My wife recently had a significant birthday and I wanted to make her something special. I had a piece of maple with a lot of character and decided to make a small box for her birthday. The maple was heartwood with a deeper color than you’d typically associate with maple and I added some contrast with a walnut top and bottom.
I’ve never made a small box before and I’m happy with how this one turned out. The design inspiration for the box came from Matt Kenney, a woodworker and writer at Fine Woodworking who wrote a book about 52 boxes in 52 weeks. His boxes are beautiful.
Preparing The Wood
The body of the box came from a piece of 4/4 maple. The maple was surfaced on two sides and had a straight line ripped edge. I chose a piece of walnut for the base and the lid to contrast the lighter maple. Interestingly, the piece of walnut has a lighter stripe of sapwood running down the length of it that tied into the color of the box.
The first step was re-sawing and planing the box sides and lid. After re-sawing, I ran the pieces through my benchtop planer to clean up the surfaces. I could have hand planed them as well, but the boards were thin enough that I would also need to create a jig to hold the wood. I had a birthday schedule to meet so I opted to use the planer. The final thickness for the sides was 3/8″ and the lid was 1/4″.
Note: I historically bought wood online because I didn’t have access to a local store. I plan to start exploring some of our local, Tampa Bay lumber yards soon, but I’ve previously purchased wood from Woodworkers Source and have always had great experiences with them.
Deciding on a size (approximately)
While I was busy getting the maple ready for the box, I was also trying to decide on the box size. I sketched out a few rough drawings in my notebook. By sketching I found that I didn’t like the look of a completely square box. Even though I thought the box was like a little cube, the drawing of it didn’t look right so I opted for a shorter box.
I considered using the golden ratio to choose a height, but just went with what looked right. I chose the final height by trimming the board on the table saw and standing it on end. It wasn’t super scientific.
I cut a short rabbet in the top of the box prior to cutting sides. Initially I only cut one rabbet and then decided to create a shadow edge on the lower part of the box. I was still trying to figure out the design and construction of the box as I built it. The box required a decent amount of thought even though it seems like a simple thing to make.
When I cut the second rabbet I decided to make it deeper than the first rabbet. My goal was to give the base a slightly wider stance than the lid. It’s not something you immediately notice when you look at the final box, but I think it impacts how you see it.
Cutting the sides with continuous grain
The grain pattern on the maple board is really interesting and what led to the box idea in the first place. As a result, I made a point to keep the grain continuous when cutting the sides and miters. Initially I was concerned that the table saw blade thickness would distort the grain pattern, but I’m happy with how it turned out.
Spending way too long thinking about the lid and base
After establishing the box walls and cutting a miter along one edge I ran into an issue. I started with a rough idea of what the box would look like, but I really didn’t have a finished box in mind. I was going through the motions of building the box and assumed that I would “figure it out” along the way. After cutting the sides I realized that I needed to have some type of box bottom. I initially planned to cut a groove and float a piece of walnut, but I liked the idea of a shadow along the bottom.
I cut a second, slightly deeper rabbet along the bottom. The deeper rabbet creates a wider stance and makes the box feel more grounded. I glued the walnut bottom in place before questioning whether or not the piece would shift and create problems later. I’m hoping for the best, but I don’t really know how the bottom will hold up in the long run. We’ll find out.
Adding a small pull
With the bottom in place I turned my attention to cutting the lid and creating a small pull. The pull was cut from some maple scrap. I drew an “X” on the box lid to center the pull and drilled a small hole into both the pull and lid. I glued a toothpick in the hole to act as a mini dowel. The lid and pull feel very solid given the lack of abuse they’ll probably take.
Finishing is always my favorite part of a piece. I knew I’d use shellac for the box because I’ve used it on numerous projects in the past and it always leaves a silky smooth finish. I was undecided about finishing the inside and eventually decided to finish it as well.
I’d like to try shellac flakes in the future, but I’ve always used Zinsser shellac from a home store to finish. I buy a can and thin it out with denatured alcohol. Thinning the shellac allows you to build up to a finish and results in a much smoother outcome. I primarily use the Zinsser Clear shellac because I don’t like the Amber color.
My process with the shellac starts with a first coat. I let it dry and then sand it using 220 – 400 grit sandpaper. Apply again, sand, wait, and then apply a final coat. After the final coat I use 0000 steel wool with wax to smooth out the finish. The end result is always extremely smooth and feels almost soft to the touch.
The Finished Box
The finished box turned out great and there are some final images below. Lately I’ve been busy with life and it felt really good to finish a project.