The Apprentice’s Memory Box

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The School Box holds my sharpening kit. I like how the Salem Red looks against the brick wall behind.

There can be a tendency when writing about woodwork that you devote a huge amount of time to each stage of the build, but once the project has left your workbench it is never mentioned again. Which is fine up to a point, but sometimes a project is built with a specific purpose or function in mind, and when that is the case I think it is interesting if the reason for making the piece can be included in the narrative. I’m as guilty of this as anyone – having spent the summer writing about my experiences working through the projects in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker, I failed to make any mention of where the Packing Box and School Box are now, or what they are being used for. I filled my first Packing Box was with beer and a mix cd and sent it to a good friend, while the School Box resides in my workshop and holds my sharpening gear.

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Nailing the frame together. Placing a clamp across the grain minimises the risk of the nails splitting the edge of the workpiece.

I mention this because I’ve been working on a second Packing Box, but the intended function of that box has had a significant impact on how I’ve approached the build. In The Joiner & Cabinet Maker the Packing Box is an exercise in minimising work in order to build a sturdy box within a very limited period of time. So Thomas uses pre-dimensioned 1/2″ stock, and nails instead of more complex (read: time intensive) joinery. The lessons taught in this project are hugely important, and it is a great introduction to building case work. My second Packing Box is going to be a memory box for the Apprentice – somewhere for us to put all of the small treasures and ephemera that you inevitable collect over a baby’s first year (the first set of clothes she wore after she was born, the first lock of hair we trimmed, the scissors I used to cut her cord). I also intend to include a mix cd and a letter to her. Then we’ll nail the lid shut and put it in the loft until her 18th birthday, when we’ll give it to her (will they even have cd players then?).

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Clinching 4d cut nails hold the battens in place – instead of measuring I stepped off the nail locations with dividers.

The Packing Box is perfect for this – it is the right size to hold everything we want to put in, the nailed joinery will easily last the next 17 years (and many more after that), and it really is quite a handsome piece. But because this is an emotionally significant build, I’ve approached it quite differently.

Firstly, I’m not racing the clock on this build, and instead I’m savouring every element of the build. This is, after all, the first piece I’ve built specifically for my daughter. The big change has been processing all of the stock by hand, rather than using the timber as it came from the mill. So both faces have been treated with the jack, jointer and smoothing planes. The advantage of this, apart from looking good, is that I’ve been able to use 4d cut nails instead of the chunkier 6d nails I used on my first Packing Box. The pine I used on both Packing Boxes came in at 3/4″ thick rather than the 1/2″ thick Thomas used in the book. For my first Packing Box I followed the text closely and didn’t plane the faces of the boards, which meant that I had to compensate with longer nails. The difference when clinching 4d opposed to 6d nails is quite noticeable. You can clinch with 6d nails, providing you’ve got a weighty hammer (I’m using my 16oz hammer from Black Bear Forge) but getting the nails to bend smartly and re-enter the wood can be a little bit like real work. In contrast, the 4d nails bend easily and hold everything together just as tightly. So the extra work in planing the stock pays for itself with a smoother clinching experience.

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Inside – a forest of nails waiting to be clinched.

Working through a second Packing Box at a more leisurley pace also allows some of the deeper lessons to sink in. I built my first Packing Box at a fair lick (although still a touch slower than Thomas managed his – I would have been a bad apprentice) which meant that I was focused on the physical processes and the associated lessons in the text. So, squaring up the ends with only a smoothing plane (no shooting board for young Thomas!) and of course nail clinching. All of which are important lessons, and I got a lot out of doing a timed first build. The second time around, and not chasing the clock or having to think so much about the obvious elements of the build, the more subtle lessons really come to life and are consolidated. In particular placing the clinched battens using proportionate measurement rather than hard numbers has been a real delight, and it has me thinking more deeply about some of the ideas Jim Toplin and George Walker wrote about in By Hand and Eye. Working through any project several times helps to consolidate learning points, even when it is something as apparently simple as the Packing Box.

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Am I allowed to say “that’s a nicely clinched bottom”?

I’ve just got the lid to finish up and fit, and then we’ll be ready to fill the Apprentice’s Memory Box and stash it safely away for the next 17 years. This feels like a very apt project with which to finish the year.

3 thoughts on “The Apprentice’s Memory Box

  1. Pingback: The Policeman’s Boot Bench… Part 2 | Over the Wireless

  2. Pingback: A Packing Box in the Wild | Over the Wireless

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