Introduction: Live Edge Dovetailed Japanese Toolbox

About: The Dogfather, Chris Giffrow || Youtuber, Maker of things... mostly from wood.

Japanese Toolboxes are characterized by the unique fastening wedge system that locks the lid in place. While somewhat decorative these days, they are still phenomenally functional and can be build in all shapes and sizes with dividers or without. The more traditional versions typically feature butt joints with dowels. This version is elevated a bit into snooty tooty range with freehand dovetails. However, it's worth keeping in mind that this box is still relatively humble, made from scraps that would otherwise be destined for the fire pit. I am quite lucky however, to be able to have scraps like mahogany, locally sourced indian rosewood, white oak, and maple. I won't spend a ton of time on the actual dovetailing process, I have a separate video for that and will do a separate article for such (Video: But for now, look at your scrap pile and dream big. There's a lot you can do with it.


Scrap Wood (Preferably longer boards that you can divide in half to make consistent thickness easier, but any scraps will do.)

Dovetail Tools (Hand saw, chisels, chisel knocker, coping or fret saw, marking gauge, marking knife, dividers, and combination square) This build can also be done sans dovetails with any sort of corner specific joinery you care to do.

Table Saw (heresy I know)

Taper Jig (further heresy, believe me I get it)

Dowel Plate (Or just purchase your own dowels)

Mallet (Rubber and joiners)

Wood Glue

CA Glue and Activator

Center Punch


Drill (Power or Hand)

Drill Bits to correspond with your dowel thickness

Finish (I used a Maloof finish but use whatever you're comfortable with)

Painters Tape

Flush Trim Saw

Step 1: Laying Out Dovetails

Laying out dovetails is really about patience. For me, it's getting it once and then having a repeatable system. I used to gang cut my dovetails previously but I've switched back to just doing single boards at a time because I want to slow down the process and make sure I'm getting it right.

Find your pin board. In reality, pin board or tail board doesn't really matter with a box like this because you're not going to necessarily be pulling from the sides in an outward manner. It's not a drawer. So once you figured out what your pin board is going to be, use your marking gauge and mark your thickness on that and scribe to all the four sides of your tail board. Then from each end, determine what your half pin width is. Once you find a half pin width you like, start walking your dividers out taking as many "steps" so to speak as you want tails. Here I want two tails so I'm going to pivot out twice. The end idea is that I want the end of the divider to be off the board, but I want the distance between the divot toward the end of the board, which marks my half pin, to be a full pin off the board. Once you get that figured out, you can mark across in each direction starting from your half pin mark. Then strike your marking lines, darken them with pencil, and draw your down lines on the faces of your board.

Step 2: Sawing Tails

I, like most of the woodworking universe, find sawing tails to be the easiest part. I start tails first. Some folks saw pins first and I'm sure they eat dry cereal as well. Yes yes, the whole, it's easier to pare down a tail than to pare down a mortise is a valid point but I find that sawing nice clean tails lends to a cleaner set up for pins and then I worry less about cutting past my pin layout lines.

I prefer to use a western back saw. A lot of folks like Japanese pull saws because of their ability to get started easier. Whatever it is, do it slowly, deliberately, and with a loose grip. Once you have the sides of your tails sawn, saw out your half pins, and then pare them down with a chisel, being careful to not pass your baseline. Then use your coping saw to get your center pin waste and start paring to clean up your saw marks and get everything tight to your layout lines.

Step 3: Chiseling Waste

Chiseling out waste whether it's pins or tails is really the same. You start on one side, chop out small bites till your hit halfway, once you're at your baseline, flip it and work from the other side. I utilize a technique where I undercut my waste. That doesn't mean I go past my baselines on the exterior. However, toward the middle of the board, I create a bit of a valley because the end grain is not vital to the glue up. Imagine a less pronounced capital M if you will, with each of the peaks being your baselines. Having that recessed groove will help your tails and pins seat better. When it comes to getting down to your layout lines, I make sure to not do as much perpendicular or even with the grain motion, and instead try to swipe the chisel across in a slicing manner. Sharp tools are extremely helpful and necessary here. When it comes to the pin board, start on the side with the narrower opening and when you flip, work your way in at an angle. A fishtail chisel is a nice luxury here. I don't have one... yet.

