Wood Turned Multitier Boxes




Introduction: Wood Turned Multitier Boxes

About: In which I turn the thoughts from my head into objects in my hands

I graduated from undergrad in December 2018 and as a present, I treated myself to a 3 week trip around Europe. One of my stops was Rome, where I took a hour train detour to Ladispoli. My woodturning teacher had connected me with Yuval Lahav, who invited me to visit his shop. I had only been turning for two months so I was in awe of his work and appreciated his hospitality. He showed me how to make my first box out of redheart wood and a metal backed ring out of black palm, plus I got to try out his new carbide scraper set. Before I left he sent me away with extra goodies: a few sticks of African blackwood for finials, a few pen blanks, and most notably, a long branch of English yew. It was especially poetic because my last name is Yu, and I do love my puns...

Fast forward and this yew branch had been haunting my wood collection for a year and a half. I already knew what I wanted to make from it ever since the train ride back to Rome: because he taught me how to make boxes, I wanted to turn it into a box. The aspect ratio was perfect for making a set of stacked boxes, and it seemed like a great challenge to make consecutive boxes that fit perfectly. What held me back was the fact that it was a precious gift so I only had one chance.

Recently I finally felt confident enough to give it a go. I practiced making a few pop-fit boxes, and even did a practice Pacific yew set of multitier boxes before finally turning the original English yew branch. I ended up adding a spiral too since my favorite project of his is this incredible spiraled goblet.

And there we have it, a stack of boxes as a snapshot of my experience in his shop. Only took a year and a half, but yew/Yu did it!

Step 1: Materials

This tutorial will start with my first Pacific yew set of boxes, then the English yew set of boxes, and finally the padauk set of boxes that is optimized with everything I learned. I did the first Pacific yew and second English yew boxes in different ways, which you'll see. I prefer the second method, how I did the English yew and padauk boxes. For a summary of method one, see step 9 and for method two, see step 16

  • tall (aspect ratio wise) spindle blank
    • I started with a Ø4 x 7" cylindrical branch for the tall spiraled yew boxes and 1.5 x 1.5 x 4" rectangular block for the padauk spiraled boxes. The short yew boxes were turned from an irregularly shaped chunk
  • woodturning lathe
  • spur drive and live center for turning between centers
  • lathe chuck
    • You'll need a chuck with jaws that will hold the wood in your lathe without needing tailstock support.I used spigot jaws with grooves on the inside and outside. It was the only chuck that had a small enough size to fit the tenon size I was making for the boxes. The external grooves also came in handy for mounting onto the interior of the bottom box for sanding the bottom, but you could do the same with a homemade jam chuck (covered later).
  • steady rest
    • not too necessary, but very helpful for taller stacks of boxes to ensure concentricity
  • lathe gouges
    • I personally used a bowl gouge (could use roughing gouge instead here), spindle gouge, scraper, parting tool (two shapes, one wider and one thinner)
  • water and paper towels
  • sandpaper (I sanded from 240 - 400 grit)
  • oil and wax for finishing
  • (for spiraling) rotary tool and bits
    • I used a dremel with a ball point bit (right most one in top row) and 100 grit sanding drum. This makes the process a lot easier and faster, but spirals can be made by hand with sandpaper wrapped around a dowel, spindle gouge, etc.

Step 2: Method One: Pacific Yew Boxes

Before diving into using the English yew branch I got, I started with a smaller and shorter chunk of Pacific yew. This one was made a different way from the second yew boxes: I separated each compartment from the lathe and mounted them individually for hollowing, and also made the box fit the lid instead of making the lid fit the box. I like the second method better, partially because I found that I was better at making the lid fit the box because sanding is easier to control for the lid. See step 9 for a summary of the first method and step 16 for the second method.

Anyway for the first method, I mounted the wood on the lathe between centers: spur drive at the headstock and live center on the tailstock. Because it was an irregular shape, I centered it as well as I could before turning it into a cylinder. For this I used a bowl gouge to quickly remove the material.

Once it was cylindrical, I could see a crack propagating along the length. Unfortunate, but I just used medium CA glue to fill in the crack and stabilize the wood. This helps harden the area so that cutting into the wood doesn't cause it to split wider and wider. I squeezed glue into the crack, wiped off excess with a paper towel, and waited 10 minutes before applying another layer for good measure. Then another 10 minutes before turning again.

