Making a Box from Scrap General Woodworking

by Don Heisz

I was inspired a few days ago to start an ambitious task, a new project that has been a long time coming, one that I’ve been putting off in favour of other things. Well, in favour of anything. I’d rather go to the dentist than do this particular project. What am I talking about? Cleaning the workshop.

Luckily, I got distracted the very second I started, since I found this board that I cut off a pallet a few years ago:

cupped board
twisted and cupped wood

It looked better when I first got it. It was actually kind of flat. Anyway, I have several of these beauties scattered around the shop. I’ve used some of them to make some small plant boxes. This one, I thought, I could use to make a pencil box or something similar. So, I decided to just start cutting.

ripping a cupped board

As you can see, it was not close to flat, but cutting it down the middle is a good start toward fixing that. You can use this trick to make a board truly flat if you cut it into enough strips and glue it back together. There is a limit, however, since eventually you’d end up with mostly sawdust.
After cutting, a few passes through the thickness planer gets it close to flat. Of course, this works better if you joint one face first, which I would always advise if you were making something bigger than a little box or even if you want your small box to be a real example of craftsmanship. My goal was more or less to get out of cleaning.

twisted wood
crooked wood

Once again forsaking the jointer, which is currently buried somewhere on the other side of the shop, I decided to true up the edges of the boards on the table saw. This requires you to pick a side that won’t shift sideways as you push it along the table saw fence. You could use something like John’s tapering jig to hold the piece while you cut one edge. You can also just use a hand plane to roughly straigten one edge first. I just ran them through the table saw, flipping them over every pass, cutting 1/32 of an inch at a time until the sides were parallel and the boards were mostly straight. These pieces, after all, are short.

tablesaw cutting wood
straighten wood

You may have noticed that I have not used any measurement up until this point. I decided at the start to not bother with measuring tapes or anything fancy like that since I wanted to surprise myself at the end. So, in keeping with that, I set the depth of the saw blade to make a dado for the box bottom by eyeing it up. Looks good enough. A couple of passes and the piece of hardboard fits nicely.

set blade depth

dry fit bottom in dado

To make the miters at the corners, I set the blade to 45 degrees and used a miter guage that I got when John bought a couple of old table saws. It’s a good one, actually – the one I had was made of plastic, this one is metal. I have a fancy adjustable aluminum miter guage that can contort into any number of figures, but it isn’t as rigid as this thing. Anyway, in order to make the box sides the same length, I cut both pieces at once, holding them side by side. Note that there is a little scrap of plywood as a backing block to prevent chipout at the end of the cut.

cut at a forty-five degree angle
box sides

I then used the sides to mark the size of the hardboard bottom. I would do that whether or not I was using a measuring tape, it’s just something practical that prevents a lot of pain and aggravation.

mark for the bottom

A dry fit shows that everything is going together well.

dry fit

Then I start to tape the corners. I would normally use masking tape for this but cannot find any in the shop. All I can find is a roll of packing tape that is there for taping up box joint jig kits in cardboard boxes. It does a good job of lining up the miters. It’s my favourite type of clamping for boxes and picture frames.

tape on a mitered corner
tape on a mitered corner

As you can see, you line up the corner and tape it so it stays where it should. These joints tend to shift one way or another when you try to use clamps, unless you have dedicated corner clamps, or you use glue blocks, or you drive a few nails into it. Tape is so simple and so effective. You coat the pieces with glue and then close up the taped joint.

glue joint
glued and taped box

Now, originally, I was going to stop there, let the glue dry, then sand the box and present to my wife as being a very useful thing. But I decided it deserved some kind of lid. I searched high and low and found a piece of pine at my feet. It was previously screwed to something else, so it had some holes. But I was able to cut those away on the table saw. I then marked it for length and cut it using the miter gauge.

cut some pine
layout the box top

To have the lid sit inside the box, I cut a rabbet. Once again, I did this by eye. However, if you’re making something like this, I would suggest a bit more care be taken at this step. The top is normally a bit more visible than the bottom.

cut a rabbet
cut a rabbet

And here is something that I have not fully decided on. I set the blade to cut with the waste between the blade and the fence. This is insurance that the blade cannot mess up the good piece of wood. But it leaves a potential arrow or spear or long wooden bullet in a place ready to fire. So, I’d actually advise making this cut first, then cutting with the full piece flat against the fence, so as to leave the waste on the safe side. Damaged wood is easier to replace than damaged body parts.

cutting a rabbet
potential weapon

As You can see, the lid fits … almost nicely. Nothing some sanding can’t fix. The fact here is that, after gluing the box together, I discovered my miter guage was not exactly at 90 degrees. So, the box is out just a little bit. It’s good to find these things out when it’s too late to do anything about them.


Since the box looked a bit plain, I decided to screenprint the top.

a silk screen
screenprinted box lid

A box with a lid is fine and dandy, but it works better with hinges. I found some exceptionally cheap hinges that would work wonderfully well. So, I guessed where they should go, scrawled an outline, and cut with my mangled chisel. This chisel has seen endless service cleaning mortar out of hinge pockets in commercial buildings. It’s also done its share of cutting metal. It needs a bit of attention, but it worked well enough to prep for the hinges.

hinge layout
prep for hinges

The screws would stick up through the top if I did not first trim them. I could grind them down but my tin snips are good enough to clip these little screws off. The cheap hinges come with cheap screws. It’s one of my pet peeves, actually, because I find that these screws can strip out just using a screwdriver. That’s when you break out the hammer and drive them home in a more forceful way. As someone I know said, you can still use a screwdriver to take them out, but you’ll probably never take them out.

clip off screws
install hinges

And there you have it. A clear coat of polyurethane or maybe even some paint on the box itself, and it will be a finished thing. However, I will likely never do that. There is a beauty to be found in the aging raw wood that you can’t replicate with a finish. (Don’t you love lines like that?)

finished screenprinted box

Another satisfying distraction. And, truthfully, if you use up some of the garbage that is messing up the shop, you are thereby cleaning the shop. And this results in a very useful thing (or so I will continue to claim, even if it remains empty for years).

See the forum topic about this article here for discussion.