Boxmaking with hand tools alone
Words and photos: Iain Green
There is something about boxes— the mystery of the contents, the beauty of special timbers and the pleasure of touching interesting texture and contours. For the maker, there is the challenge of the workmanship necessary for an item that needs to be robust while being of delicate proportions.
While living in Tokyo over the past three years, I had limited space for woodwork so I concentrated on small items such as boxes. Shuko-kai is a group that promotes a traditional style of woodwork known as sashimono and I found that this was an ideal framework for making boxes. This tradition ranges from small boxes to furniture and large cabinets. It is recognised as some of the highest quality workmanship in Japan. Sashimono woodwork is of robust construction and is distinguished by joints that are largely hidden and surfaces that are planed to a final finish without sanding.
In this article, I want to introduce sashimono techniques for making a simple presentation box. This approach uses hand tools for precision woodwork and offers an alternative to using power tools. For me, there is also a lot of satisfaction when I achieve a higher quality through using hand tools.
I have small collections of chopsticks and of chopstick rests and will make a box for each. The width and height of the chopstick box are both less than the cutting width on my larger planes. The box for the rests is wider and will require multiple passes of the plane along the top and the bottom. As it is much more difficult to plane these wider surfaces without leaving streaks, I recommend that first-time boxmakers try a smaller box initially. Using these boxes as examples, you can adjust the dimensions to suit your purpose. However, we will be using a simple mitre joint, so don’t go larger than these boxes. In further articles, we will introduce stronger joints to allow for bigger boxes and we will extend the style options.
Shuko-kai teaching is based around the use of traditional Japanese tools. While I have come to prefer my Japanese tools, I am confident that western tools can produce similar results provided that they are sharp and properly tuned. I will aim to present techniques that can be adopted using both western and Japanese tools.
The tools you’ll need are shown above:
• straight edge/ruler • square
• marking blade
• marking gauge (with blade, not pin)
• vernier calipers
This project is largely an exercise in planing though it also requires marking and chisel work. While I am sure that these skills will develop through this project, you need some familiarity with using your tools and you should be able to sharpen and adjust them. My article in AWR #58 offers insight into tuning and using Japanese planes and Richard Vaughan’s article in AWR #57 details how to tune a western plane.
We will be making the boxes shown below with the size perhaps adjusted to your requirements. They are quite simple, with mitre joints between the sides and an insert in the body to hold the lid. The bottom can butt onto the sides or can be joined via a mitre joint around the bottom. For added interest, we can also add a bevel around the top of the lid. A full scale drawing of your design is a good idea. We will aim for a fine hand planed finish, an air cushion fit for the lid and negligible gap between lid and body.
The timber you choose will have a major influence on the appearance of the box. Personal preferences and availability are important here. Shuko-kai advise looking for ‘quieter’ grain such as quartersawn timber with perhaps part of the box having a feature grain. I’ve chosen quartersawn Queensland maple (Flindersia brayleyana) for the sides and bottoms, and for the tops I’ve used timber from a Queens- land maple buttress with ribbon stripe grain. If you are developing your planing skills, avoid hard or curly grain timber as it will be more difficult to plane to a final finish without tearout.
Inspect the boards and plan how to cut the required pieces. Consider options for aligning grain with the sides, highlighting special grain features and grain match- ing between sides. Shuko-kai recommend orienting the boards as they were in the tree if possible. Set the side that was clos- est to the outside of the tree to the out- side of the box and the edge closest to the top of the tree to the top of the box as this has a quieter effect. Lightly mark the outside of boards so that the position and orientation of pieces to be cut is clear. Desirably, the sides should be oriented so that the direction of planing without tearout is the same as you move around the box.
Inspect the sides of the boards to check which direction you must plane a surface in order to go with the grain rather than against it. This will make a big difference to the amount of tear-out.
