Dovetailed Walnut Box With Curly Maple Inlay




Introduction: Dovetailed Walnut Box With Curly Maple Inlay

This is my journey in making a Walnut box for my parents as a gift. I tried to document as much as I could in case I wanted to create a journal of my process to accompany the box itself. I believe that seeing how something was accomplished is every bit as rewarding as the finished product. This was the perfect chance to create this instructable. Lets get on with the project details


  • Use hand tools as much as possible where it makes sense and power tools where the accuracy/speed is needed.
  • Practice the following techniques:
    • Design and layout from large boards for best grain continuity and appearance
    • Hand cut dovetails
    • Use Walnut and Curly Maple (two of my favorite species)
    • Inlay and banding techniques
    • Heat bending
    • Have fun with the process and learn something new


  • Walnut
  • Curly Maple

Tools Used:

  • Various hand planes (Smoothing Plane, Jack Plane, Shoulder Plane)
  • Various hand saws (Dovetail and Carcass Back Saws, Cross-cut Panel Saw, Flush Cut Saw)
  • Bench Chisels
  • Chisel Mallet
  • Marking Knife
  • Combination and Try Squares
  • Fret saw
  • Jigsaw
  • Router
  • Dremel Trio
  • Heat Gun
  • Clamps and Vise
  • Liquid Hide Glue
  • Yellow Glue
  • Sandpaper (Various Grits)
  • Pen and Pencil
  • Danish Oil
  • Paste Wax
  • Buffing Pad
  • Various Cloth Applicators

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Step 1: Layout and Rough Cutting

Welcome to my shop.... er.... apartment balcony.

This is my work space. I live in an apartment with (luckily) a pretty good sized balcony. It is long and about 5 feet wide. Just wide enough to put a small workbench and still be able to work comfortably beside it. I was building my workbench at the same time as working on this project so you will see the workbench top in some of the pictures I post. I use a lot of hand tools because I love the feel and experience of using them, but also they are quiet and I don't usually make my neighbors mad with the noise and dust.

After coming up with a design in Google Sketchup, I purchased two fairly wide and long boards from my local woodworking retailer. Luckily I found two boards with interesting figure and similar color.

My first task was to lay the long boards down on my living room floor and look at them every possible way until they spoke to me and let me know which part should be each component of the box.

Next I grabbed some a pen and a tape measure and marked the front, back and sides of the box and made sure the grain would wrap around the box for a nice look.

The next step was to make a knife wall square to one edge and cut slightly on the waste side with my cross-cut saw. The rest of the waste was removed using a hand plane and a shooting board. Try to cut as close to the knife line as possible so you don't have to remove too much material with the plane.

Step 2: Dovetail Layout

After the pieces are cut to final size and planed square, it was time to layout for the dovetails. I used a cutting gauge to mark the baseline of the dovetails on both boards before sawing.

Sketchup is handy to come up with interesting spacing of the dovetails. I combined the front and back pieces together and cut them both at the same time. I find a wider surface aids in sawing straight and it saves time. It is important to saw at a perfect 90° across the tails because any variation from 90° will show as a gap when it is put together.

After sawing to just above the baseline, I used a fret saw to remove the waste. Notice that I left about 1/16" of waste to pare off with a chisel later.

LESSON LEARNED!!!!!! As you can see in the last picture, it is important to not drop your work piece on a concrete floor while releasing it from the clamps. It does not agree with the wood. I had to walk away for a minute to calm my disappointment and think about how to fix it.

Step 3: Fix Your Mistake

After thinking about it for a little bit, I came up with an easy way to fix the chip-out to the tail board.

I clamped a wood fence along the baseline and used my shoulder plane to create a rabbet about 3/32" deep (just enough to remove the damage). I did this on all four tail sides. The good thing about making this ledge is it helps register the tail board against the pin board when transferring your marks over. Picture 3 shows what I am talking about.

Step 4: Transfer and Saw the Pins

With the rabbet created, transferring the pins was a breeze. I marked the pins using a thin knife and reinforced the knife lines with a pen so I can see them better when sawing.

