Making Shaker Oval Boxes
Second Revision, By David J. Tilson
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This material was originally produced as a handout
to accompany a class I taught on making Shaker-style boxes. I've revised
it to include better descriptions of the processes involved (which were shown
during the class, and threfore unnecessary in the original), but I never
thoroughly documented the process photographically. Therefore, I must leave
it to the intelligence of the woodworker to decipher the details of the processes
involved. The references listed at the bottom of the page also include
many details and pictures to assist you in understanding the process of making
Shaker style boxes. And, of course, there's always the "Contact Me"
Safety in the workshop is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY alone; I make no warranty as
to the safety of any technique or tool shown or described on this site.
Before beginning any project, you must understand woodshop safety,
know how to safely operate any machinery that is to be used in the project,
and understand the safe use and any potential safety hazards involved in
the use of all materials to be used in the project. See the
General Safety Notice and the
Chemical Safety Note for additional
A set of Shaker boxes from #0 to #4.
In the early nineteenth century,
finding inexpensive and efficient ways of storing things could be a bit of
a challenge. Cardboard boxes, Tupperware, and Ziploc bags would
not be invented until a hundred years later. One solution arrived at by the
ever practical and efficient shakers was the oval bentwood box. Oval boxes
hold a lot with very little wood and are relatively quick and easy to make.
One of their best features is that they are designed to store compactly one
inside another, so as not to waste valuable cabinet space when not in use.
The construction of an oval box begins with two bands of veneer:
one for the box, one for the lid. Fingers are cut in one end of the band
and holes drilled for the tacks which secure the band once it has been bent
into an oval shape. The fingers serve to reinforce the main tacked joint.
The other end of the band is tapered in thickness to provide a smooth transition
where the veneer overlaps once it has been bent into an oval shape.
The veneer bands are boiled to soften them, and then they are
bent to the desired shape and held with copper tacks, which are clinched
(bent over in back) to secure the joint. After drying, the bands are fitted
with a solid wood top and bottom and finished, completing the box.
J I G S
When bending wood, some sort of form or template is usually
required. In the case of shaker boxes, the former is simply a wooden oval
form slightly smaller than the finished oval shape, the same height as the
height of the box, having two alignment marks on its top. The first is the
start point, where the end of the band is placed when beginning the bending
process. The second is the center mark, which denotes the center of the oval's
broad face and indicates the ideal location for the main row of tacks used
to secure the sides. One former is required for each size of box to be made.
After the bands are bent and secured with the tacks, shapers
are placed in them to hold their shape while they dry. Shapers are cork-shaped
oval forms, with center marks on them to line up with the tack line, and
holes in them to facilitate their removal and to allow ventilation as the
bands dry. Two shapers are needed for each box, one on top, one on the bottom;
the band for the lid dries wrapped around the box. If multiple boxes of the
same size are to be made at one time, more sets of shapers will be needed.
The center marks on each shaper must be aligned with the tack line, or the
box may be poorly shaped.
An anvil of some sort is necessary to clinch the tacks. The
simplest tool for the job is an eight-inch length of one inch galvanized
steel pipe. Galvanized pipe is best because it reduces the possibility
of discoloration of the wet wood. The pipe may be bolted to a bench, or simply
held in a vise.
One more useful jig is a template for tracing the shape of
the fingers and marking the holes for the tacks.
Detail of the fingers of a basket.
Making The Jigs
Make copies of
oval drawings: one for the form, and two for the shapers. If you want
multiple sets of shapers to make several of the same size of box at one time,
you will need more copies. Use a permanent spray adhesive like 3M Super 77
to attach the patterns to suitable stock. The form ideally is the same thickness
as the width of the band, but for boxes #3 and under, a 2X6 of a non-resinous
wood will do. The shapers can be made from 3/4" stock, or 1/2" stock for
the smaller boxes. Basswood or poplar work very well. Pine and Douglas Fir
may leak sticky resin, especially if you use the oven drying method. Rough
cut and sand the form to the inside of the line. Sand the shapers
to the outside of the line, with a 10° bevel (so it is smaller
on the bottom), and drill finger / vent holes as indicated.
Use the spray adhesive to glue the finger patterns to 1/8"
thick Baltic birch plywood, masonite, acrylic, aluminum, or any wear resistant
material suitable for making templates. A heavy coat on both pieces ensures
a permanent bond. Note that the template indicates the finished size
of the fingers, not the cutting line for rough cutting. Drill the tack marks
with a 5/64" bit.
