Introduction: How to Make Neat Wooden Boxes
If you are a woodworker, you are very likely to have a decent amount of scrap wood pieces floating around. Cut-offs from recent projects, chunks of wood you found and decided to use for something. Those pieces you don't really need, but they are just too beautiful to be thrown away - today is the day you are going to use some of them! But even if you don't have this pile of scrap wood laying around, you should consider searching for some nicely grained wood and use it to make something.
From time to time, I spend a weekend turning a bunch of loose pieces of wood into a lovely little crate. I do that for several reasons: Those boxes make great presents, are fun to manufacture and give you an opportunity to practice your woodworking abilities. Also, there are no limitations on creativity - find your favorite design, decide which material to use and then just start working.
This Instructable is supposed to show you my approach to making these boxes. Step by step, we will go through the full process from material selection, finding a design, making the parts and finishing the box. The example part featured in this Instructable is the black one from the picture above.
Step 1: Gathering Supplies
As you choose all the techniques on your own, you can adapt your project to your workshop. However, there is a bunch of utensils that you will need anyways:
- pen and paper for designing and taking notes
- measuring tools and a sharp pen to mark cut lines on the wood
- a bench vice to hold the pieces in place
- a hand saw to cut your pieces to size
- a carpenter's chisel and a small block plane, both well-sharpened
- sanding paper from a coarse to a fine grit
- wood glue and some clamps
Furthermore, I used the following tools. You can as well work without them, but they make things a lot easier:
- a marking gauge
- a carving knife
- a miter saw and a scroll saw
- an electric router table
- an electric rotary tool with polishing bits
- a disc sander
Remember to always wear adequate protective gear when using power tools.
Besides the wood, you can add other materials for design or functionality:
- metal brackets and handles
- leather to make handles or wrap parts
- resin to fill holes and cracks
- felt to cover the inside
It is a good idea to use wood finish like oil or wax to make the box cleaner and more resistant.
Step 2: Material Decision
Sit down with all the scrap wood you can find in your workshop and start comparing the pieces, hold them next to each other and try to imagine what they could be turned into. Also have an eye on which wood types and colors could go together well. Get an overview of the part dimensions that will of course affect the dimensions of your final result. Note that you can also turn big, chunky pieces into broad, even planes which are useful for making boxes. I will show you how to do that later on.
On the picture you can see the pieces I decided for: A chunk and several thin stripes of dark, almost black wood with a gorgeous grain - these should form the corpus and the Lid of my crate. Two stripes of walnut which I thought would work well as handles or feet. One stripe of light maple that contrasts beautifully with the dark colors. A reddish stripe and a few oak cut-offs that could also make design elements or handles. Additionally, I took some shards of glass that were washed round and smooth by the ocean. I like the white, translucent look and wanted to try and pair it with the dark wood.
Not all of these pieces made it into my final box. In the following step you will see, that I focused on some of them while leaving others out.
Step 3: Finding and Sketching the Design
To decide on a design, I took pen and paper and started making sketches. As you can see, it is not neccessary to make a perfect drawing. Just scribble down all ideas you have in mind and start playing around with them. Combine and alter them until you end up with a solution you are happy with. Keep in mind that your design doesn't have to be set in stone at this point. At a later moment, you can still make slight changes to it. However, it is important to have a basic idea how the resulting box should look like.
I decided to mainly build the box out of the darker pieces. The corpus consists of four pieces with 45° bevels on each side. To support the corner bevels and for design reasons, I added little wedges made from the contrasting maple wood. For the ground of the box I planned to use the same wood as for the walls - this is the first thing I changed as that seemed like a darkness overkill. The ground plate is inserted and glued into a slot in the corpus. A stripe of the maple wood is worked into the lid as well. The feet are made from the walnut stripes and kind of incorporate the box. For the handle I wanted to use one of the glass shards. Later I decided against this idea as it would have messed with the light stripe in the lid.
Step 4: Cutting the Corpus Pieces
As you can see, the pieces for the corpus were already in a good form. All I had to do was clean the shape so that both pieces were exactly the same. To do so, I straightened one of the long edges using my block plane, then cut the short edges perpendicular to it. Next, I straightened the opposing edge. As a last step of preparation, the top and bottom surfaces needed some planing to clean the face and equalize the wood thickness. These steps left me with two perfectly square pieces of wood.
Note that this preparation process is essential for every piece you want to use - to work exactly and clean, you need perpendicular edges and well-defined surfaces.
Now it was time to cut the bevels, which can be a bit tricky. Don't worry, the small-dimensioned box is rather forgiving for slight angular deviations. However, take your time! Using an electric miter saw makes cutting bevels a lot easier and faster. If you don't own one, you will have to cut them by hand and then carefully work down to the correct angle using a block plane and a chisel. Check the perpendicularity of the box and fit the pieces together, until you are satisfied with the result.
Last step for the corpus pieces is cutting the slot in which the ground piece will be inserted. I used my DIY router table and an 8 mm cutting bit for this. The manual way would be to mark your cuts, then cut them with a precise saw (e.g. a japanese handsaw) and finish the fit with a chisel.
