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Newsletter Article: Wood-hinged Box Tips and tricks

I love making Rob’s wood-hinge boxes.  They make terrific gifts, don’t require a lot of wood - I use a lot of scrap wood pieces, don’t require a bunch of power tools, and making them works perfectly in my small workshop.  After getting some hands-on teaching from Rob on the finer points of box-making, I now make more boxes than anything else in my shop.  These boxes make great gifts and the people I give them to really have “wow” reactions.  I thought I would give you the tips and tricks I have learned over the years on making these boxes.



Figured Wood Makes all the Difference.  You can make these boxes using just about any wood species, but if you want the “wow” factor you need to use interesting grained wood, preferably highly figured wood.   While I use a lot of exotics in my boxes, I get just as good reactions with figured domestic wood such a quilted maple, fiddleback maple, birdseye maple, flame box wood, etc.  The good news is if you need to buy some figured wood, just a little wood goes a long way inbox making.



Light and Dark Wood.  I like to show off my dovetail joints, so I typically use a dark wood for my end pieces and a light wood for my face and back.  I admit I violate this rule but generally only if my joints will be easy to see once I finish the wood.


Re-sawing.  When making a small box you use some thin piece of wood.  Chances are you will have to re-saw whatever stock you have to get it to the proper thickness.  Some folks cringe at re-sawing, but we are talking small pieces of wood here and it’s not a difficult task.  First make sure the stock you are re-sawing has been six-squared, meaning it has two flat and parallel faces, the ends and sides are straight and square to the faces and to each other.  I normally do this dimensioning by hand since I am working with small pieces of stock (somewhere around 12 inches x 6 inches), but you can do this with your power planer and jointer if you so desire.  I strike a pencil gauge line around the edges of my stock indicating my center cut line, then saw the pieces in half with my panel saw or on the table saw using a thin-kerf blade.  I hand plane the piece to final thickness.  This is a must as only hand planing will make the grain “pop” when I finish the wood.


Box Dimensions.  When I started making boxes I really fretted over the size of the box and thus the pieces I was dimensioning.  I don’t do that anymore, I just kind of eye-ball the dimensions now.  The only thing that really matters is that your two box ends are perfectly matched in size and that your front and back pieces are also perfectly matched in size (so the box will be perfectly square).   I know folks like some measurements, so here is my recommendation for your first small box:

  • Overall dimensions: 3-3/4 inches wide x 7 inches long x 3 inches high
  • End pieces initial cut dimensions: 3-3/4 inches wide x 3-1/8 high x 3/8 inches thick (you will adjust the height later to fit the lid)
  • Front and back pieces (Final dimension): 7 inches wide x 2-5/8 inches high x ¼ inch thick
  • Lid (rough dimension): 6-1/4 inches long x 4 inches wide x ¼ inch thick (you will adjust the length and width to fit the box opening)
  • Bottom (rough dimension): 3-1/2 inches wide x 6-1/2 inches long x ¼ inch thick (you will adjust the dimensions to fit into the bottom grooves of the box.   


Stock preparation.  There is a lot of hand planing and shooting board work when making these boxes.  After re-sawing my stock (assuming I had to re-saw), I plane the sawed faces flat and parallel with the uncut face and to my desired thickness.  Then using the shooting board, I make sure all my pieces are perfectly square, the correct size (If the size if off a bit don’t worry) and matched in size to its mate.  The mates MUST BE perfectly matched in size or your box won’t be square.  I use my finger, not a rule, to feel that the pieces are the exactly the same size when holding them together (your finger can detect up to a 1/64th difference!). 



Joints.  I use hand cut dovetails for my box joints.  You can use other joinery, but I don’t.    I want to show off my dovetails which is way my end pieces are thicker than my face and back pieces.  The face and back pieces are my tail board and the end pieces are my pin board.   Cutting dovetails in thin stock IS HARD.  My secret is to clamp a sacrificial thick piece of wood in my vise (say a ¾ inch thick piece of pine) with my thin piece of wood, effectively turning my ¼ inch thick piece into a 1-inch piece.  Now I mark my dovetails and cut as normal.  The thick sandwich of wood makes it easier for me to start my saw cuts perpendicular to the end.



Dowel Size.  Making the dowel for the wood hinge is THE MOST DIFFICULT part of wood hinge box making.  This dowel must be within 2-3 thousandths of an inch of the size of the cove bit you are using to route the groove in the box.  I have not been able to find a manufactured dowel that is this accurate in size.  Rob’s DVD on box making goes into great detail on how to make a jig to make dowels.


Finishing.  If you want the inside of the box finished its best done before assembling the box.  If you do finish the inside faces make sure you DO NOT get finish on your joint glue surfaces.  I finish my boxes with a spray can of “Deft” lacquer.  I tried using my HVLP sprayer once and blew the box right off the stand.  The spray can works much better!  The lacquer dries super quick.  I spray 3 to 4 coats and use a card scraper smooth out the finish between each coat (you could also use sandpaper, but I find that a scraper creates a glossier finish).  The last coat is just a light spray and of course I do not scrap the last coat.


These are all my tips and tricks to make Rob’s wood-hinge box.  I hope this will motivate and help you to make some great wood-hinged boxes for Christmas.

Wood Hinge Box Videos.  We have lots of free videos posted on YouTube showing you all the secrets to making wood hinge boxes.  Here is the URL to our wood hinge box making video playlist.  Just copy it and put it in your search window: