The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 7


The great thing about milk paint is how ghastly the first coat looks…

A lot of woodworkers get indimidated by applying finish to projects, which I think is partly due to the endless variety of finishing products and solutions available, but also the vast quantity of voodoo waiting to ensnare happless forum readers. Finishing does not have to be complicated or difficult, and in fact the biggest single factor in my experience for a successful finish is having plenty of patience while things dry. But there again I’m a simple soul and have always liked simple finishes. So for the School Box there really was no choice but to go with the historically accurate milk paint, oil and wax combination.


The third coat looked much better!

Salem Red by the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co looked like a good colour, and I mixed up a batch using Chris’ instructions from the Anarchist’s Design Book. The first coat of milk paint is always a test of faith as it tends to look streaky and washed out, but with each subsequent coat things improved significantly, and by the third coat I’d built up a good density of colour while still allowing the dovetails to be visibile on close inspection. I left the School Box to dry out thoroughly for 48 hours before applying a thin coat of Liberon Boiled Linseed oil. After 30 minutes waiting time I wiped away the excess oil with a clean rag and left for 24 hours to dry before applying the wax.


Boiled Linseed oil ragged on top of the milk paint provides an additional layer of protection.

So far so straight forward, but this is where things got unexpectedly… messy. When I came back 24 hours later the oil seemed to be good and dry, with no residue left on the surface of the paint. So I gently ragged on some home made soft wax (a bee’s wax, turpentine and white spirit recipe I learned from Derek Jones). But when buffing out the wax I ended up with a very streaky finish with patches of entirely matt finish in the middle of areas which remained sticky to the touch no matter how much I buffed them out. Definitely not ideal. I quickly eliminated the wax as the culprit because I had an entirely even low sheen on the interior of the School Box using the same batch of wax with no stickiness. Some reading around and talking to folk much more knowledgeable than I identified the oil as being to blame. Possibly I had a bad can which lacked sufficient driers, possibly I have angered the finishing gods in some way. Who knows.


The lid, showing the streaks and matt patches from the less than successful oil/wax combination.

The good news was that cleaning up the box was pretty straight forward. I put it to one side for an evening or so in order to chill out, and then using a judicious volume of white spirit and several rags removed the oil and wax gunk and left to dry over night (again). I confess I had been a little worried that the white spirit and vigorous rubbing would remove some of the milk paint, but the underlying finish was left intact and very little pigment came away during my late night cleaning session. In fact, the grain and joinery were showing through the paint slightly better, even though the colour density was still good, so I decided to skip the oil and go straight to the wax. This time the wax covered nicely and built up a gentle sheen that really suits the box – a high gloss finish would have looked entirely out of place on this project.


The finished School Box

I then fitted the hardware and stood back to admire what has been a really instructive and fun project. I’ll post a full beauty parade of the School Box next time around.

We don’t cut corners, except when we’re supposed to cut corners

The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 6


Building the School Box has been a wonderful experience – it is a lovely project and if you follow the text there are a great number of valuable handwork lessons to learn from. The element of this build I’ve been most nervous about was carving the corners of the base moulding. If you remember, I previously deviated from the text and dovetailed the base moulding, which meant that instead of neat mitred corners on the moulded edge, the front moulding crossed the corners and abruptly terminated the side moulding runs. I knew this would be the case when I decided to dovetail the moulding, and so I’d always intended to carve the corners of the front moulding to give the appearance of mitred corners.

Carving transitions of this sort is delicate work – one misplaced cut and that beautiful moulding will be butchered. So there is no room for error. The key is careful layout, and a methodical approach to the carving itself.


Clear lay out is key to carving the mitred corner

The ovolo pattern cut by my moulding plane consists of three elements – a central curved section on either side of which is a square shoulder. My first step was to strike a fine pencil line at 45 degrees from the corner of the carcase across the moulding, to identify the transition point for each element of the ovolo molding, and I shaded the waste elements for good measure.