Above: Surprisingly small defects can be identified
Start by flattening one side of each board sufficiently to allow that side to bed onto the bench without any rocking. Now flatten the other side. Plane to remove all surface high spots, tear-outs and blemishes and as you go, use a straightedge to monitor whether the surface is flat. Check the final finish by holding the board so that a good light is reflected off the surface at a small angle and look for lines between plane cuts or variation in the finished texture. You need to be taking very thin full length, full width shavings with a really sharp blade to leave a good final surface—this takes practice.
If the board is wider than the cutting width on your plane and multiple shavings are required, start at one side of the board and keep planing along that line until a full length, full width shaving is taken. Only then, move to the adjacent cut and repeat the procedure. Check for streaks along the surface and if necessary, recheck plane and blade adjustment.
Shuko-kai sharpen blades with a single flat bevel and rely on the technique above and careful plane adjustment to achieve a final finish. The western tradition is often to put a slight curve on the blade so that there is a slight scalloping between strokes. The Veritas Mark II honing guide has an option for a curved roller that makes it relatively easy to put this curve on the edge of the blade. I find this helps reduce streaking between strokes.
When the first side is flat, use a marking gauge to mark the thickness of the board along the sides. I start on the high spots of the new side and establish a new surface parallel to the bottom and take this down until you are planing the full surface. I use a vernier caliper to monitor uniformity of thickness. If the bottom is flat and the sides are uniformly thick, then the top should also be flat – it’s a good double check. If you can establish uniform thickness and a flat top surface somewhat before reaching the target thickness, you can then concentrate on maintaining a final surface as you take the surface uniformly down to the thickness marks. When you get there, a small curly line of shaving comes out from the corner edge. I like to lightly mark the direction in which a surface was planed for reference as you finish the box.
A precision outcome depends largely on how you start – appropriate timber, sharp edges, tuned planes and guides and accurate marking. It is difficult to correct later if any of these are off.
I try to aim high when using hand tools and would certainly encourage anybody to try to achieve final finish hand planed surfaces. It is very difficult to describe every aspect of this skill in an article like this and I think there is a lot of benefit to be gained from a woodwork group where other people can observe and comment on your technique and your tools. However, it is also important that planing skills don’t become a barrier to making boxes. At the end of the day, it isn’t that much of a drama if the finished box needs a little touch-up with sandpaper. The steps for building the boxes follow.
1. Cut the sides
Square the first side by holding the board on the shooting board against the stop and planing the edge. Use a marking gauge to mark the height of the other side and a square and a marking blade to mark one end. Cut these sides leaving a small safety margin. Use the shooting board to plane down to these lines and a vernier caliper to check that the top and bottom edges of the side are parallel.
Mark the remaining end of each board. Cut 1–2mm outside these lines and square down to them using a plane on the shooting board. Confirm that all edges are straight and square to each other and that opposing sides are similar height and length.
2. Mitre the sides
Before starting the mitres, check and if necessary, plane the leading face of the mitre cutting guide so that it is flat, square to the side walls and at 45° to the horizontal surfaces. I generally mark and saw about 1–2mm above the final mitre to start with. Shuko-kai often use a small plane to cut the mitres. This is fast but I find it difficult to adjust the plane so that it doesn’t take shavings from the guide, so I use a chisel. Clamp the piece in the guide so that it is just protruding above the cutting plane and remove a shaving by sliding the back of the chisel along the leading face of the guide. Move the piece forward, taking fine, full length shavings until a fine edge to the mitre is achieved. Check that this edge is square to the sides and that the mitre is flat. A sharp chisel with a flat back is essential for taking fine shavings across the mitre.
When the mitres are cut, take opposing sides and carefully place them back-to-back with one end resting on the bench. Check that the top mitre edges are aligned. You can see and feel quite small differences in length this way. Take further shavings to adjust the length of the sides if necessary. If you are planning on a mitre joint between the bottom and the sides, you have to cut a mitre along the inside edge of the bottom at this point.
