Box 36 – 52 Boxes in 52 Weeks
By Matt Kenney
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This box came out of nowhere. As I was finishing box 35, I was a bit frustrated because the quality of workmanship is a bit lower than I’d like. There are a few gaps in the bird’s beak joints. So, I decided to make a box and make it as perfectly as I could. For some reason the first thing that popped into my head at this point was a very small ebony box. I thought that if I could come up with a good design and execute it perfectly, then ebony would make the box seem like a little jewel. I don’t know if I accomplished my goal, but I really like this box.
For the most part it’s a pretty normal box. It’s 2 in. wide and 4 in. long. The sides are 1 3/4 in. tall. The top and bottom have shopsawn ebony veneer on the outside faces, and fabric on the inside faces. There’s some shopmade poplar plywood between the ebony and fabric. The top and bottom are glued into rabbets cut into the sides. I glued up the sides, glued in the top and bottom, then cut the lid free. And here’s where to box takes an unexpected turn. A common approach to keeping this style of lid on it’s box is to use an insert on the inside of the box. I used this technique on boxes 12, 28, 29, and 30. When I was designing this box, I decided not to use an insert. Instead, I though that I might inlay some thin circles into the front and back of the box. The inlay would be glued into the lid, but not the box, so you could pull the top off, but when the top was on, the inlaid circle would lock into the half-circle mortise in the box bottom and keep the lid in place. I considered several other shapes, too. But, honestly, all of that seemed like a colossal pain to make. So, I thought some more about it.
Here’s what I came up with, and it wasn’t hard to do. After cutting the lid free and cleaning up the sawn edges of the lid and box, I routed a small rabbet into the lid and box. I then made some strips of maple that were just wider than the “groove” created when I put the lid on the box. I also left the maple a bit thicker than the groove was deep, so that it was just a few hairs proud of the ebony. My plan was to paint the maple, then glue it into the rabbet in the lid. That’s what I did. The green strips are mitered at the corner. The strips automatically fit into the rabbet it the bottom and hold the lid on the box.
There’s not much else to say about this box, but I do want to explain why I painted the strips that hold the lid on the bottom. I thought about using solid wood, and quickly ran through the species I have on hand, like cherry, walnut, apple, mahogany, madrone, white oak, maple, holly (It’s really not very good holly. I should not have bought it.), etc. None of them were the right color. And then there’s the issue of grain. Ebony’s grain is so difficult to see, that even a wood with very little grain, like madrone or apple, looks odd against it. I also thought about using curly maple, which can look great with ebony, but the strips are so small that I feared the maple would no longer look curly. Also, ebony is so lacking in variation of color, that other woods look odd juxtaposed against it when ebony is the primary wood. So, I decided to go with milk paint. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I think it looks great.
One last point about the strips. I left them proud of the ebony for a few different reasons. First, I wanted there to be a tactile indication of how the lid comes off. When you put your fingers on the lid, you feel the strips slightly and can grasp them to help pull off the lid. Second, it would be damn near impossible to get them truly flush with the ebony. Normally, you’d glue them in place and then plane them flush, but I couldn’t do that because it would remove the paint. Of course, you could remove material from the inside face until the outside was flush, but because a bit of the inside face is exposed and painted, I couldn’t do that, either. A third option would be to plane the strips flush to the ebony before I painted them, but then they would no longer be flush after I painted them and you would feel that. So, I intentionally made them proud, and they’re proud enough that it’s clearly intentional. Good design is always intentional.
Alrighty, then, here’s some random thoughts.
1. Speaking honestly, I was very unsure of how the green strip idea would work until I glued on the first one. Then, I was stoked. I was so excited that I when I was done with the box, I took it upstairs and showed it to my son. He always likes looking at my boxes and figuring out how I made them. He’s 9 and usually gets it right the first time. He said that this box was cool, and had several questions about the green strips. He’ll be one hell of a furniture maker if that’s what he wants to do.
2. This is the first I’ve every used ebony for anything other than a pull. It wasn’t as hard to work as I thought it was going to be. It routs beautifully. And it doesn’t really need a finish. I used only wax on the outside, because when I shellacked the inside, it got too jet black. It looks good with just wax.
3. Next week’s box will be a variation on this one, but made from a different species. I made them at the same time, because I wanted to explore how I could take the same basic box but make two boxes that end up dramatically different from one another—with two boxes the have distinct souls. I should note that I won’t use the exact same method of holding the lid to the box, so there is a reason to read next week!
4. Because the box sides are so small, I used my little miter shooting board to make the miter joints for the sides. You can take a look at my Instagram feed (mekwoodworks) to see it. With a freshly sharpened blade in my 60 1/2 block plane, it’s a precision tool, and the miter joints I get from it are unparalleled in accuracy and tightness. I love this little jig. I also used it to miter the green strips. It worked wonderfully for those, too.