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Making Boxes

Monday 9 July 2018

Making your first box

These are boxes where the grain runs vertically through the box, parallel to the lathe axis when turning. The outside is basic spindle turning while the inside is end grain work, followed by a little bit

of engineering for the fit.

Wood selection

Traditionally turned boxes were made in boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) a very dense, fine straight grained, hard and stable wood – exactly the properties to look for. It takes fine turned detail with an excellent finish. Boxwood is probably the perfect wood for making boxes, but this timber does have one disadvantage: it is rather a bland wood, though it takes decoration well.

There are more exciting woods with similar qualities that will make very nice boxes: ebony (Diospyros spp) Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), lignum vitae (Guaicum officinale), all of which are exotic and expensive. Nearer to home, fruit woods and holly (Ilex spp) can be good providing they are very dry, otherwise they can be unstable.


Simplicity of shape should be the starting point. Make the outside straight sided, or very slightly barrel shaped. The top should be slightly domed; the bottom – turned and slightly concave – then turn the inside with straight sides and rounded corners, as it is easier to blend the base and the side.

A pillbox size – which can be carried in the pocket – with a push fit lid, fits easily in the hand, and can be opened with a slight twist. I think it is important for this kind of piece that the grain flows through the box to look as if it is one piece.

Don't forget that you want surfaces that you can easily grip to take the lid. Making the height and diameter the same gives a nice proportion. Size: about 45mm (1 3/4in) – 50mm (2in) split; base, two-thirds and the top should be one-third.

Though no matter how well the box is turned, and the grain matches, the joint line will almost certainly be visible, but, in my opinion, this is an acceptable feature. If you want to disguise the joint, then try turning some feature on the joint and repeating it either side of the joint. A little decoration can help to enhance the shape.


For a box with a friction fit lid, the wood needs to be very stable, i.e. it will not change shape after turning; this is partly taken care of in the timber selection. The timber needs to be kiln dried. Care should then be taken in where the blank is cut from the tree.

There are two possibilities:

1. As far away from the centre as possible, not including any sapwood, where there is as little curvature in the grain – just as a joiner would go for 'quarter cut' to minimise distortion

2. With the pith in the centre. This is possible with some woods as any shrinkage would be even around the box. Juvenile shrinkage could be a problem and 'part turning' might be advisable

I had a choice of timber: a branch of boxwood with the pith in the middle, which had been in my workshop for some 20 years, or apple remnants from the big order.


This project requires a spindle roughing gouge, shallow fluted gouge (or deep fluted gouge), parting tool and scrapers.

Gouges are general tools, but scrapers are 'specific' and for this box we require two specific scrapers: A 'left-hand straight' cut scraper for making the joint face and the reference face, and a similar one but with the corner rounded for refining the inside and the corners.

It is worth shaping scrapers for this box, as they will be very useful on other projects. You will also need a large 'left-hand straight' scraper.

Turning procedure

Turning a box is almost 'engineering' in wood due to the precision and the systematic procedure required.

Basic chucking sequence:

1. Between centres

2. Top – held on a spigot

3. Base – held on a spigot

4. Top – friction fit on the base

5. Base – friction fit on scrap wood


1. Turn between centres, make a spigot, then mark the separation between the top and bottom with a parting tool

Top – inside

2. Hold the top in a chuck, make a spigot, part off the base, clean the face and mark the inside diameter, joint diameter and finally, the outside diameter

3. Hollow the inside with a shallow fluted gouge. Make the joint face with a straight side-cut scraper, and refine the shape with a curved side-cut scraper

4. Undercut just beyond the joint face, as it is easier to blend the two surfaces together

5. You can now begin to sand and polish the project

6. The next step in this process is to remove the lid

Joint face

1. Use a side-cut square scraper to roughly size the joint

2. Slightly taper the edge and test if the lid will fit. If it goes on part way, mark the point then bring the remainder to that size. Test the lid again; with any luck it will slide on with a friction fit

3. Refine the face

Base – inside

7. Fit the base in the chuck

8. Clean the face

9. Mark the inside diameter, joint diameter and outside diameter

10. Rough out the inside with the gouge

11. Refine the inside shape with the scraper

12. Sand and polish the inside

Outside shape

1. The first step is to fit the lid on the base, then line up the grain pattern

2. Refine the outside with a scraper

3. Shape the top and the outside of the base

4. Sand and polish

5. Part off the base


1. Grip a scrap piece of wood larger than the internal diameter of the base in the chuck

2. Turn a spigot so that the base allows a push fit

3. Turn the bottom of the box, then sand and polish

Sanding and applying finish

The boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) finished so well off the scraper that I could have left it un-sanded, if I had chosen to do so. However, If you do sand, don't start with anything less than 240 grit and be sure to finish with 400 grit.

An oil finish, applied at a very slow speed then buffed at turning speed, gives a very nice feel to the box.


Whilst making the boxes for this project, I had a stop clock on the end of the lathe and I timed each one I made, which usually takes me anywhere between 35-40 minutes. But this time, I desperately wanted to break the 30-minute barrier. The fastest one I made – and one of the best, I might add – was the one I started just as a family came into my workshop. I chatted to them as I turned – obviously I was in fully automatic turning mode – and when I stopped the clock, it was just on 32 minutes.

Alternative boxes

An alternative type of box might be better described as a 'lidded vessel' such as a small bowl with a lid. These are generally larger and cross grain – the size would preclude a tight-fit lid as it would be difficult to remove. Also, any distortion of a 'cross grain' vessel would compromise the fit.


This is a small footed bowl with an in-turned rim into which the lid fits. It's a good idea to design the rim so that the bowl can stand alone without a lid. The lid should have a handle for lifting independently.

There is room for a matching or contrasting lid and base. If the lid and base are from the same wood, then it is desirable for the grains to match as much a possible. The lid is hollowed to match the bowl design and gives it the correct feel and weight. There are a number of options for the knob.

1. Lid and knob made from one piece

2. A separate lid is fitted in a drilled hole – but not all the way through

3. A separate lid is fitted in a drilled hole – all the way through. A button would then be put on the inside to mask the hole

Whichever method you select, this will affect the chucking method.

Wood selection

I recommend a kiln dried, medium to close grained, hardwood. If the grains are going to match then the bowl and lid should be made side by side in the same plank. If you are going for contrasting woods then make one part, probably the base with a strong grained wood, and the lid from a delicate grained wood.


Make the bowl first:

1. Hold on the top with a faceplate or single screw, now turn the outside

2. Hold on the foot – turn the inside and the joint faces

3. You can make a third holding on the lid, though you would need the tailstock to hold it in place, or use paper to create a tight fit while the bottom is turned


Making the lid and knob from one piece:

1. Hold on the top of the lid with a faceplate

2. Turn the underside, the joint faces and the decoration. Check the fit with the base

3. At this point, the base can be held on the lid with the tailstock while the bottom is turned

4. Hold the lid on the joint face, either in a jam chuck, wood jaws, jumbo jaws or against the bowl. Make sure the joint isn't damaged

5. Finish turning, sanding and applying a finish to the lid

To finish, for both boxes, I used lemon oil followed by a coating

of paste wax.


When it comes to making boxes and lidded vessels, being methodical and following a planned sequence makes the project possible. Setting out just the right shaped scrapers allows the sequence to flow easily, and, while the projects could be made with just a faceplate, some glue and a waste block, having a variety of chucking methods to hand makes it quicker and easier.

This was the first time I've turned boxwood, and I must admit that it was a real delight to work with.