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I have made a LOT of boxes in nearly 50 years of woodworking — toolboxes, jewelry boxes, tissue boxes,
cabinet-sized boxes, bandsawn boxes, carved boxes, recipe boxes, inlaid boxes, ring boxes, veneered
boxes, and nesting boxes. You probably made a box yourself as one of the first projects in woodshop or an
introduction to woodworking. After all, the saying is, "If you know how to make a box you can make
anything." The starting point in every box project is, "What are you going to put inside it?" After all,
most of the design decisions hinge on fitting something inside the box. Peter Lloyd, in his book, Making Heirloom Boxes calls this designing from the inside out.
Right now I am working on a special box for a family — a memorial urn to celebrate the life of a
mother/grandmother/sister/aunt. The techniques are all basic woodworking. Thickness and size the
parts, do the carving on the sides, cut the corner joints, glue and assembly, final sanding, and finishing.
Any of you could look it over and give me a critique on how well I blended the color of the wood or how
square the corners are. Designing from the inside out, I worked on specifications of volume and
minimum dimensions. But as I was doing the woodworking on this one I began to think that there is
something else to making boxes that they don't cover in woodshop or textbooks. Let me share some
This is one of the first boxes that I ever made. In junior
high, I was inspired by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. My
father had just given me my first router. From the looks
of the box I had a 1/8" straight bit and a 3/8" roundover
in my kit. The corners are simple rabbet joints reinforced
with screws that were plugged. The lid is a flat panel with
overlay hinges and a hasp. I spent hours freehand routing
the curled flourishes. More hours on the carving and
inlaid medallion. What inspired the design and motivated
all that shoptime? This box held my youthful dreams of
Middle Earth and elves and dwarves and wizards. It had
to be special.
I grew up a bit from hobbits and wizards and met a very
special girl in high school. Our relationship developed
and deepened and I wanted to give her something from
my heart — so I made a box. A jewelry box out of cherry.
The wood had been put up in the rafters by my
grandfather years before and it has been the wood of
choice for my "special" projects. The corners are box
joints, the lid is carved from a solid piece of cherry. I did
the carving with an Exacto set from my Boy Scout
woodcarving merit badge work. The carving includes her
name and a heart on the face grain and floral designs in
the end grain. Inside there is a lift out tray with a heart
design routed into the wood. Not to brag, but those box
joints were cut with a coping saw and fine-tuned with needle files. I hadn't learned about box joint jigs yet. Again, what inspired the design and motivated all
that shop time? This box held my love for my yet-to-be wife. It had to be special.
So here I am working on this memorial urn. The family
described the design they wanted, overall size, wood
selection, and finish. And then we started talking about
the poem they wanted on the side (it was something
their Mom had hanging on her wall). And the scripture
they picked out to carve on the opposite side. And how
it really should be lined with felt. Lots of details and
extra touches. Even though they weren't doing the
woodworking, they were designing the box and
thinking about how it will serve its purpose. The design
had to hold what they were putting into the box - the
love and memories of an entire family for their Mom. It
has to be special.
While the CNC drives the router these days, I watch it
carve the words of Psalm 23 and think about the
meaning of boxes. We make a box to hold or contain
something. Something special, something worth setting apart, something we don't want to lose. We
honor what we are putting inside by investing in beautiful wood, careful craftsmanship, and flawless
finishing. We usually label the contents or give some indication of what is inside, maybe by some
exterior decorations. As an engineer I can follow those guidelines and design a box. But is there more?
People who study material culture and the way that we interact with physical objects suggest that truly
meaningful objects interact with us mentally. They stimulate us through our senses (sight, touch, smell)
and generate thoughts and emotions and evoke memories. In some studies, researchers asked people
about the objects in their lives and the things they would save from a fire. The common thread of
meaningful objects was the capacity to provoke memory, trigger thought.
So how do you fit all the imagination of Middle Earth into a box? You use Tolkien's decorative motifs on
the design, you inlay the runes for the "one ring to rule them all" around an all-seeing eye. When I look
at that box it brings back memories of reading about the fantasy world of Middle Earth. How do you
make a box to hold forever love? You make their name bold and clear on the lid, you add a symbol or a
poem or something that they treasure to reinforce those connections. When the family sits with the
memorial box I am making, they won't be thinking of the rabbet joints. They will be connecting with
their memories of their Mom as they look at her poem and see the cross and dove.
As woodworkers we try to improve our skills in making a tight joint or a glossy finish. But those skills are
probably not what makes our work something to save from a fire.
Bob Rummer lives in Lawrence, Kansas and is a part-time woodworker. He can be reached directly via email at email@example.com. You can see his shop and some of his work at www.JRummerSons.com.
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