My boxes

I am just practicing here. I publish because I can see better. When I pretend to be the observer, it helps. Sorry — if you get exposed to too much process.

It starts…

Everything I build is a box. In some way shape or form, I am building another box. This happens most every day. I am not a “box guy” – per se. It just happens that way. I sometimes wonder if the word “carpenter” really means “box builder.”

To build a box, I make a plan. I take out a pencil and paper and I draw.

To start, a square is drawn in the middle of a piece of paper. Any paper will do. I usually grab a piece out of the recycle bin. The square is about the size of your hand. Any smaller than that and you will risk losing perspective. Literally. That is why, when I am paying attention, I usually use “one-inch scale.” The paper can be cardboard if a bigger size is necessary.

This is the square.


x                                         x

x                                         x

AxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxO              {Insert image here}


From the “O” corners, I draw a line at an angle. It is about 45 degrees up to the right.


       X                                         X    X

OxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxO           X

x                                         x            X

x                                         x      X

AxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxO              {Insert image here, later}


I intend for that to sort of look like a cube. I will finish drawing the box in a bit. There is a funny thing about sketches. Unless you know what I am drawing, you probably can’t see it. If you know what I am drawing then you’ve already seen it.

The key is that the whole outline of what is to be built is drawn with the hand onto something physical. Paper, yes, cardboard, wood, yes, napkin, towel – whatever. “Tactile Process” is my course. I am not a Luddite. I don’t think I am, anyway.  I do use iPads, tablets, computers and digital sketch pads. Actually, I use at least a half a dozen computers each day. They work. On the other hand, they are not so good a building boxes – at least not the kind of boxes I want to build. There it is again: Intension.

One of my favorite boxes can’t be opened. It could be opened, but it would be destroyed in the process. I built it with no nails, no screws, no glue. It just holds itself together through tension. It is completely enclosed. If you take away one part, it is no longer what it was, a box. It becomes a pile of wood pieces or a puzzle. I am not sure. I keep thinking of ways to make more boxes like that one. This may help me solve the mystery.

Perhaps, that is why I am writing this. A tribute to the box with no use.

Don’t worry, I know I seem to be wandering off. I am back. I will tell you how to build a box. I have done it for over 1000 people. Every one of them has built a box. Some are truly horrible executions. Some are beautiful and wonderful expressions. Each one is different. They are different even though we all start with the same plan. I suppose that goes to show something about plans. The world as we describe it is an ideal. In actuality, there are no 90-degree angles or perfectly sharp saws or an exactly accurate measurement. At least none of that stuff exists in my shop.

There is a triangle device. It’s called a “square,” even though it doesn’t even try to be square. It can be very useful, but it is also an approximation. It is a suggestion of an ideal that can never be attained. It is an ideal that teases me to try harder, to be better, and to keep reaching beyond my current state.

At this point, if you want to build a box, you should have paper. You should write your name o the paper. This way you will “own” the project. It is a psychological thing. If you own it, it is yours. If you don’t have paper, go get some. I’ll wait. On your paper, you should have drawn what approximates a cube. Start with the square and then add the diagonal lines as described above. After that add the two back lines. Good.

That is what we are going to try to build. A cube. When one guesses about the materials, they often first say that we would need six equal pieces of wood to make a six-sided cube. That answer is correct -one of the correct answers. It is also probably the most difficult answer to the question “how do you assemble a six-sided object of a particular size?”

To demonstrate my sense of balance, and to poke fun at perfection, I will make a cube that is six inches on each side. So we have a six sided object made up of many 90-degree angles (we’ll count them later). It is going to be six inches on each edge. Ah, hubris. Awww, hubris. Raw hubris. Awe hubris.

Now that we have the idea of “cube,” and its size, we need to decide the material. I choose to start with “1×12 knotty pine” most of the time. Here is my tip to you. If you want to build something really nice, out of very nice wood, make a pine model first. You will learn all you need to know about the project using the pine. Once you change woods, you will be prepared to build something nice.

“1×12” – read “one by twelve” – is actually .75 of an inch thick by 11.25 inches wide. It wold already appear that I could not effectively hit six inches because that is more than half the width of my 11.25″ piece. Personally, I prefer .5 inch material thickness. So, I might plane the wood down to .5 inch thickness. I realize that this is beyond the first level scope of this post, so I’ll add that in the video.

So if I made 4 pieces of wood that are six inches wide by 5.25 inches long I could make a box that is six by six. In that case, I would not have any room for a top and a bottom, though. So, I will need to leave room for those pieces. In this case, if the top and bottom have a thickness of .75 inches, I will need to take that off of the sides. Instead of six inches, the sides are now 4.5 inches – allowing for both a top and a bottom.

***** New image: Insert more detailed image here. *****

With the assumption I’ve made, I will need the following:

This is a “Cut List”

2 pieces @ 6″ x 6″ x 3/4″ – These are the tops and bottom.

4 pieces @ 5.25″ x 4.5″ x 3/4″ – These are the sides.


Go ahead and make those pieces.