When detail carving I prefer to order the work so that I use as few chisel cuts as possible. This reduces the risk of making a catestophic slip, and also provides a simple order of work for repeatable results (for instance, on the opposite corner of the School Box moulding). Using a wide chisel I defined the top shoulder of the side moulding, and pared down so it was level with the corresponding detail on the front moulding run. This gave a simple ledge from which I could then define the bottom shoulder of the ovolo, and pare down to that. I find a wide chisel is best for this sort of work as part of the blade can cut the waste material while the remainder of the blade registers against the moulding, which keeps the carved elements running in line with the rest of the moulding.


The top of the ovolo has been pared flush, just the bottom shoulder and the curved section left to cut now.

With all three levels then established, it was a matter of knocking the corner off the middle ledge and rounding it over so that it matched the ovolo from the moulding plane. I pared most of the material away with a sharp chisel, and then refined the shape with a fine needle file.


The finished carved corner.

The only other work that was needed before applying finish to the School Box was a gentle spot of clean-up – removing any remaining pencil marks and stray fibres, all of which is quite usual. Unfortunately, I also had to steam out a couple of bad dents left in the workpiece by my bench. My current Sjoberg bench has a number of metal fixings in the bench apron which used to be recessed in the timber, but which thanks to seasonal wood movement have become exposed (despite repeatedly adjusting them with a large hammer). The most prominent of these is just to the right of my face vise, which means that any stock secured in the vise tends to pick up some dents and scratches. When your workbench starts to destroy your work it is definitely time to build a new bench, and this only adds to my motivation to get started on the oak Roubo build. I’ve not steamed dents out of work before, but the Canadian pine I’m using responded very well, and only a few seconds with hot iron and damp towel removed all of the dents.


At top the dents in the box lid, and below the culprit – situation next to the face vise.

The School Box is now ready to be milk painted, which I’ll cover in my next post.

The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 5

Right, I’m making up for departuring from the sequence of work from the text of Joiner and Cabinet Maker, and am back working alongside young Thomas. Which means that the next stage of the build is fitting the partition to hold Master John’s marbles and other precious trinkets.


The finished partition, all ready for Master John to fill with marbles and treasures.

The partition introduces some new skills to the story, including cutting a stopped dado to accept the side of the partition, and then friction fitting the side and bottom of the partition. This is my first dado, and I followed Chris’ directions in the text by using a guide block to ensure that the dados on each side of the box lined up correctly. To cut the dado I used the prototype Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw – this fine cross cut saw is perfect for precise furniture grade cuts, and in my time testing it I’ve found that I reach for it far more often than the specialist name would suggest. One particular benefit I’ve found is that the fine teeth make it a very easy saw to start on the corner of a work piece, where bigger teeth can catch until a kerf has been established.


This isn’t sloppy work – the overcuts are hidden from view by the partition, and are fingerprints of handwork.

The waste was knocked out of the dados with a 1/2″ chisel and cleaned up with the small router plane, then the side was shot to length until it pushed cleanly into the dados. The bottom was glued to the side, and once the glue had cured I added 4d nails for extra holding power. Once fitted, the partition hides the overcuts at the bottom end of the dados but it pleases me to know that they are there as evidence of how I carried out that element of the build, and proof that the School Box has been built by hand. To support the base of the the partition I added 1/2″ thick cleats under each end, and these were fixed with 2d nails to the side of the carcase.

Once the partition was fitted I turned my attention to fitting the lock. When I fitted the lock to my Anarchist’s Tool Chest (a process I wrote about in detail previously) I used the same method as Thomas does in the Joiner and Cbinet Maker. Thomas’ approach is an efficient and accurate way to fit locks, so I followed his lead again here. There is no real trick for fitting locks, but accurately marking out the three mortises and cutting them in the right order, is essential for a fuss free experience. I used the small router plane to remove material for the top plate mortise, and a large router plane for the base plate and lock mechanism mortises.


A small router plane balances nicely on the edge of the box to cut the top plate mortise for the lock.

Cutting the keyhole is always a fun task, and I first drilled a hole to accept the key barrel. The escutcheon then slid over the drill bit and provided a template to sketch out the shape of the key hole, which was cut using a fine blade in a piercing saw before being cleaned up with a 13 grain rat tail rasp and needle files.


The escutcheon provides a handy template for marking out the keyhole shape.

