Making in Oregon: Beginner’s woodwork

Making in Oregon: Beginner’s woodwork

Here in Portland I’ve just signed up to a woodworking class, held by the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers. It’s a bit of a challenge as we’re going to make a gift within four weeks and I’ve chosen a pretty complicated one – making a toolbox for specific tools. It’s been a really interesting process and one which I’d like to remember as I’ve never really worked with so many different power tools in one go (!) and in my adult life haven’t taken on a woodwork project yet. Hopefully by documenting the process here it’ll help me next time I have a try.

Just a note on the course - it’s run by an incredibly generous guy named Larry, who is helping me all the way and giving me all of the tips and notes written in this post! It’s a great little course with just three of us. He’s given so much of his time and expertise to this project and I’m very very grateful for all his help and tools - and materials! So Thank You Larry!

Making a Box


Measure the tools and prioritise how and when they’ll be used. Being able to group the tools by a combination of size and use provides a great indication to the format of the toolbox design.
There are a few design choices here – would a transparent lid be useful? The current toolbox has an empty flat lid which can be used as an additional tray when open – is this used and why? When do tools get misplaced most and why – how much space is available on the working area for a take-out tray?
There are material choices for aesthetic and basic strength decisions such as the lid style, how tools can be held in the toolbox by magnets, foam cutouts or bungee ropes, and if the box needs a handle. How heavy will the tools be inside the box and how will that affect the strength of these different areas?
The weight of the tools and way it will be used is crucial, as it will affect the design of the joints. If it’ll be thrown into a backpack while cycling, as here, the joints need to be strong enough to hold up to quite a bit of pressure, more than if it were a decorative box. Joints with a larger glue surface will be stronger, and ones with hardware (nails or screws) and pinned dowels are even better.
The design needs to be based on the crucial measurements of the tools themselves, and then their use, along with the decisions above.


2A. Find the Lumber

From the designs and measurements, find wood which will suit these sizes and your aesthetic vision – dark, light or mid-tone wood. I lucked out and Larry had recently picked up some Spalted Alder wood which has incredible black lines on light-to-medium toned wood, a really beautiful effect of a fungus in the tree – but one which will eventually kill it.

A Mitre Saw

2B Rough-cut
Rough-cut the lumber to size and be careful that the measurements you have are a decent way larger than the final size, so that you can shape and narrow the block to it’s finished state. Rough-cut the lumber with a Mitre Saw.


First, the timber needs to have reliable flat sides and edges that every other measurement can be made from. To do this, the wood is run through a  Jointer on the face side, and the Planer is used to make the width consistent. The edge can then be made straight against the flat side with the Jointer, so that there’s a 90 degree corner there. The Table Saw makes the opposing edge straight – making a board much easier to work with!


If a board isn’t wide enough, but there’s a board that is double as thick, slice it on a Bandsaw and butterfly to lay flat.After gluing, you can use the Planer to make sure the two boards are a consistent width. This is a little risky, especially with the Spalted Alder as it’s not very strong, has various soft areas and the glue may chip! Mine was fine.

Nb. I’m working with sometimes-strong sometimes-weak Spalted Alder, and on the tray base it’s especially weak. I’ve doused this in a very runny superglue to strengthen it.


2C Cutting to Size
Keep referring back to the plans and measurements. In this project I made a box-in-a-box, so I kept having to re-check the gap between the two. It shouldn’t be too tight, as it’s meant to be often used and easily replaced after use, but not too loose to slide around.
The sides should be cut to length first and then the base can be made to exactly match that.

The planer, set by 1/16″

The Planer can be set to gradually trim the width of the boards to size. By pushing through one board right after the other you can prevent the board from getting the planer’s snipe that occurs when the end of the board lifts slightly. These snipes will need to be sanded out later.
The Mitre Saw can be used to cut the length of the boards exactly to size. All boards should be marked with a marking crayon: A line all the way down the base edge, and an O for the outside edge.



2D Routing the Joints
The lid is a perspex sheet which will run on routed runners. It will have a 1/4” gap between the runner and the top to make sure this area is strong. One end will be shorter to allow for the sliding mechanism and handle.

Side section


The base will be inset into Rabbet Joints so that it lies flush with the ends. This will give maximum area for the glue and allow both an end-grain and long-grain connection. Glue is absorbed more by the end grain and therefore makes a weaker joint.


The Wood Router Table allows you to easily cut these shapes into the wood. Careful – if your box has uneven width sides or has an inset base like mine, the routed notches might not need to go all the way to the ends of the wood (see Base plan, above).

Router bit set up to drill rabbets

After the joints have been routed you are ready to begin attaching the sides together. Before this, remember to sand the insides so that they’re smooth – I began from 100 grit (coarse) to 320 grit (fine). I began by hand, and at the finer levels I used a power Random Orbital Sander to get it super smooth in less time. By hand, the black fungus in the Spalted Alder acts like soot, and discolours the pale grain surrounding it – but with the power Sander it seemed okay.


