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 ShakerOvalBox.com 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