Fitting the hasp is always the bit of installing a lock I find trickiest, mainly because lid moulding makes it impossible to sneak a small router plane in to bring the mortise to the correct depth, unless you balance the plane on the moulding (yes I have done this, but it’s not much fun). Next time I build a lidded box I will hold off installing any lid moulding until after the lock is fitted! That being said, it didn’t take too much work to get a good clean mortise into which the hasp would press fit, and the lock caught smoothly at the first turn of the key (which is always pleasing).


Cutting the keyhole to shape.

So all that is now left is carving the corners of the base moulding, and milk painting the completed School Box. Stay tuned for more coming soon!


The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 4


I’m approaching the rest of the School Box build a little out of sequence to how Thomas builds it in the text. This is mainly because having prepared the lid moulding at the same time as the base moulding, I was keen to get the lid moulding fitted. Also fitting the lid makes the School Box look pretty complete, even if there is plenty left to do!

The lid was planed to 1/2″ thickness from rough stock in the same way as the other components. With careful planning and layout I’ve managed to get everything I needed for the School Box save for the moulding out of a single plank of 1″ thick pine, and I think that one of the fundamental (if more subtle) lessons from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is the economic use of material. The back edge of the lid was planed square and true, while the rest of the dimensions were left oversized.


The depth for the hinge mortises is obtained by setting my Hamilton4″ marking gauge to the thickness of the hinge leaf

Fitting hardware is a big milestone in any project, and also a critical stage of the build – no matter how tight your joints are or how pretty the finish, if hardware is installed sloppily it is all people will notice. For this reason I prefer to install hardware when I’m fresh and relaxed. The text offers some useful guidance for the proportional spacing of hinges in casework. Unfortunately the gorgeous iron hinges I’m using are wider than the strap hinges Thomas uses, and as a consequence the proportional spacing would have landed the right-hand hinge directly over the dado for the internal partition. This would not have been a disaster, but would require the hinge to be removed before the partition is lifted out, which I’m sure would not have pleased Master John. I moved the hinges a little further apart and towards the corners of the box so that there was a 1/4″ gap between the edge of the hinge and the side of the partition. This didn’t unbalance the appearance of the hinges too much, and stopped everything getting too crowded around the partition.

Because hardware fitting is such a critical operation I find that a clean fitting rests on accurate layout. Handmade hinges often have slight variations in the width and thickness of the leaves, so once I had determined the position of the innermost edge of the hinges I set the width and depth of each mortise based on the specific dimensions of that hinge, rather than working to global measurements. This paid off, as there was a marked difference in the width of the two hinges which would have left an unsightly gap in the mortise for the narrower hinge. Once the hinges were fitted to the box I then transfered their positions to the underside of the lid, and cut the corresponding mortises.


Cutting mitred corners for the lid moulding

With the whole assembly held in place by the hinges I marked out the final dimensions of the lid, allowing an overhand of 1/16″ on the front and sides. The lid was then trimmed down to size with my No.3 smoothing plane, ensuring that all the edges were square and straight. I was then able to fit the moulding to the lid. Both side pieces were left overlong, and instead of dovetailing the lid moulding (as I had for the base moulding) I followed the text and mitred the corners. The one advantage I have over young Thomas is that thanks to my good friend Ethan I have a mitre box (which apparently formerly belonged to Ron Bontz – hopefully some of his magic will rub off on my work!) which I’ve fitted out with a Bad Axe mitre saw. This combination makes angled cuts a cinch, and the saw leaves an incredibly clean cut which needs no further work.


Because every blog post must include macro photography. This joint is straight off the saw – perfectly clean and ready for glue, no planing required.

With the moulding trimmed and mitred all that remained was to fit it to the lid. Hide glue can act as a lubricant before it tacks, and to stop the moulding sliding across the lid I pushed 4d headless cut brads through pilot holes in the moulding so that they poked through into the lid, essentially acting as locating pins. The front run of moulding was glued and nailed to the lid, while the moulding returns were glued only for the front inch and mainly rely on nails to hold them in place – this is to allow for any seasonal movement in the lid without splitting the moulding.


Using 4d headless brads as locating pins while gluing the moulding in place.

