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Books on Boxes

The Complete Dovetail
Ian Kirby

Fine Decorative Wood Boxes
Andrew Crawford

400 Wood Boxes
Sterling Publications

Complete Illustrated Guide to Box Making
Doug Stowe

Making Heirloom Boxes
Peter Lloyd

Treasure Chests
Lon Schleining

All photographs and content ©2004 Robert Karl  

A Shaker-style Candle Box
made with Hand Tools

After building a loom for my wife, I realized some things about woodworking and myself:
  1. I didn't know the first thing about hand tools
  2. I definately couldn't get "fluffy shavings" out of my hand plane
  3. I loved working with wood and seeing the result
I started spending a lot of my Web time looking at sites about woodworking and/or tools in the hopes of learning something, but I found I just could not (quickly) learn enough from books and Web articles to feel like I knew what I was doing. I needed someone to teach me.

My friend Sean mentioned that I lived pretty close to the "World Famous" North Bennet Street School and I found they had just the class for me: Fundamentals of Fine Woodworking. This was a class that would teach me what I needed to know about classic joints and classic tools. I knew I would not be a professional at the end of it, but I hoped to know quite a bit more. The class was not a project class, but they ended by giving us plans and getting us started on a Shaker Candle Box in mahogany.

I won't give you all the details, but here's how the box was built: North Bennett Street School gave us pre-milled "kits" that consisted of a top panel, a bottom panel, two end panels and two side panels. The dimensioning was right, and the end and side panels already had grooves cut for the top and bottom; the rest was up to us. As a class, we sought to create a box out of these peices following a proceedure roughly like this:

  • Check the parts for square and flat
  • Mark the sides for half-blind dovetails and chop both tails and pins
  • Hand plane the bottom panel to fit in the grooves, forming a bottom for the box
  • Dry fit the box together
  • Hand plane the top panel to slide in the grooves
  • Chisel a finger notch to aid in opening and closing the box
  • Apply finish to the the interior
  • Glue up (making sure to square the box while doing so)
  • Smooth the exterior (bringing the tails and pins flush
  • Apply finish to the exterior.
Here's what the parts looked like after all the hand work was done and before applying finish for final assembly:
A picture of the Shaker Candle Box parts ready for assembly
And here they are during a dry fit:
The Shaker Candle Box assembled during a dry fit
Only one of us finished the box in class: there's always one guy that can do it faster and better than the rest of class (Hi David). I tried to catch up and ended up with problems as a result of rushing. I believe it was J.R.R. Tolkein who said (through the lips of Bilbo Baggins?) "Shortcuts make for long delays." Anyway, 4 months after the last class I put the final coat of wax on a box that I find very satisfying. There are errors to be found, but I won't tell you where.

Here are a few pictures of the finished project. Notice that the marks from the dovetail layout are gone. While this is asthetically pleasing, it was not my intent to remove them (that's a LOT of hand planing). Here's what happened: I had some poorly fitting dove tails, so I used a trick that involves wielding a ball peen hammer and pounding the offending pins until they fill the space. If you ever try this, us a light hand. Otherwise you will have a lot of planing ahead to bring the box sides flush with the dents left by the hammer. When I had finally planed out the dents, only part of the layout line remained and I had to plane them off entirely or live with a silly looking line scratched just partway down one side of each end. I certainly made a lot of shavings that night.

If you are wondering whether it was worth attending the class at North Bennet Street School, I give a resounding "Yes". At the end of the class I had a well tuned hand plane, 3 well tuned chisels, a custom made dovetail chisel, a well tuned dovetail saw, a well tuned scraper, and the knowledge and experience required to tune any other tools I might need. Once we had working tools, we set to work and learned a lot about creating accurate joins with wood. I feel confident in my ability to plan and execute any project that requires a mortise and tenon or dovetail and I'm embarking on a few of them now.

A picture of the finished box
The other side of the finished box with lid partly open
Bottom and side of the Shaker Candle Box
A glimpse inside the Shaker Candle Box
Detail of a half-blind dovetail on the Shaker Candle Box