At either ends of the cylinder, make tenons so that you can grip the wood with your chuck from either end. Check the diameter of these tenons so you're sure that they will fit in your chuck!

Step 3: Splitting Into Different Sections

From the limited length of the yew, I decided to make three separate box compartments and then a lid at the top. I marked off 1" for each compartment, with 8mm gaps between each for the rim and parting from the lathe. This 8mm gives me ~6mm lid rims for each compartment and 2mm for parting each compartment off the lathe. I gave the bottom container a bit more height in case I wanted to part it to the correct height later, but I ended up just sanding off the tenon.

Using these marks for reference, I cut into each 8mm gap with my parting tool. These will become the feet/rims of the lids at the underside of each box compartment. I tried to make them roughly the same diameters using calipers, so each compartment would have similar thickness. Then I went in with my thinner 2mm parting tool and parted off each section. Make sure you part on the side that's the top of each box compartment! You don't want to remove the foot at the bottom of the compartments. Part slowly and evenly for each gap (leave around the thickness of a toothpick or two) so that you have all of them easy to twist and separate by hand, to avoid all the pieces from scattering around your shop.

Tip: to make it easier to match the diameters of the box and box's lid, part the wood so that you leave a tiny bit of the original box lid diameter on the wood that will be the box. Basically, in that 8mm gap you left, you'll be parting on the side farther from the box lid. Move the parting tool slightly closer to the box lid so that you leave a tiny lip on the other side. This lip will show up when you're turning the box, and you can use it as a reference for what diameter the box lid is. You don't want the box too much bigger than the box lid, or else the box and lid won't have a nice fit, so this lip is a great reference.

Step 4: Finishing Lid

Switch out your spur drive with your chuck and mount your box lid into it. Using a scraper or your spindle gouge, clean up the bottom surface of the lid. Make sure it is slighly recessed so the edges are "higher" than the center. This will ensure that it will sit flat on a surface. Also make sure the lip is clean and even.

Once you're happy with it, sand all surfaces (except the outer one) to 400+ grit. You could take the time now to use oil and wax (I usually rub on boiled linseed oil and do a friction finish with HUT wax) on the surface while it's on the lathe, but I thought the perfect finish might be damaged later when the compartments are assembled together for the final turning so I didn't.

Step 5: Hollowing the Compartments

Take the top most compartment and mount it in your chuck using the foot at the bottom. You don't want to grip too tightly on the foot so that you leave deep marks, but it should be firm enough to grip the wood without it flying off the lathe as you turn.

Now hollow out the wood to make a box that fits the lid perfectly. To start, I use the parting tool to slowly remove material until I have a pocket that just *almost* fits the matching lid. Undersize it around 2mm so the lid doesn't fit yet though! The slightly lip you left with parting will helps as a reference; do NOT make a larger diameter than that mark, or else you'll overshoot your lid. Then from there, I use a spindle gouge (spindle one because these boxes are small) to start clearing out the material from the center. As I get deeper and deeper, the hollowing gets closer and closer to the final diameter that I initially made with the parting tool.

Be sure to check how deep your box is vs how tall the compartment is, to ensure you don't go too deep. You can do this by measuring the height of your box and then sticking the same instrument into the box and seeing how deep it is. You'll want to leave the same thickness on the bottom as your box thickness. Also continually check your lid's fit to make sure you haven't over shot.

At the bottom of the box, I decided to make sharp corners using the parting tool. Once you're happy with how you've hollowed the box, decided if you want a press fit or a slip fit for your lid. I decided to do slip fit since I didn't want to worry too much about this practice piece. If you decided to do a press fit, do light passes on the edge until your lid is super close, maybe 0.5mm from going all the way it. Then sand the edge with 240 grit until it matches perfectly.

When the box is all done and fits the lid the way you want, sand the inner surfaces to 400+ grit. Again, oil and wax if you want, but know that future steps may affect that finish.

Step 6: Rinse and Repeat

With the compartment still on the lathe, pop the lid firmly back on. You'll want to make sure it's a pressure fit so they don't separate. To do this, you can wet a piece of paper towel and put it between the lid and box when you press them together. The water makes the wood swell a little, plus the additional layer takes up space so it's tight. Make sure the grain patter is aligned!