Step 5: Assembling the Corpus
With all pieces for the box laying out, I used the opportunity to pre-sand them before the assembly. Especially the inside faces of the box won't be reachable afterwards, so spend some time giving them a smooth surface.
Finally I could apply some wood glue, carefully assemble the box and then hold everything in place with clamps. There are many useful helping tools for clamping down boxes and frames. They all make this task a lot easier, but as you can see, you can work without them as well.
Remove excess glue and let everything dry. Give it enough time. There are plenty of things to do and you don't want this to shift or fall apart when working with it.
Step 6: Cutting and Inserting the Maple Wedges
When the glue has dried and you are sure to have a solid box in your hands, it is time to remove the clamps. As the contact surface in the corners of the pieces isn't too big, I added small wedges cut from the maple wood to support the connection (also, those just look great!).
Mark out the spots where you need to remove the material. The tool you see me using is my marking gauge (also a nice DIY project). Especially for tasks like this, it is really helpful and speeds things up. Of course a pencil and a carpenter's angle do the job as well. Afterwards use a small saw to cut out the slots. Be careful as the thin wood in the corners tends to tear out easily. To finish the cutouts, I used my chisel and a small, very sharp carving knife. It is a good idea to cut your wedges using some sort of jig so that they are all exactly the same thickness. Then you can fit each slot individually to the correct size.
It is important to make the ground of the slot perfectly even, otherwise the wedge cannot be fully inserted and leaves holes.
Glue the wedges in, let them dry. Don't get impatient. Here comes one of my favorite woodworking moments: Cutting the wedges plane with the surface, revealing the great contrasting look. As always, first use a saw and then the chisel. Be careful not to scratch the boxes surface.
Step 7: Preparing Wood for the Lid
To give the lid a more interesting look, I used a stripe of maple to break the dark wood colour apart. After cutting the maple wood and planing it perpendicular - as mentioned in step 4 - I used wood glue and strong clamps to combine it into the dark lid. Once again: to have a decent fit it is crucial to make all edges clean, even and perpendicular!
When the glue has dried, use a block plane to even out the surface. The piece should look like it has never been parted.
This technique can also be used to turn a thick piece of wood into a wide, flat slice, which is useful for many applications. Just cut it into slices, glue them together keeping the grain in mind and then plane it.
Step 8: Adding Chamfers and Finishing the Lid
To hold the lid in place, I cut out a rectangular section around the edge. I marked the lines, cut them on my router table and finished everything with the chisel - nothing new here.
On this point, I decided against using the glass shard as a handle. The maple stripe was just enough "action" and another element would have overloaded it. Instead, I cut two round chamfers on both sides that feel really smooth and make opening the box easier. To do so, I clamped two blocks onto my router table, keeping the rounded milling bit centered. I then pressed my lid onto the fence and moved it from right to left. Don't move it around too much as the milling bit can ruin your surface. Yep, this cut is a bit harder to do without a router and a rounded milling bit. You could use a rounded chisel or a bowed knife and carve the chamfer into the wood. There is always a manual way, it just may take longer. But in my eyes, the carpenter's chisel is one of the most beautiful tools to master.
And there it is, our finished lid - doesn't it look gorgeous?
Step 9: Making the Feet
Last thing we need is a solid base for the box. I decided for two simple pairs of feet. To make them, I had to measure the corpus' width. Also - of course - the walnut stripe had to be planed until it was even and perpendicular.
I then marked the rough shape of the foot onto the wood and cut it out on my scroll saw. Using the chisel, I widened the space for the box until it fitted perfectly. Some cleaning of the edges, some coarse sanding and then one foot was ready. The second one is made the same way, using it's "brother" as a template.
The feet get glued to the corpus, but before doing so we have to finish all other surfaces.
Step 10: Cleaning Edges and Finishing Surfaces
Here comes the best and the worst part at the same time: sanding everything and finishing the surfaces. Okay, it really isn't so bad, but it can be a bit tedious. Be patient and spend time on this process as you will see the result afterwards. And believe me, it is worth it.
First of all, I cleaned all edges of the box with my chisel. The corners were a bit out of line, the edges needed some bevels. Make sure to use a really sharp tool as it gives you the cleanest cuts.
After this, the sanding begun. I started with a grit of 80 to round the edges and then worked my way from 120, 240, 400 up to 600. Every grit leaves traces and scales that can only be removed using the next finer grit - so don't leave one out, otherwise your surface will still be rough after using the finest paper. To get rid of the fine sanding dust, I wiped everything with a wet piece of cloth.
To seal the surface and increase the contrast between the different wood types, I applied some finish. After letting it dry halfways, I polished everything to get a glossy look.
Step 11: Appreciating the Result
Here we have it. We turned a rough pile of scrap wood into a beautiful box for jewellery, pencils, sweets or whatever you want to put in it. This project took me around two days and was a great way to escape the muddy weather outside. As you can see, the design has slightly changed from my original plans. I am really happy how this turned out!
I hope I could show you why and how I build these boxes. Feel free to contact me for questions and feedback. Go ahead and build one for yourself - there are tons of possibilities! And beware, there is a certain danger of getting addicted.
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