3. Assemble the sides
Place the four sides together, bottom edge down on the bench, to check that everything fits squarely. It’s a good idea to buy or make a set of guides for holding the sides square as you glue them together. I use some right-angle aluminium extrusion cut to suit boxmaking and with tape along the inside to allow some space for glue to escape along the joint. I find that a strip of bicycle tube works well with these guides to provide an even pressure to clamp the sides together. Shuko-kai prefer a woven tape to bind the sides while gluing.
When you are comfortable with the fit and have clamps ready, put a thin layer of glue over each mitre, connecting matching surfaces as you go. When clamps are in place, check that inside angles are square, that mitre edges are aligned and that the bottom edges sit flush to a flat surface. Loosen clamping and adjust if necessary. Remove any glue from the internal edges.
4. Fit the top and bottom
I prefer to fit the top before the bottom as you can see and remove any excess glue from inside the lid. Confirm that the bottom of the body sits flush to a flat surface and that the sides are square to the bottom. For a butt joint along the bottom, you can re-plane the bottom edges so that it is flat and square.
Using a marking gauge, mark the top edge the correct distance from the bottom plus a safety margin. Plane down to this line by moving from side to side around the top edge, taking a shaving as you go and watching for tear-out on the far side. Keep the sole of the plane in contact with at least two edges at all times.
Confirm that the top sits on the body without gaps or rocking. Cut the top and square the edges so that it is marginally oversize. To minimise excess glue, mark the top profile onto hard paper, apply a thin layer of glue between the lines and then place the top side of the body onto this profile to transfer the glue. Clamp the top onto the body, removing any excess glue from the inside.
Fitting a butt jointed bottom is similar to fitting the top. For a mitre joint along the bottom, mark a profile of the body onto the bottom using a marking blade drawn along the sides. Cut and square the bottom leaving a small safety margin. Cut mitres to fit inside this profile, checking fit as you go. Glue the bottom, being careful to minimise excess glue inside the box.
5. Square and finish the sides
Starting with the ends, plane off any excess along the top (and bottom for a butt joint) on each side. Check whether sides have remained flat during assembly. Move around the box in the direction that sides were planed initially, taking a final shaving from each side. Monitor the mitre edges as you do this to make sure that the mitre glue line remains in the corner. If necessary, take a final shaving off the top and bottom as well.
6. Cut the lid
Mark the bottom edge of the lid down from the top of the box by 9mm plus the thickness of the top board and mark the top edge of the body, down a further millimetre. Cut around the box between these lines to separate the top. Keep the saw on the plane of the cut by ensuring that the far end of the saw does not enter the box if possible.
Plane all edges of the bottom of the lid, moving progressively around the lid until a clean shaving is taken, each edge is straight and the lid sits without gaps or rocking on a flat surface/bench. Similarly, plane the top edge of the body until the edge is clean and the lid beds onto the body without gaps. The aim is for the line between the lid and body to be invisible in either orientation of lid to body.
7. Fit the insert
A 4mm board is required for the insert. Cut and square the insert pieces marginally longer than the internal sides and 0.5mm less than the internal height of the box. Cut a mitre to the ends of each insert such that the insert will just fit into the body along the side without forcing. Test fit the four inserts when they are cut. The fit should be firm but not forced.
Test fit the lid. Round the top edges and the bottom outside edge of the inserts and slightly relieve the edge of the mitres. Glue the inserts in place with only a couple of spots of glue per side as this allows some flexing of the insert as the lid is put in place. If the insert is fitted correctly, a slight air cushion will be felt as the lid is placed on the box and if the box is upended, the lid won’t fall off.
8. Bevel the lid
In keeping with the focus on cutting mitres, I put a small bevel around the top of each lid. For the smaller sides, I was able to use the mitre cutting guide. For the longest side, I clamped two long offcuts to the bench and used the left board as a stop for the box and the right one as a guide while sliding my plane along the top of the box. By carefully adjusting the separation of these boards, I achieved a very neat 45° bevel along the top of the box.
Carefully inspect all surfaces, take a final shaving if necessary and relieve edges and corners for comfort. I used an oil and wax finish as I suspect that a lacquer finish could affect the fit of the lid.
First published in Australian Wood Review, issue 59.