This is a little box—just 5 in. long and 1 3/4 in. wide—but it's big in terms of developing my design aesthetic. The body of the box is fairly standard for me. The lid is a whole other story. The pull, I'm sure, is the most obvious change for me. I've always done very simple pulls for boxes like this. Just a thin piece of wood glued to the top. This box is sporting a cherry pull elevated on little feet or stands that are painted with marigold yellow milk paint.
I like this box. It's sitting here with me at the desk, and it's more charming in person that it is in these photos. And it's convinced me to explore pull styles for my boxes. I have several designs in mind. The really challenge is making them, because they're so small.
A less obvious deviation from my established design aesthetic is the cocobolo lid. First, I've only used cocobolo for something other than a pull once before. (I used it for the center drawer front on a bow front cabinet I made for Fine Woodworking that was featured on the cover.) Exotics, I think, are too strong and dominate to be used for anything other than an accent. But this lid is causing me to rethink the role they can play in my furniture. When I was making this box, I really wasn't thinking cocobolo for the lid, but I stumbled across this piece in my box of cocobolo and ebony. It has strong, straight grain that's scaled perfectly for this box's proportions. And it had one face that was still rough from bandsawing (click on the picture above to see this in better detail). I though the rough surface would look cool, so I left it. I stole this idea from a box that Mike Pekovich made a few years ago. I'm certain to use it again.
This pull is an exercise in details. So, too, is the inside of the box. There's a wonderful little pitch pocket in the corner of the bottom that is visible when you take the top off. It creates just enough irregularity and breaks up the clean, straight grain of the cherry in a very nice way. When I'm picking wood to make a box, I'm always looking for straight grain with little spots of pitch, or curl, or a pin knot. Clean with some character. That's the ideal wood for me. Also, always pay attention to the details. Thoughtful, good design begins with the overarching themes, but ends with the details. If you forget them, then you haven't finished the design job. (That's how I think about it at any rate.)
On to the random thoughts.
This box might look like others that I have made (walnut and marigold yellow together), but there is a huge difference between it and everything else I've made. This is my first bandsawn box. In the past, I've made it clear that I really do not like them (listen to our discussion with David Picciuto, the Drunken Woodworker). Here's why. The vast majority of the bandsawn boxes that I've seen are ugly. Very ugly. The reason why they are ugly is simple. The folks who make them focus on the fact that they're making a box with a bandsaw, so they throw in all kinds of wacky curves, goofy shapes, and drawers within drawers. The box is meant to display the fact that it was made with a bandsaw. Who cares how something was made other than the person who made it? (I know other woodworkers do. We care too much about that sometimes.) Personally, I want the people who see my boxes not to even think about how I made it. I want them to say, "That's beautiful." So, I tried to make a beautiful bandsawn box. Perhaps I succeeded. Perhaps I didn't. I'll definitely try again.
OK, I'm getting off the soapbox before I go too far. I made this box while at Peters Valley School of Craft teaching a woodworking course. (By the way, Peters Valley is a wonderful place to take a class.) I actually made two of this box. The first one was sold in the weekly auction held to benefit the school. The only difference between that box (right) and this one is that I painted the ends of the lid, too. I like both of the boxes, but I think the original (no paint on lid) is a bit more elegant. However, I do like that the lid on this version overhangs the box body more. I intentionally made the lid on the first one smaller, but the overhang got so small that it no longer looks intentional. Design should always be intentional—and look that way.
This box was a good learning experience. I've definitely thought of ways to improve the craftsmanship on my next bandsawn boxes. One of the things I figured out after making the first version of the box, but before starting the second one, is that you get tighter glue lines if you do not sand the bandsawn surfaces after cutting them. Look at the picture below that shows the inside of the box. Those are machine marks left by the bandsaw. That could be a very cool surface texture on the inside. The next time I make a bandsawn box, I'll work on controlling the appearance of the machine marks. For example, for a fairly nuanced surface, I could use a variable pitch blade, like the 3-4 variable TPI resaw blades on the market. These blades are also very thin, and that would help with the glueline.
There's not much else to say, but if you have questions, please ask. I'll answer as best I can. Now for some random thoughts.
These two boxes are identical to the first two I made (one of them is just below, on the left), except in the woods and paint colors. When I made those two boxes, I knew that I would come back to the design, because I like it so much and I wanted to experiment with other species for the boxes and different milk paints for the lids. I might return to this design later, too. I already have a few ideas about how to change it up a bit (and, in fact, I've already turned one of those ideas into a reality—it's box 14. Yes, I am working ahead of what I am putting up on the blog.) And I don't think this violates the spirit of my 52 boxes challenge as I laid them out. Actually, it's explicitly in keeping with it.
