Introduction: Makerspace Toolbox

A few years ago I started a new elective at my school. We had just opened our Middle School Makerspace and I asked to teach a class in it. I am a science teacher by training and have always liked tools and tech. One of my main goals was to come up with a project that was challenging to the students and taught them how to safely use a number of tools in the Makerspace. The school is an international school in New Delhi and many of our kids have never used a hammer or saw. Their parents don't move tools around the world with them or it is just not part of their culture. I also wanted the students to create a WOW piece that would showcase the Makerspace so that interest continued to build, and more kids signed up for the class.

Thankfully, a spouse at the school was a fine woodworker and helped me take my idea for a toolbox and turn it into something students are proud of and excited about building. Thus, was born our signature project, "Making a Toolbox."

Time required: 7-8 (80 minute) class periods


  • 1”x 4”x8’ (2.54cm x 10.15cm x 243cm) wood (we use pine)
  • ⅞” (2.2cm) dowel
  • 11”x 8”x ⅝“ (28cm x 20.3cm x 1.6cm) plywood
  • Wood glue
  • 1.5” (3.8cm) common nails
  • Wood clamp
  • Sandpaper/hand sanding blocks
  • Square
  • Tape measure
  • Goggles
  • Hammer
  • Hand saw
  • Hand plane
  • Power drill with 7/8"(2.2cm) spade bit
  • carbon paper
  • 450W soldering iron

Step 1: Safety, Tool Use and Practice

For many of the students this is the first time they have worked with hand and power tools, so safety and correct use is a big piece. As we introduce each tool and step there is a demonstration of proper tool use and an opportunity to practice before they make their own piece.

We begin by talking about using the tape measure correctly, marking their cuts and then have them practice both skills with one end of their 8' board. The board is long enough to allow one or two miss-cuts and a practice cut.

One thing I have noticed is that the kids lack the hand and wrist strength to make a square cut. They tend to drift out on an angle as they tire. I spend quite a bit of time working with them to come up with strategies to keep their saws vertical. One of the most effective is to have them think about their saw, wrist, elbow and shoulder as all being one piece that needs to stay in alignment. I also talk about the arm on a steam train pushing the wheels. That usually elicits laughs and eye rolls as I demonstrate with sound effects.

Once I am satisfied with their technique and cuts, we move on to the ends and sides.

Step 2: Cutting the Ends and Sides

Cutting the ends and sides is really about repetition and honing their skills with the saw. While cutting the four end pieces and two sides they must be able to consistently measure and then cut pieces the same way. As mentioned previously, most of my students have never used a saw. They get tired really quickly! To help with this and to build relationships in the class, they work with partner throughout the project. Each person builds their own toolbox, and they also get to assist someone else in building theirs. This helps things go more smoothly and gives students the opportunity to teach others as they get closer to mastering a skill.

To cut the sides students have to add the length of their base (plywood board) to two times the thickness of the end piece. They do the math by hand (usually in cm) right on the plywood base. I always have their partner check and then check myself. This is the place where incorrect lengths most often occur.

When a student takes the elective for a second time they build a slightly more complex project, a foot stool, and are also asked to take over some of the demonstrations and explanations of certain steps. This empowers them and allows me to focus on students that need extra help.

As the students make their cuts, they take turns with their partner. Each partner is responsible for checking measurements and holding the end of the board as the cut nears completion to prevent binds and the wood peeling off right at the end.

Once each partner has made their six pieces, they begin putting the ends together.

Step 3: Making the Ends

The end pieces of the toolbox are really where it starts to take shape. Since the ends need to be glued before they are cut down, I will sometimes have the students do the glue step before they cut the sides. Depends on the group and how much time is left in a particular class period.

