Introduction: Tessellated Veneered Watercolor Box
Today I will be showing you how I made this portable watercolor carrying case, complete with a fold out foot and geometrically decorated top made of various types of veneers!
One of my friends, Chloe (@coldnsalty on instagram) is a talented artist who loves working with watercolor paints. Knowing she often gets inspiration from Mateusz Urbanowicz, another incredible watercolor artist who paints beautiful scenes of life in Japan, I set out to build her a watercolor box inspired by one Mateusz built:
On this page, you can also find a link to a Youtube video showing how he built it.
Like his version, my box is able to hold individual trays of watercolor paints, includes a latch, and a little foot that folds out, elevating the box around 15 degrees to a more comfortable angle to paint with.
However, I decided to take the next step and make a few changes, namely:
- Improve the fold out foot with a more low profile design that does not protrude
- Add removable metal trays to make exchanging colors easier
Designate one row for brush storage
and of course, we can't forget:
- Veneer the entire box, and adorn the top with a mathematical, tessellated veneer pattern, which in my opinion adds a real touch of luxury to the box!
~ You can also watch the video version (11 mins) of this article below, but for full details, measurements, tips, and tricks, read on!
Step 1: The Design
I began by measuring the individual trays with vernier calipers to find out how large to make the rows. I added a few millimeters (NOTE) all around to make sure they'd fit well. Unless you are using the exact same watercolors, each box will have to be made with custom dimensions, so the exact measurements are numbers you will have to create yourself.
I made the walls of the frame 8mm thick and the crossbars 6mm thick.
I decided to fit 12 paints as 3 rows of 4 paints, and add a slightly narrower row at the bottom for brush storage. In retrospect, I could have made that row the exact same as the others, so it could hold an additional four paints, which is what I would do next time.
Finally, I sketched up a design in Fusion 360 and laid out a few sheets with dimensions and printed them out for easy use. I've included the two drawings I created to easily see the measurements. Again, your box will need to be custom sized to fit your own watercolors.
NOTE: Although I do live in the US, when working with parts this small I could not force myself to suffer through 1/32ths and 1/64ths and instead chose to use millimeters as the main unit.
Step 2: Materials
You will need:
- Cherry wood (Local lumberyard)
- Cherry, Birch, and Walnut i.e. multi colored* veneer sheets (Rockler Woodworking)
- Plywood of various thicknesses (Home Depot)
- Wood glue
- Blue painters tape
- 1/8" metal rod (Home Depot)
- Metal sheet
- Vinegar (Market Basket)
- Steel Wool
- Metal latch and hinges (Woodcraft)
- Spray lacquer
- Finishing wax and a rag
For this project, I decided that if I was going to veneer the top, I might as well veneer the whole thing, so I used plywood, which is easy to work with, for the main body, and used the cherry lumber for the dividers, which would match the cherry veneer on the sides.
*in the UK and Canada, use coloured veneer sheets.
Step 3: Tools
Basic woodworking tools are needed. To get by, these are absolutely essential:
- Table saw with crosscut sled, zero clearance insert, and push sticks
- Hand drill with various sized drill bits
- Workbench with good lighting
- X-Acto/utility knife
- Clamps (you can never have enough)
- Vernier Calipers
- Rulers, squares, sandpaper
However, having these will only help:
- Drill press
- Disc Sander
- Finishing sander
As per usual, you should only attempt this project after thoroughly studying safety tips or better: with help from someone with experience who knows how to use power tools correctly. Woodworking can be dangerous if done wrong, but safe and enjoyable if done properly.
Let's get started!
Step 4: Cut Frame Parts
The frame that holds the watercolor paints is made of cherry wood, since it is an easy to work with wood that looks significantly better than pine.
First, crosscut the board to a usable length, then rip strips to the correct thickness using the table saw and a zero clearance insert.
Then, using the miter gauge that comes with the saw, or a crosscut sled, cut the slats to the right length.
Refer to the drawing you've made for dimensions, and use calipers to check thickness often.
Step 5: Dado Slots
The crossbars are fit into the frame with dado joints, meaning channels must be cut into the side pieces to accept the crossbars.
Since these are very small pieces, the miter gauge does not reach far enough over, so use a crosscut sled instead. To set up, work slowly, in multiple passes, adjusting the height in increments of a half twist of the height adjustment knob on the table saw. Watch your fingers!!
Mark the pieces and begin cutting, in multiple passes. After each cut, I recommend testing the fit until the two parts fit very snugly together with practically no wiggle.
Step 6: Gluing the Frame
To finish, glue the frame together. The corners use simple (but butt ugly) butt joints, which is fine since the box would not be receiving heavy strain from forces, and the sides would all be covered eventually with veneer anyways.
Use one clamp on the sides, and clamp one board on top to extinguish the rebellion and prevent the crossbars from rising up.
Step 7: Lid and Bottom Preliminary Cuts
I found after finalizing the design that the plywood I had was not thick enough to accept the hardware properly, so I cut out several rectangles of the same size and glued them together to make a thicker piece. Don't be afraid to be resourceful! Sometimes you must learn to be an engineer and craft solutions to errors you've made or factors you hadn't thought of.
In reality, there should be three plywood layers: the lid, the bottom, and the layer that holds the fold out foot, but gluing together multiple, thinner plywood sub-layers to make up each layer works well too.
Step 8: Fold Out Foot
I'm particularly proud of this design! This elegant fold out foot fits neatly into the base, and does not protrude, meaning the box lies flat on the table if desired. The position of the axis and length of foot were calculated so the box could tilt to a comfortable 15 degrees.
First, I cut the bottom layer into four parts.*** I drilled two holes halfway into the two side pieces.
Then, I used the offcuts to cut out two small feet pieces, sanding the bottom to an angle that would better fit the table. Into each piece, I drilled two holes: one fully through for the axis, and one halfway through for the second bar. This is better explained by the pictures.
Finally, I glued the foot piece together, and then glued the foot and four side pieces together, inserting the axis into the two holes so it would be locked inside but still free to turn.
*** NOTE: I didn't account for the loss due to saw blade kerf (1/8" per cut) so my pieces did not fit together at the end. This I remedied by adding on two very thin plywood pieces I cut out to make up the 1/4" I lost in kerf. If I were you, I'd just make the template 1/4" wider!
Step 9: Box Glue Up and Squaring
The frame, bottom, and fold out foot layer were then glued and clamped together.
Once dry, the two pieces (lid and bottom) were uneven on the sides since the layers slipped a little during gluing, so I took them to a disk sander at my school and sanded the sides until they were flat enough to accept veneer, uniform, and formed (decently) square corners. Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of this.
One point of improvement: if you do use a disk sander, watch out to not sand too much as the machine is powerful.... I went a little too far and took off a good 4 millimeters from the width, and if you look at the frame inside, it looks uneven and tilted :( Lesson learned.
If you cannot get access to a disk sander, you can just use a handheld power sander or even a sanding block, coarse sandpaper, and effort.
Step 10: Veneering Set Up
Now we move on to Phase 2: the Veneer!
Veneer is basically just thin sheets of nice looking wood peeled from expensive logs that can be glued onto surfaces to make them look very nice - a cost effective method of beautifying any project. It can be easily cut with a few passes of a razor knife and a straightedge as a guide.
To begin, I set up a little station at my desk with a big slab of plywood as a cutting board, and brought out a large, heavy framing square, plastic ruler, masking tape, calipers, and an X-Acto knife.
I chose to use walnut, cherry, and birch woods since they contrast in a beautiful way once finished, but you could choose to experiment with some more exotic woods, too.
Step 11: Cutting the Body Veneer
To cover the entire body (besides the top surface of the lid) in a layer of cherry wood, I measured the final sanded dimensions of the faces with calipers and wrote them down in a notebook. To make sure I didn't mix up all the parts, I devised a system to assign a one or two letter code to each face I was to veneer.
I cut out each piece of veneer about 3 mm larger than necessary on each side (to be trimmed later) using two or three passes of the knife, then folding along the score line, causing the pieces to easily snap off along the cut. You should not forget to label the inside face of each piece with a letter code as well, to keep them organized.