In this new pair, one of the boxes is made from rift sawn ash, has a pumpkin lid, and the lift is made from the wortled heart wood of a quizzical pear tree. The other is quartersawn maple with a Lexington green lid. Its lift is apple. Of the two, I think I like the maple one better. The grain is so tight, and there's a bit of chatoyance to it. The green is also a great match for the maple and apple. But the ash has an earthy undertone that goes quite well with the pumpkin milk paint. The darker grain lines are a nice match with the milk paint, too. It's hard. I like it, too. I suppose it's like choosing between your kids—on one day you (might) like one more than the other, but you never stop loving either.
There is one way (other than wood species and paint colors) that boxes 7 and 8 are different than boxes 1 and 2. Where the bottoms of the first two were natural wood on both faces, I painted the top face of the bottoms for these two new boxes (taking a cue from box 5). The color is custom, comprised of mostly snow white with a touch of marigold yellow. I like it. Once again, I got that cool crackle effect. My colleague at Fine Woodworking, Dillon Ryan, has surmised that it is caused by the plywood swelling due to the water in the milk paint. When the plywood dries and shrinks, you get the crackle. I think this makes sense, because the top veneer of the plywood is so thin. With solid wood the crackle doesn't happen because it doesn't expand and shrink in the same way.
I made these two boxes the same week that I made box 6. In fact, I made all three at the same time. After you have a design figured out, it's not hard to knock out a couple of boxes using it. I find this encouraging. Perhaps one day I can make and sell boxes for a profit.
Hmm. I think it's time for some random reflections.
I've made many boxes like this one before. It's actually my second go at a box I made many years ago (see the box at right). I made that box in one night, using a Phi ruler to determine the box's height, width, and length. I like the width and length, but think it's too tall. I always wanted to go back and make it again, but shorter. That's what box 6 is. I should admit that I'm not positive that the two boxes have the same width and height. The only record I could find of the original box's dimensions was an approximation, so I guessed as best I could. (I gave the box to a family friend not long after I made it, so can't measure it.) I like the proportions of the new box much better.
The first box was made from English elm. So is this one. The difference in color between the two is amazing. I really like the color of the first box, but that board is long gone. I also like the English elm I used for this box, especially the random spots of wild grain, but it's not quite as nice. The top of the first box is solid wood. I think it's flame birch. (It came from a very old, but decrepit, table, so I don't know for sure.) The top of this one is plywood banded in cocobolo and then veneered with English brown oak. The lifts are cocobolo. The three woods complement each other very well, I think. And the darker oak works here because the box sides are a light brown. It would not have worked with the elm I used to make the previous box.
Box 6 wasn't hard to make, but it was tedious. Both the lids and the bottom involved veneering plywood. The banding on the top is mitered at the corners and getting those miters tight and clean was a slow, shaving at a time process. The bottom involved some tedious labor, too. First I veneered the bottom face. I then did the end banding. After that, it was the front and back. This way, when you look at the bottom from the front, you see what looks like a piece of solid wood. Last came the veneer for the top face. I wanted this to cover the banding, so that when you look at the inside of the box, you don't see any banding. (I should do a blog about box bottoms, right?.) The veneers on the lids are commercial, but think. Those on the bottom are shopsawn.
Alright, let's get to the random thoughts.
The idea for this box has been floating around in my head for quite some time. I had not made it yet because every time it surfaced I couldn't get the proportions right. But inspiration often comes when we are least looking for it. After I had completed box 4, I put it on the counter, knelt down in front of it to get a head on look at the front elevation, and it hit me. Those were the perfect dimensions for this box. The length and width of this box are the same as the length and height of box 4. I haven't been giving dimensions, but if you're wondering the box is 2 in. wide and 12 in. long.
When I thought of this box in the past, I never had particular species in mind for the sides and lids. As I was looking through my lumber rack and assorted piles of small pieces of lumber, I took a break to go into the house and see what the kids were doing. My daughter was in her room, which is where I saw a little wall cabinet I made several years ago (see the picture at left). It's ash and apple. The apple is gorgeous. I immediately decided to make the lids from apple. I thought about making the body from ash, but back in my shop I came across a very nice piece of quartersawn white oak that was just the right size for the sides. The earthy, multi-hued apple, I thought, would compliment the white oak's brown very well. I think the woods go very well together. Sadly, my stash of apple got a bit smaller.
I had planned to put some cocobolo lifts on the lids. But when I got to that point in the construction I just couldn't do it. No matter where I placed the lifts, they obscured the apple's beautiful grain and colors. The box body was already finished, but that didn't deter me. At the drill press, I used a Forstner bit to create the finger openings. I actually used two different bits. The opening in the middle is larger than the ones on the sides. I plan to reuse this technique (I might even remake this box in different woods), and I'll put a finger opening on both the front and back for each compartment. You can open the compartments just fine as it is, but it will be easier if you can pinch the lid between two fingers.