To glue the ends students first must find the sides that pair up best to create a flat and hopefully aesthetically pleasing pattern. All of our boards are milled locally, and we have found that the sides are never perfectly square. This means that to get a flat end students need to match angles. They do this by playing the "puzzle game" as I call it until they have a good, clean match between two boards. Ideally, this means a flat surface with an almost invisible line where the two boards meet. It is important that there not be a gap where the boards meet, or the glue won't hold well. At this point students will lightly sand these edges to remove any burrs before gluing.

A demonstration of the gluing process takes place for groups as they are ready. The trick with the gluing is to not put on too much glue. Rather they need to create a thin, even skim of glue down the entire length of one board. Once the glue is applied the two pieces are stuck together. While applying constant pressure to hold the two pieces together they are gently slid back and forth until the glue beads up in the seam. Once both boards are glued, they need to rest for 20 minutes before they can be moved and 24 hours before they are cured.

After curing students mark out the cuts to create the angled sides and then cut. This is often the most difficult cut as the tendency for their saws to angle and drift off the line is pretty great. Often after these cuts are made, they will use the hand place to square up the cuts and try to even the angles. Patience while making these cuts helps to give the best results and it is here that the kids who have mastered sawing demonstrate the skill.

The next step is to use the drill press to make the holes for the dowel. Students mark their holes on each end board and make sure they are in alignment between the ends. Failure to align the holes means the dowel won't fit. After a lesson on using the drill press, they make their holes and then spend some time sanding edges before they begin final construction.

Step 4: Putting It Together

At this point students are really happy to not have to saw anything anymore. For many a new challenge begins, hammering a nail.

A demonstration of how to hold the hammer and how to start a nail is followed by some time practicing on scrap. Working with their partners, students start the first four nails on one end piece. Ideally, this means the nails are driven so that they just barely peek through the end board. They then put a skim of glue onto the end of the plywood base and with their partners help line up the pieces carefully. The partner holds the end piece while the builder hammers the nails flush. They then swap and do the other partners piece and then repeat with the other end.

Sometimes students don't get things lined up perfectly. To prevent a gap, they can use a hand plane to take down one side of the plywood or end piece, so everything is flush.

Following the same steps, working with their partner again, they attach the sides. With the sides I have them hammer in five nails across the bottom edge and then start one on each upper corner. I usually help them with lining up the last nails on the corners to make sure the box is square. This involves applying pressure to flex the end piece in or out so that it lines up with the side board and makes a nice corner.

After the sides are on the dowel is slid through the holes and glued in place. Sometimes the dowel needs to be sanded so that it fits well. Once the glue has cured students use a hand plane and sandpaper to clean everything up and make sure there is nothing for them to snag on.

Step 5: Personalizing and Finishing

The final step is personalizing. This project is the first thing we do at the start of the semester. Once complete the toolbox becomes their project caddy for the rest of the semester. At the end of the semester they get to take it home. So that it is easy to see which is their box, students use a soldering iron to burn their name and the year into one end of the toolbox.

I provide suggestions on what works best and a template, but give them freedom to experiment. To being with each student creates a doc with their name and year in a big font and prints this off. I encourage simple, straight fonts that aren't too wide. For students who speak another language at home I encourage them to write their name in their home language as well.

With their name printed they tape a piece of carbon paper to the end of the toolbox and their name template on top and then trace with a dull pencil over the template to transfer the carbon image onto the wood. Be careful with this step as wayward taps and scratches on the paper will also be transferred to the wood. The carbon marks can only be removed by sanding.

After making the carbon transfer students spend some time practicing with the soldering iron on some of their leftover board so they get a feel for the way the wood responds to the iron. We generally work with the iron set to 400-450C and use a variety of tips. The wider tips usually work better. Giving enough time to really get comfortable with the soldering iron helps improve the quality. Don't let them rush in and really encourage taking it slow, taking breaks and not pushing down too hard into the wood.

Once the burning is complete, students use sandpaper to remove and stray marks and leftover carbon. We do not stain, seal, or oil the toolboxes but this could absolutely be done. I like the way they age over the semester as the students handle them.

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