The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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When thin is not in.


Lately I’ve been searching for a small project that would be challenging to build but also within my skillset. Because I enjoy American Colonial era furniture, I gravitated to Thomas Jefferson, who among other things was well known as an innovative furniture designer. I’ve always wanted to build Jefferson’s revolving bookstand, but because I have nowhere to keep or display it that project has always been out of my reach, so to speak. However, Jefferson’s famous writing box, on which he composed the Declaration of Independence, is small enough and seems more than challenging enough to keep me occupied over the winter months.

Last week I was doing some research on the writing box and found that much of the material used to make the project was quite thin, 1/4 inch and 3/8 inch thick for many of the boards. I often don’t use material so thin and in general prefer 1/2 inch thick stock for making small boxes and such. But it seems that many colonial era boxes were made from “thin” material. So as a sort-of practice run I decided to make a small box from a piece of walnut I had lying around.

The walnut board I had was rough-sawn, just over one inch thick, 12 inches wide and 20 inches long. I first ripped it into two pieces 4 inches wide using a hand saw. I then re-sawed those pieces into (2) 9/16th thick boards. That whole process went surprisingly quickly. I then had to plane down the boards to 3/8 thick, and that’s where the trouble started. I did not take long to plane the boards down, but it was difficult getting the boards ready for use. I had to remove a lot of material from the rough sawn side to get to good wood, so much so that after all was said and done I ended up with a hair under 3/8 of an inch thick. In retrospect I probably should have re-sawn the board to 5/8 inch thick, or even a shade more, to account for the amount of rough material that would need to be removed.

Speaking for myself, sawing dovetails seemed far more difficult on the thinner stock. For dovetailed boxes, I prefer using 1/2 inch thick because I find it the easiest thickness to work with, and it seems to make the nicest looking tails and pins. Thankfully I was able to make joints that fit well and were tight. But the next issue crept up at the worst possible time.

The back board, on the left side if we are looking at the box from front to back, was planed slightly thinner at the top corner. I did not notice it until I did the final dry fit before glue up. There was no way to correct it without starting over again, and after putting in several hours of work already I was not going to go that route unless all else failed. So I glued it up and hoped for the best, but the best was not in the cards. The slightly thinner end created a skew that was nearly 1/16th out of square from front to back, which was clearly visible. With no other simple options available, I used the clamps to straighten it up as best as possible and moved on to creating the lid and the base.

The base, which was going to be a piece 1/4 inch thick walnut that was left over from the re-sawing, cracked as I was trying to plane it. Instead of re-sawing another board I used a piece of left-over cherry from a prior project. Once the box was dry I checked it and thankfully the clamps helped to square it up considerably, though it was still off a touch. I attached the base with glue and while it was drying I used a moving fillister plane to create the panel on the sliding lid, and a block plane to carefully plane it to correct width. I let everything dry overnight and in the morning sawed and planed the base to fit. Lastly, I gave the whole box a light sanding and applied a few coats of BLO. Later on in the week I will apply several coats of wax over the course of a few days.

If this project taught me one thing it taught me that I have a lot of practice ahead of me if I want to make Jefferson’s box and actually have it turn out nicely. The good news is that I was able to salvage this little project and turn it into something that looks half-decent. The bad news is that somebody who has been woodworking as long as I have shouldn’t have had the troubles that I had in the first place. Five years ago I probably would have called this one a moral victory, but today I can’t in good conscience say that.

As I am usually fond of saying when completing a project: Not my best work but hardly my worst. Well in this case it definitely wasn’t my best work, and was much closer to my worst. If anything else, I just hope that I learned something.

Using clamps to hopefully square up the box.
Making the lid as the box and base are drying. I applied a thin coat of wax on the outside of the box so that glue squeeze out wouldn’t stick to it…it was one of the few things that actually worked according to plan. Also, you may be able to notice in this photo that I was sort-of able to make a decent grain match running all around the box.
Test fitting the lid after it was sawn to length.
The box with BLO applied. I will add a few coats of wax later on in the week.
Two coats of wax applied. It is a touch taller and thinner (both in width and material used) than the oak and cherry versions. I will apply two more coats of wax and see how it looks before going any further.


4 Comments

  1. Have you ever seen the dovetails on old pieces of furniture? You have nothing to be ashamed of.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks! I was okay with how the joinery turned out for the most part, but the overall stock prep should have been better. I’ve made enough of these boxes that I should probably be more proficient than I am, but I guess that’s why we practice..
      Bill

  2. Ralph J Boumenot says:

    Thinning stock is no different than any other woodworking skill. It takes practice to get decent results. Think how the colonial era craftsmen did it day in and day out. I am in awe of what they made with tools that look primitive to me today.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks for the comment Ralph. Yes..those fellows did some very delicate work. I’ve found sawing joints in thin stock more difficult than in the typical 1/2 inch stuff that I like using, though I can’t necessarily say why other than perhaps it’s more mental than physical.
      In the case of this box my joints were nice and snug, but my plane work on the back panel was off. Thankfully it wasn’t too much trouble to fix, but I’m trying to avoid those mistakes. nonetheless.
      Have a great Thanksgiving!
      Bill

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