Introduction: Secret Hitler Dovetail Box (only Hand Tools)

Before you go on a rant, this Instructable has nothing to do with fascism. Well, OK, a little bit then. But not in the way you think. This is about making a box for a superb board game called "Secret Hitler". It's a social deduction game in which liberals and fascists oppose each other. Liberals have the majority, but only fascists know which is which. Suffice it to say it's a game full of deceit, and it will be a blast when you have friends over. To be played with 5 to 10 players. It's not for sale at the moment, but the makers were kind enough to make it available for free. Check their website:

You can find a black-and-white version there to print out, but I found a color version somewhere on this site:

I don't have pictures of the making process of the board game itself, but I basically just glued all prints onto thin cardboard and then laminated them. For the 2 game boards, I used laser jet transfer fluid to transfer the images directly to plywood (printed in mirror image). This is how it looks like:

But enough about the game and onto the making of the box itself! I made this box entirely with hand tools, and by that I mean the kind without electricity, not handheld power tools. They offer endless possibilities, no noise, no dust, no danger (well, less danger anyway). And once you get good at them, they aren't always slower than power tools, which is a common misconception. I first walked the power tool path, but became frustrated because I needed fancier equipment and more space and money to keep making stuff. Then I discovered Paul Sellers, and he's been a huge source of inspiration. He showed me you can make anything you can dream up, with only a few hand tools, a sturdy workbench and a small space to work in. Check out his Youtube channel:

I'll be referring to some of his video's throughout this Instructable. I can't go into detail on every technique I use, because these written instructions would get way too long. So please ask if anything is unclear. I suggest you watch a couple of his videos first if you're new to hand tool woodworking. A dovetailed box might not be the best beginner project, so I suggest a cutting board to start with.

Step 1: Making Panels for Bottom and Lid

My brother recently renovated his house, and gave me a lot of slats (pic 1), which were used for door and window framing (I think). They were about 9 mm thick (a little under 3/8 inch), which makes them perfect for boxes. To get the width for the bottom and lid, we first need to make panels. Measure the length of the game board, add 2 times the thickness of your wood, and then add another 10 mm to play it safe. Cross cut a couple of slats to this length (pic 2), in my case 32 cm. You don't need to saw precise yet at this moment, because we will cut the panels to final dimensions later. I needed 3 of them to get the width I needed. Choose how you want them to fit together (making sure grain patterns are somewhat complimentary) and make a mark (pic 3). The best way to get a seamless glue-up, is to plane two edges together (pic 4 and 5). You know you're done when you have continuous shavings from both edges. Hold them together to check if there are no gaps, then proceed to plane the other 2 edges. Then apply a liberal (get it?) amount of glue onto the edges (pic 6) and clamp everything up:

Notice I used an extra piece of wood (called a clamping caul) to help align everything. Leave this to dry overnight and then plane everything smooth:

Make sure your panel is flat (I checked frequently with a steel ruler) and has an even thickness. Repeat this entire step to get 2 panels.

Step 2: Preparing the Sides

Decide what length and width you want your box to have, then cross cut your pieces a bit over-sized (pic 1). With dovetails, the length and width of your pieces will be the length and width of your box (outside measurements). This is very convenient because you don't need to take wood thickness into consideration. Not sure what I mean? Try making a box with butt joints, and you'll know why.

Next, plane all pieces (pic 2) and make sure they have even thickness. It helps to plane one side flat, and then use a marking gauge to scribe a line (pic 3), so you have a guideline. After that, you can cross cut your pieces to final length, but this time we'll use a knife on all 4 sides (pic 4). This is the so-called knifewall method of Paul Sellers. You use it every time you cross cut, and this is key to accuracy and you also avoid tear out from sawing. In pic 5 you can clearly see that the edges are nicely defined, but there is still a bit of fuzz from sawing. That can be cleaned up nicely with a shooting board (pic 6). After planing the edges as well (use a marking gauge again to stay parallel), you should end up with something like this:

Because we are making a lidded box, one of the short pieces is also narrower than all the others. It's reduced by the width of the groove (see later) + the height of material left above the groove. For example, if your groove is 6 mm, and the material above it is also 6, then one of the short pieces should be 12 mm narrower than the others.

Step 3: Dovetails: the Tails

Before you begin with dovetails, I suggest you watch this video first:

It explains everything in much greater detail than I ever could.

I made my tails on the longer pieces, and chose only 1 tail. Begin by marking the thickness of a short piece onto your long piece with a pencil. This is just a temporary guideline, so you know what line to saw to. At this point, it's also a good idea to mark your joints with letters, so you know how they go together. For the angle, I used a 1:7 pitch. You can either set your sliding bevel to that angle, or use a dovetail template. You can pretty much decide yourself what distance the tail should be from the edges. I chose a distance of 13 mm (pic 1), so that the groove for the lid wouldn't run through this tail. Later I discovered I made a mistake, so I had to plug a piece of the tail up (see later). But you can avoid this by choosing a distance that is slightly more than groove + material above groove.