Next up will be the internal partition, and then fitting the rest of the hardware before applying milk paint.

(All about the) Base Moulding

The Joiner and Cabinet Maker… Part 3

You know, I think young Thomas may disapprove about this instalment of my work through The Joiner and Cabinet Maker. Having faithfully followed the text so far (apart from my decision to cut the dovetails tails first, of course), I’ve made a couple of changes to the design this week. Nothing substantial, but some satisfying tweaks to the asthetics of the School Box.


If only every morning could start with strong coffee and moulding planes

In my last post I’d dovetailed and glued up the carcase. Once the hide glue cured I cleaned up the exterior of the casework with my No.3 smoothing plane. Cleaning up dovetails is always an exciting moment, as you get to see exactly how well fitting your joints are, and whether there are any unexpected gaps. Given that this is my first dovetailed project since I finished the sliding trays for my Anarchist’s Tool Chest some 18 months ago I’m pretty pleased with the dovetails on the School Box – they aren’t perfect, but they are perfectly respectable. And the carcase is dead square, which I’m very pleased with.


Not perfect, but not too shabby either

A box without a bottom isn’t much use, so I cut the next piece of pine to slightly larger dimensions than the footprint of the box, and planed the rough stock to 1/2″ thickness before attaching it with hide glue and 4d fine finish nails.


One of the elements of the School Box I’ve been looking forward to the most is the base and lid moulding. I don’t get much opportunity to use moulding planes in my lutherie, (although my Philly Planes beading plane has seen some good use recently on the Moxon vise build) and I’m always happy to find opportunities to develop new skills. The text calls for a chamfer on the base and lid moulding, but I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to break out the moulding planes and do something a little more elegant.


Lid moulding on the left, base moulding on the right

Moulding is easier to plane while stock is over-wide, as the thin strips needed for moulding (1 1/2″ for the base, and 1″ for the lid) are difficult to hold down unless you have a sticking board. I’ve not had opportunity to made a sticking board yet (that is another task for the to-do list) so I prepared a 1/2″ thick piece of 3″ wide stock to use for both sets of moulding. For the base moulding I used the 3/8″ square ovolo plane I bought from Patrick Leach earlier this summer, and for the lid I reached for my No.6 Round by Philly. Then runs of moulding were planed onto opposite edges of the stock, and then ripped to width with the trusty Disston D8 before being cut to the lengths needed to wrap around three sides of the box.


Dovetailed base moulding – I will carve the corner transition once the glue has cured

While I was deviating from the text I decided to make one final change (sorry Thomas!) – Thomas mitres his base moulding, but I was in a dovetailing mood, so cut a single tail in each of the side pieces with the pins on the front piece. The moulding was fixed in place using 4d headless cut brads, as well as hide glue on the front piece and the front inch or so  of the side pieces – leaving the side pieces mainly secured by just nails will accomodate any seasonal movement of the bottom without splitting the moulding.


School Box with the bottom and base moulding fitted.

Next it is on to the lid and internal partician while I wait for the hardware to arrive from White Chapel. There is still a fair bit to do on this project, but the end is rapidly coming into sight!

The Cabinet Maker at School… part 2


After breaking down the rough stock and flattening it all by hand, the next step for the School Box is to dovetail the carcase. I’ve written about dovetailing before, and I followed the same process for the School Box. Although I don’t intend to rehash that step-by-step guide again, there are a couple of points I will flesh out.

I suppose that had I been following the text from the Joiner & Cabinet Maker to the letter I would have cut my pins first. At some point in the future I will have a concerted attempt at getting to grips with cutting pins first, but not today. I learned to dovetail by cutting tails first, and that way makes a great deal of sense to me. As I’ve barely cut any dovetails since I finished the sliding trays for my Anarchist’s Tool Chest in December 2014, I thought I would use the School Box as an opportunity to refresh my preferred dovetailing method. In other respects I did broadly follow this section of the Joiner & Cabinet Maker – like Thomas I used five tails per corner, with the tails on the front and back of the box and the pins on the sides. I did however use a more striking 1:4 slope for my dovetails, as I find the strong slope to be very attractive.


