The Phoenixtail aspen boxes

Or to be correct: two boxes with dovetails made from wood resurrected from the fire wood pile. It was going to be a shelf, but the gremlins woke…

I have an idea of a “sharp shelf” – a wall shelf that looks like the sharp sign in musical scores – the #. I had some aspen I thought would be nice for such a shelf. I also had the idea of making an eight note in teak that could hold a vase, mounted next to the sharp shelf above my piano. But then the gremlins woke – all fed, soaking wet and straight outta Azkaban!

Pre Gremlins…

In my review of the Veritas planing stop, I show some of the work I did to the aspen plank. I hand planed them 4S after ripping them down a bit on the band saw, then shot the ends square. From there I proceeded to work on what would’ve been shelf parts.

However, I quickly ran into an old adversary – I have never been able to successfully make a grid using half lap joints for some reason. Boosting with confidence, I decided that NOW was the time to raise the flag on that particular hill, and for good measure I tossed in a few monkey wrenches and ended up trying to do double dado cross half laps. Or “double dado flat whole firewood lap screwups”. I tossed the CO2-laden thingamajigs in the Bourne pile (If I ever get the time, I’ll make a scrap wood bin lined with a red “Brennen” marked bag! Would be awesome!) and got on with another shelf and life in general. For almost a year, the pieces sat there.

Then the ruined thingamajigs did a full Joaquin Rafael. You know – Phoenix. Or something close enough, since they WOULD have become ash (burned wood, not the species Fraxinus excelsior. Phun intended).

Why not make a box out of’em? And why not take on the “practice dovetails” challenge? Because this is the first time I’ve made more than one dovetail per joint! As it turned out, a lot of “firsts” got tucked under the belt on this one.

This’ll be an interesting read…

Making a box!

I ripped down the boards, removing the evidence of my sad excuse for double dado cross half laps. I ended up with parts for a nice little box. I had been smart enough to rip the planks on my band saw in stead of sacrificing to the all mighty dust collector drum, so I had some nice 8mm “veneer” which now becomes the bottom in the box.

Time for some Phoenix tails. Or dovetails, as most know’em.

Some of my arsenal of weapons.

Editor’s note (that’s me, BTW): Yes, the plane lies on its side. The reason is located in the second picture after this text. NOT because I think my work bench dulls the edge or some hogwash like that!

Spot that little dovetail thingamajig? It’s awesome! It has 1:5, 1:6, 1:8 and 1:10 guides all in one tool. Add the Starrett 6” combination square, a pencil and the screw adjusting compass, and you have everything you need for dovetail layout. I used the Veritas dovetail saw to cut to the lines (which I marked with my Veritas marking gauge), removed the waste with a coping saw and trimmed to the lines with chisels.

I then placed my hand plane on its side, swallowed some regurgitated dinner and marked the location for the pins. I then cut the pins and fettled the joints.

I surface planed the bottom and chose an iron for my Stanley 50S combination plane. It has never been used, so I spent a couple of minutes flattening the back and sharpening it to 35° as per the user manual. The Veritas sharpening jig with the narrow blade attachment is just fantastic for this!

I then used a trick Paul Sellers has shown: I placed a sash clamp in the vise and used it to hold the short pieces while plowing the dado for the bottom. I used the pin boards to elevate the tail board so that the fence of the plane would not come into conflict with the vise jaw.

I could even place the two pin boards end to end in the sash clamp and plow part of the dadoes. I then deepened the dadoes in the pin boards with a 3mm (1/8”) chisel.

I cut the bottom to size – slightly undersized to accommodate for wood movement – and chamfered the edges on the underside. Done!

Aspen is a wonderful wood to work with, but it is rather bland. This box need some accent. I had a small piece of white oak that were severely wavy and warped. Being a wood hoarder, I had saved it from the fire wood pile – and won’t you believe it: it yielded a nice little board that could be useful for just a small box like this! What a time to be alive…

But that oak board was quickly targeted for box 2. I really came to like the looks of this first box, and I decided that it should live on my work bench as it is perfect in size to hold my most used tools for layout and marking. Bit of a 180°, but that’s shop life.

I planed the inside faces and assembled the box with glue. I put some clamps on strategic locations and checked for square. After the glue had dried for a good hour, I planed the outer surfaces. My first dovetail box, and it is pretty decent!

Decent result for a first-timer!

I did make dovetails on the wall shelf, but that was just single dovetails. This is the first time I did dovetails properly. Thanks to a LOT of Youtube videos on the subject, I knew what I was doing. The small errors comes from lack of experience.

I finished the box with shellac on the inside, and Osmo top oil on the outside. All in the name of experiencing. I was not happy with how the dovetails turned out overall, so this will be a shop box / tray.

I had enough materials left for another box, and this time I decided to make a hinged lid with a raised panel made from some teak. This is all in the spirit of testing things. I therefore made three tails with 1:10 ratio to test out very thin pins. An almost complete set of monkey wrenches!

NOTE: The second box is a “try everything out” kind of project. I don’t spend a lot of time on details and perfect finish on this one. Worst case it’ll be another shop box, or perhaps a cat litter scoop storage unit. Schrödinger version: “the cat did or did not poop, but who knows for sure until we scoop”. Anyway.

I got good use out of the 3mm (1/8”) butt chisel for this; the opening between the tails are actually slightly under 3mm. I won’t go that small in the future if I can avoid it, but for the purpose of learning this was a good test.

The first joint did not turn out too well, but I decided to let it fly anyway. We’ll see how it cleans up once glued and planed. The other joints came out OK, so I’m just going to take mental notes and move on. I did not expect this to be perfect, and compared to other “first tries” I’ve seen people do I’ll count my blessings. I think I did good, and that is only because I stand on shoulders of giants! I’ve watched how-to videos by Richard (especially his “scruffy dovetails rant), Paul, Rob and many others, so I knew how to go about it – now it is time to hone skills and convert theory into practice. We’ll do that on the next page.

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