Sunday, March 29, 2009

tearout on 1/8 in. box joints?

A reader asks:
I have been practicing making boxes with using a 1/8" box joint at the corners as per your video. I have been having a problem with tear out at the cuts and the blades I have tried don't give a flat top to the cut. I was wondering if you had a recommendation for a blade that is good for this type of cut.
Forrest Manufacturing makes a Woodworker II blade that has a special grind (Special #1 OD Grind) for square cut at the top, and they also make a special blade for larger box joints that stacks one way for 1/4" and reverse order for 3/8". I wrote reviews for both of these blades for Fine Woodworking. The special #1 OD grind is also excellent for cutting miter key slots. You can see the special grind on my well tested blade in the photo above, and if you compare it with a standard grind, you would notice that the teeth are not quite as pointed. This blade is great whenever I want to make a square top cut, for example fitting small panels for lids or bottoms. So it is useful well beyond box joints and key slots. I have also found that some combination blades have a square cut and work well.

The tear-out at the back of the cut most often comes from the stock being unsupported, lacking sufficient backing material. This happens when you make a deep cut and then use the same jig for shallower cuts. That height difference is the space that allows tear-out to happen And it doesn't need much to make a mess of your work. The easiest solution is to add a fresh accessory backing piece. Use some 1/4 inch Baltic birch ply, a piece sized approximately the height of the backing piece on your jig. Push the guide pin out of the way, with the blade lowered just enough so that it will cut the height of the pin. Make a through cut with the piece standing on edge, and then place that cut over the pin. You can use double stick tape or clamps to hold it in place. If the tear-out you've experienced is the result of diminished backing in the jig, this will restore the quality of your cut.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

fixing a ding

I had posted this earlier in Wisdom of the Hands , but since it pertains to box making, I decided to post it again here. I had a small and distracting defect in the lid of one of the boxes I made using the Gifkins jig, and needed to fix it. So I used a technique featured in this month's Fine Woodworking. It is something I had done before and Fine Woodworking was a great reminder. You make a small diamond shaped piece of wood in a matching color, then place it over the defect, trace around it and chisel out the space for it to fit. It is easiest to make the diamond first and cut the space to fit rather than the other way around. I used a 1/4 inch Forstner bit in the drill press to remove most of the waste before chiseling. This provided a target depth and made it much easier. Then I glued the diamond of matching wood in place. Use a pencil to sketch in some of the grain to complete the effect. While attempting this technique on multicolored spalted maple is not as effective as when used on more uniform colored stock, you can see that it works! The photo at the top shows the ding. Photos below show the fix and the result. If I weren't pointing at it, you wouldn't see it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What kind of class? What kind of instruction?

I got a call from a box maker and former student interested in reviewing learning options. She wants to take her box making to the next level, and wondered about various classes and the possibility of personal tutoring. So I asked a question that is too rarely asked and that students seldom consider: "What kind of learner are you?" "Do you learn best in groups, or working quietly by yourself?" Human beings are not one size fits all. Some will learn best to see things clearly outlined in books. Some learn best by watching on TV. Some (and perhaps the majority) learn best when their own hands are engaged in the process.

Knowing your own learning style is a something that can help in making the very serious decision concerning which from a number of learning options will offer you the greatest success. You can take a simple test to determine your own learning style Here. When you get your results, you may be just a bit better prepared to assess your learning choices, as to which will bring the greatest growth in the shortest amount of time and for the most reasonable investment of your financial resources.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How this works...

I won't post to this blog every day, only when there are questions or posts specific to box making. If you are here and want to read more that is specific to box making, you can find some materials on my other blog, Wisdom of the Hands. Use the search block at the upper left corner of the page and type in "boxes." You will find enough to keep reading for a day or so while waiting for a fresh post.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

making a living as a box maker

Jason asks,
When you build boxes for sale, do you make several at one time, or is each piece a "one-of-a-kind?" How do you price a box? I would love to make a living from woodworking, but then it would no longer be as much fun; so when I do it, I enjoy it immensely.

How do professional woodworkers earn commissions on their work that are commensurate with the amount of skill and craftsmanship that goes into a piece?
Some boxes I make one at a time. Others I may make in pairs or in rather large multiples (20-50). It depends on the box and the market I have for it. Figuring a price is another challenge. Some boxes I make because they are part of an article or book I am writing. I usually don't make any particular effort to sell those as they are useful when I teach. Having real boxes is a good starting point in getting my students engaged in discussion of joints, and techniques, and serve as a reference in my efforts to describe what I do, and having a collection of old boxes turned out to be a handy thing for my box design article in Fine Woodworking.

The boxes I make to sell, like the ones on are figured on a time and materials basis. I realize that I am competing with the Chinese in everything I make. There are lots of better ways to make a living than by making boxes. Kitchen cabinets for instance. (though not during a housing slump and near depression.)

The bigger challenge than pricing is marketing in general. I can make boxes faster than I can sell them. Every marketing effort costs money. Doing shows is extremely expensive, with travel and booth fees sometimes in the thousands of dollars. Selling through galleries is also expensive as they usually take more than half the proceeds of the sale for their marketing expenses.

