A Handcrafted Dovetail Box

3 minute read

Dovetail box front

My educational background is in Electrical and Computer Engineering with a strong bent towards Computer Science. This means that I spend most of my day typing on a computer, reading technical papers, designing systems, writing code, and communicating with team members. Even when I am designing mechanical systems for the real world or using CAD programs to 3D print objects, almost all the work is done on a computer. That’s why I prioritize woodworking. I believe, that as humans, we need short-term, tangible (i.e., physical) outcomes to keep us from obsessing over potentially non-real things. Woodworking provides the physical connection to the world that so many computer-addicted folks desire. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a programmer’s blog who also listed “woodworking” as one of their hobbies. I should probably start a Meetup.com group for these people (myself included). Throw in “bicycling” and my target support group is pretty well defined.

One of us. One of us.
One of us. One of us.

Now that I have sufficiently pigeonholed myself, I can describe the dovetail box. I built this dovetail box as a Christmas present for my father. With the 2020 pandemic in full-force, which made visiting family members irresponsible, I decided that a hand-made gift was better than feeding the online e-commerce beast. After I bought the lumber from a store, I built it completely with hand tools, no electricity required.

Hand tools
Saws, blades, steel, and blood (my own).

The box is made from 3/4 inch poplar that I purchased from a local hardware store. Poplar is a nice wood for beginner hand tool woodworkers. It is considered a “hard” wood, which means it is less likely to splinter and shatter like pine, but it won’t dull the edges of your blades as quickly as other hard woods, such as red oak. Also, poplar is widely available in the big box stores at a reasonable price. Since my 7th grade wood shop class didn’t teach us how to use traditional hand tools, I learned from the masters on YouTube. When possible, I subscribe to the Paul Sellers school of thought when working wood. Many of the techniques that I used to build this dovetail box were from his video on the same subject.

Side detail 2

What is both appealing and intimidating about Paul Seller’s approach to woodworking is that it requires practice, artistry, and learned skills. Anyone can read learn how to make straight cuts on a table saw in a matter of minutes, but learning how to set and use a plane to flatten a piece of wood could take months or years. For Paul Sellers, the woodworker’s skill with the saw or plane can overcome any imperfections in the wood or tool - “A Good Craftsman Never Blames His Tools” (of course this statement has multiple interpretations). From my perspective, woodworking is a hobby that I use to escape from the technical perfection that is required in my daily profession. I enjoyed rounding over the edges of this box with a hand plane, which felt like free-hand sculpting.

Side detail 1

I have also borrowed techniques from David Barron. I prefer his technique of using a fine-toothed coping saw to cut the waste from dovetails instead of “chopping” them with a chisel, which Paul Sellers prefers. Still, I often use Paul Sellers’ technique for setting and installing hinges for box lids and doors. The accuracy on these recessed hinges, without using a measuring device or jig, is quite satisfying.

Box hinges

Poplar isn’t known for having nicely “figured” wood. However, I was able to identify an interesting feature on this poplar and I used it on the lid of the box.

Top detail

To finish the box, I used a single coat of colonial maple stain and two coats of danish oil.

When the lock down of 2020 began, I made myself a commitment to improve my hand tool working skills. Getting better at using hand tools is very similar to getting better at playing a musical instrument (c.f. Jeff Miller]). Both activities require constant regular practice and assessment. Excuse me while I go make 365 dovetail boxes.