Take the wood off the chuck and mount it using the lid side. Then clean up the bottom side of the box, so that it's ready to be the next lid. This is the same process as you did for the lid's underside: make the bottom slightly recessed so the edge is higher than the center, so the surface will be able to sit flat. You'll want to press into the wood axially rather than radially so that you avoid having the wood pop off the lathe. You should also lower your RPM (~1500 as opposed to 2000+) so that the centripetal force doesn't cause the assembly to separate. Sand again to 400+ grit and oil and wax if you want.

Remove that from the lathe and mount the next box compartment. Again, hollow it so that it fits the bottom of the finished box compartment perfectly. Repeat all these steps until you're finished with all the box compartments. Make sure each time that the grain pattern is continued from each box compartment.

Step 7: Finishing the Box Exterior

Now that your box is fully assembled, bring in your tailstock to provided a bit of support to keep the box together. I used a rubber cone adapter since sharper tailstock caused the lid to pop off (the end was ever so slightly out of round compared to the rest of the box so the off-centered pressure caused the lid to come off). To avoid this, I recommend using a steady rest to keep concentricity better; I definitely used this for my taller yew boxes.

Anyway, clean up the outer surface of your boxes with a scraper. In the pictures above, you can see that I kept the paper towel between each layer as I did this but it would've been best to remove them. Only keep them so you can finish the lid design and sanding, but after remove them to finish the box sides. Even just the paper towel creates a small gap between each box so you'll have a perfect continuation of all compartments if you do sanding without the paper.

If you have any trouble separating the boxes, you can put everything in an oven ~200°F to shrink the wood slightly and make everything easier to pull apart. If you do this, make sure you put all layers in the oven, not just the layers that are stuck! I made the mistake of putting just the ones I was having difficulty with in the oven for my second set of yew boxes, and only those shrunk so the boxes no longer fit together nicely :( I was so bummed when that happened, but fortunately I fixed it by mounting the boxes that no longer fit onto the lathe and sanding down the lid diameters until they fit again. You can also try wedging a knife between the layers and slowly prying them apart, but be careful as this can mark up the interface too.

When you're happy, sand up to 400+ grit. You can also use oil and wax safely on the outside now.

Step 8: Cleaning Up the Bottom

For the bottom, I planned to mount the bottom compartment using the same chuck (just grip the inside lightly, with a paper towel to prevent marking up the surface). The tenon was pretty thick so the wood popped off the lathe when I tried to remove it on the lathe. I ended up sanding it down to barely a lip before removing it on the lathe. Then I could also sand and finish up the bottom surface. Again, make the edges higher than the center so it can sit flat on a surface.

If your jaws don't let you grip onto the inside of the box like mine did, you can use a jam chuck. Grab a piece of spare wood that's larger in diameter and turn it between centers so that you can mount it on your chuck. Then turn the protruding end into a lip that fits into your box with a pressure fit. Now you can use it to mount your bottom compartment to the lathe.

If you don't want to bother with mounting it onto the lathe, you can mount a sanding pad onto your lathe (or even a drill press) and sand the bottom with that after you've sanded down the tenon. Just be careful that the bottom surface is as flat as possible and perpendicular to the rest of the box.

Step 9: Finished! Recap of Method 1 and Thoughts...

These are pictures of the oiled final stack of boxes! I was glad I decided to do this test piece before diving right in with the precious yew branch. In total, it took about 3 hours. Recap of the process:

  • turn everything round before parting all box compartments and the lid off the lathe, separately
  • mount lid onto lathe and finish the bottom
  • mount first compartment and hollow it
  • pressure fit the lid onto that compartment
  • mount that assembly using the lid and finish the bottom of the compartment, turning it into the next lid
  • mount the next compartment and hollow it
  • pressure fit the previously finished compartment and lid assembly onto the newly done compartment
  • mount the assembly using the lid and finish the bottom of the assembly, turning it into the next lid
  • repeat until you've finished the last compartment and pressure fit the entire box assembly onto it
  • with the assembled stack of boxes mounted firmly together, finish up the lid and exterior surface
  • separate each compartment and remove the paper towels (*should've done after finishing lid and before finishing exterior surface*)
  • mount the last compartment onto the lathe to finish the bottom surface

I didn't like how much mounting and remounting it was, so I changed the process for the next set of yew boxes. The remounting also left annoying marks on the foot at the bottom of each compartment, which were difficult to get out sometimes. I also wish I had removed the paper towel between each layer as I finished up the box exterior (plot twist: I forgot next time around also, haha).