I don't want to discourage you from turning pro, however. Do a business plan. Check out the craft shows in your area. Box making is an extremely satisfying endeavor. And if you check out what people like about their jobs, satisfaction and creative opportunity are things that rank high on their lists, often surpassing the money involved.

How do woodworkers earn money commensurate with our investment in skill and craftsmanship? We usually don't. Particularly if you are measuring by AIG standards in which college trained morons make millions in reward for wrack and ruin of the global economy. But we live with the satisfaction we can touch, knowing that our contributions to society are real and tangible, bringing beauty into the lives of others.

I hope this helps.

Monday, March 16, 2009

preventing tearout while cutting miter key slots

Andrew Craig wrote the following question:
I have been making boxes with inspiration from your books for awhile now and have recently run into an issue. When I cut the keys on the mitered corners of a recent box made out of clear vertical grain douglas fir, I had a problem with the grain tearing out on the back side of the kerf, making the finished product unacceptable. Do you have any tips for eliminating this in softer woods? I use the table saw jig that you show how to make in your latest Taunton book.
Tear-out is almost always a problem related to the backing for the cut. If you have made deeper cuts previously with the jig than what you are planning to do now, place a piece of thin 1/8" ply over the cut so that the blade will be cutting into fresh backing rather than empty space. As an alternative, if that doesn't work, you can do something that people tell you never to do. Make a climb feed cut. This means that you start your cut with the jig on the back side of the blade and pull it toward you with the box in place. This would be extremely dangerous if you were making a large cut, but in cutting a key slot, the amount of material is so very small that it is safe as the blade has very little contact with material. When I have experimented with this technique, I actually stood on the back side of the saw. This is a technique which I have to urge people to be very clear what they are doing... Something you would never do on a large cut, or long stock as the action of the blade would pull the stock into the cut and hurl it at you or pull your fingers into the blade. So I would check the integrity of the backing first before trying what would generally be considered the more extreme technique. I should note that the climb-feed cut I have described should NEVER be made with a new jig. The blade cutting into the new jig would be very forceful due to the amount of material engaged with the blade. The blade would throw the jig across the room and damage anything in its path.

I got complementary copies of Taunton's new jigs publication "Essential Shop-made Jigs" in the mail today and the cover image is of the jig that Andrew is using to make his miter key slots. The image above is from the magazine, but I won't spoil the whole thing. It is full of useful jigs you can make yourself. It should be available on the newsstands on March 31.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Thickness of wood and thickness of sides

A friend, David asked how thick I make my box sides and how thick of lumber I use to obtain the desired thickness.

There are no exact formulas for how thick box sides should be. There are a number of considerations, including your choice of hinges, and the overall size. Obviously smaller boxes require thinner sidewalls to have a reasonable proportion between inside and outside space.

In terms of thickness, for most of my boxes, particularly for those using resawn material for the sides, I use full inch stock which tends to run a bit on the thick side, about an inch or an inch and a sixteenth. Or for fans of the metric system, between 2.54-2.88 CM. Fifteen sixteenths inch (15/16") stock will usually provide box sides in the 5/16" to 3/8" range. If the stock is full inch or slightly more, I can sometimes get 7/16" stock from it if it is straight. I rarely have 5/4 stock to work with as it is hard to get unless I have it milled myself, but it is my wood of choice when I need box sides as thick as 1/2". All said and done, I don't worry too much about exact thicknesses, just that all that I'm using is the same.

I get these same results whether using a thin kerf blade on the table saw, or with my band saw when it is well tuned.

I am pleased to hear that David is enjoying Box Making 101.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

substitute for jointer?

Russell, from down under (Australia) asked the following:
Hey Folks,

My "Basic Box Making" by Doug Stowe book arrived today, so I jumped in and started reading, only to find, one of the first things it says is "true the edges with a jointer".

Maybe I'm a bit behind the times, but I didn't think a jointer was something you'd consider a basic tool in most people's sheds. Forgive my poor box-making newbie ignorance, but what can one use instead of a jointer? Please don't say a hand plane. I'm hopeless with hand tools. Unless that's the only alternative I mean. Am I even on the right track of how a jointer works?

Thanks. Russell.
I wonder if this question is evidence of continental drift. Perhaps the continents of Australia and North America are drifting further apart. In the US, my readers never ask why I have tools. They see each chapter as an excuse to buy more. The jointer would be one of the first... a job that can be done quickly and easily with hand planes but which would require practice and skill, so an investment of time comes first, before you get to make boxes.

One of my favorite things about wood working is figuring out how to do without. So while I demonstrate the use of a variety of tools in writing my books, I don't want to deprive all my readers of the opportunities to figure out other ways to do what needs to be done.

The router can be used for jointing. Porter Cable (an American tool co.) used to supply a special fence that allowed a hand held router to do such things poorly. Mounted in a table it can do a better job. But my preferred substitute is the table saw, particularly when making small parts for boxes.

