A Great Place to Start

Traditional Box Projects

By Strother Purdy

Illustrated. 153 pp. The Taunton Press $24.95


Many moons ago I attended a technology talk on the buzz phrase of the day – “Paradigm Shifts”. Changes that fundamentally challenge the established method or process. As an example, the speaker presented his own invention, a bicycle seat with a radical new design. Instead of the traditional single wedge shaped piece, it was a saddle completely split into two halves for your…two halves.

Thought provoking. Innovative. Risqué.

Also an abysmal failure. In thirty years of cycling have never seen one used, of for that matter, even for sale. Turns out there’s good reason why bicycle seats look like they do. A better, and certainly more profitable, approach is to improve on the shape and groin mashing (lack of) seat cushioning. Many companies have done so, to the welcoming relief of cyclists.

Start with what has proven to work, and then move on from there. In Traditional Box Projects, Strother Purdy’s unique designs are sourced from classic methods and techniques; tried and true craftwork that has endured simply because they work so darn well. His intriguing interpretation of a Shaker Lap Desk is structured with through dovetails, half-blind dovetails, breadboards, and mortise-an-tenons. Doesn’t get much better, or traditional, than that.

Rather than dropping readers directly into the fray, the author starts slow and ramps up. A bandsaw box that requires no joinery; a candlestick box featuring a few grooves, rabbets, and nails. The author takes the time to provide the reader with appropriate guidance on traditional methods in an engaging and humorous manner.

The book is complete with detailed photographs, clear diagrams, a resource list for products and materials listed in the designs, an index, and many “Work Smart” text inserts that include helpful advice and additional techniques, such as making homegrown veneer. As a departure from other box building books I’ve read, in Traditional Box Projects Purdy includes working with glass, and a simple and inexpensive process for fuming oak.

Although the author mentions keeping his toolkit minimal, he does rely on the standard mix of power tools; bandsaw, tablesaw, router, joiner, planer, and drill press. Of course if you start with properly dimensioned wood, you can kick out the joiner and planer. Or use a hand plane, as I do. And although the bandsaw box is one notable exception, most projects do lend themselves to hand tool workers.

Bandsaw boxes built from an assortment of figured walnut, redwood, maple and butternut.

As an example, the mitered dovetail joints in the Stacking Book Box are hand cut. This design caught my eye with its clean lines and historic lineage. The design itself came from woodworker Roy Underhill and was originally used by Thomas Jefferson to store and transport his books. Not only was it my first time to cut mitered dovetail joints, it was the chance to forgo the power router and test out my EBay purchased Sears Craftsman combination plane. From my understanding, this plane is really a Sargent 1080 (even has the number 1080 stamped on the fence) and includes the same canvas roll and 23 blades as originally advertised for the Sargent. It took a few practice runs before cutting the final groove:

The preference here would have been a stopped groove that didn’t run through the tail, but that’s a tricky cut with a plow or combination plane. Learning how to cut a level groove was enough of a challenge, so I opted for later plugging the gap left in the tails. The Craftsman plane lacks the fine features of the beautiful small plow plane from Lee Valley, but at $125 was a reasonable alternative. I’d be quite willing to try out the Veritas model – just send to WorkbenchInk, RR1, Pig Trot, Arkansas. Throw in a Veritas Scrub Plane if handy.

For the stacking book case, there was a slight disconnect between the cut list and assembly instructions. The cut list called for, and of course provided the dimensions of, a solid piece of cherry for the back. But during the assembly instructions a plywood back is described, mentioning that if a solid back is used then the dimensions should be altered, which is expected to account for wood movement. So was the cut list for the plywood, or the slightly altered solid wood? I ended up using solid wood and cutting it to fit since my dimensions already differed, although it appears the cut list should have specified plywood.

Stacking Book Case of cherry and various bandsaw boxes.

An optional feature for this box are military, or campaign, style handles. Another first and a task that is both tedious and exacting in nature. Like a mortised hinge, wood must be removed to match the shape of the recessed portion of the handle. Depending on the hinge design, this can be an intricate shape with multiple levels, curves and small cutouts. For this project not much information is provided on the how, except to use a power router to hog out the bulk of wood, which I would do only if using an accurate template. It’s highly unlikely that I could freehand guide a router without wandering outside the layout lines.

As it happens, Christopher Schwarz in his book Campaign Furniture includes a solid section on installing a variety of handles. The woodworker gazing down upon this little machined monstrosity will no doubt wonder how to even get started. Schwarz’s advice is to break the complex shape down into steps, a layering type of approach. Start with the primary rectangular shape:

Use a router plane to level out the bottom:

Cut out recesses for the screws and chisel out the shape of the plate (if it will fit flush):

The handles, as Purdy mentions, are mostly decorative. The diminutive screws that came with my handles will do little to support this heavy box empty, let alone full of books. A snatch and jerk will leave the box unmoved and a surprised person holding two brass handles. I’ve given fair warning to my household.

Folks of all skill levels will find this book a solid investment in time and money as Strother Purdy (a fine name I might add) continues the tradition of well-crafted woodwork.

Just don’t invest in bucket seats for a bike.

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