Laying out the pins

Two experiences dramatically improved my dovetailing over the past couple of years.

The first was attending the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course with Chris Schwarz, partly because Chris’ way of teaching dovetailing is excellent and demystifies the whole process with clear, useful, techniques. But also because a five-day dovetail death march is the sort of intensive learning experience which always improves technique. The second experience is using the Moxon vise. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to press my Moxon into service, and having the work piece raised off the bench by an extra 5″ definitely makes for a more pleasant and comfortable experience. More importantly the increased height improves sawing ergonomics, which makes for a more accurate saw cut. I’m looking forward to experimenting further with the Moxon and will write more fully about the benefits of the vise once I have logged more bench-hours on it. One final observation for now is that the Moxon also helps create a really efficient workflow when fine tuning the joint – having a full 24″ between the threads meant that I could have boards in the vise at the same time for final paring and clean up, which allowed me to work my way along two edges before flipping the boards over and cleaning up the opposite ends.


The Moxon has sufficient capacity to hold two boards simultaneously, for efficient fine tuning.

To get a good tight fitting dovetail I aim to saw on the waste side of the pencil line of the pins, rather than on the line itself – this gives a tiny amount of additional material which will compress to fill the joint. In contrast, sawing bang on the line can remove too much material and result in a gappy joint. The difficulty I used to find with this is that the line becomes distracting, and my saw hand wants to cut on the line rather than against it. To encourage the saw to cut against the line, I press the tip of a finger nail into the knife kerf on my pin boards, and run the saw plate against that nail. In the photo below, you can see that the right hand side of the knife kerf has been removed by the saw, but that the remainder of the kerf (and of the pencil line) remains – this is what I’m looking for when I cut my pins.


I may never tire of workshop macro photography

The more waste you can remove with a coping saw from between the pins, the less there is to chisel away, which makes for a more efficient dovetailing experience. I’ve been trying to be more daring with how close to the base line I cut with my coping saw, with the target being a clean cut just above the base line without bruising it (as shown in the picture below). My chisel can now drop straight into the kerf of the base line and pare away what little waste remains, for a nice quick fit.


Be daring with your coping saw cut, and there will be minimal waste to pare away with your chisel

One of the keys to a good fitting dovetail is to ensure that there is no junk left between the pins or the tails, and that the baseline has been pared so that it is perfectly perpendicular to the face of the joint (a little undercutting in the centre of the joint is also ok). The Sterling Tool Works Double Square when fitted with the fine dovetail rule is an excellent way to check that the baseline is in good order, as well as confirming that the edges of your tails are parallel.


Finally, to remove the half-pin from the tail board, paring a ramp from the waste to the baseline will guide a fine carcase saw to remove the waste with no paring needed to clean up that part of the joint.


Once the joints had been cut and cleaned up I knocked each corner together individually to check that the fit was not too tight, and that the tails wouldn’t crumble or the boards split. The joints were then coated in hide glue which I’d warmed in a mug of hot water, and knocked together using the leather covered face of my 24oz Blue Spruce Toolworks joiner’s mallet. The assembled box was then put to on side so that the glue could cure.



The Cabinet Maker at School… part 1


Pre-industrial techniques, modern media

Of the three projects in The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, the School Box is undoubtedly the most iconic. A 15″ wide, 9 1/2″ tall dovetailed pine chest, the School Box reinforces the fundamental skills of accurate layout, breaking down rough stock, and efficient use of material, taught in the Packing Box project, and further builds on these key skills with the introduction of more complex joinery (dovetails, and mitred trim), installing locks and hinges, and an expanded tool list. All of these learning points are captured within what is a very manageable casework project for inexperienced woodworkers.


When breaking down rough lumber my layout tools of choice are my Chappell timber framer’s square and a good carpenter’s pencil. And the chalk line from the Packing Box, of course!

