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Best Resources for Building Boxes with Hand Tools

Stephany's picture

Hello, all.  If anyone has made small boxes by hand and/or can recommend resources on the same, I'd be very grateful. 

I'm about to embark on building some small boxes with hand tools (and may attempt a beach glass inlay, we'll see how that goes).

I love Doug Stowe's books and DVDs, but like most articles, books and videos I've found, it is assumed that the novice box maker has a wide variety of power tools at his or her disposal.  Aside from my router, which may be sufficient, I'll be building my boxes with hand tools.

So far, I've just been "translating" power tool-based plans in my head to substitute the "equivalent" hand tool: If a plan calls for a bandsaw to produce a pair of book-matched halves, for example, I'll plan to use a Japanese ripping saw.  Note my use of the word "plan": I have not actually done so, and am wondering if I'm just setting out on a fool's folly here. 

BruceS's picture

No folly at all (post #152862, reply #1 of 12)

For many hundreds of years boxes were made by hand with the aid of simple hand tools.  Only because of mans lack of patience has he opted to use power tools.   There is a lot to be said for the "old" ways.  Really stable lumber has been hand rived and hand planed.  Carefully hand fitted jointery is much stronger than the lazy mans nails or pocket screws.

The old reliable mortice and tennon has been around for a long time.  as well as hide glue and shellac.

But convincing the NOW generation to pay10-20X the price over a machine made product will be another story.

Work Safe,  Count to 10 when your done for the day !!

Bruce S. 


Stephany's picture

Thank you, kindred spirit (post #152862, reply #2 of 12)

Thanks, Bruce.  I'll keep on keeping on.  I have long preferred hand tools and, well, maybe the lack of resources on building boxes by hand just means I should document the adventure for others.  :)

BruceS's picture

Interesting boxes (post #152862, reply #3 of 12)

Here is a book that I've found very interesting, wood hinges and all.   Some primative,  but artistic, some pleasing to the eye and all a conversation piece in themselves.  As Walt Disney said,  You are only limited by your imagination.  Take a book idea and take it a step further, and make it your own.

I have reviewed the book by the author you mentioned and I like that book also.

Work Safe,  Count to 10 when your done for the day !!

Bruce S. 


9619's picture

Steph, Have fun making (post #152862, reply #4 of 12)


Have fun making boxes with hand tools.     Rob Cosman's videos and book on dovetailing are excellent for the dovetailing skills.  Stowe's books say it all.    After going through those, what more can one say.  Just find interesting wood and things and make them into boxes.

One interesting question is:   where does one stop with the hand tools?    With small boxes, one must thickness your wood to a quarter or three eighths or so.   Are you going to do that with a rip saw by hand?     I don't.   I use my bandsaw for thicknessing, and leave an extra sixteenth for hand planing.   I hand plane the first side before putting it through the bandsaw.   

You need to make a bench hook for doing crosscuting by hand.  You need to make a shooting board to square your boards perfectly.  You can get great articles on how to make these on FWW or elsewhere on the web.     My shooting board is one of the most important tools in my shop.    You also need a good smoothing plane, and a good plane for using at the shooting board.   No need to argue about which one is best.  Pick your poison and learn how to use these tools well.   I highly recommend the books    "Handtool Essentials"   and Hand Plane Essentials"  by Chris Schwartz.    Very good and very practical for the person who wants to lean how to work with hand tools.

If you want to get a good crosscut and rip (Hand) saw, I can give you a guy's name and email address.  He refurbishes old ones and sharpens them beautifully and at a fair price.       For handplanes, you cant beat Lie Nielsen and Lee Valley, but the old Stanleys can be made to work well. 

The only problem I see with Stowe's books is that they focus on "boxes", and not on the skills necessary to use hand tools to make them.   If you are not proficient in the use of hand saws and planes,   I really recommend that you focus on learning to use them.   In one two month period, I made ten dovetail boxes in the style of Rob Cosman.    After the fifth (or so),, I found myself really getting comfortable with the process and having fun with it.   I recommend "massed practice" --   make a number of the same thing to get the skills honed down.  

