Make a Simple Box with Inlay Using Hand Tools

Hand Tool Project: Many of the techniques used to make this box could be completed with machinery, but since this box was designed to teach people some basic hand tool skills, that will be the focus of this article.

Make a Simple Box with Inlay Using Hand Tools

Make a Simple Box with Inlay Using Hand Tools

Photos by Jeremy Pringle

I use a table saw and thickness planer to get my stock to (almost) final dimension, but do not put the finish surface on anything. Use a smoothing plane to remove the mill marks from the material. It is important to be really careful; using a smoothing plane is very addicting and you can easily get carried away, and in no time at all, your stock is not the proper dimension anymore. Stop when you get a full shaving.
Cutting the joinery
The second step is to make rabbets in the front and back for the sides. Part of the fun with this project is you will not need a tape measure. Everything is referenced off something else. Use the sides to set the marking gauge and mark the width of the rabbet. I generally suggest leaving no less than 1/8" of material when marking the depth of the rabbet, or it will become too fragile. In this step it is crucial that all the marking be done from the inside of the front/back. If your material is not all exactly the same thickness (due to aggressive smoothing, perhaps), and you mark from the outside, your box will not be square on the inside.
Use a cross-cut saw and a bench hook to cut the rabbet. Leave about 1/16" to the line, so there is lots of wiggle room in case of a jumped saw. After the rabbets are cut to depth, use a chisel to chop away the majority of the waste using the rule of halves. This is a really fast way to remove material, but works the best with straight-grained material.