If I’m being honest, the School Box is the project from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker that I’ve been looking forward to the most. Today I broke down the stock for the front, back and sides, and prepared it ready for cutting the dovetails later in the week. The 12’3″ long board I used for the Packing Box was pretty much at the limit of what is comfortable to work with in my current ‘shop; my bench is 6’ long and the full length of the ‘shop is 17′ end to end. So working with 8’ long stock for the School Box was much more comfortable. For this project I’m using a 12″ wide, 1″ thick, board of Canadian Yellow Pine for the casework, and a smaller board of the same material for the moulding and trim. I started by laying out the six pieces needed to build the basic casework, making sure that there were no knots at the edge of any of the pieces, and particularly on edges which would be dovetailed. Once I was satisfied with the layout of the six pieces I marked them out using a Chappell timber framer’s square and carpenters pencil, before cutting slightly oversized with my Bad Axe 20″ mitre-box saw. Although this saw is specifically designed to work with a mitre box, I’ve found that it also excells as a general purpose large cross cut saw – the teeth filing is fine enough to leave a good clean cut behind, and the extra length means that wide boards can be trimmed to length without any difficulty.


Thick shavings with a distinctive feathery edge indicate a traversing cut

One of the key lessons in the School Box is processing rough stock with hand planes. I took Thomas’ lead and used a cambered iron in my Clifton No.5 jack plane to surface each of the boards in turn, using a traversing cut to quickly remove material while retaining a good surface finish. There isn’t much opportunity to traverse when building acoustic guitars – the stock is just too thin to start with. But for furniture this technique is wonderful, and has been in use for many centuries – Jospeh Moxon described traversing in The Art of Joinery (the first English language text on woodwork, originally published in the early Seventeenth Century). Essentially, when traversing with a plane, you work diagonally across the grain of the board, rather than along the length of the board with the grain. This technique results in far less tear-out than when working against the grain, and takes advantage of timber’s inherant weakness across the grain. The result is that thick shavings can be removed without much effort, resulting in a decent surface finish. Like Thomas, I worked the face of each board with my jack plane until it was flat and clean, and finished up with my jointer (a Lie-Nielsen No.8) set to a fine cut, traversing at first and then working with the grain for the final few passes.

Having surfaced each board I then marked the final thickness on each edge with a marking gauge and thicknessed them from the rough side, leaving them just 1/16″ over thickness in case there is any cupping before I come to cut the dovetails. The Joiner and Cabinet Maker does not make too much of a fuss about the thickness of the timber for the School Box. My stock was 1″ thick to start with, but that thickness feels disproportionate for casework that is only 15″ wide, so I decided to bring it down to 3/4″ thick. This is where a traversing cut comes into its own as removing 1/4″ material, even in pine, is a significant amount to remove by hand. The traversing cut allows for a much thicker shaving that would ordinarily be taken if working longitudinally, which reduces the amount of work required – always work smarter, not harder.

I quickly fell into a rhythm of moving around the workpiece, traversing from each corner in turn as the waste material rapidly fell away and my plane approached the line.


For marking dimensions on wide boards, the Hamilton Tools panel gauge cannot be beaten.

The final element of preparation was to trim the boards to final dimension, and to shoot the ends square. The boards are now stickered on my bench, and once they have sat for a day or so I will bring them down to final thickness and then dovetail the carcase. I have deliberately left the bottom and lid in the rough so as to avoid them warping – I will process the stock needed for these components once the rest of the box is assembled and cleaned up.

Don’t forget to clench


I first read The Joiner & Cabinet Maker back in 2013 right as I started to broaden my focus from lutherie to include furniture making – it was the second publication by Lost Art Press I read (the first being The Anarchist’s Tool Chest). The book made an immediate impact with me; appealing to my love of history as much as that of woodwork. But more than just being a historical curio, as I digested the pages of The Joiner & Cabinet Maker it became apparent that it would offer a properly structured way to learn furniture building techniques using a minimal, hand-work focused, tool kit. Which was pretty much exactly what I was looking for at the time. I think in my very first post on this blog I mentioned an intention to work my way through the projects in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker – 2014 was going to be the year I finally got stuck into those projects, but then the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class happened (which was an incredible way to start my furniture building journey) and The Joiner & Cabinet Maker got pushed to the back of the queue again.


