Why Make Boxes?

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Piano

Why indeed!

What possible use could making boxes be for a piano technician?

You might  be very surprised to learn the diverse skills that must be mastered in order to work on pianos. One client may want a scratch removed from a piano top. The next may need a new bridge. A rib may become disconnected from the soundboard. A shim may be required to fill a buzzing crack in the soundboard.

There is only one way to prepare for such unexpected repairs. PRACTICE.

In keeping with that requirement, I (and many other full-time techs) practice the skills of woodworking, refinishing, cabinet repair, metalwork, and many other skills in order to gain general knowledge that may (or never!) proved to be beneficial to the client.

Currently I am building boxes. I have a small collection of cigar boxes. I bought them for $1 each and display them above my desk. Perhaps this is just “man art”, but I like the look of them. They are cheaply made and a close inspection reveals that the wood is low quality. I still like them.

The joints are of interest to me. Although the joints are made by machine, I must admit they are top-notch. They would not qualify as “fine woodworking” but they are better than I can do with my chisel in my own shop.

Until today.

One of my friends is a very excellent woodworker. He assures me that the first step to making excellent furniture, something I will want to keep for many years, if to learn how to make boxes.

So…I am making boxes.

Now, if you know how to make boxes, I’ll be quick to admit that my joints are pretty lousy. They are much better than my first attempt though. :)

Like other woodworkers, I watch the videos that sport projects that are made to look very easy to complete. In truth, the people who make those videos are often masterful woodworkers who are trying to ‘sell’ a product that makes the task of woodworking easier.

The other side of woodworking, the side you don’t see in videos, is the many projects that should not ever be shown to anyone.  I think that is disingenuous. You can’t master anything until you first learn how to make a good piece of junk.  Even though these joints are not very tight, I am still proud of the improvement that is evident when I recall what my first project looked like.

An ambitious woodworker may want to display his best stuff in order to improve his reputation among woodworkers and the buying public. I have no less ambition, but I feel confident enough in my abilities as a technician to let other aspiring woodworkers know that they are not alone in their frustrations as they try to improve their skills.

The joints on the cigar boxes are better than mine. That is a little disconcerting, but it is also evidence that the task can be done quickly, cheaply and easily if you have enough skill.

Making Joints

How are these joints made? Very carefully! You measure this way and that, use a chisel and bandsaw, and after some cussing…the mistakes just shout back at you while you cringe in disbelief.

Little by little, the joints come into being. Gluing a square box is tricky, and I would not want to deprive anyone of the thrill of doing that without instruction. I was lucky this time because my dimensions permitted me to use a stock 2 x 4 as a block which gave me the angle I needed. It is 1 degree out of square though, and that alone disqualifies this project as an entry for “fine” woodworking. I’ll use it to store nails when I am done.

The experience shall remain mine though.  I was able to use the belt sander to clean up the glue and square the joints up a bit. The result is something that looks like a box.

I call it a box.  More accurately, it will soon become my first box, and in time, I hope to compare it to other boxes in my future, which I hope look better than a cigar box.

For now, this is what I am going with. I will work on the top and bottom tonight and post a pic when I am done.


Tried to cover my tracks on a few tear outs and gaps. I created a marquet by following the steps on the back of this month’s Fine Woodworking. The “How to” article featured the work of Ulnke Scribe’s marquetry. which you can view at that link.

After using my palm router to cut out a small section on the top, I pieced the marquet into place and glued it with a liberal amount of Titebond Hide Glue The types of mistakes  I was making were due in part to the quality and dullness of my chisels. These old chisels have been used for everything from removing nail heads to cleaning fingernails, so I opted to start over with a new set rather than try to put an edge on old chisels. Not that old chisels cannot be sharpened: they can. But I messed them up when I tried to use a grinder to put an edge on them. the backs are cupped, or there are small dings in the blade surface. Pretty much ruined for fine woodworking.

So I bought some new butt chisels by Wood River. That set is not the best. Probably an intermediate level, and the edge is not as sharp as it can be. It is much better than what I have. As the salesman said at our local Woodcraft store craftsmanship is a function of skill and tool quality.  My skill has increased to the level that I can justify investing in a better set of chisels. My next set will be better quality and with standard handles, but I now have to work on developing my skill to warrant that purchase. The butt chisels will always be useful though even after I get newer chisels.

So let’s see…the marquet sets up okay. I sand the unit, fix what dings I can, and then add some Mohawk Natural Wiping Stain. If you use Minwax stains, or some other stain available at common stores, I encourage you to try the Mohawk products. There is a noticeable difference.

Time for some pics.

I do not know what kinds of wood I used. The burl had to be filled. I used walnut wood filler for that.  I rubbed it into the holes and cracks. It dried quickly (a little too quickly) and then it sanded easily to leave a good surface to accept stain and finish. In the top left corner, you will notice a filler that did not take the stain. That is from an two part epoxy filler. I have to stop using that for fills because it does not take a stain.  Later I mixed yellow glue with sawdust and was pleased with that as a filler.

The marquetry opens a new door for me. It is easy to do, and the combinations are endless. I look forward to exploring its use and designs more.

Notice on the right side that the inlay cut is not even. This is another reason I bought new chisels. I want that line to be perfectly straight. That will depend on skill development. with new chisels, I will not be able to blame the chisels any longer. :)

The top right plank of the topboard – notice the side grain.  The inside curve is supposed to be used as the outside wall. This was explained to me today when I took the box to the Woodcraft store for tips and critique. The rings on the wood are designated as either inside or outside. The ‘inside’ would be the smaller contours that are nearest the center of the tree.  Humidity will cause the plank to splay outwards, or flatten out, as the rings relax. In the photo it shows that I did it incorrectly.  When humidity affects this box (which it will one day), that plank is going to want to turn up at the ends. The glue joint may crack.  If it were turned the other way, the force of the curve would conform to the desired position of the board. So! I’ll have to remember that.

The left side cuts were the first I attempted. The ones on the right show some improvement. As I progressed through the piece, each corner improved. All in all, I am satisfied.  The darker color on the tails is just due to the way the wood absorbed the stain.

I have been told that if I make about twenty boxes, I will develop an intermediate level of skill in the areas that are required to make a box. I still have a few steps left on this box, but I learned quite a bit from this first project. Yes, that case on the bottom is my set of Wood River chisels.  I am anxious to start a new project and cut some dovetails, but I must wait. One project at a time. Tomorrow I will cut the top lid.

Check back for to see how it turns out.


This project won’t go away. A lot of time elapses between all the steps. I am working on other projects at the same time. I am ready for this project to be done! haha

I used the tablesaw to cut a lid. All went well on three sides but on the last side — the FINAL cut of the project,  the piece kicked out from the blade and I ended up with a mess.  I used some wood filler to fix it.  I did not like the squareness of the lid so I routed with a rounded bit.  From there I attached hinges. No clasp yet. Can’t find one I like. I taped off the box and added some black lacquer as a highlight. Tomorrow I will spray it with satin finish and be done with it for until I find a clasp. I bought some new wood for my next box. This project was fun and I learned a lot. I think the next box will look much nicer.

Comments are closed.