Boxes Without Joinery

Article - April 4, 2012

You may remember Carole Rothman’s guest article A New Approach to Beautiful Bowls where she discussed her method for creating amazing bowls without a lathe. Well now she’s turned her attention to boxes with her new book Creative Wooden Boxes From The Scroll Saw. And as you’ll see below, her work is simply….delicious! Carole was kind enough to offer up a copy of her book for this month’s giveaway. So get those comments in! In the mean time, let’s learn something from Carole!

When you think “box”, what comes to mind? Probably something square or rectangular, with mitered corners, dovetails, or box joints. Nice enough, to be sure, but a bit predictable. And even the simplest boxes take a fair amount of time, care, and precision to complete, along with appropriate tools and jigs. But what if you could make a box that was unusual, creative, and eye-catching, yet quick and easy, and looked like a pumpkin? Following my conviction that fine woodworking needn’t always be complicated, I set out to design an assortment of boxes that were different and attractive, yet within the reach of most woodworkers. I began by looking at the “best of the best” in the world of boxes, to see what top flight woodworkers were doing and to learn more about the shapes, woods and techniques they used. I looked for themes that could be developed, such as boxes that looked like food or furniture. And I looked for projects that were quick to make and easy to customize—both useful for those who sell their work I established four working principles: First, my boxes could be any shape at all. Second, they could not use conventional joinery. Third, they would require no staining or painting. Fourth, only the scroll saw, drill press, and various sanders could be used for their construction.

My first project was a radical departure from “square”. It consisted of a six-section box disguised as an apple tart. Inspired by a cookbook illustration, it was made of a bottom “crust” with fluted rim, covered by a lid of aspen “apples”, and garnished with slices of real cinnamon stick. Caroles-bakeryEncouraged by this success, and intrigued by the food-like colors of many woods, I merged my love of baking and woodworking to create a “bakery”. The apple tart was followed by a cupcake, which was followed by a pineapple upside-down cake, coffee cup, ice cream box, and Linzer tart.

Forsaking convention frees you from being tied to “the way it’s always been done”, and challenges you to find better and easier solutions. Take the cupcake box, for example. The inner recess, created with a Forstner bit, and the outer profile, cut at a steep angle with a scroll saw, satisfied my desire for simplicity. But my stroke of genius (well, not quite genius, but pretty darn close!) was the discovery that an oversized spiral scroll saw blade made it a snap to cut perfect indentations on the sloping cupcake sides. The use of the Forstner bit for the cupcake box worked so well that I starting thinking “drilling”, rather than “cutting”, for other projects. Larger bits proved ideal for the recesses of ring and jewelry boxes, and were a reliable way to make smooth inside curves in wood too thick to cut easily. Small bits made quick work of the fidgety smaller curves found in bow loops, hard to cut evenly, and tricky to correct.

large-drilled-recesses cutting-inside-of-drilled-loops

I also did some “tweaking” of the band saw style box, sensing untapped potential in its simple design. By adding overlay drawer fronts, a beveled top piece and compound-cut base, I created a dollhouse-sized chest of drawers. Delighted with my results, I pushed further, and overlaid an entire box front to make a bookcase. Then, to complete the “suite”, I added a hutch to an overlaid base to create a china cabinet. Feeling the need for a personal touch, I decorated my furniture with mini scans and tiny objects, doing in wood what I had once done in sugar on my custom decorated cakes.

My discoveries were many, but two stand out. The first is a new appreciation for the vertical belt sander. Using it to even out surfaces of boxes and lids is obvious, but that’s just the beginning. I discovered that it was by far the best and easiest way to make bevels, both decorative and functional, like those needed for barrel hinges. It made quick work of truing up small strips of wood, sanding to a line for precise fitting, and shaping loops and tails for bow top boxes.

Round-box-with-veneerThe second discovery was the unexpected usefulness of veneer. Added to glue-ups and laminations, it lent a touch of class with minimal cost or work, and when dyed, provided drama and accent not otherwise possible. When the last project was done, I relaxed and smiled, confident that I had met not only my stated goals, but a larger, ongoing one: to help woodworkers of every skill level make projects that please the eye and warm the heart.