Making the Triptych Boxes
Words: Kelly Parker
Photos: Kelly Parker, Penelope Cline
Illustrations: Graham Sands
I was recently commissioned by a long-time client to make a box. He gave me beautiful slabs of some redwood burl (photo 1) with the instruction to ‘go be creative’.
1. Raw to refined: ‘This is how I start – usually with a tree that I had milled.’ Kelly Parker sits in one of her drying sheds, adjacent to the same redwood burl material used for the finished boxes she now holds.
He rarely uses the boxes I make, instead preferring them to be adornments in his home. Knowing the piece didn’t really need to function gave me great creative freedom with the form. In this article I will discuss the design, construction and embellishment of the piece I call Triptych.
As I started my design process* the ideas I was sketching felt more like vessels than boxes. Eventually I started exploring my ideas in 3D using rigid foam insulation.
2. After sketching, ideas were explored in 3D using rigid foam insulation – the final mock-ups are shown on the right along with some of the rejected ideas.
I will often model smaller objects full-sized using rigid foam as it’s a quick way to start to refine shape and proportion. Additionally, I can cut it on my bandsaw or tablesaw and shape it with rasps and other tools. Ultimately I settled on a triptych, three small boxes that would relate to each other based on their shape and surface embellishments. The three mockups on the right in photo 2 show the final design.
Cutting the sides
The boxes are quite small at 75mm, 100mm and 125mm tall. Because of the size of the parts, the construction became an exercise in building jigs to safely hold and machine the individual components. To begin, I dimensioned the wood and cut the box sides sequentially so the grain would flow around the box.
The wood was machined extra thick so there would be generous offcuts to use later as clamping cauls. I rarely work square and my offcuts are often turned into clamping cauls or sanding cauls.
The next step was to create the side profiles. My full-sized drawings gave me the radius for each box – fig.1 shows the middle sized box.
I created jigs that would work in conjunction with my bandsaw circle cutting jig (fig.2).
My circle cutting jig has a platform with a sliding arm that runs perpendicular to the blade. The sliding arm has a piece of dowel that acts as a pivot. I centre the pivot at the centreline of the blade and use a stop so the sliding arm is set for the radius to be cut.
3. Using the bandsaw circle jig to cut the profile on the box sides.
The jigs I made to create the side profile were mounted on the dowel in the sliding arm. Photo 3 shows the jig in use.
Although I had to create the side profile early in the process, it’s typically easier to work with squared parts. For ease of use in subsequent operations I temporarily re-attached the offcuts to the box sides using hot glue tack welds.
Cutting the mitres
Once the side profile was cut I moved onto creating the mitres. Processing these small parts on the tablesaw would be dangerous without the control offered by a jig.
4. Showing the small parts tablesaw jig used for cutting mitres on the box sides (guard not shown for photo clarity).
I created a jig for each of the three sizes that allowed me to run the part against the fence, register it against a stop and hold it securely with a hold-down (photo 4). I should also mention that I bond sandpaper to my jigs in the location of the hold-downs to prevent vibration while machining.
Since these were small decorative objects I chose to use biscuits to join the parts. People will often scoff at biscuits and claim they are not true joinery. I would argue that biscuits are actually small floating tenons and are a valid joinery option in certain applications.
I have my biscuit jointer mounted to a platform that I can clamp to my bench (fig.3). This setup gives me much more control during use. Additionally I have a variety of jigs that I use with it, including one for biscuiting mitres. I registered the part against a 45° support faced with sandpaper and an end stop.
After the parts were slotted I added a spacer under the biscuit joiner and was able to cut a second slot so that each intersection ended up with two biscuits.
Routing grooves for the base
5. Another jig was used on the router table. One of the box sides is positioned ready for the round.
I made a jig for the router table to hold the parts while running grooves for the box bases using a straight bit. Another jig was used to rout the roundover at the tops of the box sides (photo 5). Each jig could accommodate the different box sizes and each had sandpaper and a hold-down. Photo 6 shows one of the sides with the base groove and top round-over completed.
6. Showing one of the sides with the base round-over groove and top round-over completed.
Before routing the grooves I veneered an oversized panel with a contrasting burl veneer to complement the box sides (photo 7). I cut the bases from the most interesting parts of the panel, maximising the amount of burl visible on each. I made the panel first so I could test the fit when routing the groove for the bases.
7. An oversized veneered panel was cut down for box bases.
8. Drilling for the copper rod. Offcuts were used to cradle the parts while registering them against a fence with stops on either side.
My plan was to gild the insides with copper leaf and use copper posts to support the lid. Holes were drilled for the copper rod on the drill press, cradling the parts in an offcut and registering them against a fence with stops on either side (photo 8).
The inside faces and round-overs were next sanded as these would be difficult to sand once glued together.
Gilding a surface with metal leaf is a technique that dates back to ancient Egypt. For my project I chose contemporary techniques and art store materials. Prior to leafing I masked off the mitres and top and bottom edges and then sealed the inside surfaces with two light coats of shellac.
