Just Build It

Basic Box Making

By Doug Stowe

Illustrated. 153 pp. The Taunton Press, Inc. $19.95


Next to the ubiquitous pine bookshelf the simple wooden box must be the next favorite project for the beginning woodworker. Need a decorative container for your paper, pens, and stamps to hold all those letters you’ll never write? Build a box.  And who better to learn this skill from then the man nominated in 2009 as an “Arkansas Living Treasure.”

Ok, so even as a transplanted Arkansan I wasn’t even aware this distinction existed. Or what our state bird, song, flower or butterfly is either (of course it’s the Diana fritillary butterfly). I did learn of this honor upon discovering the many excellent books on woodworking produced by Doug Stowe. His book Basic Box Making has that unique quality constantly sought from instructional guides; a well-blended mix of principles and practice.

Box building is a great way to get started in woodworking. The techniques and joinery learned apply to all matter of woodworking, yet boxes can be done in fairly small shops, leverage left over wood, and don’t require (many) large machines. For about $20 a local woodworker unloaded a large discarded stack of walnut, cherry, oak and hickory end pieces. Enough wood for a room full of boxes.

The designs in the book move sequentially in terms of complexity beginning with a small and simple lift-led box and ending with a more involved dovetailed, floating panel, wooden hinged box. As an added bonus most projects include further design options for modify the first build, or incorporating into any number of future boxes.

A walnut and hickory jewelry box, lift lid box with maple and oak, an oak lap cornered box, and a pencil box of maple and walnut.

As mentioned by others, although the box making is basic, the shop setup advocated by Stowe is…not so basic. The very first project assumes access to a tablesaw, jointer, and planer. Later projects add router, router table, drill press and disk sander. It’s a situation that can be frustrating and expensive for the first time woodworker. Add shop vac, dust collector, workbench and smattering of hand tools and the building of a basic box demands a several thousand-dollar investment.

So are all these tools required? Not really. I do not have a jointer, planer or disk sander and easily built the boxes I wanted, which was all of the boxes except one. For the first project, a lovely lift-lid box, I substituted commonly found ¼” stock for the requested 3/8” stuff allowing me to build it entirely from big box lumber store wood using only my Dewalt jobsite tablesaw (my first tablesaw). Of course these stores limit your choice of wood to oak, pine, poplar, and perhaps maple. So what if you happen to have a beautiful slab of 8/4 walnut handy? I did and wanted to use it. Inevitably you’ll need to resaw lumber to appropriate dimensions.

Simply stated, resawing lumber is best done on a bandsaw. Relatively safe and efficient…and another cost. To at least avoid that expense Stowe instructs on using the tablesaw to resaw wood. Since the vast majority of projects involve fairly narrow dimensions, stock that is less than 4” wide, resawing on the tablesaw is feasible. I’ve done it, won’t do it again. It’s why I bought my Laguna 1412 Bandsaw. Pushing while at the same time balancing a four-inch-wide board over a spinning blade strikes me as a short lived hobby. For the masochist/craftsman folks there’s always the panel saw and a few hours of sweat. Keeping in mind that once resawed this stock still needs to be surfaced to remove saw marks, as well as the edges squared. A jointer and planer make this easy, but I made do with hand planes.

Which leads to the only real mistakes I made working through this book. First was using Ash. Second was trying out my first plane using Ash. What a chore. Only much later did I read Robert Wearing’s The Essential Woodworker in which he encourages planing exercises using pine. Good advice.

A Stationary Box made of Ash.

In terms of the designs and tool instructions that you’ll find in this book, next in importance to the tablesaw is the power router and table. Not that a router is used for dado’s, grooves or tongues, since unlike furniture building these boxes have narrow grooves that are easier done on the tablesaw.  But it is Stowe’s tool of choice for shaping lids, some joinery, and hinge mortises. For the hinges he wastes out the wood on a router table using a story stick to align the cuts. It’s a nifty method that he describes in detail, and although there’s vendors that will sell you an adjustable story stick, cutting your own from scrap is an easy enough task. There is one caveat however; this method works best when the lid is the exact same size as the base. Or perhaps, only works when the lid and base match. The elegance of the solution is the simplicity of cutting two notches in a stick and placing the stick on the lid and base for the layout. Works great for the several designs where a solid box is built first and then the lid cut off. But if the lid is of a different dimension, such as when it overhangs the base, then Stowe suggests two story sticks and multiple stop blocks on the router table to make the cuts. Doesn’t fly with my philosophy of Elegant Simplicity. Easier to just line up the lid to the base and mark the location for the hinges.

My mistake of Ash came about because that’s what Stowe chose for his stately stationary box. Looked great in the photos so why not. This is a fairly large box with mitered base and sides, delicate walnut pulls and a floating panel top, a design concept that prevents problems with wood movement. This plan occurs later in the book, therefore incorporating additional techniques and skills covered by earlier projects. A new joinery introduced is the hidden-spline, a method that provides great support for miter joints while allowing the outside of the box to display clean, sharp, uninterrupted corners. And after swearing off hand planing Ash, also swore off making hidden-spline joinery. Not due to any deficiencies with Stowe’s instructions; it’s simply a difficult setup and it fueled my growing dislike for the router. The noise, the dust, the brutal speed that a router bit can plow through a misaligned piece of wood that I spent a sobering amount of time planing smooth. A router can be an effective scrap making tool.

Stationary Box with hidden splines.

But Doug Stowe does an admirable job stepping through the process, including building the necessary jig to guide the mitered sides over the router table to create the slotted joins. Detailed step by step instructions interspersed with sharp photography makes construction as easy as possible, and most pages include small inserts with helpful tips. He doesn’t leave any blank spots in the details; the design for this particular box actually includes plans for three different jigs - a wide-stock miter sled, a miter sled for low stock, and the already mentioned hidden-spline jig. Which means when finished with this book you’ll have a set of commonly used jigs ready for the next project.

Basic Box Making guides the woodworker through design principles, stock selection, fundamental joinery, and basic woodworking techniques all on the road to producing elegant and functional boxes. After completing all but one of Stowe’s boxes I can certainly state that following this book was a true pleasure.

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