The most complicated piece was the bottom face, which had a rectangular cut out for the fold out foot. Luckily, my surprisingly astute measuring skills resulted in a piece of veneer that matched the hole almost perfectly ;)
Step 12: Gluing the Body Veneer
For the large flat faces, spread glue on both the piece and the veneer, but very thinly. A thin layer works best here. Use blue painters tape to hold the veneer to the piece while you grab your clamps, as the veneer will instantly want to curl up and off the piece. Clamp a thick book (I recommend Webster's English Dictionary, but a Thesaurus will work in a pinch) or piece of plywood to the
sandwiched veneer and substrate for at least 3 hours while the glue sets.
For the sides, use a similar set up, but instead, sideways. Prop the piece up with scrap wood, and use scrap wood "clamping cauls" to apply even pressure to the entire face with clamps.
First glue the underside side of the lid and bottom of the box, then do all the sides. After each face has finished drying (3 hours is sufficient), use the knife to flush cut off the excess. You will be left with a nicely veneered box, only missing the crown jewel: the geometric tessellation.
TIP: If I were to do it again, I would be more careful flush cutting the veneer. It's very easy to accidentally tear out grain, which leaves small but ugly gaps! Use a sharp knife, multiple passes, and first cut with the grain before cutting across to minimize the risk.
Step 13: Some MATH!!!
After looking at some mesmerizing pictures of end grain cutting boards, I was inspired to try recreating those geometric patterns with veneer, specifically, this one that looks like an infinite array of intersecting cubes. The different colors of wood give the impression of light producing shadows and different tones of illumination. Do you see it? The pattern can be made with two kinds of triangular units consisting of three trapezoids unified at the center. Then, the pattern can be seen as a simple, regular triangular tessellation, or one made of trapezoids.
I took the length and width measurements of the lid, and subtracted 2*8mm from each, as I would later be adding a dark black border 8 mm thick all around to "frame" the tessellation.
I essentially defined the width of the box to be equal to four triangular units, and worked from there to find the dimensions of the trapezoids using algebra.. In total, I would need 168 trapezoids with a width of 9mm, base 1 = 10mm, base 2 = 20mm.
Now, all I had to do was cut hundreds of little trapezoids and put them together.
The magnitude of this task did not sink in until approximately trapezoid 97...
Step 14: Cutting the Trapezoids
First, I cut strips of wood to the correct thickness by marking the width in three places and connecting the line with my razor knife. Again, cut in several passes instead of trying to get it in one cut.
The birch wood, with an even grain, was easiest to cut straight, but the walnut was a real problem child, as it had a wavy wandering grain than led to very crooked strips. Make sure to cut at least 5 or 6 strips for each color of wood to account for "dud" sections.
I used a small 30-60-90 triangle (which I cut out on the table saw with the miter gauge) to use as a template, which I could hold against the strips to allow me to cut perfect angles on the trapezoids. I measured each base (10mm) and marked the point with pencil before making the angled cut.
This literally took hours... I hope you like listening to podcasts! Because you will after cutting 168 trapezoids.
Step 15: Taping the Trapezoids
To keep the pieces in place while gluing, the whole pattern must be taped together temporarily.
Begin by joining groups of three differently colored trapezoids at the center with blue tape. Make sure to stretch the tape and bind them tightly to close any gaps. Surely, you will run into trapezoids that just don't seem to fit. Just discard these, and cut extras. There will be duds.
You will end up making two types of triangular units, which when put together, make up the pattern. Watch out that your triangles make the correct pattern, and avoid having to re-make a dozen of them like me.
Once you have triangles, start making rows, taping them together. And from the rows, make the entire block, with more tape.
You will notice many gaps and intersections. I spent a good half hour removing bad sections and re-cutting trapezoids to fit. The goal is to have as few gaps or empty space as possible. After all, a tessellation is by definition, a repeating pattern with no gaps or overlaps.
Step 16: Adjustment and Gluing
The finished sheet needed to be cut to fit the final area, so I used the knife again to carefully trim the piece. Putting a layer of tape below the area you would like to cut helps hold everything in place while you cut.
The pieces that were cut off were then brought over to the other side and taped on again to fill in the gaps. That's thanks to the wonderful properties of tessellations!
This is better seen in the pictures above. Finally, the sheet was ready to be glued.
