Making the Yellow Birch Letter Box

Now that I've returned to the studio after attending the exhibition in Toronto, I feel like it's time to clean-up the place and get back to work. Part of that clean-up is showing you a bit about the making of the Yellow Birch Letter Box that I first showed at the 50 Artists on 50th Art Sale in Minneapolis in April. This was a fun project. The rough milled yellow birch stock you see below came from a 330+ year old tree that was recently recovered from the watery depths where it sank after being felled over 150 years ago. The straight, closely-spaced grain lines, I thought, would look great wrapping around this dovetailed box.

Rough Milled Parts

I milled the wood down to its final size and thickness in several stages. This yellow birch was very stable, but I always allow the wood to settle between milling operations. This helps to ensure the stability of the final piece.

Aligning the grain in any piece is never an accident. It takes time to select the proper material and to locate the cuts. Careful layout of the parts ensures the grain of this birch tree will wrap neatly around the sides of the box.

Final Milling

Now focusing on the sides, I prepped the interior surfaces and laid out the pins.

Laying Out the Pins

Here's the set-up I use to chop pins.

The Chopping Block Set-up

Sharpening my chisels frequently, I use the chopping block to align my cuts at the bottom of the pin sockets.

Chopping the Pins

After checking to make sure the pins are square, I trace the pins onto the adjoining side to form the tails.

Marking the Tails

Sawing tails becomes a balancing act between making the tail too narrow, resulting in a loose joint, and making the tail too wide, resulting in a lot of extra work paring the tail to precisely fit the pin socket.

Sawing the Tails

Here's a close-up of the tails, ready for final clean-up.

Chopping the Tails

Fitting the tails into the pin sockets is an iterative process... testing the fit... paring... testing again, and so on. Patience, and a careful, methodical approach saves time in the long run.

Fitting the Tails

I think this fit will make a strong, handsome joint.

Dry-fitting the Dovetails

After dry-fitting the corner joinery, it's time to flatten the top and bottom edges of the sides and to double-check to make sure the edges are parallel.

Flattening the Box Top and Botton

With that done, I can take the sides apart and bring them over to the shaper to cut the grooves for the captured bottom and the sliding lid.

Slots for the Lid and Bottom

The side on one end of the box is then planed with a wooden jointer so that the top edge is flush with the bottom of the sliding lid groove.

Flushing the End with the Lid Groove

The piece of birds eye maple that I selected for the bottom requires some hand planing to remove the minor tear-out and other machine marks left by the surface planer.

Surfacing the Bottom

I cut the tongue profile for the bottom on the shaper, softened all the sharp edges and applied a few very thin coats of shellac and beeswax polish. I did the same for the interior of the sides and proceeded to glue the dovetail joints.

Gluing the Joints

Here you can see my set-up for cleaning up the projecting pins and tails.

Trimming the Pins and Tails Flush

The block plane does a nice job of making the joinery flush with the box sides.

Corner Joinery

The edges are then softened and the outside of the box is ready for finish.

Softening the Edges

Again, I  am applying a few light coats of shellac and beeswax polish.

Appling the Finish

I milled the parts for the sliding lid...

Milling Parts for Lid

...cut the joinery for the frame on the table saw.

Open Mortise Frame Joinery

Then, I cut the slot mortises for the panels into the rails...

Panel Mortises

... and pre-finished the parts in preparation for the glue-up.

Finishing the Lid Parts

The glue-up was done in a couple of stages, allowing time to square-up the joinery before the glue began to set.

Gluing-up the Lid

The tongue for the lid was also cut on the shaper, just like it was for the bottom. A little bit of fitting and surface preparation and the lid was ready for the final finish.

Fitting the Lid to the Groove

Here's the completed box. Be sure to check out our gallery for additional detail images of the Yellow Birch Letter Box.

The Completed Box