Let’s talk about tools. Making wood a specific size can be easy or difficult. Tools can help make thing easier. They can also cause you to need to start over. If I were to pick one saw to have in my little shop, it would be a small bandsaw. I can use a bandsaw for most things. After that, I would get a channel saw. You can rip most woods that way. After that, a really good compound miter chop saw. After that, I would add a table saw and a drill press. I have done this many times – outfitted a shop. I have worked as a key set builder in film and on-site for rep theater. In all cases, someone has to decide what tools are needed. The better the tools, the less you need in labor.

For the sake of this project, I will make the pieces with a table saw, a chop saw, and then a band saw.

Many of the 13-year-old students with whom I work prefer the 10-inch bandsaw. They tend to love that band saw. The saws I have are just the right size for such a person. They tend to feel more in control than with a bigger or louder saw. They also like the little battery powered circular saws over all the other choices.

Now here is an important point: Only one thing moves! When you are cutting or tightening or doing just about anything with tools, only one thing moves. With a bandsaw, the wood moves past the fixed blade. With a chop saw, the blade moves through the fixed piece of wood. With a table saw, the wood moves. With a drill press, the drill moves, With a circular saw, the saw moves. It is very important to take a moment and consider which thing moves before you turn on the power. spend some effort to ensure that nothing else is going to move on you.

The next key is to draw on the wood where you want your cut. Some people with experience just make little marks on the wood. No matter what, they good builders continue to mark the wood. Not doing this is a good way to make sure you “measure once cut twice.” The saying is “Measure twice, cut once.” But, you won’t believe me until you make a mistake or two.  So, go ahead and mess up a few times. Afte that, you might be ready to follow my instructions.

This might be a good time to tell you my mantra of safety: “Hands and Eyes.” Before you turn on a saw, you should consider what will happen with your hands and your eyes. “Eyes” mostly means you should wear safety glasses. If you still need to buy some safety glasses, buy at least a dozen and put them everywhere in your shop. “Hands” means you should think about where the blade is and that your hands can not get into it.

For most tools, there is a “cut line.” I cal it the “Red Zone.” In my shop, I even paint the red zone red. Simply put, never, ever put your hand in the cut line zone. You should never need to do that.

***** Insert Video: bandsaw video here *****

With a chop saw, hold or support your piece of wood outside of the cut line. With a table saw, don’t push on the cut-line. With a drill press, support your wood and keep your hands away from the energy of the tool. On and on this goes. If you are about to use a tool, think about what moves and figure out how your hands are going to stay away from that zone.

Now we can proceed to making our six pieces of wood.

***** Insert Video: link of cutting wood *****

Now that we have the pieces, let’s see that they all agree on size. Hold them next to each other, then try to assemble the box. I use friction, pressure and sometimes tape for this stage. There is no commitment at this point. We are testing to see if any piece needs to be altered. Things like knots and warp can have an effect on this project. We will need to work with them or change out the piece.

When it is time to hold the whole thing together I usually use glue as the main bonding agent. Even when we use nails, it is the glue that really does the job. What nails do is hold it all together for the glue to dry. Later, the nails do supply some back-up if the glue breaks. Personally, I like to use a combination of yellow glue and hot glue for little projects like this one. The hot glue bonds quickly, but is not very strong. The yellow glue dries very slowly but provides a better bond. Again, Tape is also acceptable as a short term hold.

When I work with students, we use nails first, yellow glue as back up, and putty for filling the little errors. the main reason to use nails is to teach how directed force needs to be controlled. It is in the failing to drive the first 10 or so nails that is the real teacher in this process, Bending nails, missing the mark, and sending a nail on a errant trip out the side of the box are all useful lessons.

Let’s assemble and glue or box. We will leave it for a day before we do anything else. I would say the one thing you might want to be aware of is that it is silly to glue your box to the table. That can set you back a day.

***** Insert Video: completed box *****


Now that we have a cube-ish sort of assembly, we need to measure it and decide how we may need to adjust it. You thought it would be perfect? Remember at the beginning when I said there was a difference between the real and ideal. This is your chance to experience that first hand. Your box will most likely be rather far off of our original goal of 6x6x6. Check it. You corners might be rough. The surfaces might be uneven. Do not worry, we can fix anything.

The next step is to “sand” your cube. You could do this with a piece of sandpaper. “Sandpaper” is sand glued to paper. You could make this yourself. I don’t. You can staple that paper to a block of scrap and sand for hours. As for me, I mean to use a sanding machine.

***** Insert Video: Sanding Video *****

Once you are happy with the results of the first sanding, you can move onto more precise sanding or putty. I like to putty at this stage, so the rest of my sanding is of greater consequence in terms of the finished box.

I might repeat this process a few times.

When I am happy with the smoothness of the surface, I add a finish. that is either paint, a design, or just a clear varnish.

***** Insert Video: Varnish *****

I think that is enough for now. Of course, you will need to look at your piece, critique it and decide what you would like to try differently next time. If this pine piece was a sample for the real thing, you are ready to make your changes and start building the real piece.

As you progress it will be very tempting to skip steps. I urge you not to do that. Things like marking the paper or the wood really do set off a mechanism in the brain to help you remember and make more accurate cuts.

That’s it.

If you are one of my students, remember that you need to comment to advance in your project.











<Break time>







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