9. The copper gilded surfaces were sealed with lacquer.
Oxide red is the traditional colour used for painting under a gilded surface however I chose a more contemporary charcoal grey. I used a water-based gilding size, the special adhesive that is used to attach metal leaf to a substrate. Once the size was ready I applied the copper leaf and burnished it into the surface. Lastly, I sealed the gilded surfaces with lacquer to prevent them from tarnishing (photo 9).
Once the gilding was done I cut the copper rod to length, chamfered the ends and glued them into the sides of the boxes using E6000, an adhesive that is good for bonding dissimilar materials.
10. Offcuts were made narrower and used as clamping cauls. Glued-on strips of wood ripped at 45° to each edge gave parallel clamp surfaces where corners met.
The generous side offcuts were now used as clamping cauls but first modified a bit so they would deliver pressure where needed. A piece was ripped from each edge so they were slightly narrower than the box sides. I then glued on a strip of wood that had been ripped at 45° to each edge of the caul. These strips gave me parallel clamp surfaces where the two corners met. And finally the cauls were faced with sandpaper so they would stay put during the glue-up (photo 10).
11. Assembly using the cauls and cross-wise clamp pressure. Tape was used to hold parts in place while the clamps were positioned.
Since I was working alone I used tape to hold opposite cauls in their position while I applied clamps (photo 11).
After the glue dried the outer surfaces were sanded – using profiled sanding blocks made quick work of this. The sanding blocks were made using the same bandsaw jigs used to cut the original outside profiles. These were made extra thick so they would be comfortable to hold while sanding. Based on past experience with this wood I knew it to be dry and thirsty. For that reason I sanded up to 600 grit trying to burnish the surface of the wood in order to slow down the absorption of the oil finish I planned on using.
Making the lids
The lids were dimensioned to fit just inside the box walls and their thicknesses were varied in proportion to their diameter. I cut square blanks just oversized of the final diameter in thicknesses of 10mm, 15mm and 20mm. I then drilled a hole in the centre of the tops of the lid blanks that would later receive the dowel used to connect the pulls and the lids.
12. Router table jig for chamfering box lids. Cavities were cut in a bit of MDF to hold the blanks.
The lids have a 30° chamfer on the top surface with a flat spot in the centre for the pull. Again I turned to a jig to help me process the small lids safely on the router table. This time I simply cut cavities in a bit of MDF to hold the individual lid blanks as I routed. The parts fit snugly in the jig and I was able to chamfer all four sides quickly and safely, one lid at a time (photo 12).
13. The circle cutting jig used again, this time on the disc sander. Lids were mounted to circular MDF templates before sanding to final diameter.
My next challenge was to turn the square lids into circles. Once again I used the pivot capabilities of my circle cutting jig but this time on the disc sander. Circular MDF templates were made for each lid with a hole drilled in the centre of each for mounting on the jig with the sliding arm pivot adjusted to so they could be sanded to the exact diameter required. Each template was then attached with double-sided tape to its corresponding chamfered blank before being cut close to the line and then sanded to final dimension (photo 13).
Shaping the pulls
I wanted dramatic, angular pulls to be a counterpoint to the rounded boxes. I milled some rosewood blanks square, cut them to length and then drilled them for dowel that would connect them to the lids.
Once again I had small parts that needed to safely processed. Double-sided tape was used to attach the blank to a sacrificial piece of wood that was long enough to keep my fingers well back of the bandsaw blade when I made the cuts and also the disc sander when I cleaned them up. The pulls were repositioned on the sacrificial board before each stage cutting and sanding.
Although I loved the overall form of my little boxes I was most excited about embellishing their surfaces. I wanted to use pyrography detailing on the sides and also incorporate bit of copper gilding.
As I sanded I realised the grain of the boxes could (and should) guide my pyrography work rather than imposing the designs I had originally conceived. The end result was a lovely organic band of texture that flowed around the boxes.
14. Pencil lines defined boundaries for the pyrography and ‘dots’ would be gilded.
To create this look I first chose the grain lines of the upper and lower boundaries of the bands that would encircle the boxes and used pencil to mark them. I also marked the ‘dots’ where I planned to add copper leaf (photo 14).
15. In-progress shot of pyrography.
I used a Burnmaster wood burner with a large ball tip pyrography pen to burn out the cavities for the copper leaf. Next I used a small ball tip to define the upper and lower pencilled in boundaries and filled in the space between with a stippled dot pattern (photo 15).
16. Angular pulls and chamfered sufaces were created for the lids.
17. Each box has gilded details as well as hundreds of dots burned into the surface.
18. Showing the gilded box interiors. Copper rod inserts act as rests for the lids.
Photos 16–18 show details of the finished boxes. Each box has hundreds of individual dots burned into the surface. I gilded the deep cavities using the same technique I used to gild the insides of the boxes. I lightly sanded one more time with 600 grit to clean up any errant leaf and char so tiny ‘islands’ of wood would show between the individual dots.
For the final finish I chose Tried and True Original Wood Finish. It is a non-toxic blend of polymerised linseed oil and beeswax. It leaves a lovely satin sheen that I find particularly pleasing and touchable. I want my work to be a delight to the fingertips as well as the eyes!
This piece had all of the elements of an ideal project for me as a designer and craftswoman: a unique design, a technically challenging build and engaging surface embellishments. Plus I had a client who was delighted with his new boxes!