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Making wooden boxes

Making wooden boxes is an interesting project. These are a little different, being square on the outside. This is how I made them.

Burr oak box with weathered top

Burr oak box

I’ve had some slightly weathered burr oak hanging around for a long time. Weathered oak is a very attractive silvery grey and I liked the look of these pieces. I wanted to retain some of the patina in the finished boxes.

Cutting the squares

I began by sawing the oak into squares on the bandsaw. The squares had to be ¬†accurate enough to grip reasonably securely in the chuck, but precision wasn’t necessary at this stage. This gave me some rough-sawn blanks about 6.5 cm across with the patina on top and bottom. I could then hold them in the outside-gripping step jaws of my old four-jaw self-centering engineering chuck, best side out, to turn and sand the hollow, which I made about 5.5 cm across, with straight sides and a curved bottom. I used a small bowl gouge followed by a little shear scraping with a round nose scraper.

The advantage of the old chuck for making wooden boxes like these is that the jaws have a flat gripping surface, very good for holding square or round stuff without marking excessively. The disadvantage is that they don’t always grip wood very securely. Care is necessary, but these small blocks were safe enough. A modern woodturning chuck with dovetail jaws would work, but you either have to deal with damage to the timber caused by the corners of the jaws, or pre-turn a small spigot for gripping, losing depth.

That completed the turning. When making wooden boxes like these, they have to be squared up, with good clean sides, for which I used my homemade disc sander. The tops and bottoms were not very flat, so I could not leave the bottom surface unfinished. I had already chosen the best, flattest side to be the top, so used this as the reference for sanding.

Sanding

Starting with the box upside down on the sanding table, I squared off one of the sides. Then, with this side flipped down, I could make the bottom of the box flat and parallel to the top. With the box on its one sanded side, I trued each remaining side in turn. This is a job that shows up any error in the angle of the sanding table, but they came out alright. I sanded up to 400 grit as the coarser scratches showed badly on the flat surfaces. I learned that I needed to check them with a lens before they were finished. The disc sander put small chamfers on the edges.

The lids

I wanted another contrast in the inset lids, so I made them from cherry. As well as the colour difference, the smooth cherry contrasts with the fissures and cracks of the burr oak. I put a piece between centres and roughed out a cylinder to hold in the chuck (my small Vicmarc this time, the other one would not hold a long blank safely). I used a parting tool to make the diameter at the end fit the first of the boxes, then a spindle gouge to make a shallow hollow in the end. Next, a deeper cut with the parting tool to make clearance for the spindle gouge to shape most of the top of the lid, leaving a small shoulder to support it in the box. After sanding, I parted the lid off with a skew, ready to make the next from the same blank.

The next job was to finish off the points at the top of the lids. I took a bit of scrap and made a jam fit wooden chuck to hold each lid in turn. A light cut cleaned up the top surface ready for final sanding.

I then applied finishing oil to all the boxes and lids and buffed them when dry. The oil darkened the grey weathering a little.

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