Step 10: Method Two: English Yew Boxes

At long last, turning the yew branch I was given!

Again, I started by mounting the wood between centers and turning it into a cylinder. I removed all bark, but you can keep some of it if you want the live edge look. At each end, make tenons for gripping either end in your chuck.

Step 11: Separating Compartments

Because this branch was taller, I made five compartments and one lid out of it. I marked off about 25mm for each compartment's height, and 8mm gaps between each compartment.

Again, I used my parting tool to make the feet for each compartment, but instead of parting each off the lathe already, I just parted off the lid and kept the box compartments together. I did use my thinner parting gouge to start the parting process, but didn't go too deep; this just made gave me somewhere to start later since the cut was made with everything still perfectly concentric. Again, leave a tiny lip as a reference for the lid diameter. This will be very useful soon.

Step 12: Hollowing Out Each Compartment

Now with the compartments still mounted on the lathe, you'll hollow and finish each one consecutively. Don't worry too much about the lid for each compartment; just hollow each out so the edge is close and part them off when you're done. Sand each compartment when you're finished. You'll be making the lid fit each box later on, which is easier to control for sanding so you get the perfect fit you want.

Because these boxes were so tall/long, I used a steady rest to support the wood as I hollowed out the compartments. Otherwise the radial pressure kept making the wood fly off the lathe. Using a big rubber cone for my live center also helped, especially for parting. You can do fine without either though, just makes it easier.

I still used the same technique of using a parting tool to determine the diameter at the edge before using spindle tool to clear out material until it meets that edge diameter. Again though, no need to worry about the exact lid size beside making sure your box compartment is undersized for the matching lid. Remember my "leave a tiny lip as reference for the lid" (see third and fifth pictures above)? This is a handy reference as you part off each compartment, so you know the max inner diameter you can have for the box. Don't forget to check the depth of each box compartment so you don't go through!

For parting each box, I

Step 13: Finishing the Lids

Now for finishing up the bottoms of each compartment!

Start by mounting the lid onto the lathe and cleaning up the bottom surface like described in method one. Again, make sure the surface is slightly recessed, with the edges higher than the center, so it will sit flat on a surface. Make the lip fit the next box compartment perfectly. For this set, I decided to do pressure fits and it was much easier to control this by making the lid fit the box. Note though: if you want to add a spiral to the box exterior, you should do a slip fit since it'll be much easier to have the spiral line up perfectly. (you'll see this later) Use the wet paper towel technique to assemble the lid onto the compartment before cleaning up the bottom of the compartment so it will fit perfectly into the next compartment.

Rinse and repeat until all your compartments are assembled together and fit nicely. You'll want to use a steady rest as your assembly gets longer to better keep concentricity. Tailstock pressure helps to keep all layers together too. Since this was 5 compartments tall, I definitely needed both. Do NOT finish the bottom compartment; leave that tenon alone so you can mount it back onto the lathe.

Step 14: Cleaning Up the Exterior

Take your assembly and mount the bottom into the chuck. Use the steady rest to keep everything concentric, and finish off the lid design. You may find it easier to sand down the tenon beforehand, or you can turn down the tenon into a tip for the lid. When the lid is done, remove all the paper towel between the layers so you can have a seamless interface between all compartments. I forgot to again, unfortunately :( Now support the other end with tailstock pressure (I used a rubber cone like shown previously) as you clean up the exterior of the box.

If you'd like, you can now sand and oil everything. I wanted to go on with a spiral so I just sanded up to 150 grit before beginning it.

Step 15: Spiral for the Exterior

I decided to add a spiral along the exterior. Before doing this, check how thick your boxes are and make sure you don't go deep enough to penetrate them. It would be sad to ruin all your work now!

To make a spiral, start by making a grid along the surface of the stacked boxes. I didn't want the spiral to be steep so I made the axial sections relatively far apart, only having 3 along the length of the stack. For the radial sections, I made 8 sections by using my chuck jaws as a guide: I drew four lines down along the length of the stack, using the jaws for 4 equidistant starting points and the tool rest for making the lines straight. I then eyeballed a point in the middle of each of the four sections and drew lines from those points, to get 8 total lines and thus sections.

