Boxes are a sorbet for the furniture maker – they refresh the palate between heavier and more complex pieces. But they are also a reminder of the fundamental qualities of wood which make it a unique and living medium.
I’m in the middle of making a series of five jewellery boxes using English yew, ripple sycamore and walnut. They come after a 4 metre dining table and before 3 museum display cabinets. They are small, light and I can move the components around the workshop without asking for help to lift them! But they also require quietness and sensitivity to the wood. I have to settle into a box making state of mind.
There are some fantastic specialist box makers around and many are pushing the boundaries of box shapes and construction. But what I favour at the moment is a more simple and traditional recipe. Take one piece of particularly interesting wood. Split in half lengthways and then cut to make sides and ends. That allows the figuring to flow round the entire box. Prepare panels for top and bottom that relate well to the sides. Join the corners with handcut dovetails or splines and glue the whole thing together. Now slice off the top like a boiled egg to create the lid. Cut and make thin wooden liners and a delicate tray in a wood that will add zest to the inside. Season with the best brass hinges and wooden or brass fittings. Oil to bring out the wood’s best visual and tactile qualities, and serve. The delight comes from the choice of ingredients, the proportions, the attention to refinement and detail, and the time and care in the making. It is a traditional form, and one that has evolved over hundreds of years because of the very nature of working with wood…….
Two things to remember: 1. wood moves. 2. the strength of a joint comes from gluing the faces, not the ends, of pieces of wood together. So, because wood moves irresistibly with changes in humidity you can’t glue the top and bottom panels to the sides with a tight fit otherwise they’ll stretch and shrink and crack the box apart. The panels have to sit loosely in a little groove with room to move. That’s how the traditional form of frame and panel construction has come about (just look at an old door), and that is what determines the basic form of the box.
Also you can’t just glue the corners of the box together even if they are mitred because the glue won’t stick to those end grain surfaces…. (imagine trying to stick your fingers together at the very tip) hence the evolution of the dovetail joint which creates lots of long grain faces to hold on to one another (now interlock your fingers and feel the strength of the joint). Adding splines to the corners does the same job and gives different visual possibilities. So that lovely joinery on the box corners has come about because of this second fundamental quality of wood.
So this is what I find refreshing. This “simple” box is not only an expression of a fundamental need for people to store, protect and celebrate their most precious possessions, but also an expression of the very nature of wood itself. So I’ll settle down, listen to the wood, and make the very best boxes that I can to refresh my furniture making palate before the next course arrives.
Here’s the story of these boxes so far in pictures
the finished boxes now in the Gallery do have a look