What you do is get a piece of flat plywood with a nice straight edge. Mine is about 20 cm. x 80 cm.) I put a wood runner on the underside to travel in the miter gauge slot, but you can also just use it against the fence. I use wing nuts and another board to secure the work piece in place and rip. With a good ripping blade you can get nearly as nice an edge as you would get with a jointer. And you can use it on really waney stock that would take many passes on a jointer to get straight.

The photo above shows the ripping sled substitute for a jointer in use on my table saw.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

traveling chess box

I am making traveling chess boxes with my 5th and 6th grade students at Clear Spring School and the progress can be observed at Wisdom of the Hands, my blog about hands-on learning.

tapered sanding blades

Amateur box maker, Dr. Nestor Demianczuk, asked about the availability of tapered sanding disks like I have used in my early books, Creating Beautiful Boxes with Inlay Techniques and Simply Beautiful Boxes. He has used flat blades for the purpose but found that they tend to cause friction burns on the stock as the sandpaper loads up.

My original tapered sanding disk came from Sears, but as far as I know they are no longer available. I have also used a flat blade successfully by moving it over to engage the wood in gradual increments. As Dr. Demianczuk has noted, if you try to take off very much at once, the leading edge of the disk loads up quickly and can make friction burns on the stock, so the trick is to lighten the load, taking smaller increments. A tapered blade would be very easy for a manufacturer to make, and a flat sanding blade could be adapted to a slight taper very easily by a modern machine shop. Hopefully, some enterprising manufacturer will again make tapered sanding blades, as they can be useful to box makers. In the meantime, flat sanding blades are offered by

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

hard to see but explains a few things

Some craftsmen complain about the high cost of Brusso hinges, and as I've said, you can use less expensive hinges in making a perfectly fine box. One of the challenges, however, is to bring the hinges up to a higher standard for use. The photo above shows the slight offset in leaf position common in rolled brass hinges. Remember that as these are made, two pre-cut pieces of brass are rolled together around the hinge pin, and while most hinges are made well, there is often a difference in how the outside edges align when the two halves of the hinge are folded together in the closed position. This is something that you may not notice until the lid is attached to the box, and a slight offset between the base and lid becomes apparent.

So can they be fixed, and how?

Here's what I do. Before I install the hinge, I use a file or sanding block to equalize the width of the leaves. Hold it on the barrel side with the leaves touching and stroke on the file or sanding block until both leaves are equal. Watch closely stroke by stroke and remove stock only until you begin to see scratch marks on the shorter leaf. You will need to do both hinges from the set and file an equal amount on each. Sound like a challenge? Most fine woodworking is. And special attention to the hinges is one of the prices you pay when you choose not to use the best. Fortunately, any well made brass hinge on a beautiful wooden box, will last a lifetime, and the few minutes you spend making certain the hinge is just right is little in consideration of its long life. You can buy 20 pairs of cheap rolled brass hinges at your local hardware store for the price of one pair of finer brass hinges.

lid supports

Over the years since my Complete Illustrated Guide to Box Making was in production, some hardware suppliers decided to drop products. I get inquiries from readers wondering how to find specific hardware that I used and displayed in the book. One particular piece that offers a challenge is a small brass lid support. The lid supports currently available are much too large for small boxes.

So what you see in the photo above is a simple lid stay that may work for some box makers, particularly those making boxes with rustic character. To make it, I bend two pieces of steel strapping material and drill holes. One hole in each piece is for the string selected to form a check strap. The other hole allows for each piece to be attached to the sides of the box and lid. To use this check strap in finer applications, consider using polished brass rather than steel for the angle pieces.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Losing a source for simple lid stays led to this solution. In the meantime, I've had conversations with my suppliers in an effort to get the old brass lid stays brought back to the market. If my readers locate a source for them, please comment in the blog.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The middle hinge

I got an inquiry from woodworker Kent in Canada about the unusual barbed hinge used in the center of my walnut and hickory jewelry box for sale on This spring hinge, like the other barbed hinges I use on small boxes comes from Craft, Inc. I added the center hinge for additional strength, but it also serves to hold the lid open and stiffens the feel of its operation. It requires additional routing to provide clearance for the spring. I had purchased thousands of these hinges quite a few years ago, then left them in the box as I tried to conceive an easy technique that would allow me to put them to use.

But for Kent, the photo below will help as it illustrates the culmination of years of idle head scratching. He is reading my books and now knows the technique of using stops on the router table fence to control the length and position of a routed slot. The small recess to accommodate the hinge is cut with 3/16" straight cut router bit, raised about 3/16" high above the surface of the router table. This results in a combined 3/8" deep recess in the lid and base of the box, providing clearance for the spring.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Welcome to Box Making 101

This blog is dedicated to amateur and beginning box makers. Making a wooden box is the perfect way to develop woodworking skills. They require a high level of accuracy, and allow unlimited expression of creativity, while requiring only limited materials and a few basic woodworking tools. You may also be interested in the associated website, Box Making 101, currently under construction.