Trio of Nesting Boxes

Monday 9 July 2018

My article this month is my take on the Russian doll nesting boxes. Simple in their conception and highly painted, they were a series of boxes that diminished in size and fitted inside one another and consisted of no less than five dolls, and often many more.

The boxes here use raised panels and applied decoration to add interest to the group. Here I have created a group of three, which sit nicely as a group display.

When creating the prototype for this project I wondered what would happen if I twisted the top quarter – the piece instantly became more dynamic – all I had to do then was to create the multi-box. This required me to pay considerable attention to the numbers involved if the boxes were to fit inside each other; this proved to be something of a challenge. This is not a particularly quick project as it requires considerable accuracy. The blanks should ideally be rough turned to allow the timber to relax/move before final turning.

I started with the largest piece, but in hindsight, I feel it would have been easier to start with the smallest. I used timber from the same board for each box so they would all appear to have similar grain pattern and colour.

The question of how the lids should fit is important and needs to be addressed. My advice is to consider the shape of the boxes and ask and decide whether the lid needs to be a tight fit – would it be practical? When working on the boxes the lids need to be a good fit, but when finished the lids need to be easily removed.

In addition to the turning tools mentioned opposite, you will also need a Proxxon long-neck mini grinder fitted with a sanding attachment, various carving gouges and sanding sticks, acrylic sanding sealer, acrylic artists' paint and two-part bleach.

Tools used: 1.5mm (1/16in) super thin parting tool, 20mm (3/4in) box scraper, large French-curve bowl scraper, 6mm (1/4in) long-grind bowl gouge, 6mm (1/4in) round skew chisel, 10mm (3/8in) fingernail spindle gouge, 6mm (1/4in) parting tool and 20mm (3/4in) spindle roughing gouge

Turning the box

Step 1

The dimensions for the individual boxes are shown on the drawings and are dependent on the size of blank you use when creating this project. Centre and mount your blank between centres and make round using a large spindle roughing gouge. Create your chucking method at both ends of the blank to match your jaws, using the 6mm (1/4in) parting tool. Mark 25mm (1in) for waste from the left-hand end, followed by the dimensions for the box. You can work this out by dividing the length into fifths then divide by two-fifths and three-fifths for the bottom and the top – this method is used for all the boxes. To achieve a close-grain match, use a 1.5mm (1/16in) super-thin parting tool to separate the piece. With the section for the base mounted into the chuck drill to depth using a spindle gouge, then begin to remove the waste material from the box interior

Step 2

When the spindle gouge will not cope with the overhang change to a 6mm (1/4in) long-grind bowl gouge and complete the hollowing

Step 3

Finish the inside of the box using a large French curve scraper

Step 4

Use a hard-faced sanding block to lightly sand the top face – this will become part of the box opening

Step 5

Use a 6mm (1/4in) parting tool to create the top joint of the box

Step 6

Sand, seal and finish the inside of the box, then remove from the chuck. Mount the second section of the box into the chuck jaws and drill the centre to the required depth using a 10mm (3/8in) spindle gouge. When completed, open out the inside of the box lid, which will make the next stage easier and will also allow you clearance

Step 7

Accurately measure the diameter of the base opening/joint and transfer this to the lid. Ensure this is completed accurately as this is the box joint and needs to be a nice fit to allow the box to be worked at a later stage

Step 8

Now remove the waste material from the inside of the lid leaving enough room to allow the outside shape to be turned. Consider the shape of the next box that will fill the space you have created

Step 9

At this stage of the process, sand, seal and finish the piece

Step 10

Return the base to the chuck and fit the lid. True the outside diameter, which needs to be reduced to the measurement required for the final external diameter of the box. At this stage, if you feel the need to use the tailstock for added support, it's not a problem, and also can help when re-centring the box in the chuck jaws

Step 11

Now remove some of the waste material at the bottom of the box – this will help you to visualise the finished piece

Step 12

Use the 20m,m (3/4in) spindle roughing gouge to begin removing the waste wood at the top of the box, and then create the shape required

Step 13

All this work is carried out using just one tool. Remove the tailstock at the latter stages to give better access to the point at the top of the box. It feels great to turn such a fine point with a relatively large tool. Use the 6mm (1/4in) parting tool to finalise the position of the bead at the bottom of the box, as well as its diameter

Step 14

Now finalise the shape at the bottom of the box, blending all the curves together to create a pleasing shape. At this stage, sand the box to a high standard

Raising the panels and shaping the box

Step 15

Using the indexing head on the lathe mark out 24 sections equally around the piece then divide into four, then define the area that will become the panel that will appear to be raised. When marking out use a sharp and very soft pencil or the wood will become damaged and this may show afterwards

Step 16

Use a power carver to carve the boundary lines of the panels, paying careful attention to the points located at the top of the box

Step 17

Once all the panels have been carved, the panels need to be raised – this is done with a hand carving gouge. Always work away from yourself and keep your hands behind the cutting edge

Step 18

Take a Proxxon mini-grinder and sand away the excess material, helping to create your desired shape

Step 19

Sometimes I remove the metal guard when sanding as it can restrict the access and stop the sander head being used correctly – I know this may be controversial. Here is the grinder with the guard in place

Step 20

Begin to hand-sand the areas between the raised panels – here I use thin bits of wood and glue abrasive to them to allow me into all the areas that require sanding. I will, from time to time, raise the grain using water to lift the fibres, which also helps the final finish

Reverse-chucking and finishing the base

Step 21

When working on the smaller boxes you will need carving gouges and abrasives to raise the panels. Here you will need to create a jam chuck from scrap wood, which can be used for all the boxes. Before mounting the base accurately measure the final depth of the inner box – you don't won't a holey bottom at this stage. Once mounted into the jam chuck true the outside of the area that will become the bead/bottom. Take care not to damage the decorated panels

Step 22

Use a 6mm (1/4in) round skew chisel to create a small bead at the bottom of the box – this will give each box lift and allow it to sit a little higher inside the box it is being placed into

Step 23

Use the 10mm (3/8in) spindle gouge to dish the bottom of the foot. This is an area that is very often given less attention as it is not seen, but it is where every woodturner will look. Therefore, take that extra bit of care and finish it properly


Step 24

Bleaching is just another way to modify the colour of the timber and is used in the same way as liming wax or stain. When bleaching there are many variations available, but I would recommend reading the specific instructions of the brand you are using. Here I am bleaching the middle box to achieve the white colour I am looking for

Decorating the panels

Step 25

This is quite simple and requires only one power tool and some black artists' paint. Here I have used acrylic black Gesso paint as it will give a good finish when applied to the panels, and also keeps the risk of colour penetration to a minimum. Use a good quality flat brush to apply a coat of Gesso to the panel, working carefully to avoid over-applying the product. Two coats may well be required here

Step 26

Again, use a good quality artists' brush and line the edge of the panels – this will make the edges look much crisper and sharper. The next step is to allow the painted boxes to dry

Step 27

Use a ball-end cutter fitted into a rotary hand-piece to create a random pattern on the box panels. Don't look for a pattern and definitely avoid creating straight lines, where this is possible

Step 28

When the box was rotated, I realised that the natural-edge would show from the joint so I decided to add black to make the panels appear as if they were set into the box – this I did with a fine artists' brush. The panels cannot be painted all the way round as there is a risk that it would appear as a black line and that would not be desired when the box is displayed. Next, spray the finished box with acrylic satin lacquer. For boxes two and three, repeat the process for the large box and follow the dimensions on the drawing, and you too will have a small group of boxes