On my way to an Iowa sawmill in mid-June, I stopped off to visit an Iowa friend of mine. Mark and I are friends of only a couple years, but our connection through the church brought us together where we discovered that we could enjoy hours of conversation at a coffee shop.
While there, Mark persuaded me to take a couple pieces of wood with me that lay in his garage for years after previously setting in a wet basement. All of the pieces were warped, cupped or bowed in some fashion, but I am usually happy to get free wood that shows some potential. The wood originally came from wife Linda’s family farm; harvested, sawn into rough boards and given back to Linda’s father. Mark indicated that as the years passed he had given up on trying to straighten the wood after the water soaking.
Days later I began to wonder what the wood looked like under the rough exterior of the largest walnut board. Before I got around to cleaning it up, a vision for making a box from it became the project I decided upon. Calculating the necessary pieces and lengths needed for 4 sides, a top and bottom, I cut out a significant bow as best I could so that the four pieces were close to flat. Fortunately this board was more than 4/4 (1 inch) thick, so I had some leeway on finding the best spots to cut. Using a hand plane, the next step is to take out cupping and twisting. This is done on the ends of the concave side, and are planed to get a near flat surface. After doing that for all 4 pieces, I ran them all through my planer multiple times, flipping sides as I went until I had 4 nice boards that were still over 3/4 inches thick.
Most of my boxes have been finger jointed because I have not liked the mitered boxes that others are making. Normally I do this on my table saw, but I get a lot of blowout when I do. This time I used a dovetail template with my router and decided upon a 5/16 inch spiral bit for cutting the fingers. This worked, but not quite as smoothly as I hoped.
Continuing in the same basic style of my other boxes, the lid is fitted into the body using wooden dowels for pivot points instead of using hinges. The top of the lid lies on the same plane as the top of the sides, and the front of the lid is even with the front of the box. Because I could not find walnut dowels in town, I ended up taking scraps from the leftovers and turning them on my lathe to create my own. The result is that every piece of wood on the box came from the same piece of walnut.
I knew that a box this large would have problems if I glued the bottom to the sides of the box. I have gotten away with that on smaller boxes but I anticipated that I would see some kind of failure as the bottom expanded and contracted with seasonal humidity changes. To prevent that, I cut a dado into all the sides. The bottom was about 1/2 inch thick, so I beveled the sides until the edges fit into the dado. The bottom then becomes a free-floating piece of wood that has no glue anywhere. Of course that meant positioning it into place during the glue up, and that required assistance from my faithful gluing partner – my wife.
Recognizing that I had enough scraps left over that I could build a tray to sit inside the box, I also cut a dado in the box ends about 3 inches down, and glued in some runners that the tray could slide on. I only had one piece big enough to run the entire length and wide enough to make into a tray with a handle in the middle. I got creative on the sides because I did not have two piece long enough to run the entire length. Using lap joints, I found enough shorter material to glue together two sides!
My experience with shellac has been varied over the years, but it has proven over the past 150 years to be an excellent finish for many pieces of furniture. Some of my boxes have been oiled instead of using a hard finish which is easier to apply after the box has been constructed. So, I finished all of the inside pieces of the box and the tray before assembly. This makes it so much easier to finish tough to reach areas, but it does mean there are a few places where I need to blend prefinished surfaces to unfinished when I worked on the outside. Shellac seems to lend itself well to that, and I was very happy with the results. To insure smooth travel of the tray on the runners and against the sides, I decided to wax the outside and bottom of the tray to reduce any friction and enhance wear over the years. For this I used a clear Briwax.
I try hard to use the portion of a board with the most interest for my box lids. I was delighted that this piece of walnut had some curl and an indication of a knot in bordering surfaces of wood on one end. Selecting just the right section, I got a great piece for the top that shows wonderful curl. My handles or lifts are typically from a piece of wood saved from other projects. Again, I got lucky to be able to stick with wood from the original piece, finding some that had great beauty to show off.
My friend Mark told me a few weeks after giving me the wood that they would be interested to know what I did with it. I stretched the truth just a wee bit saying that I had some ideas, when I was already well into construction. But, I wanted to give the box to them as a surprise, so I kept it a secret until we arranged to have them over.
It was my delight to present the box to them after lunch at our house. I think Linda was truly surprised, but Mark had his suspicions. Nearly all of my projects go to members of my family. I know that my own family will be happy with things that I make, but I was a little nervous about how Mark and Linda might receive the box. They both were happy, and Linda already had several ideas about what she might do with the box, including perhaps storing some family memorabilia – perfect!
The box is approximately 15 inches by 8 inches by 7 inches tall. It was given several coats of shellac. The last coat of shellac was sanded with 600 grit paper, and then I used 0000 steel wool to buff down all of the surfaces.
I suggest using a mild soapy water mixture and light rubbing to remove any stains gotten over the years. Shellac is dissolved with denatured alcohol so anything with an alcohol base should be avoided.