Shaker Oval Boxes – Old Style

When I build too much stuff with straight lines, it starts to make me a little batty. So after finishing a blanket chest and a gaggle of sawbenches, I retreated into my quick, easy and curvy place.

No, it’s not a gentleman’s club, but it’s almost as stimulating. (Note to self: I must be getting old to write a line like that.) Today I spent a morning building a set of three Shaker oval boxes as a wedding gift. These boxes are an immersion course in curves, angles, steam-bending and nailing.

I first learned to build these boxes during a 2002 photo shoot with the undisputed master of the craft: John Wilson. After watching him make these boxes, I immediately built the bending forms and bought the copper tacks and some bending stock to make some boxes.

I’ve probably made 20 or so sets, and during the last five years or so I’ve altered some of Wilson’s techniques to suit my tools and way of working. And now I have it down to the point where I use hand tools for the entire process, save one little point when I fit the top and bottom slabs to their bent bands.

If you’ve never tried building these boxes, I highly recommend you give it a try. You can order all the materials directly from Wilson at or buy a small kit from Lee Valley Tools. It’s so much fun, it might even keep you out of the strip clubs.

Here, in brief, is how I’ve altered Wilson’s tried-and-true procedures in my shop.

1. Feathering: All the oval bands have to be feathered in thickness at one end so the two ends meet in a smooth curve. Wilson uses a belt/disc sander for this operation. He presses about 1-1/4” of the end to the belt sander and tapers the end to almost nothing. I do this with a block plane. I mark a line about 1-1/4” from the end and plane a taper on the end. Takes but a minute.

2. Drilling: Wilson uses an electric drill with a 3/32” bit to make the holes for all the copper tacks and for the toothpicks that secure the top and bottom slabs to the bands. I use an eggbeater drill. I look for any excuse to use my Millers Falls No. 2, and this is a good excuse.

3. Surfacing: Instead of sanding all the parts, I surface them with a handplane or scraper plane. It works great with the straight-cut stuff that Wilson sells.

4. Cutting the tops and bottoms: Wilson uses a band saw. I use a bow saw. My way is much slower, but I like using my bow saw.

So which power tool will I not give up with these boxes? It’s the table saw. Once you cut out the top and bottom slabs, you need to put a little bevel on the edges so they will snuggle into the bands with a cork-like fit.

I have a disc-sander plate I put on my table saw for this operation. I tilt the arbor a couple degrees and sand away. Someday I’ll switch to a spokeshave for this operation I’m sure.

So how fast is this process? The photos here show what happens after an hour of work. I feather the ends of the bands, cut the “fingers” with a knife and boil the bands for 20 minutes. Then I remove the bands, wrap them around the forms and tack the bands. I put a couple plugs in each band to help them hold their shape and walk away for a day.

Tomorrow I’ll spend an hour fitting and attaching the top and bottom pieces. Then a little touch-up work and I’ll be ready to spray them with a little lacquer.

Because I like my day job, I’ll spray them here at home. Click here for the back-story on that.

— Christopher Schwarz

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8 Responses to Shaker Oval Boxes – Old Style

  1. Wm Claspy says:

    I go with handtools all the way with these boxes too. I use a sharp file to put the bevel (by eye) on the top and bottom "slab" after sawing them out with my coping-sized bow saw. One day I’ll steam-punk a hand grinder with a sanding disc like Ralph Brendler does- very cool.

  2. Steve Spear says:

    Hi Chris,

    I am having trouble visualizing step #1. Do you plane across or with the
    grain? I have taken John’s class too and have attempted step #1 with a shooting
    board, but with only so-so results. A picture or more words would help me.
    Thanks. I use a rasp to put the bevel on the tops and bottoms.


  3. It may have only taken an hour to do all that work, but I bet it will take you a while to turn all those toothpicks!

    That’s an attractive and useful wedding gift. Way better than a toaster. :o)

  4. Steve,

    I’m afraid I don’t have any photos. The boxes are being packed up right now.

