stressful but luckily it came out fine. I found that in order to fit the top and bottom in I had to trim a little off the corners to allow the dovetails to seat properly. After I glued it and left it to dry I took a marking gauge and marked the depth of the lid. This is a personal preference once again, I decided to make mine come halfway down the first tail, I figured that would give it a more even look.

After all the sides have been marked I began the cutting, which was really rather stressful! I think its very important to take your time and make sure you cut right along your marked line. This would obviously be easier with a table saw and probably more accurate.

Step 10: Cutting and Carving the Knob

Not satisfied with taking my stress levels to the max with my previous carving I decided to carve the front knob as well. Once again it was Times New Roman and this time it was his date of birth. I don't have many chisels that are very small so I mostly carved this with a knife and some patience. I then bevelled the edges with a block plane. The underside of the knob has a little lip which the leather cord can slip under.

Step 11: Attaching the Hinges

I wanted some nice chunky hinges for this box to reflect the chunkiness of the wood and dovetails. I got a piece of leather to protect the box from the clamps and clamped the lid down onto the box, making sure it was straight and square. It was then just a case of screwing in the hinges at the same distance from each side and the top.

Step 12: Attaching the Knob and Leather Cord

I drilled pilot holes for the screws to attach the knob to the box. Because I had to screw from inside the box I had to use a small socket screwdriver to turn the screws in, always making sure to keep the knob firmly pressed against the box.

When this was done I drilled two holes through the lid for the leather cord to pass through and tied a knot on one end. I threaded the cord through the other hole, shut the lid and figured out the tightness I wanted the cord to be at. I then opened the lid again, making sure to keep the un-knotted side of the cord in the same place and then tied a knot behind it to keep it in place. I then cut the excess off with some scissors.

Step 13: Finishing and Admiring Your Box

I used Danish oil to finish my box but of course you could use whatever finish you like. This was possibly my most challenging build to date but I'm very glad I tried some new things and I learnt a lot from making it.

If you'd like to show some support and check out behind the scenes photos or just say hi then please like the Timber Anew Facebook page. You can also check out my library of past projects and projects to come on my YouTube Channel.

Thanks a lot for checking out this Instructable, all comments, criticisms and general words are welcome!

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Box Contest 2017