Now for the lines of the spiral, all you have to do is make diagonal lines connecting the vertices of this grid. I had all my lines in the same direction, but you could criss-cross for a net of sprials.

To carve the spiral, I used a Dremel tool with a round tipped bit (last one on top row) and a 100 grit sanding drum. You can alternatively use sandpaper and your spindle gouge, but be warned that it will take forever. I first used the round tipped bit for a rough removal of material, following the slanted lines I made (not following the grid guidelines!). Then I used the 100 grit sanding drum to sand the bottom of the groove made by the round tipped bit. I used it to make the bottom surface smooth by following the bottom surface with the sand paper contacting it fully, not just the tip of the sanding drum. Next I lightly ran the surface of the sanding drum along the edges of the groove to flatten and make it continuous with the surrounding surface. It's fastest if you use the round tipped bit to make all the grooves first, then the sanding drum to smooth over the bottom surfaces of the grooves and round over all the edges afterward. Wipe/blow/suck off the sawdust when you're done and go over any spots with the sanding drum to save time on hand sanding later.

Once you're happy with how it looks, hand sand everything with sandpaper. I started with 80 grit just to be sure that all dings from the rotary tool would be smoothed over, then 100 grit, 150, 240, 320, and finally 400 grit.

Step 16: Finally Finished

Only when the spiral was done did I take out the paper towels. This was really difficult since the paper was all dry by now (I did this over the space of two days), and again I should have finished the exterior of the boxes without the paper towel so I could have perfect seams between each compartment.

If you have any trouble separating the boxes, you can put everything in the oven to shrink the wood slightly and make everything easier to pull apart. If you do this, make sure you put all layers in the oven, not just the layers that are stuck! I made the mistake of putting just the ones I was having difficulty with in the oven, and only those shrunk so the boxes no longer fit together nicely :( I was so bummed when that happened, but fortunately I fixed it by mounting the boxes that didn't fit anymore onto the lathe and sanding down the lid diameters until they fit again. You can also try wedging a knife between the layers and slowly prying them apart, but be careful as this can mark up the interface too.

To finish, take the bottom compartment and sand down the tenon before mounting it onto the lathe to clean up the bottom. Go back to step 8 for more help on how to do it.

Anyway, this set of 5 boxes and spirals took 8 hours in total but I'd say it was worth it! Recap of method 2 used:

  • turn everything round and separate all your compartments but part ONLY the lid off the lathe
  • hollow each compartment and finish the inside before parting each one off the lathe, one by one
  • mount the lid onto the lathe and finish the bottom, making sure it fits into the next box compartment perfectly
  • pressure fit the box compartment to the lid (use wet paper towel trick) before turning the bottom of that compartment into a perfect fit lid for the next compartment
  • continue connecting each compartment and finishing the lids until you're at the last compartment, but don't finish the bottom of the last compartment
  • mount the bottom of the stack in the chuck and finish off the top of the lid
  • remove all the paper towel between the layers before finishing the exterior of the boxes
  • mount the last compartment onto the lathe to finish the bottom surface

Step 17: Padauk Boxes: the Optimized Version

Three things I wanted to change in my set of 5 stacked yew boxes:

  1. There were gaps between each compartment, mostly due to the paper towel I left between each layer as I sanded the exterior surface
  2. The grain pattern, though plain, still distracted from the spiral
  3. Because all compartments were about the same height, it was really difficult to re-stack them in the correct order

So for my next set of boxes, I wanted to get rid of the paper towels at the right time (after finishing the lid and before finishing the exterior surface) and use a wood whose grain pattern wouldn't detract from the spiral. Plus the compartments would be different heights, with bottom one being the tallest and top one being the shortest. For this I chose a 1.5 x 1.5 x 4" chunk of padauk. I used method two, recapped in the previous step, and FINALLY remembered to remove the paper towel at the right time!

And that's it for this tutorial. Please feel free to leave comments, suggestions, and questions. Enjoy!

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    2 years ago on Step 17

    I love that there is more than one compartment for each box. Great choice for the wood stain as well. It really brings out the grains in the wood.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Thank you for your comment! Actually, none of these woods are stained; just wiped on some Feed N Wax. It's pretty amazing to see how much of a difference oil makes, especially for padauk.