I don't remember when I decided to paint the top face of the box bottom. In the past, I've made fabric cushions for the insides of boxes, and I always choose a fabric that popped. (Take a look these boxes to see what I mean). That lead to the milk paint, I guess. I just like the surprise of opening an all wood box and seeing a bright splash of color. The marigold yellow milk paint looks great, I think. I like how it crackled of it's own accord.
OK, time for some random thoughts:
What a difference one week makes. Unlike box 3, which I still have a hard time liking (even though some of the comments folks made have softened me on it), I like everything about this box. I know this one is fairly different from last week's box, but I see the two as directly related. When thinking about how I'd change box 3, I came up with box 4. This is especially true about the overall dimensions. Box 4 is about 3 in. narrower, but twice as long (if you are reading width across the grain and length with the grain, which is how I do it). It's also much shorter. These are the proportions I had in mind when I first came up with the concept for box 3. I don't know where or why I changed them on box 3.
I also like a particular design leap that I made with box 4: the walnut divider. I have always, without even thinking about it, made drawer dividers from the same species as the case or box. Most of the time, I think that's the right way to do it. But there is something very nice about this walnut divider paired with the white oak box. Perhaps it's the walnut stand the box sits on, or that the divider is a preview of the beautiful walnut drawers inside. (By the way, this is all air-dried and unsteamed walnut. Hence, the rich and variegated color. Steaming walnut destroys what's most beautiful about the wood. I'll never use it again, if I can at all avoid it.) I'll definitely revisit this design detail in the future, on a wall cabinet or large case piece.
The pulls are made from key rings wrapped with a very thin hemp twine. I like them very much, even if there's a bit of a hump where I tied off the twine. I used cotter pins to attach them to the drawer fronts. I blackened them with some chemical from a bottle. I have no idea what it really is, as I got it from Mike Pekovich. It's something used to darken the lead in stained glass. I think it was also used by Sauron when he was crafting the one ring to rule them all. I'm sure it's not all that bad, but I have been referring to the box as my precious. And all of my other boxes are slowly beginning to turn invisible. By the way, I've used gun bluing on metal before, and this looks much better.
The drawer boxes are walnut, mitered at the corners. I know this is a risk, but the drawers aren't going to be loaded down with gold bullion or lead. The painted fronts are white oak, which I chose because I knew the milk paint wouldn't completely cover the open grain of the oak. So, you still get a hint of the oak through the paint. I looks nice. I cut the Lexington green paint with a bit of snow white to lighten the color a small amount. Also, the drawers are inset about 1/16 in., to create some depth and to disguise the box's seasonal movement.
This box is a bit funky because the drawer opens from both ends. It's made from a wonderful, 10 in. wide piece of vertical grain Douglas fir. Given how tight the grain is, I'm guessing it's old growth. I found the piece in a small lumberyard near my house. (Boards like it are why I drop into lumberyards on a whim and look around for hours.) Vertical grain Douglas fir is one of my favorite woods. It has a very modern feel to it.
I love the concept for this box: a drawer that slides out at both ends. I also like the feet, and that the box has a modern feel to it. That could be all that I like. The snow white milk paint turned out to have much less variation in color than other colors of milk paint that I've worked with, so it doesn't read as painted wood. I'm also bummed that I didn't get the box's proportions right. It should be shorter and wider. Finally, I should have gone with miters instead of dovetails. The box is too small for dovetails. They just crowd up the place, and interrupt the flow of the fir's grain. But that's the way it goes sometimes. I'll definitely revisit this idea after I've had time to think about it more, do more sketches, and play with the dimensions some.
Of course, I'm happy to answer any questions you have about the box.
It took me two weeks to make this box, because I was shooting a video for Fine Woodworking at the same time. But, I'm still on schedule. It's been three weeks and I've made three boxes.
Yesterday, I mentioned that I had made six boxes using the same core set of design details. You can see all six in the gallery below. To my eye the boxes are all clearly related, but also distinct from one another. I suppose one could argue that the two turned boxes (painted body v. painted lid) are too similar to be called distinct. But for me, the little walnut round box with the yellow lid is a substantial step up in elegance. It feels like a different creature. (I also believe it's the best thing I've made.) Here's what's common to them.
The sides are raised 1/8 in. off the surface by a bottom that is inset from the perimeter of the box.
The top sits in a rabbet and is 1/8 in. proud of the top edge of the sides.
There are three woods in use for each box: The sides are the primary wood, the top is the secondary wood, and the lift is the tertiary wood. Paint has replaced either the primary or second wood in some. Also, the woods are always complimentary to one another, never contrasting. (I hate the notion of contrasting woods.) And the relationship between the color of the sides and the color of the lid reinforces the shape of the lid(s), allowing it to make a stronger geometric statement.