The anvil can be made of an 8" piece of 1" galvanized steel
pipe wedged into a hole in a block of wood. This allows it to be clamped
tightly in a woodworking vise without slipping or denting the jaws.
The tools necessary for making shaker boxes are not many, and
a great variety of different tools may be used to do the same job. For making
veneer, a band saw or veneer frame saw may be used, or veneer may be bought
ready-made from one of the sources listed at the bottom of the page. For
the solid wood parts, the same tools may be used or the wood may be bought.
For smoothing shop-made veneer, a drum sander, scraper plane, veneer scraper,
or Stanley #80 cabinet scraper may be used. For the solid wood, the same
tools with the addition of hand planes and thickness planers are appropriate.
Cutting the wood and veneer to shape requires a coping saw, band saw, or
scroll saw. A belt or disc sander is handy for sanding the bevels, however,
good results can be had using sanding blocks and files.
Additional tools necessary are a sharp utility or whittling
knife, a small (6 oz. or less) hammer, end cutting wire trimmers (diagonal
cutters also work, but end nippers are better), and a padded sanding block.
A sanding block can be as simple as a flat-bottomed piece of wood around
which the sandpaper is held. The flat face allows more even wood removal
and the block reduces hand fatigue. Sanding blocks are usually padded to
cushion the sandpaper and prolong its useful life. Padding can be cork, felt,
hard rubber, or leather. The most difficult tool to find is a container in
which to boil the veneer strips, as it must accommodate a very long strip
of wood and be heat resistant. Information on where to get these may be found
at the bottom of the page.
#1 Shaker boxes.
M A T E R I A L S
Only four things are needed for a shaker box. Veneer (1/16"
thick) for the sides, thin (1/4") stock for the top and bottom, copper tacks
of an appropriate size, and hardwood pegs, to secure the top and bottom in
The veneer is roughly 1/16" thick, much thicker than most commonly
available veneers today. It must be sawn or sliced from straight-grained
stock having no knots or grain deviations. Curly, birdseye, and other figures
tend to be unsuitable. Simply put, the grain must run parallel to the surfaces
of the bands, else it will split or snap upon bending. Woods that work well
for the veneer include maple, ash, cherry, sycamore, and flatsawn South American
mahogany. If mahogany is used, care must be taken to avoid splitting the
For colorful boxes where the beauty of the wood's grain can
still show through, try adding aniline dye to the water. Stains contain
particles of pigment, which obscure the wood's grain and do not penetrate
beyond the wood's surface, but dyes color the wood chemically, allowing the
wood to shine through the transparent color. An alternate method is to use
a non-grain-raising (NGR) dye after the box has been dried out. Either way,
the box bands can be colored either to match or to contrast with the lid
and bottom stock.
The 1/4" stock for the top and bottom must be dimensionally
stable, or the seasonal moisture changes in the wood may cause it to shrink,
producing gaps where it joins the side of the box; or expand, possibly breaking
the bands. Solid wood should be quarter sawn, that is, the face of the board
should be at right angles to the tree's growth rings, in order to reduce
seasonal movement. The best woods are eastern white pine, mahogany, cherry,
maple, ash, sycamore, and walnut, in that order.
An alternative is using veneered Baltic birch plywood.
This special plywood uses all premium veneers and has no internal voids,
unlike most plywoods. It can be veneered with anything, including those figured
woods which could not be used for the sides. The important thing when veneering
plywood is to veneer both sides, otherwise severe warping can occur.
The "hardwood pegs" are merely tapered round toothpicks cut
in half; it is the copper tacks used to tack the bands once they are bent
that are the hardest to find. Apparently there is only one source producing
copper tacks suitable for shaker box construction. See the material sources
section at the bottom of the page for the supplier. As a side note, commonly
available steel tacks are much too hard to clinch properly, and they tend
to stain the wood.
Hammering and clinching the copper tacks on a box band.
T H E P R O C E S
It is highly recommended that anyone making boxes for the first
time study this section before proceeding. Some of the box-making process
is slow and slightly tedious, but some parts are too fast-paced to go about
fumbling with an instruction manual in one hand and a wet box band in the
The first step is to select wood and cut the veneer. It is
often easier to purchase a kit with the veneer and other materials included,
but I will cover the procedure for making it here in case you wish to make
your own rather than ordering it. The veneer for shaker boxes should be about
1/16" thick. For baskets and large boxes, the veneer should be about 5/64"
thick, for boxes #2 and smaller, thinner 3/64" veneer forms to the tight
curves better. The way to make custom veneer is to saw it from thicker boards.
