Introduction: How to Make a Military Medals Box

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Words and photos: Andrew Green

I’ve always had a keen interest in boxmaking. Boxes are small to make, you can fuss over attention to detail, and because you’re only using a small amount of wood, you can use very exotic or figured timbers. Whilst I was deployed in Afghanistan in 2012 in the course of my work in the Australian Army, I decided to make a display box to house the medals that I would be awarded for my deployment. A number of my mates took notice of the designs I was drawing up and before I knew it I had a large order for similar boxes.

I made a prototype as soon as I returned back to Australia, and this became my personal box for my own medals. Made from jarrah, Huon pine and Queensland maple, it measures 355mm long x 220mm wide x 125mm high with 12mm thick sections.

Step 1: Box Construction

I used the traditional boxmaking technique of joining and gluing up the sides, top and base and then sawing this unit to section off the lid. The sides and base panel are made from jarrah while the top panel is made from figured Qld maple.

The box has a Huon pine insert made up of four side pieces that sit a few millimetres above the jarrah sides. When the box is closed this creates a slight friction fit that keeps the lid down. The contrasting jarrah and Huon pine work very well together visually as well. lid down. The jarrah tray that sits inside the box on small timber supports has curved sides and a plywood base on top of which sits a piece of MDF covered with felt.

Step 2: Milling and Cutting to Size

The jarrah I had on hand was a 50mm thick board. I first ran it through the jointer (photo 1) and thicknesser.

I used a cutting gauge to create a knife line on the board (photo 2) to monitor my progress whilst resawing on the bandsaw to get 14mm thick pieces (photo 3).

This was enough to allow for final milling before achieving my final thickness of 12mm for the sides.
At this stage I also dressed the remainder of the wood I would use for this project including maple and jarrah for the lid, base and tray, and Huon pine for the inserts. The wood was then stickered and weighed down over a few days to allow for any wood movement after resawing and milling. After a few days I selected the best jarrah board for the box carcase, and milled the remainder of the timber to final dimension.

I ripped the jarrah to final width (photo 4) and crosscut the box lengths using my mitre gauge to get accurate repeatable cuts.

Step 3: Lid and Base Panels

I used some stunning figured Qld maple for the box lid and jarrah for the base panel. Both panels sit in 5mm deep by 4mm wide rebates. I used a panel raising cutter in the router table to bring the panel down to just shy of 4mm to ensure a nice fit.The internal measurements of the box are 331mm long x 196mm wide; however you need to include the extra dis- tance for the rebate. I added 7mm to these measurements which gave the panels 1.5mm to expand and contract.

Step 4: Dovetailing and Rebates

I selected the best grain orientation and marked out my box carcase pieces in preparation for dovetailing. I used my Gifkins jig for this operation in conjunction with the A10 template (photo 5).

After dry fitting the box and wrapping masking tape around the carcase as an additional safety measure, I inserted the rebate cutter into my router table and brought the bit’s top cutter flush with where the outside of the panels would sit. This ensured the lid and base panels would be flush with the box sides. I undertook the routing (photo 6) in two passes to achieve a nice, clean rebate.

Next, I disassembled the box and prepared my panels to fit the rebates. The thickness of the panels are 8mm, so I set my panel raising cutter to a hair over 4mm high and used some scrap timber to test the fit in the rebate. It’s best to sneak up on the fit (photo 7) to make sure you don’t cut too much away and ruin the panels. The fence was set to achieve a 1mm reveal from the panel to the frame of the sides it sat within. Finally, the panel corners were then rounded over with sandpaper to match the corners of the rebate in the box.

Step 5: Gluing Up the Box

I used Titebond 3 to glue the box up. I find this glue has a little bit more open time and allows me to take my time to assemble boxes to perfection. Before gluing up I lined the inside corners with tape to prevent any excess glue from drying on the box itself. The carcase was carefully clamped squarely and left overnight to dry.

The lid and base panels are not glued in so they are free to expand and contract with changes in humidity. To prevent the panels from moving around I inserted a small strip of fly screen tubing in the rebate. The panels can easily expand against the tubing.

Once the box is out of the clamps, it’s time to clean it up in preparation to split the box. The dovetails and pins were slightly proud of the surface so I used my low angle block and jointer planes (photo 8) to flush and smooth the carcase sides so they would be flat and square to register on my tablesaw.

Step 6: Splitting the Box

I prefer to use the tablesaw to split boxes; it’s a practice I am simply more comfortable with. I have tried using my router table with a spiral cutter but find the tablesaw method much better.