2E Gluing the Joints
Gluing should never be rushed. It is important to prepare the gluing area with your wax paper and decide on the placement of clamps and supports before getting out the glue.
I used TiteBond II wood glue for both the base and the tray. I was very careful when putting on the glue, especially around the runners for the lid, as any glue here could prevent a smooth movement. However, that top section above the runners needed to be glued strong so that it doesn’t snap off in case of the box being dropped. For the main box, a cinched strap with corner shapes ensured a 90 degree angle for a perfect box. Once the glue is in place, measuring across the box from corner to corner allows you to double check that the corners are perfectly 90 degrees.

Supports and a strap keeps the corners tight when gluing


Painter’s masking tape is useful to prevent the glue squeezing into the inner corners, and cut-to-size offcuts provide strength to the inside shape to prevent bowing as the glue dries. Here I used two shorter pieces inside the walls, and one acting as the base slotting into the routed sides. Gluing the box upside down allows me to see exactly how flat the base is – especially as one end is shorter to allow for the sliding lid.

About half an hour after applying the glue, it’s important to check the squeeze-out – ideally there will be some squeezed glue along every edge. Then I used a Chisel to lightly pop off bubbles of glue which were tacky at this stage, careful not to get the soft glue on any other areas of the box.


At this point it’s also a good idea to remove the masking tape so that you avoid glued-in blue corners!

Once the sides are glued, the base is the next step. Again,
here it’s important to sand on a flat board or the Random Orbital Sander so that the inside is nice and smooth, and prepare the area carefully so that you’ll have a good glueing and the box will be strong. The glue actually connects the wood stronger than the wood itself, when done properly.

The base often fits better one way than the other, so a quick line of chalk across the base and side makes it clear which way it goes. Using masking tape along the base and at the very bottom of the side walls will prevent the ‘squeeze-out’ glue from touching the wood here and helps me chisel it off later.glue-chisel copy

Glue carefully but quickly, as it dries within 5 minutes. Remember to triple check the areas that need to be glued and where the attachments will be. With mine, the base of the main box bows a little and so the middle of that end needed to be extra strong – with more glue. The glueing took quite a bit of time, preparing the clamp placements, considering the weaker areas and glueing the two box bases on. The tray base wasn’t quite as good a fit, and needed some glue-sawdust mix so that the gaps won’t show. I pushed this mixture into the gaps with my fingers and they should appear the same colour as the wood when it dries.


When gluing the base the clamps compress the joints from every angle to ensure a tight bond



3A Sanding 
Now that the box is in it’s final form (exciting!) it needs to be gently sanded until smooth. I began at 100 grit to 320, and then a quick 400. My box has a few smaller section walls, but nothing which would really support the sides with this sideways movement. Ideally, I’d have made a solid filling for the box so that thesanding2 joints would have been fully supported for sanding, but i was running out of time, so instead was just very gentle, sanding in the direction of the grain and being careful about the corners to make sure they didn’t chip. I began using a Flat Sanding Board to make sure the overall shape was smooth, chipping off any glue on the outside edges. Then I finished the sanding with a handheld block. The Spalted Alder was very soft in some areas, so sanding was quite quick. I made sure that all the red crayon markers and planer snipe marks disappeared, as any flaws could be highlighted at the varnish stage.
The Alder varies from light to medium wood in colour, but as i was sanding i noticed that the sooty black from the ‘spalting’ was discolouring the lighter wood around it. I discovered that a standard Pencil Eraser (rubber) was soft enough to get rid of this when used lightly and didn’t sacrifice the smoothness of the sanded wood.


3B Finishing
After sanding, the varnish stage can be begun, but the box must be clear of all dust particles. I used a Pressurised Air Hose to blow off the dust, as well as vacuuming the area.
The finishing process was this:
  • Vacuum the dust off the box
  • Wipe with a Mineral Spirit cloth to soak the wood with good oils and remove the final dust particles
  • Decant a couple of tablespoons of Oil-based Wipe-on Varnish into a container.
  • Soak up a little into a Lint-free cloth, and wipe onto the wood methodically, making sure to spread evenly and across every corner and bend of the box.
  • Wipe off the varnish a little to make sure the corners don’t puddle with too much additional varnish. Use a lamp or nearby bright light to check all areas are glossy and evenly varnished.
varnishIt’s a good idea to wear gloves, and to try to handle the box in only a couple of locations so that you can be sure to wipe back over those areas for a perfect finish. I used a few plastic triangles to balance the boxes on where there would be as little affect on the finish as possible. After 6 coats of varnish, I used Epoxy Glue for the final touch – the wooden handle attached to the perspex lid.
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FINISHED!! I can barely believe we made this in under 3 weeks. I’m so pleased with the outcome, it’s a perfect toolbox. The Spalted Alder was the perfect choice, with an incredible contrast between the light, medium and black spalted lines coming out in the finish. This is a long post, but I wanted to make sure I had every stage noted, so that my next woodworking practice can be as thorough!