Step 4: Laying Out and Sawing Pins

After my tail board is cleaned up, I transfer the layout to the pin board using the blue tape method. I put blue tape on the end grain of the pin board, line it up in the vise, I use my shooting board as a layout board, and then use my marking knife to strike lines following the edges of the tails. Once those lines are set, I peel away what would normally be considered the waste areas, leaving the blue on my pins. This just makes things a bit more visual for me and is quite a tried and true method for making sure you don't screw up and cut the wrong side. It forces you to set your saw kerf off the blue tape and just make smarter decisions when paring pins. When I'm fine tuning the fit, I'll use a file rather than a chisel to take small micro amounts off to get me a nice snug fit.

Step 5: Test Fitting

I can't really explain how vital dry fitting is in woodworking but especially when it comes to fitting dovetails. You want them to be snug, but if they're too snug don't try to force it, otherwise you risk a nasty split. You want them to fit in there with little mechanical pressure at all. If they're a bit on the snug side, perhaps just a couple mallet taps. Do not, for the love of God, smash them in there with a joiners mallet. You're going to have a bad time.

Step 6: The Glue Up, Fitting the Bottom, and Cutting the Top

Before glue up, I like to smooth everything out with hand planes just to get a better finish. A lot of folks do this before, and that's fine. I just do it after because sometimes I'm an idiot and I drop components, nick them on my bench, etc. As far as the glue up, you're not going to use to much glue, just enough on three of your interior sides of your pins because they'll be socketed into your tails. Then, strike your measurements of the interior of your box and cut your lid and bottom accordingly. You may need to trim the lid a touch after, but we'll get to that.

Step 7: Setting the Bottom and the Lid

This is one of those chicken or the egg things. It doesn't necessarily matter what order you do this in so long as your box casing is done. I like to have whatever scraps I use for the lid mechanism oversized so that I can flush trim them later. Whichever order it goes, I usually start by making my own dowels, which I'll hammer out on the dowel plate. To set the bottom, I just fit the bottom, use a punch to line up my holes, and then drill into the sides of the bottom to pin it into place. I'll add some glue and peg it with the dowel and then flush trim.

For the lid, I rip a squared bottom piece and in this instance, glue it dead flush with the end of the lid. I use some clamps to hold it in place. In this case, to keep things moving, I used CA glue and quick and thick so that I didn't have to wait long to keep moving. I'll then peg these from the back with a dowel and fix it in with glue and flush trim. I didn't go all the way through. You could. You do you.

Then, use a taper jig (or a handsaw if you're a masochist) to cut an angled and tapered piece, flip and angle, and rip again. That should give you the necessary complementary angles to be able to create the pressure wedge. Glue the first of your outside lid fixtures onto the box itself, butted up to the end. Then take the lid and test set it. I clamped mine into place and once again, test fit the loose middle piece, before gluing the end of the mechanism onto the lid. Be careful to not glue that middle piece as you'll basically be stuck... literally. Once you've done that, you can pin everything with dowels however you'd like and then flush trim everything to the sides of the box.

It's important to note that the top end of your lid should be measured between the two pieces of the corresponding angles. Just lay it out a few times and do the whole measure twice cut once thing. This particular design gave me a little more wiggle room because I wasn't slotting under an end cap but rather just applying pressure to the inside of the box.

Step 8: Finishing

Before applying finish, I give everything a light sand and then use a wire brush and drill to clean up the live edges. Then, I apply my finish. I'm using the maloof finish which is equal parts boiled linseed oil, pure tung oil, and wipe on poly, and a splash of mineral spirits. I went with a heavier blast of mineral spirits this time because I wanted deeper penetration and slightly faster dry times. I applied about three to four coats and waited a day before adding the second stage which is boiled linseed oil, tung oil, and melted beeswax. I did two coats of that. It's a simple, wipe on, wipe off application for both of these. Always make sure to clean up excess and to not have anything sitting on the piece when you walk away.

Step 9: You're Finished. Rejoice. Scream to the Heavens. It's Beautiful.

Yes. You're done. You have a box. You can put things in it. It's lovely.

This is a simple, yet deceptively challenging build. I've made three of these boxes in about three years and I still don't have it perfect, just... 95% there. And maybe I'll never get there and that's fine. The beauty in this box is in the mechanical lid and the subtle imperfections that are there. As I said, it's not only fine, but functional as well. If you have any questions about the build, be sure to let me know in the comments below. And please, for the love of God watch the video. It'll help you a lot because some things just can't be explained, only seen. Thanks again for following along. Cheers.

Step 10: #BuildatHome Challenge