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Three Foot Joinery: Not Perfect but Not Merely Practical

boxaAround my last birthday, I figured I was finally old enough to attempt building something entirely with hand tools but I knew the project was doomed–my standard of taste far exceeds my standard of craft– so I made a deal with myself: Build a something that looked good at three feet. Any closer and I would be bound to see the flaws but if I could tolerate it a yard away, I could count the project a success.

I chose a jointed box, something small enough I could tuck under the bed. Note especially that I didn’t NEED a box. This is not a practical project. I would have likely slapped one together with nails and butted joints if I actually had a use for one. This project was one of those endeavors where the process is as important as the final product. I just had to remind myself that, given my zealous beginner-level skills, what I came up with wouldn’t be very “Zen” to meditate upon at up close.

For wood, I used the cut-off cedar scraps from our barn. I selected pieces that, more or less, were knot-free. The planking was rough cut on one side and since I didn’t want a box of splinters, I hauled out one the handplanes I inherited from my father. I have one wooden hand plane from my grandfather that’s stamped with his name. I’ve tuned them up as best I could using resources I’ve found in books and on-line but I’ve never had an occasion to learn their use. As I dragged that old, dime-store quality tool across the board, chattering along until I adjusted the throat, I hoped my ancestors weren’t watching me too closely. I don’t have a proper bench for wood work, that is, it lacks dogs and hold fasts, so I clamped the board as best I could. It wasn’t ideal, but I wasn’t going for ideal.

boxcI “designed” the box around the wood I had, guided by my sense of proportion to end up with one 6″ deep, 8″ wide and 16″ long. It’s a compact size, easy to hold. The lid is a single board with hand cut and chiseled rabbets that allow it to seat into the box. The sole bit of fanciness is a 45 degree flare at the ends of the lid which allows the box to be unlidded easily without a pull. I have worked hard at learning to hand saw, the graceful flow of arm and wrist, the surrender of intention to the teeth of the blade. I take great encouragement from Chris Schwartz’ maxim “If you can see the line you can cut the line with a handsaw” … and yet, even at this early stage, my work started to go just a bit wrong. Not horribly, mind you, but enough that I needed to remind myself of my modest victory conditions.

Again, lacking a proper wood working bench, I clamped the pin boards in my metal vice, once I’d padded the jaws. I marked and cut both boards at the same time, using cool tools from Lee Valley (their marking gauge and flush cutting dozuki saw.) I did my best, I swear, to transfer those marks to the other boards but again there was “slippage.” I cheated, I suppose, and cut the waste on the outer fingers but used a hand sharpened chisel to pare away the waste in the other boards. Again, it sure would have been easier with a proper work bench.

My one flat out mistake was to think that the bottom board would just magically fit. It does, more or less, but there is enough of a gap around one of the edges that a bit of black paint seeped out during finishing. Again it’s on the bottom and likely someplace I won’t notice at three feet away but if I make a similar box in future, I might fit the bottom to the sides with a rabbet. Dry fitting the pieces was a bit of an exercise in patience. The errors for the most part were corrected by shaving off a bit from the pins. There’s only one place where a glued in shim is cleverly assisting the joint.

Let me confess: I’m a sucker for doweled joints. There’s just something attractive to my eye about the little dot of end grain in the middle of a pin’s rectangle. I figured my little box could use all the support it could get. Here’s another confession. I believe I used the old-timey egg beater style drill to make the final hole but I used my battery-powered hand drill to make the pilot holes. Next time, I’ll use the electric for all the drilling. I cut off the dowels with the flush-cut dozuki and was a bit amazed as how much dowel the process took.

I trimmed and and futzed and sanded by hand and yes, at times, I wish I could have just smoothed away all the imperfections of my joinery using a massive belt sander. The surface feels good in the dark, smooth enough, even though it’s hardly pretty close up.

boxbThe lid required another level of ingenuity. I toyed around with various ideas for a pull, discarding them all. I wanted a box I could slide under my bed so no knobs. I didn’t want to make finger holes because they’d let in dust and I’d seen pulls that were gorgeously hand carved into the very lid itself… but I couldn’t kid myself that my skills could pull off something that graceful, even using the three foot rule. I decided to flare the ends of the lid slightly at a 45 degree angle. The sides of the lid are flush with the box but the lid can easily be removed.

I ran into trouble making those dreams a reality. My fancy hand miter box wouldn’t accept the 8″ wide board so I improvised using an older chop saw while angling the board, not the blade. Despite my impromptu jig, the cuts worked more or less as intended. I’d never hand cut a rabbet before… but then I’d never hand cut finger joints either. I marked, muttered a prayer and did my best which turned out to be good enough. The chisel pared away the worst of my mistakes, mostly involving a remarkably poorly placed knot and a bit of hand sanding made things look almost sharp.

Finish was a bit of tinted sealer for the outside and a couple coats of flat black on the inside. I’m usually partial to orange shellac but I figured the abuse the box would likely endure might be too much for such a fragile, albeit easily fixed, top coat. I’ll rub in some paste wax at some point.

I am very pleased with my “three foot box.” It sits right beside my bed and is often the last thing I see at night. As Long as I keep it just a little farther away than arm’s reach, it’s a thing of pure delight. I learned a great deal building it, even beyond the skills I honed. I learned to love myself and accept my abilities as they are, even as I’m striving for improvement.

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