If the gain is too unpredictable, then saw down as well. Once the majority of the waste has been removed, chop to the line on the shoulder of the rabbet with a chisel.
To clean up the rabbets, use a shoulder plane or a router plane. I suggest trying both if possible. The shoulder plane is faster, but it takes more practice to control. With the router plane, you need to take multiple light passes, so it is more time consuming. But because of the depth stop, you can get very consistent results time and time again.
Once the sides have been test-fitted into the front and back, and all the rabbets are square as can be, use a plow plane with a 1/8" cutter to make the groove for the bottom. Using a plow plane can be tricky, and its technique is not obvious at first. Start the cut about an inch from the end. Take a cut and move about an inch or two back every pass until you are taking full passes. Make sure that the depth stop is set to about 3/16" and keep taking passes until it bottoms out.
Cut a piece of 1/8" birch plywood to size for the bottom. Test fit to make sure all the rabbets are clean and the bottom fits. Apply glue and clamps and set the box aside until the glue is set. Once the glue has cured, use a plane to flush everything up. Use a smoothing plane to put the final surface on the all the surfaces of the box.
Mark the Rabbets – Reference off the inside of the box sides, as the thickness of the four parts might not perfectly equal.
Cut the Rabbet – Make a cut about 1/16" inside the marked line with a cross-cut saw. A bench hook is helpful.
Remove the Waste – Start removing the waste with a chisel and mallet. If the grain you’re working is fairly straight, you can use the rule of halves, removing half the waste with each chisel strike.
Pare to the Line – Remove the last 1/16" of material with a razor-sharp chisel. Be sure to keep the chisel square to the face of the board.
Making the fans
Use a piece of scrap MDF for the pattern. Using a straight edge and a protractor, draw two lines that intersect at 90°, exaggerating the lines past the point of intersection. Using the protractor, mark off and draw lines every 18°, this will make a five-segment fan.
I have found it easiest to cut the chosen veneer into rectangles, about 1" x 1/2". This will allow two segments from each with very little waste. Take a smoothing plane and set it up to take a very, very fine shaving. This plane will be used to joint the fan segments.
With your first rectangle, joint one edge on the plane. Take the rectangle and place it on the pattern, the jointed edge goes against the 90° line, and the bottom corner right on the point of intersection. Using a sharp pencil, mark the edge of rectangle on the place where the first 18° line is seen. Using a sharp plane blade (with the bevel pointed out), put the edge of the blade on the mark and corner of the rectangle that was at the point of intersection and push as straight down as possible. Take the segment and place it on the pattern and use some masking tape (blue, green or yellow work best, as they are easily removed) to tape it to the pattern.
If you do not have an extra plane blade, you can use a hobby knife and a straight edge, but because the knife blades have a double bevel, you will have to use the smoothing plane to joint that edge as well. When pushed straight down, a plane blade should create a perfectly straight and perpendicular cut, so jointing that edge is not necessary. When using a knife, take multiple light passes.
Taking the second colour rectangle, joint one edge. Place the jointed edge against the cut edge of the first segment. Mark and cut that segment, and tape it to the first. Continue alternating colours until you have five segments totalling 90°. Gently remove the fan from the pattern.
At this point, there are two routes that can be taken. And they will depend on your confidence and abilities. The side of the fan with the masking tape was the side of the fan that you were working with, so you know what your joints look like. If the joints were done properly, the back side should look exactly the same. If the jointing was done on a bevel, the top might be tight, but the backside will have small gaps.
If there are small gaps and you want to use the face that you were working with, use a single piece of tape and place it on the back. Then carefully remove the small pieces of tape that were used to assemble the fan. If there are no gaps and the backside is usable, then no extra steps are needed.
Use some veneer tape and tape the side of the fan that does not have the masking tape. Veneer tape can be used to tape the fan together during assembly, but if something needs to be corrected after the fact, the masking tape is easier to remove.
While holding the fan down with one hand, position a compass point as close to the apex as you can, gently strike the arch on the veneer tape side. Using a chisel (I prefer a 3/8" wide chisel for this, but any will do) I use scrap material as a cutting surface, and anchor one corner of the chisel. Using a rocking chopping motion, feed the fan into the chisel and make really small cuts. Once all four fans are cut I label them 1 to 4.
Rabbet Plane – To cut the rabbet depth, use a router plane or a shoulder plane. The router plane is slower, but is more accurate. The shoulder plane is quicker, but requires more skill.
Plow Time – Plane a groove into the inner surface of the four sides to accept the bottom panel.
Straight Edge – Pringle uses a hand plane, set to take off a small amount of material, to ensure one edge of each rectangle is straight and square before cutting the triangles of the fan.
First Fan Piece – Accurately place the rectangle on the layout board and mark where 18º falls.
Straight and Square – A plane blade is a great tool to cut the fan pieces to size. As long as you hold the blade square to the work surface the resulting edge will be straight and square.
Alternating Species – With the first fan piece taped in place, locate and mark the second piece, and cut it to size.
Trim it Round – After he uses a compass to mark the arc on the fan, Pringle uses a sharp chisel to trim the fan to shape.
A Bit of Power – Though the cavity could be created with hand tools, Pringle encourages his students to use a router during classes. Once the majority of the waste has been removed, use hand tools to fine tune the fit of the fan.
Layout on the lid
Set a wheel marking gauge to about 1/2". Mark the top of the lid with the marking gauge. Take care to meet up in the corners without going past. (I like to use a heavy cut, and I don’t plane off the lines, as I feel that the line the gauge leaves helps to draw the eye to the fans.) Mark each corner 1 to 4 and mark the top of each fan 1 to 4 as well.
Place a fan into place and hold it there with finger pressure. Use a hobby knife with a sharp new blade and trace the edge of the fan onto the lid. Only make one or two really light passes, just enough to score the wood so you can see the score lines.
At this point, I use the only power tool in the project, and that is only because of the amount of time it saves during the classes I teach. I use a small router with a 1/8" bit set to the depth of the veneer, and rout out most of the waste. Make sure to stay at least 1/16" away from your score marks. Once all four are done, use a router plane and a hobby knife to remove the rest of the material. Test fit the fans. If it does not fit, check to make sure the void is clean and all the edges are sharp with nothing obstructing the fan.
To glue the fan in place, put glue into the void and not on the fan, fit the fan and use tape or wax paper on top. Use a caul to help clamp it down. Once the glue has set, remove the clamps and tape. Use a card scraper to remove the veneer tape. Take care to scrape just the tape until all the tape is gone. When all the tape is gone, you can scrape the rest of the fan flush with the lid. Scrape away from the corner of the fans and try to scrape with the grain as much as possible.
Glue the Fan – Once a perfect fit is established, add a small amount of glue and use a caul to help spread the pressure across the area.
Hinge Mortise – Pringle marks the outer edges of the hinge mortise, then makes shallow saw cuts where the hinge will be placed. The saw cuts make the task of removing the bulk of the material with a router plane quite easy.
Installing the hinges
Set the depth of the router plane to the thickness of the hinge. Use a knife to strike the lines of the hinges. Use a razorsaw to define the edges. Saw a bunch of relief cuts in between. These will help the router plane remove the material faster. Use the router plane and remove the material, going with the grain as much as possible. Mark the locations for the screws and use a jeweller’s drill to make the pilot holes. Install the screws.
To finish off the box, apply a coat of boiled linseed oil and give it some quality time soaking in the UV rays. For a final top coat, apply some paste wax.
Related Articles:
Working Without Numbers (Dec/Jan 2013)
An Introduction to Stringing and Banding (Dec/Jan 2012)
Recipe Box (Dec/Jan 2011)

Jeremy is primarily a hand tool woodworker who is constantly looking for older and better ways of doing things.

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