    Here’s my best explanation. I pinch one end (the end with the fingers) under my holdfast on my bench. Then I use a block plane to feather the other end by making strokes with the grain. I begin with short strokes right on the end. Each stroke is a little longer until I reach the 1-1/4" mark.

    Once I get to the point where the plane wont cut anymore (because the toe of the plane is rubbing the benchtop) I skew the plane and repeat the sequence. The skewing effectively shortens the sole.

    Hope this helps!


  5. Steve Spear says:


    I now get it. Thanks. I will give it a try the next time I make a batch of boxes.


  6. Michael Rogen says:

    I was just curious as to what you use to boil the bands? I know water but what do you put the water in?
    I thought I’d beat you to the punch on an easy set up for a joke.

    Thanks and take care,


  7. Patrick Secord says:

    Devo, or deja vu!
    I have just succumbed to the Shaker Box bug and this past week have been quasi-frantically making boxes as presents for Easter for visiting family. I had been wanting to make them for a few years now when I had come across John Wilson’s site. What to do with all those wee off-cuts from other wood butchering exercises? What a brilliant prospect!
    Lee Valley had begun selling the three box kits and tacks just before this past Christmas and, well, what else could I do with those gift cards?
    So the first kit I bought I made several of the boxes – the 1 and 2- but do not have a means or trough big enough for the 3. What I did find out though is that the stainless steel hotel pans or chafer inserts for chafing units are perfect for bathing box bands from 000 up to 2. (I am a chef by trade, so really butchering is legit to me, and hotel pans are a-plenty). The second kit I bought I found i was just using for the toothpicks and keeping the bands as templates for making other bands and lid/bottoms.
    Needless to say I needed something bigger, so before springing for the copper tray I opted for the galvanized one that Wilson’s Home Shop offers- and plenty of square toothpicks too. I ordered just this past Thursday by calling, and am rather pleasantly surprised at their honest business practice of shipping first, you pay later. Seems so foreign in these days of instant e-transfer.
    To make a long story shorter,after cutting bands on the table saw I found that to final thickness them I use 1" turners double sided tape to stick the band to my bench. About 1 1/2 or 2 inches of tape applied to the right hand end of the band stuck to the bench gives a firm grip as you hand plane from right to left (for righties,reverse for lefties). This also allows you to lift the left end to check with dial calipers as you approach appropriate thickness. Once there, peel it off the bench and off to the trough.. With a sharp iron and a bit of wax I find I can thickness about three or four bands this way before the tape loses its tackiness. Then just cut somemore! Hand planing also gives a much smoother finish and little if any sanding is required after soaking.
    Cheers, I really enjoy this and the Woodworking Mag. blog.

  8. Bill says:

    John comes to Syracuse (his home town) once a year to teach the box class and I just took it for the first time a week ago. I left the class with the full kit of pieces to keep making boxes; forms, shapers, tacks, etc. I haven’t yet made any at home; I’m working on getting a nice finish on the set of five from the class (Tried and True Varnish Oil – looks great, but you have to be patient!)

    Chris, I might suggest that there is one more hand tool that you could use: a shoepeg plane, so that you don’t have to make do with toothpicks. No, I don’t have a shoepeg plane, and I’ve only ever seen one outside of Mr. Hack’s book, at the Genesee Country Village shoemaker’s shop. Maybe they’d let me make a few if I asked nicely?

    Michael, the band boiling can take place in any container that will hold boiling water, but the easiest answer is to buy one of the trays that John sells. You’ll need a stove or a couple of hot plates to warm it up; I would strongly recommend that you arrange to have your bending form as close as possible to the tray, so don’t plan to boil the bands in the kitchen and then run to the workshop. They need to be hot when they hit the form. The students in the box class who dawdled on the way to the bench paid the price with split and broken bands.


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