The position of the corners was measured and marked on the box with pen, and with several clamps, the veneer block was glued onto the face. Meanwhile, prepare the border pieces.
Step 17: Border Pieces
I wanted to "frame" the design with sleek black veneer to make the final product look more polished.
I thought about staining veneer with black paint, but wanted a more natural look, and instead chose to use steel wool and vinegar stain. You can learn how to make that here on Instructables so I won't be redundant:
I let mine brew for three days, then I strained it and let it set up for one more day, which produced a very strong, effective stain.
I tested with both cherry and birch woods. After brushing with the stain, I let the strips dry and undergo their chemical reactions for several hours. The iron in the stain reacts with the tannins in the wood, darkening the pieces to a nice dark black or gray color. Cherry gave an excellent, dark black color, what I was looking for. The birch came out more gray, but may find applications in other projects someday.
Afterwards, I cut a 45 degree angle on the pieces with a speed square as a template, and glued them onto the lid, securing with tape and a clamp set up.
TIP: If you accidentally sand through to raw wood underneath the black stain, it's okay to use a tiny dot of black acrylic paint to cover your mistake! Nobody will notice.
Step 18: Finishing
Finally, finish the piece.
Go over the entire box, sanding with 150 grit sandpaper in the direction of the grain.
Afterwards, fill in any gaps with a little superglue if desired. Once dry, sand off any protrusions.
Lastly, use your finish of choice to give a nice sheen and protection to the piece.
I chose to use a four coats of spray lacquer. I propped the pieces up on screws driven into scrap wood, which is an excellent, easy, and cheap way to prevent the pieces from sticking together or to the work surface. After letting it sit over night I sanded with very fine steel wool at the end to knock off any lacquer bumps.
Finally, I rubbed on finishing wax, which I then buffed out. The wax not only gives water resistance to the box, which is important given the fact it will be in constant contact with water, but it also gives it a lusciously smooth feel.
LIFE HACK: You can fold up a microfiber cloth and load it onto a quarter sheet handheld sander, to use it to polish wax easily and quickly. It's amazing how well this actually works.
Step 19: Metal Tray Inserts
In his video, Mateusz mentioned that he would have liked to have added ribbons or something to his box in order to easily pull out the trays of paint when he wanted to switch them out. I opted to make simple bent metal trays from thin aluminum that can be cut with nothing but basic tin snips and bent with a few pieces of scrap wood.
I used tin snips to cut out strips just smaller than the width of the rows.
Then, I marked lines where I wanted to bend with an old razor knife, and pressed one end under a block of wood, bending around the block to get the 90 degree angle. It's okay if the folds are not perfect. With thin aluminum, it's easy to unbend and try again.
After the four creases, I cut the ends to size, and rounded over each corner, to get rid of the sharp points and give the tabs a more pleasing, ergonomic shape.
With this system, the paints could be easily removed and replaced without having to struggle with a needle or file to try to pry out the paints.
Step 20: Hardware
Finally, the end is in sight.
The box needs two hinges in the back and one clasp at the front to shut.
Tape together the lid and base with painters tape to hold them together while you add the hardware. Remember: The metal trays should be inside the box when you tape! Tape the hinges on with more blue tape around where you want them. I set them 2 cm from each edge.
Mark and drill small holes for the two brass hinges, as well as the clasp, using a handheld drill.
Screw in all the parts with a small screwdriver and make sure they fit well, and that the lid opens and closes. Remove the tape. Be especially careful not to strip/destroy the screw heads, as they will be very hard to remove if you do.
The great thing about this hinge (from Woodcraft) is that it is tight enough that when the lid is almost opened close to vertically up, it needs no stop or chain - it stands by itself and does not fall.
Step 21: Finished Product
And with that, the box is done!
This project is a great way to hone your skills working with small parts, and test your patience for sure.
Of course, to document your project, it is certainly justified to have a photo shoot with your box. Revel in it's beauty. Be proud, you deserve it.
I'd like to note that Chloe was ecstatic upon receiving the gift! While I appreciate all that I learned along the way, ultimately, the joy people get from appreciating what you create makes all of it, even the tedious parts, totally and definitively worth it.
I hope I made a box Mateusz Urbanowicz would be proud of too :)
Second Prize in the