I start by raising the blade to approximately 5mm for the first pass (photo 9) and setting the fence to cut a 27mm deep lid. On the second pass I raise it to 11mm, which will leave 1mm of timber holding the box from the lid.

From here I use my Japanese dozuki saw (photo 10) to separate the lid. All that is required to create a nice gap free reveal between the box itself and the lid is a bit of a clean up with a block plane (photo 11) and some sandpaper.

Step 7: Inserts

The Huon pine inserts were ripped to 96mm so they would sit a few millimetres proud of the box. I mitred them and used a small block plane to round over their top edges.

I carefully made a 2mm rebate in the side inserts to house small sections of jarrah to support the tray (photo 12). The jarrah strips were then ripped and glued into the rebates.

Step 8: The Tray

The jarrah for the tray was dressed down to 6mm thick and the long sides ripped to 40mm. The shorter sides were ripped to 50mm to allow extra material to create a slight curve from on the router table using a jig.

I used my dozuki saw again to cut the pieces to length (photo 13). I allowed an extra few millimetres for the longer pieces so I could sneak up on the cut using my shooting board (photo 14).

After cutting finger joints for the joinery, I used a circle cut- ting jig on my router table to create the curve on the side pieces. I measured and marked the centre of the jig on a scrap tray piece and made a trial cut (photo 15) to ensure I was happy with the curve. Once I was satisfied, I routed the sides of the tray and glued up.

At this stage I cut a 3mm wide rebate on the underside of the tray and measured and cut for a plywood veneered base. I used my shooting board to ensure I got a nice fit all round and rounded the corners to match the radius of the rebate. I then glued the base to the tray.
The tray also has a felt-covered 3mm MDF insert that was cut to size on the tablesaw. I allowed a 1mm gap all around to allow for the thickness of the felt to be glued on the underside. The felt was cut to fit the MDF insert plus an additional 10mm either side so I could mitre the corners to create a nice clean fit all around. I used a spray adhesive to stick the felt down and applied some tape on one of the ends to cre- ate a pull and did a test fit. Once I was pleased with the fit I pulled the insert out using the tape and set it aside.

Step 9: Hinges

I have been using Andrew Crawford’s smart hinges from the UK for the past 12 months and I’ve become a big fan of them. They are made from brass and open to 93°. Most importantly they are attractive and very easy to install.

I set up my router table with an 8mm straight bit and set the height of the cutter to exactly half the thickness of the hinge which is 3mm. I set the fence 2mm from the cutter, rotating the bit so the cutting tips are precisely in line at right angles to the fence so I get the most accurate positioning. The hinges are 8mm wide so the 2mm gap will ensure they will be centred with 2mm either side. I then set a stop 34mm from the cutter, once again making sure the cutting tips were at right angles with the stop.You will need to set the stop to the left of the cutter to cut the top right and bottom hinge mortises, and then set the stop to the right of the cutter for the other two cuts. It helps to mark where the hinges will go to ensure you don’t cut in the wrong place. Once all the routing is completed, I positioned the hinges and marked, drilled and installed the screws.

Step 10: Finger Lift

I used a 1/2” cove bit in my router table (photo 16) to create a small finger lift in the centre of the box. I placed a strip of blue tape on my table and put a pencil mark to indi- cated my start and stop position. Even with a sharp cutter I still got some burn marks so I used a combination of a card scraper and sandpaper to remove these marks.

Step 11: Final Clean Up

I examined the box for any imperfections so I could address them prior to applying any finish. I did experience some tearout on my lid panel which was no surprise as it’s figured and has interlocked grain. I used my HNT Gordon A55 smoother plane which is bedded at 55° to remove the tearout and create a clean and smooth surface. I find the higher angle of these planes produces a much better fin- ish on figured timbers compared to a regular plane that is bedded at 45°. I sanded all components of the box to 1200 grit (photo 17) and rounded over all edges.

Step 12: Applying the Finish

A coat of thinned shellac was first applied and al- lowed to dry overnight. I then applied a generous coat of Livos Kunos oil (#244) that had been thinned at a ratio of 50/50 and wiped off any excess after 20 minutes. I allowed the box to dry overnight and repeated this process a further three times allowing at least 12 hours drying between coats. I used less oil for the subsequent coats than I did for the first.

I lightly sanded the box after the second and third coats to remove any rough texture left by the previous application of oil. A final buff produces a long-lasting finish that can easily be renewed with an occasional application of oil. This box was designed to hold medals, but will equally serve to display and safeguard other items of value.

Reprinted from issue 79, Australian Wood Review.