The Eye and Beholder

Beautiful Boxes - Design and Technique

By Doug Stowe

Illustrated. 169 pp. The Taunton Press, Inc. $24.95


In essence, it’s hard to say that every box you build will be completely unique. After all…it’s a box. It’s difficult to move away from the necessity of four sides, top and bottom. But there are endless variations, opportunities at each step for the woodworker to add his own flair and distinction. In Beautiful Boxes Doug Stowe engages the reader in the craft, reinforcing solid techniques, illustrating elegant designs, and encouraging the woodworker to strive for beauty.

The text moves smoothly through concept, techniques, and builds. Wonderful, clear photography and well-paced instructions guide the woodworker throughout the process. Although the later designs are complex, the joinery in the first project, a swivel-lid box, are no more than pins making it ideal for the beginner with a few hand tools and little experience. Doug provides many handy hints, such as using rubber bands to clamp boxes – a seemingly obvious yet simple and elegant solution. The design for several popular jigs are covered, including an easy to build shooting board.

With regard to his previous book Basic Box Making, there is only the smallest amount of overlap. In addition to the methods covered in Basic Box Building, in Beautiful Boxes Doug also illustrates the process of veneering for one of his projects. This technique allows the woodworker to showcase an exotic hardwood, or perhaps a richly figured piece of wood, while conserving the prized piece and saving money. His guidance and equipment recommendations give the beginner a great start for adding beauty without breaking the bank.

In this book the author does encourage more reliance on the router. Recommendation would be to either invest in a decent router table (I have used the Bosch 1181 with nice results). Could build your own, as Doug Stowe has done. I have mixed feelings about this. A good router table has three critical features; a flat and level tabletop, a sturdy insert that at the very least fits your router or even better has the ability to work with many routers, and finally a fence that’s easily adjustable. Now this is just the minimum. The router is a messy tool. Even with the often recommended 1/8 in. cut the wood dust really flies, emitting a cloud of choking sawdust that covers the router, the floor, tools, workbench, and anyone standing nearby. With that in mind an enclosed cabinet that provides a method for dust collection is extremely helpful. From there the options quickly expand; cast iron table, motorized router lift, router table tracts, tool storage, mobility kits, etc.

There is no shortage of designs for building your own router table – over the years Wood magazine has provided several ideas ranging from simplistic to elaborate. A word about the really simple router table, the first one I built, and the shortcomings which eventually led to the purchase of the Bosch table. My handy 20-year-old $60 Craftsman router worked fine for four-foot-long dados and rabbets (think book cases). But now I wanted to build a dozen or so small magazine cases that required multiple dados and rabbets. Perfect project for a router table and as it happened to be ran across a very simple design in Wood magazine that built the table from one half sheet of ¾ inch MDF. Simple and cheap. Drill a hole in the top and bolt your router to the bottom.

Hard to believe it never crossed my mind to consider how much of the router bit would be left exposed after subtracting the ¾ in. thick MDF table. The answer is not much. About an 1/8 inch. At least not with my ¼ inch collet and cheap 30 router bit collection from Lowes.  Router bits for ½ inch collets are typically longer but my inexpensive (and old) router isn’t capable of using a ½ in. collet. That left my inexpensive router tables with limited use, and ultimately in the scrap bin.

I see a similar problem with Doug’s finger-joint router table design. The table is ¾ in. plywood and the sliding table that rides on top is also ¾ inch plywood. That means 1 ½ inches of the router bit is buried in this jig. There’s nothing left to cut when using the bargain basement ¼ in. bits. To Mr. Stowe’s credit you can get spiral bits with longer shanks – Onrud has a 3/8 in. spiral bit with a 3 in. length for around $20. The tablesaw is an effective tool for cutting 1/8 in. finger joints, but anything more and the router becomes the preferred tool. You’ll just need a better class of router bits, and a router with a ½ in. collet.

Doug’s text did miss including a discussion on the difference between an upcut spiral bit and downcut spiral bit. A design option for the slick little lift-lid rectangular box is to add a secret compartment covered with a fake bottom. The ¾ inch base is routed out with a 3/8 in. spiral cutter to create the compartment. Do you know what happens when you plunge a piece of oak on top of a downcut spiral router bit fixed in a router table? Nothing good. An upcut spiral bit pulls the wood towards the router, whereas a downcut bit tends to push it away. Not knowing the difference, I picked up a downcut bit and the results were unpleasant, if not a bit dangerous. What does the false bottom hide on my box? A chewed up hidden compartment. The false bottom in my box is more of a permanent cover.

Oak box with a truly (and forever) hidden compartment, two bracelet boxes out of maple and walnut.

Doug also includes a few passages that explore his thoughts on the art of woodworking, to give the reader a sense on how he approaches the design elements of his boxes. It’s a welcomed inclusion that elevates his text from beyond a mere collection of cut lists and step-by-step instructions. His ideas can at times be a little…eclectic. Or perhaps just hit or miss. It’s always hard for me to appreciate paint on wood in general, and milk paint specifically. If in the end the piece will be painted, then I’ll just start with poplar.

This no criticism directed at Mr. Stowe, but the book binding was not terribly robust. As I tend to do with books that include designs, it spent significant time in use on top of my workbench. That meant frequent moves, much page turning, and the occasional piece of wood slid across it. Over time it became more of a loose leaf book as the middle section of pages broke free. Overall it appeared more fragile than other similar texts.

If you happen to be in Northwest Arkansas, or wish to visit the Ozarkian answer to an art community, then you should visit the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. In the past Doug has conducted several woodworking classes there and in the summer of 2017 he will be teaching on, that’s right, Beautiful Boxes, Designs and Technique. It’s the Ozarks, so shoes optional, overalls recommended.

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