Clinching 6d nails to secure the battens to the packing box bottom

For those who haven’t read The Joiner & Cabinet Maker (and really, you should) a bit of background is probably in order. First published in 1839, The Joiner & Cabinet Maker takes the form of a story following the apprenticeship of a young lad called Thomas. We see Thomas at the very start of his apprenticeship when he builds a packing box for a customer to transport books, at the middle of his apprenticeship when he builds a dovetailed “School Box”, and finally at the end of his apprenticeship when he builds a chest of drawers. Although the identity of the author is unknown, they were clearly either a woodworker or very familiar with woodwork as the projects and tools are described with great detail and clarity. And by setting out in detail three projects of increasingly complexity, the book offers an opportunity to develop solid hand-tool techniques (and build up a tool kit) in a systematic fashion.


That’s a nicely clinched bottom.

And this week, I finally tired of pushing these projects down my to do list. A trip to the timber yard yielded up the 12’3″ long board I needed to make the packing box, so I reached for my hammer and stash of cut nails and set to it. I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of how I approached this build – I followed how Thomas carried out the same project in the text, and if you want to see how Thomas builds the box then you should buy the book. What I do want to reflect on however is the very valuable learning points offered by what is on the face of it a very simple build.

The packing box is held together purely with nails – no fancy joinery, no glue. Just nails. And it is rock solid. As this is the very first proper piece of work Thomas carries out as an apprentice, it is built with a very small tool kit of ruler, chalkline, jack plane, smoothing plane, square, marking gauge, rip and cross cut saws, hammer, and either a brad awl or drill. That’s it. Oh, and Thomas only has 5 hours to build the packing box. Five hours to go from rough board to finished casework makes this one of the swiftest furniture projects I’ve come across.


A two-piece top held together by nailed on battens. Simple, but rock solid.

So what exactly are the learning points?

Efficient use of material – Thomas (and I with him) started with a 12′ 3″ board 9″ wide and had to produce a packing box that met the customer’s measurements. The size of the box means that there is very little waste left from the board so efficient use of material, and some clever lay out to harvest the long battens, is essential.

Efficient working – five hours is not long when you have to build a complete box. I confess that I didn’t manage to complete the build in the alloted five hours (Thomas is evidently a far better apprentice than me), but that’s ok. Completing the build in five hours or less is a matter of working extremely efficiently, and not rushing. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Clive never tires of telling me this, and he is bang on the money.

You can make plenty with a very simple tool kit – Thomas doesn’t have a shooting board, so he has to square material using nothing but a bench vice and smoothing plane, with careful measurement. This sounds like a hard way to work, but actually it works really well and doesn’t take too long. Yes a shooting board makes things easier (especially on wide boards) but I don’t feel wedded to one anymore – I know I can do this freehand without too much bother if I need to.

Hand tool fundamentals – this project is all about accurate layout, sawing to the line (which reduces the amount of time you then spend planing stock to dimension), jointing long edges for the two-piece bottom and lid, squaring up stock, and most excitingly, nail clinching.

Nail clinching – This was my first time nail clinching, and one of the reasons I wanted to give this project a try. Effectively, clinching (or clenching) involves using a nail as a staple – driving it through two pieces of wood before encouraging the end to then turn back into the workpiece. This increases the holding power significantly, and is the reason why the packing box is so solid. The stock I was using for this project was closer to 3/4″ thick rather than the 1/2″ thick timber used by Thomas, and so the one change I made was in using 6d nails rather than the shorter (and thinner) 4d nails Thomas uses. The thicker 6d nails were slightly more work to clinch, but once I’d got the hang of encouraging them to change direction (aided by my new hammer from Black Bear Forge) they worked a treat. The trick, if you can call it that, for nail clinching is to find the right diameter pilot hold for the cut nails. I used tapered drill bits, and took my time experimenting with different sized pilot holes in some scrap to make sure that the nails would not split the workpiece.


The butt joints on the end of the packing box are square and tight – which goes to show that a shooting board is a luxury not a necessity.

I have another 12’3″ pine board sitting in the workshop, which I intend to turn into another packing box to reinforce the techniques and learning points this project has offered. And after that, it’ll be onto the second project from The Joiner & Cabinet Maker – the School Box.

Stay tuned for more.


I used 4d fine finish nails to join the sides to the ends. Angling the nails as shown increases the holding power.