Next, cut along your line (pic 2) and make sure to stay away from your base line. It really helps to mark waste wood with an X, so you know which side of the line you have to cut to. We'll define the base line a bit further with a knife, using the short piece to get our exact measurement (pic 3). But only make a knife cut where the waste wood is, otherwise your knife marks will show on the final piece. Finally cut away both corners, and clean up the inside corner with a chisel.

Step 4: Dovetails: the Pins

Start by marking your baseline again with a pencil. Now transfer your tails onto the pin piece with a sharp pencil (pic 1). Use a block of wood to support the other end. Mark the waste side again (this time it's in the middle) and cut along your pencil lines, stopping just shy of your baseline (pic 2). Mark your baseline with a knife, using your tailpiece as a guide. Define your knife line further by creating a step-down with a chisel (pic 3). Now chop out the waste, alternating between vertical cuts (pic 4) and slanted cuts (pic 5). Do this from both sides, until you meet in the middle. It should look like picture 6. Again, if this is a bit confusing to you, watch Paul's dovetail video. After some light cleanup with a chisel it looks like this:

And it fits!

The pins are slightly protruding, but there are no gaps, which is what we want of course. A neat little trick to facilitate the fitting process, is to slightly ease the inside corners of the tail (without touching the outer corners of the tail). If the joint is too tight, you can gently trim with a chisel (easy does it). If it's too loose, you might resort to the old wood glue and sanding dust trick (but try to avoid this if possible, because your joints will be weaker). Now go make another one of those!

Step 5: Dovetails: the Lid Side + Grooves

Now for the lid side, the dovetails are slightly different. Start by marking the width of the narrow short side onto the longer tail piece (pic 1). Again mark your baseline, and mark out your tails. This time, we need to remove a small waste piece in between (pic 2), whereas with the previous tails there was no need. The pin piece is the same as previously. After fitting, I noticed a gap (pic 3). I was more careful with the other joint, and that one was flawless.

Next step is to assemble the box (without gluing) so that we can plane the edges flush (pic 4). This is important because we will use those edges as reference for the plough plane. Watch this excellent video starting from 11:00 for instructions on setting up a plough plane:

using a plough plane

To be able to plough a groove, I used the clamp-in-the-vise trick (pic 5). I used a Record 044 plough plane with a 1/4 inch cutter (6.35 mm) and set the depth stop to 3 mm. I should have set the fence so that the bottom of the groove lined up with the red line (pic 6), but I made a mistake. At this point I hadn't even noticed yet. So my tail pieces with grooves look like this:

Step 6: Gluing Up the Sides (and Fixing Mistake)

Next up, we'll glue up the sides. Carefully apply glue in all the joints, and fit everything together. Work fast, because the glue might cause everything to swell up if you delay. Put everything in clamps (pic 1) and measure the diagonals. If they are equal, then your box is square. Leave it to dry for a couple of hours.

It was only at this point that I realized I cut the groove at the wrong position (pic 2). There's no way the lid can slide into the groove now. Only way to fix it, was to make 2 saw cuts and chisel out the excess wood (pic 3). This turned out pretty good (pic 4), although I did saw a little too deep, as you can see. A consequence of this mistake was that the tail pieces have a hole now (pic 5). I fixed this by making a wedge-shaped plug. After a couple trial fittings and trimming, it fit perfectly and the mistake was hardly noticeable (pic 6). Hopefully you'll be warned now to not make the same mistake.

Step 7: Gluing the Bottom and Making the Lid

For this step, we'll need the panels made in step 1. I cut the bottom slightly over-sized on all sides and glued it on (pic 1), using the top panel (which has not been cut to final size yet) for easy clamping. When the glue is dry, you can gently trim the excess end grain with a sharp chisel (pic 2). For long grain, we can of course just plane it flush.

For the lid, I wanted to put the logo of "Secret Hitler" on there with my wood burner (pic 3).I have one with adjustable temperature setting and I used a universal tip. In picture 4 you can see the finished logo. Next, cut the lid to size and try the fit. Carefully remove shaving after shaving from the edges until it fits snugly into the box. The groove was already wide enough to accommodate the lid without having to reduce its thickness.

Almost there now. Put a slight indent into the lid with a gouge (pic 5), so you can easily slide it open with your thumb. Finally, plane all sides with a shallow setting of the smoothing plane, being careful not to tear any end grain (pic 6).

Step 8: Finishing and Final Shots

I finished the box with 2 coats of dewaxed shellac (homemade from flakes dissolved in ethanol). It's very easy to apply with a brush, dries super quickly and the best part: it's non-toxic. In fact, the food industry uses it to make candy shine.

That's it really. If you enjoyed this Instructable, please give me a vote in the "Box contest" (click on orange flag in top right corner). Thanks!

Box Contest 2017

Third Prize in the
Box Contest 2017