Fun with Box Joints



In my youth, audio equipment cases would be made with good quality ply and finished with mirror like lacquer coatings and cloth. I recall owning one classy record player made by the Gramophone Company of India in the late Sixties. It was a beautiful piece and what intrigued me was the way the sides were jointed with quarter inch or less thin box joints. It was so perfect that I used to wonder how they did it. Now I know, after all these years!

Box joints are nothing but alternate slots cut on the edges of two pieces of wood so that they fit tightly together. I suppose they were originally designed to make strong boxes but I like their looks and am of the opinion they can be used in a variety of situations. The end grain of the joints soaks up stain and finish providing a pleasing contrast. 

A simple tray made with left over teak wood. This tray is about eight inches by five
Apart from the simple butt and lap joints, I think there are three principal types of joints: the mortise and tenon joint, dovetail joints and box joints which even intermediate woodworkers have to eventually learn. Making all three kinds of joints easily and accurately should be one aim of the hobbyist woodworker. 

Like all other joints, the box joint too can be cut with hand tools. A sharp back saw, a chisel or two, a mallet and accurate marking is all that a skilled carpenter would be required to cut these joints. But that is not the way for me, given my limited skills. 

An easier way to cut these joints is with a router and an accompanying jig. A lot of woodworkers prefer to use a table saw to cut these joints but most hobbyists, the router is a better option. A search on the Internet throws up many results for “box joint jigs” and indeed there are many excellent options, many of which can be watched on YouTube. If you have the cash and the inclination you could buy one from amazon.com or rockler.com. The commercial jigs are mostly for use on a router table though. 

I made my jig from instructions in a woodworking book by Carol Reed and it works amazingly well for me. Another easy and great jig is the one designed by the father-son duo of the Router Workshop (here is the link to their Internet page: http://www.routerworkshop.com/boxjoints.html). Choose what suits you best and get familiar with it. Once you get the hang of it, churning out accurate box joints will be easy and rewarding as I found out.


An experimental drawer with contrasting wood using box joints

Box joints can be used to make attractive drawers even though purists would say that the most elegant drawers are made with half blind dovetails. But I like the contrast the box joints provide and these drawers are a darn sight better than the glued rabbeted drawers most furniture makers in India produce.

Another drawer made for my desk cabinet with Teak, dyed and stained with Shellac

After making these pieces, I decided to make my first box and that’s when I realised what all could go wrong with even the simplest of projects. 

Disaster No 1: The first disaster was while cutting the joints; the router bit blew out a knot in the wood I had not noticed and left one joint toothless. I later filled it with a glue-sawdust mixture but it did not look the same.
Lesson: Check every piece of wood carefully and avoid pieces with knots or cracks.

Disaster No 2: The traditional way to make a small box is to fix all six sides and then cut off the lid. While cutting off the lid with a router using a straight bit, the sawdust clogged the groove and the router slid off and gouged into one side. I later patched this as well but it was quite noticeable even after that.
Lesson: Use an up cut spiral bit for cutting or be extremely careful while making cuts with a straight bit.

Disaster No 3: While fixing the hinge, the tiny screw split the wood. I tried to repair the split with CA glue and did not realise the thin glue seeped out of the crack and stuck the lid. Luckily I separated the lid before it was glued for good but there were other unseemly glue blotches that I could clean only imperfectly.
Lesson: Drill pilot holes for even the smallest screws and use a more viscous CA glue in such situations.

Disaster No 4: I did not have an appropriate latch and used one the wrong way on. After attaching it, I could not open the latch. I had to unscrew the latch and file it.
Lesson: Use appropriate hardware and check to see if it is working before final assembly.

My first box - a bunch of disasters but a lot of lessons (notice the botched finger in one corner)
Woodworking can be a little frustrating at times but if it is a hobby every bit is eventually enjoyable and box joints certainly are fun.

Indranil Banerjie
25 February 2013

Comments

  1. Hi Indranil,

    Very nice and helpful article on box joints. I have been following you on diyable.net and your blog. Your articles are really helpful.

    You mentioned about backsaw used to cut the joints. I could not find a back saw anywhere in Bangalore. They only had the regular saws. Is backsaw available in Delhi ?

    Thanks
    ./tbucks

    ReplyDelete
  2. To Anonymous: Many thanks for your nice comments!
    Backsaws are not generally available in India for some reason. I got one made by Stanley Tools - Yes, the YATO mitre box saw will also be fine - in fact it would be a good choice as it is priced reasonably.
    The other thing I discovered today, about which I will soon post a blog, is locally made cross-cut saws. They look amateurish but are superb saws. Unlike the Western Saws, these saws cut on the pull stroke thereby producing a very clean, straight cut.

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