Boxes are to woodworkers what Christmas ornaments are to glass blowers and coffee mugs to potters. They’re practical and fun, and you tend to make a lot of them just for practice. Who doesn’t need a nice little box for buttons, loose change, jewelry, or all that clutter on your dresser? For that matter, the dresser with all its drawers is just a glorified set of boxes under a another name. Unless you do a lot of turning or avant garde curvy stuff, woodworking tends to be an exercise in what master woodworker Frank Klausz calls “boxology” – making boxes.
I’m always fascinated by art boxes whenever my wife and I browse galleries and craft shows. There is something compelling about their symmetry and the density of their details. I can tell a bit about a woodworker by the boxes he makes – his preference for hand tools or machinery, his eye for detail and design, his care for method and technique, whether he is a perfectionist or a more free-spirited artisan.
Here are a few reasons why I make little boxes, in no particular order.
- Boxes don’t use a lot of material. Wood is expensive, something non-woodworkers don’t seem to realize when they ask you to make that custom table or chest of drawers. We’ve cut down all the big trees, and the little ones are getting pricier by the board foot. Being small, boxes don’t use up a lot of material. This makes them ideal for that funky part of the board that couldn’t be used for anything or that oddly sized board sitting around the shop doing nothing. That doesn’t mean I make my boxes out of scrap. I usually don’t. But no two boards are alike and lots of boards have crazy lines and figure you don’t want showing up in your next set of cabinet doors. These gems are set aside for little boxes. Wood has a way of telling you what it wants to be.
- People love boxes. You could just as easily store buttons and cuff links in a plastic box or a Ziplock bag, but that spalted cherry box with the birdseye maple top is a keepsake even when it’s not keeping anything. People seem to be impressed by little boxes in a way that a wall of bookcases or a set of maple kitchen cabinets doesn’t register. They see a small, well-crafted box and say, “Wow, you made this?” with a look of wide-eyed wonderment as though you were tapped into some sort of magic power.
One of my box-making goals is to make each of my nieces a crafted jewelry box. My first one, for my oldest niece Kristen, began as a doll armoire for her American Girl doll wardrobe. When she grew out of dolls into jewelry, the armoire was repurposed into an upright jewelry box. I’m going to make my nephew a box too, of a more manly sort, perhaps carpenter’s tool box or a box to store his computer peripherals. Men use boxes too – humidors and pipe cases, for instance. I don’t think my nephew is into tobacco products.
- Boxes are great skill builders. They are concentrated detail, a woodworking course rolled into a single project. They involve small pieces of wood, tight joints, and lots of delicate details that all work together. Unlike a large table or a chair, you tend to see everything all at once when you pick up a box. You can fudge a dovetail or two on a dresser drawer, and no one will be the wiser. But you can’t fake it with a box.
- Boxes teach the importance of sequencing. Woodworking is a sequence of operations – from dimensioning to joinery to finishing. Every project, no matter how large or small, goes through a defined sequence of steps. As actor-woodworker Nick Offerman puts it, “Canoes are built one step at a time.”
You quickly learn to see the whole in each step. Sand the inside surfaces before gluing the box together. Cut slots for the bottom and top before cutting the board apart. Make similar cuts all together; avoid resetting machinery. Practicing a new technique on scrap (I call it “R&D”) prevents your half-finished box from winding up in the scrap heap. It may be just a little business card box, but there can be many hours of work and multiple steps invested in it. Attentiveness and planning are the keys to success in the kitchen, the workshop, and life in general.
- Boxes are great design exercises for people who can’t draw. I’m not an artist, though I have a decent eye for design. Even I can draw a box and play with shape, dimension, color, and material. The box presents a nice little canvass to try out little design details that can make a big difference.
- Perfection is possible, at least to a reasonable approximation. Wood tends to be unpredictable. It shrinks and swells with the seasons. It can have knots, figure, wild grain, minerals, fungus, you name it. Boards are rarely flat. Most are curved, cupped, bent, and otherwise off. Most woodworking involves a combination of compromise, coverup, and mastery of the material. Tables are rarely perfectly flat. Cabinets are not always perfect and the rooms they occupy are never plumb and square. Chairs are known to wobble. But boxes, being small and concentrated, hold out at least a faint glimmer of hope that one might come close to perfection. And if not perfection, at least a satisfying “very good” at sunset on a Friday afternoon. Pay attention to the details, be mindful of what you are doing, listen to the wood interact with the tool, and you can come close to a little piece of perfection. The perfectionist in me smiles with approval.
- Boxes are fun, a simple luxury, like a fancy cupcake or a loaf of artisanal bread. You don’t need it, but life is just a bit more beautiful for having it. They’re fairly quick to make, too. With my slow pace in the shop, even the smallest and simplest boxes are not exactly a weekend project (there rarely is such a thing), but you can make a nicely crafted box in a week’s worth of evenings. It’s a lot better than sleeping on the couch in front of the television.
I make my boxes in batches, especially when I am learning a new design or method. I often begin by making three or four of a particular design, with different combinations of woods and slight variations in detail. Sometimes only one will make it to the final finishing step, the others succumbing to fatal errors along the way.
I always take a new box and place it in a prominent place in the house, the way the Japanese display bonsai, one tree at a time. I admire it for a while and then replace it with another. Each has its own character, its own story, its own history and challenges. Each represents my evolution as a craftsman. And even if I never make another box like it again, it will always be around to remind me of what I did.
That’s why I make little boxes.