The Doctor's Boxes

Sometime this summer, I was approached by a doctor who was working on a video autobiography.  He had a very long and successful career and wanted to share his life to those that might be interested.  His plan was to compile a set of dvds and donate them to several libraries.  The catch...he wanted to do it in style.  That's where we come in.

Boxes seem simple at first glance.  The reality, though, is that if they're done well it takes just about the same time and effort that a large scale furniture piece demands.

My point of departure here was a box that I saw at the auction at this summer's Furniture Society Conference in Philadelphia.  It was a dovetailed, Walnut box with a spalted sycamore panel on the lid.  The lid fit inside the rabbeted box sides, which lent a very nice look.  This box was made by David Fleming, an Arizona woodworker who trained with James Krenov.  You can see his work at

The details:  Dr. Porter wanted the boxes to fit 18 dvds, he wanted the box to have a lock and key, and he wanted his name carved into the boxes in two places.  Sounds simple enough, right?

We dovetailed and dovetailed, then dovetailed some more.  The dovetails were initially cut on the bandsaw, then marked to the pin boards.  After realizing the amount of work an energy involved in chopping out all of the waste, I put the router to work.  Ganging up all of the pieces made removing the waste with a router very quick.

Be sure to check out the issue 74 of Woodcraft Magazine that's on newsstands now.  I've got an article on hand cut dovetails that will walk you through my process.  I make a nice little candle box in the article.

Once the dovetails were done, it was time to think about the internal compartments.  Each compartment has to fit a dvd and it shouldn't be too loose or too tight.  This sounds like a nightmare.  Time to make a jig, I suppose.  Once I determined the spacing, I glued up a jig that would guide the router in making eight, equally space, 1/4" dadoes.  Rather than rout the jig, I ripped and re-glued to establish the openings of the jig. 

I had to bring in my dwindling DVD collection to test the spacing of everything...  I really wish I held on to some semblance of a dvd collection so you guys can see how cool I am and how my taste in documentary films is above reproach.  Life changes.

The dividers are made from 1/4" plywood, capped with a hardwood strip that will match the boxes lid.  The caps were all glued to the edge using blue tape as a clamp.  Lots of dividers, lots of tape.

Hardware...  Endless bits of hardware.  So many tiny screws...

Larissa tackled installing the lock set.  It's not something either of us have ever done, so we weren't really sure how it would go.  She installed the full mortise lock set with aplomb!  The trickiest elements are just getting everything to line up and cutting shallow mortises that fit the hardware just right.  A lot of careful layout and that was about it.

The hinges were easy enough...just a lot of them.  The lid stays from Brusso are very cool and I look forward to using them again.  They were just the right thing for this box.

Carving... Larissa tackled the carving, as she is our in house human CNC.  She laid down the text with some spray glue and routed through the paper, leaving a beautiful carving in her wake.  I'm sure a CNC or laser engraver would do a fine job, but I have a feeling that Larissa captures something more special with her router work.  I was at a robot exhibition at the Franklin Institute a few weeks ago and about 60% of the robots were either broken, charging, or just plain disappointing.  Larissa is never a problem in this way.

I could go on and on with all of the little details that made these boxes challenging, but my son Sid is telling me that I've been doing this for a very long time and it's now time to play some Pac Man.  I'll leave you with some finished photos of these fine boxes.  The panels are curly maple, bird's eye maple, spalted sycamore, and curly cherry.

Rob's List of Mistakes:

1.  Quadrant Hinges?  No.  For some reason, I thought that I could use quadrant hinges as a lid stay.  They're called hinges for a reason.  I went through so much time devising a jig to install these little suckers and they didn't even work in this application.  I also cheaped out and bought rockler's version of these at $8 a pair.  The good ones are about $38 a pair.  The cheap ones are impossible to work with and look terrible.  A couple days wasted and a lesson learned.

2.  That's not a set up piece!  As I was setting up the rabbet on the lid panels, the phone rang.  I went to answer and then came back to resume my set up.  Made a cut...that's too deep.  AHHHHH!!!  That's not the set up piece, that's the real F*&$%* panel!  Luckily I had bits of the same material laying around.  A little glue and we're back in business.  Whenever I try to hustle things through the process to save a little time it always takes me twice as long.  I will never learn this lesson.