The band saw is best suited for veneer making, as it wastes little wood.
Use as wide a blade as possible with 6-8 teeth per inch to get a smooth surface.
I have had good luck with a 1/2" wide 4 tpi. blade on a 14" bandsaw, and
with a 1" wide, 2 tpi. blade on an 18" bandsaw. When sawing veneers, always
joint the face of the board between cuts so one face of the veneer will be
smooth and flat. After the veneer is cut, it must be smoothed. A wide belt
sander is very nice for this, but also very expensive. A small shop can rig
up a belt or drum sander to sand to thickness, or the veneer can be scraped
using the tools listed in the tools section above. Thickness planers do not
work, as the veneer will bend and break under the stress of planing. Experienced
woodworkers may find a well-tuned, superbly sharpened hand plane suitable
for smoothing veneers.
The solid stock selected to match the veneer (or contrast with
it) can also be roughed out at this stage. It needs to be quarter sawn to
avoid seasonal movement, or veneered plywood may be used as described above.
Regular (unbacked) veneers, being thicker than the flexible varieties, are
easier to sand smooth. Always veneer both sides of the plywood to avoid severe
warping, and use Baltic birch plywood for its higher quality. The stock for
most boxes is 1/4" thick, or 3/16" for smaller sizes of box.
Select which side of the box band veneer should be the outside
of the box. If you purchase ready cut veneer, follow the directions supplied
with it to determine which side has the knife checks, and place that side
to the inside of the box. Mark the outside with pencil. A soft pencil
such as HB or B2, used for sketching and available from art supply stores,
leaves easy to read marks that sand away with equal ease later.
Place the finger template at one end of the band (I use the
right-hand end), and trace the pattern for the fingers and placement for
the tacks using a sharp #2 pencil, then saw outside the traced
line. Drill the tack holes with a 1/16" drill and trim the fingers at a 10°
bevel, being sure to bevel the outside of the fingers with the knife.
To feather the other end of the band (not the finger end!), sand a 1 1/2"
long bevel so the veneer tapers down to about 1/64" thick at the end. After
sanding the faces of the bands to 150 or 220 grit, it is a good idea to label
the different bands in pencil for easy identification on removal from the
water bath. You are now ready to boil the bands prior to bending.
While you boil the bands for 10-20 minutes, set up your
equipment for bending and tacking. When bending the bands, speed is essential;
the wood cools in about 30 seconds, so make certain everything you'll need
is within easy reach.
Once the bands are fully "cooked" (they should be quite soft
and pliable), remove a box band, start the feathered end at the start mark
on the form, and wrap the band around the form toward the center line of
the broad side of the form. (In other words, from the feathered end,
the band wraps around the broad face of the form first, not around the end.)
I usually lay the band flat on the bench, and roll it up onto the
form, but whatever is comfortable for you will work fine, as long as the
band is suported as it bends to fit the form. As you finish wrapping
the band around the form, make sure you hold all the fingers, and
that the beveled side of the fingers faces out. Hold the band on the
form for a minute and press the bottom edge flat on the bench to make sure
the band is not skewed as it wraps around the form. Then mark the circumference
on the top of the band in soft pencil. (This is just a mark across both bands
for alignment purposes.)
Remove the band from the form (don't open it any more than
necessary) and return it to its proper circumference, then press its bottom
edge flat on the bench once more. This assures a flat top and bottom edge
on the band to minimize sanding after fitting the lid. Finally, tack the
joint down, starting with the main vertical line of tacks. It is vital to
hold all of the fingers down until the main tack line is complete; otherwise,
the band is likely to split down the middle. I find that one or two spring
clamps with plastic jaws can make holding the fingers much easier on larger
boxes. When tacking the bands, make sure you are tacking directly over the
anvil to achieve a tight clinch. I find that holding the band at a diagonal
across a pipe anvil clinches the tack across the wood grain, thus giving
a stronger joint.
After securing the box band, lightly press the shapers
into it. The goal here is to maintain a smooth shape; you don't want to stretch
or deform the bands. Line up the centerline on both top and bottom shapers
with the tack line. Some gentle coaxing may be necessary for proper alignment.
Keep the box handy for forming the lid band.
Get out the lid band and prepare to bend it in a similar fashion
to the box band, but this time you'll start with the finger end first.
Place the tack line over the tack line of the box, and wrap the lid
band backwards around the box band and shapers, working from the finger
toward the feathered end. When you've come around the back side to
the front again, allow the finger to lift just enough to tuck the feathered
end underneath. Hold the band, mark it, and tack it as with the box
band, then slip it back onto the box band with its tack line lined up with
that of the box band. Set both aside to dry.