Remember to either saw slightly in the waste or leave exactly no waste on the outside of the knife line. If you saw on the wrong side of the waste, you will have a gap. It is best to mark what will be your waste so you don't mistakenly cut the wrong part. Don't ask me how I know :).

Step 5: Dry Fit the Joint

Some people do not believe in dry fitting a dovetail joint, but I am not good enough at cutting them to trust I do not need additional adjustments for a good fit.

A trick I learned is to mark the sides of the pins with pencil so the pencil will smudge where the joint is tight. If it does not fit together on the first try, this should show you where to remove a little material before trying again.

Once I made some minor adjustments, It went together with a few taps of the mallet. I checked it for square once together.

Step 6: Glue Up the Panels

Jointing the boards for a panel glue-up is best done by clamping the two boards together. Any planing out of square will cancel itself out with this method. It is sometimes helpful to put pencil marks before planing to see where the low spots are. I planed slightly more material away in the middle to create a "spring joint". When clamped together the ends clamp tighter to prevent gaps and glue creep.

After the panel is glued up and dried, I placed marks across the panel and used my jack plane and smoothing plane to flatten the panel. The marks once again help identify low spots.

I was deliberate in choosing which boards were to be glued together in the planning phase so the glue line will be hard to spot. I think it was a success.

Step 7: Attach Base to Box Sides

With the top and bottom panels glued up and to final dimension, I used the router to create the profiles.

I finish planed and sanded the bottom panel and used my jack plane to plane the bottom edge of the box flat so it mates with the bottom panel without gaps. Hide glue was used and plenty of clamps.

Finally I get to see the box starting to look like a box. Looking good :)

Step 8: Start on the Inlay

I decided on a curly maple oval, banded with thin strips of walnut and maple with a walnut "W" in the middle (the initial of my last name). I found a cheap plywood oval picture frame at Hobby Lobby that matched the size and shape I wanted. This will allow me to use a flush cut bit in the router for a clean oval piece.

My first order of business was to re-saw a choice piece of curly maple on a friend's band saw and glue up the panel. I used a hand saw to cut away most of the waste. The oval template was temporarily taped on and a flush cut router bit was used to trim the oval to perfection.

I needed thin strips of maple and walnut so I borrowed my friend's table saw to cut a few. I decided they were a little too thick to bend around the oval without breaking so I created a jig to hold them in place while I used a hand plane to reduce the thickness. It is a piece of plywood a little longer than the strips with a screw at the end that acts as a stop and two screws on either side to keep the strips in place while planing. This worked well. I had to take light cuts so the strips wouldn't want to bend when taking a shaving.

Step 9: Bend and Glue on the Banding

There are a few ways to bend wood. I chose raw heat and force. I will be the first to admit that I did not find this part of the project easy. Bending the wood was inconsistent and this shape was very hard to clamp. I got through it though and it turned out pretty well.

I used pieces of non skid mat to help the clamps keep purchase and not slip off. It was the only way I could think of to effectively clamp the banding around the curves of the oval.

Step 10: Fix Any Gaps

There were a few areas where the banding showed a slight gap. I used blue tape and taped off around it and forced hide glue into the gap with my finger. Clamping pressure closed the gaps easy enough.

With everything planed flush, it came out pretty good. I actually had to do this twice because on my first attempt the banding broke and I had to start over.

Step 11: Inlay the Oval

With the oval piece finished, it was time to inlay. I temporarily secured it to the top where I wanted using double side tape and traced around the edge with a knife. The waste in the middle was taken out with a dremel tool. I left a little waste near the outside knife line and used chisels and gouges to carefully remove the waste.

I smeared both pieces in hide glue and clamped it very well as you can see. One can never have too many clamps.

After letting it dry over night I removed the clamps and flushed the oval to the surface. This was done with a mix of hand planes, a card scraper, and a sander. I think the book matched curly maple looks great with the contrasting oval banding. This series of steps was good practice for what comes next.....