There is an emphasis and dependence on good proportion. This started with the first box. All three of its sides are related by the golden mean. This emphasis on proportion explains the clean, simple lines. When you gussy up a piece with ornamentation or complicated lines, you begin to obscure the proportions--or so I think.
These are boxes 1 and 2 in my 52 weeks, 52 boxes challenge.
I wanted to make a small, delicate box. But then I thought the box would like nice as a pair, so I made one in walnut and one in cherry. I'm happy with how they turned out. Together, they make a bold graphic statement, and they should remain a pair, I think. I made them both in the first week of the challenge.
I like the proportions: just over 1 1/2 in. tall, 1 3/4 in. wide, and 5 in. long. That's really small, but I think that I can go smaller. I'm sure I'll give it a try later in the challenge. I should note that because the ends are so short, I cut the sides apart with a dozuki, and squared up the ends at my shooting board. I then cut the miters at the shooting board, too. This technique resulted in a very good four corner grain match, because cutting out the sides and mitering the ends removed very, very little material. I think I'll continue to make small boxes this way going forward. (It also helps to start out by resawing with a thin-kerf bandsaw blade.)
The overall design is similar to other boxes that I've made, like the box with two compartments in the photo above. The big difference is that this new box has a single, painted lid instead of two wooden (spruce) lids finished with shellac. This is the sixth box I've made using the same key design elements as a jumping off point.
I also tried out a new technique on this box. On previous boxes, I used a solid wood bottom that I rabbeted. The resulting tongue on the bottom's edge fits into a groove in the box sides. The sides of this little walnut box are far too thin (less than 3/16 in.) to hold a groove. Instead, I rabbeted the bottom edge of the sides, and glued the bottom into the rabbet. Don't worry, it's not a solid wood bottom. I veneered a thin (3/16 in. thick) piece of walnut to each face of the plywood, trimmed them flush to the edges, and then glued walnut edging to all four sides. The walnut veneers were glued down perpendicular to the grain on the plywood's surface veneers. There won't be any seasonal movement, so there shouldn't be any problems. I got the idea for the bottom from how I make backs for wall cabinets.
There is one other construction technique worth mentioning. I typically glue lid lifts on with cynoacrylate glue, but that wouldn't work here. I'm sure the glue would stick to the milk paint, but it could come undone eventually. So, I drilled two pilot holes in the top, drove in some little brad nails and snipped off their heads, leaving about 1/4 in. of nail sticking out. I drilled holes in the lift, dropped some glue into the holes, and put the lift on the nails. It worked brilliantly.
I played baseball when I was a kid. Here's what I learned from my dad about how to get better at hitting, base running, catching fly balls and everything else baseball related: practice. Do it over and over and over until it becomes second nature.
This lesson is true of so much we do in life. When I switched to competitive distance running in high school and college, the only way to get better was to run more. At the peak of my running (in my late 20s), I was averaging 70 miles per week (and maxed out at 98 miles one week). The result? I ran faster and faster. Woodworking is no different. If you want to cut better dovetails, then you've got to get into the shop and cut them. Then cut some more. And after that cut several hundred more. Repeat for several years or a decade. Now your cutting dovetails like Chris Becksvoort.
As ever, I'm working on my dovetails and all other joinery used in furniture making. I'm getting better. However, there is a skill that I haven't been practicing enough: design. Good design, I believe, is an acquired skill. Sure, it helps if you've got some natural talent, but it's not necessary. You can still create beautiful furniture of your own design if you work at it hard enough and for long enough. (You should, of course, practice good design over and over. There are some principles and concepts that can help you in that regard. I'll come back to them in the future, to share my limited knowledge of them.) So, I've set a challenge for myself: design and make 52 boxes in the next 52 weeks.
What do I hope to accomplish? Honestly, I hope to jump start the growth of my design aesthetic, helping it move more quickly toward maturity. I know that making 52 boxes in 52 weeks will also hone my woodworking chops. After a year of near non-stop building, I should have refined my skills. Tighter joints, better finishes, and more beautiful boxes. That sounds nice.
I should note that I don't plan to make a box a week. Because I often travel for work, occasionally get corralled into acting foolish in front of a video camera, and generally have a busy life, there's no way I could do that. One week I might make two or three boxes, then just one box over the next two weeks. Also, I know I won't end up with 52 unique boxes. I plan to make iterations of a single design, each time changing the wood used for the body or the paint for the lid (or making some other such change), to determine which I like best. Or I might modify a design until I've come to a fully resolved version of it.
Finally, I'll post each box as I make it. I'll include some thoughts on the design, perhaps a note about a cool technique, or just tell you what I like and dislike about the box. If I'm really pressed for time, there might just be photos. Well, I should probably get to the shop.
I love furniture design, and smart techniques. This blog is about both.