There are two ways to dry the box and lid bands:
The preferred way is to set them aside in a warm, dry place for 1-2 days.
This method is slow, but more reliable.
The fast way is to put them in a 150° oven for 4 hours or until there
is no moisture between the lid and box bands where they overlap. Then set
aside for at least 2 hours to cool and allow the moisture content of the
veneers to stabilize.
Microwaving the bands to dry them is inadvisable due to the copper tacks.
(Wood + Metal + Microwaves = Fire!)
When the boxes are dry, sand the insides of the bands thoroughly
(the outsides will be sanded later). Trace the shape of the bottom of the
box band onto the blank that will become the inside of the box bottom, using
a sharp #2 pencil. (Naturally, the grain of the lid and bottom lines up along
the long dimension of the box.) Also trace the top of the lid band onto the
inside of the lid. Mark the location of the tack line on the wood blank and
be careful to orient the fingers correctly when tracing the
bands! You don't want a box with left-facing fingers and a
I sometimes find that the lid bands, despite having dried while
wrapped around their corresponding box band, want to assume a different shape
than the box. I've learned to always check for this, and when I find an offending
band, I place it on its box band so that its bottom edge is on the box band,
but its top edge extends above the box band at least 3/8". I then turn the
assembly over and carefully trace the shape of the inside of the lid band
onto the lid blank as usual. It is an awkward technique, but it is the only
reliable way to make the lid fit the box.
Rough cut the top and bottom 1/8" outside the line, then sand
the edge at a 2-3° bevel to the inside of the line to achieve a tight
fit in the band. If you are using a stationary sander, the table on the sander
is tilted 3° UP so the narrow face (the one you traced the line on)
of the lid or bottom faces into the box.
Sand the inside surfaces of the top and bottom thoroughly,
then starting with the overlapped edge (the feathered edge of the veneer),
press the top and bottom into the bands until they are level with or just
a hair below the edge of the band. If there are any gaps between the band
and the top or bottom, put a little glue into the gap, then mix in some sanding
dust. The dust will make putty with the glue and fill the gap.
Drill holes through the box band into the bottom piece and
through the lid band into the top piece for the "hardwood pins" (toothpicks).
The holes are 1/8" from the edge of the band, 1/2" deep, and 1/16"
diameter. The holes should be aligned with each other on the box and lid
bands, and spaced about every 2" around the box. (#0-1 boxes get four pins
in each band, #2-3 boxes get six, #4 boxes get eight, and so on.) Lightly
tap the pins in with a small hammer, trim with wire nippers and cut flush
with a utility knife. Glue is not necessary to hold the pins in, but it may
be used anyway. You can hear when the pin has bottomed out more easily
than you can feel or see it, so a quiet shop helps at this stage.
Sand the outside of the box, and round all sharp corners, paying
particular attention to the inside of the lid band and the outside top of
the box band so the top will slip easily onto the box. Try to preserve the
crisp details around the fingers. Now is also the time to re-clinch
any loose tacks.
Apply the finish of your choice; traditionally boxes were finished
with milk paint, with the lid left on during painting. This prevented the
lid from sticking to the soft finish. Later, clear lacquer (my preferred
finish) was used to allow the grain of the wood to show through. I
prefer to lacquer my boxes inside and out; a coat of wax improves the shine
and prevents the lid from sticking.
|Rockler Woodworking & Hardware
1955 N. Tustin Ave Orange,
CA (714) 282-1157
Woodworking tools and supplies, thin stock for lids.
406 E. Broadway
Charlotte, MI, 48813
(8:30-5:00 Eastern time, Mon-Fri)
Tacks, veneers, lid stock, kits, boiling trays, etc.
Shaker Oval Box Manual
By John Wilson
Shop Drawings of Shaker Furniture
By Ejner P. Handberg
Three volumes of measured drawings of Shaker
furniture and accessories, including oval boxes.
Web Page: Making Shaker Oval Boxes
By Ralph Brendler
About the Author
David Tilson has been avidly working wood in one form or another for over
twenty years. Among his earliest projects were many boxes, and over the years
he has made wood boxes of all sizes using every method of construction he
could find, including bandsawn, turned, carved, bent wood, and carcase
construction. He has taught woodworking for over seven years at local stores
and from his home shop, and continues making boxes in between cabinet, furniture,
and woodturning projects.
Copyright © 2000, 2005, 2009
David J. Tilson