Step 12: Create and Inlay the W

Now it is time to work on the "W". I went online and found a font I liked and printed a large W on printer paper to use as a template. I attached the paper template to a piece of walnut with spray adhesive and used a bandsaw to cut the shape. I made two of them in case one of them broke for some reason. I am sure glad that I made an extra because sure enough one of them broke at the thinnest part. I treated the extra as carefully as possible to prevent it from breaking.

The edges were rough from the bandsaw blade so I clamped it in a vise and used a card scraper, rasp, and sandpaper wrapped around a dowel to smooth the edge. It is important to check it for square too to make sure you don't put too much of a bevel.

Once the W is finished, I used double side tape to temporarily stick it where I want it and traced around the outside with a sharp knife. After marking the edges, I used pencil to darken the knife lines so I could see it well. The same dremel was used with a tiny 1/8" straight bit to remove the waste as close to the line as I dared go with a router. I made the cut in two passes. The rest of the waste was removed using chisels and a drill. This process takes patience and a steady hand.

Step 13: Inlay the W

With the W smooth and the cavity excavated, it is time to glue it into place. This is one step that takes a leap of faith. It is not a good idea to actually dry fit the W into place without any glue, so you better be sure that it will go without too much resistance. If you do dry fit it and it is snug, you will not get it out without some damage. I put a slight chamfer on the bottom corners to help guide it into place.

I used liquid hide glue because the color matches the walnut so any gaps will not look so obvious. I made sure there was plenty of meat on the W so I could flush it down later. I started with a flush cut saw and went around the edges and then finally meeting in the middle. I did not want to ding up the curly maple so I put down a thick piece of paper under the flush cut saw so the teeth would not harm the surface. It may not have been necessary because I ended up doing a fair amount of planing to flush the surface and that would have likely removed any saw damage, but it is a good habit to get into.

Now that everything is flushed and sanded, I inspected for any gaps. Mine had a few that I filled with hide glue and walnut sanding dust. If the gaps are too large, you can actually cut small shims to fill the gaps. After I was satisfied, time for a finish. I used danish oil because nothing brings out figure more than a little oil.

Step 14: Final Steps

The next step is to install the hinges. I chose stopped hinges by Brusso. They are quality and look great. I chose to space the hinges in from each end of the box by the width of the hinge. I used a knife to mark the outline of the hinge and a chisel to remove the waste. I used the thickness of one of the hinge leaves and set my marking gauge to this depth. I then scored a mark on the box which gave me a solid line to place my chisel in when removing the waste. The important thing is to take your time and remove a little at a time for a crisp/tight fit. After the screws were installed, I placed the lid on the box and used a knife to mark the outside of the hinge leaves. I just make a small knife mark on the edge of the lid and use a square to mark a square line and the hinge itself to mark the depth of the hinge. The same process applies for removing the waste as before.

The final step in the process was installing the top and then putting a coat of paste wax on the box. I chose a good quality clear paste wax to give the wood a soft feel when touched. It also gave the wood a warm luster when buffed with a cotton rag.

The box is finished. It took me a long time to build because life got in the way and I went long spans of time without working on it. Overall I am very pleased with the outcome. I feel like I know more than I did before starting this project. I have fallen in love with the inlay process and plan to branch out into marquetry as well. I hope to post more projects in the future as my skills increase. I gave the box to my parents this past weekend and they love it. It was nice to show my appreciation for everything they have done for me and to give them something made by me that they can cherish for their lifetime. Thanks for looking at this instructable. I hope it was informative and at least entertaining.



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    13 Discussions


    4 years ago

    Awesome work. The details in the box are fantastic. Thanks for the detailed photos. Also I love the work space


    4 years ago on Introduction

    very cool, making do with limited space, yet still making quality work. Nice!


    4 years ago on Introduction

    You've made something very special. That's a great looking box.

    I found handtools very satisfying to work with and only wish I'd started woodworking when I was younger.


    4 years ago

    Nice work!


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Cory, this is beautiful! I love the contrast between the walnut and maple! I think that your instructable might be a few more views if you change your cover image to the whole box. Again, beautiful workmanship!


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you! I took your suggestion and changed the cover photo