I am just finishing up a case wtith three drawers.   The case is my first attempt at half blind dovetails.   The two shelves were put in with sliding dovetails.  The drawers fronts are lipped and Half-blind dovetailed (quite complex to do by hand).  The drawer bottoms are solid wood, with fielded edges (raised panel) for them to fit into the slots.   I made the slots with my Stanley #45.    I have also made them with a router plane.        I am now carving Baroque S curves and will apply them to the two sides of the case, and I will carve three drawer handles (C Scrolls).     This case is a "practice piece" in which I am trying to pick up and hone skills that I didn't have.    There is a great feeling of accomplishment when those things work out.   So far, everything has worked out.    When I was making the ten boxes,  I did make two of them shorter than I planned, due to cutting in the wrong places (despite lots of attention about cutting in the right places).     

Most of all,   have fun.    Let me know if you have any questions about books, videos, hand tools,  skills, and I will let you know what I tried and what works for me.   Maybe some of that will work for you.   

Let me know how you are progressing.   Stay in touch.  It is good to find another person who is doing boxes with hand tools.


Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Stephany's picture

Thank you! (post #152862, reply #6 of 12)

Excellent advice.  Thanks so much for taking the time to post such detailed information.

I've been using hand tools heavily (in comparison with power tools) for six years now so, while I'll always feel like a beginner, I'm comfortable with them and need no encouragement to hand paychecks right on over to Lie Nielsen or Lee Valley.  :)

I don't have and have never used a shooting board, so I'll be sure to look into that.  Mel, I'd like to take you up on your offer of that  refurbished rip saw, and your acquaintance's name and email address.  Thanks!

9619's picture

Steph, The name of the saw (post #152862, reply #7 of 12)


The name of the saw man is  Michael Merlo.   You can reach him at his email address:

He has a lot of old saws.  I believe he has over a thousand.  He fixes them up into top condition.  He was on EBay until about a month ago.    I wrote to him and asked him what happened.  He said that he is preparing saws for other customers.   Tell him that a guy named Mel, from Virginia, recommended him to you.       Let him know what you want in a saw.  In other words,   rip or crosscut,  and whether you want a panel saw (shorter length, like the Lie Nielsens length, or a more standard 26".      His prices are good.  He is not cheap, but the quality can't be beat.  His saws are super sharp.   People who get into sawing competitions use him to tune their saws.    

Have fun.    



Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Stephany's picture

Just emailed Mike (post #152862, reply #12 of 12)

Thank you!  I prefer used tools, provided they're well maintained, to some new ones (at new prices).  New is not always better (but I wouldn't turn down the donation of a $200+ Lie Nielsen rip saw, I admit).  ;)

derekcohen's picture

Hi Steph I have made many (post #152862, reply #8 of 12)

Hi Steph

I have made many boxes with the minimum of power tools, in fact the only one I would consider to be a given for inclusion is the bandsaw, as Mel stated. You can use a framesaw to resaw boards, but that is particularly difficult if you want thin sides. For example, this 1/4" thick sided box ...

Preparing a board without a thicknesser-planer-jointer:

Mel is again spot-on when he singles out the shooting board as the handtool of greatest important when builduing boxes (including drawers), so ...

Setting Up and Using a Shooting Board:

There's another box in this one as well ....

Shooting for Perfection:

Let us know how you get on.

Regards from Perth


Stephany's picture

Thank you... (post #152862, reply #11 of 12)

... for taking the time to add pointers to so many resources.  I'm taking a break from reading about box building and hope to pick out some wood tomorrow (and document the experience).

Really appreciate your help.  Thanks again!

RalphBarker's picture

no folly (post #152862, reply #5 of 12)

FWIW, I agree with the others - making boxes with handtools is no folly, it just takes a little longer. For the "handtool person", however, taking longer translates into greater satisfaction.

I also agree that making and using a shooting board is a great help with making boxes with handtools - both in terms of precisely squaring the components and trimming corresponding pieces to precisely the same length. I do, however, recommend making what I call the anvil (the block against which the pieces are held) adjustable. Being able to shim one end of the anvil will allow you to "dial in" the precision of the jig's squareness.

SawdustSteve's picture

Box making (post #152862, reply #9 of 12)

I don't know if this qualifies as the answer you want, but....  A number of years ago, there was a TV program called 'The Router Workshop.'  The only thing this father & son did not use a router for was brushing their teeth.  They had a program on making small boxes using 1/2" wood and  two set-ups of the router.  I'm sure it is available on one of their video tapes or DVDs.  You could substitute a dovetail saw and hand router  (stanley #71 style) for most of the machine work.    I believe their sales division went under the name of Oak Park.   If nothing else, the instructions may give you ideas for an easy mass production system.

SawdustSteve   Long Island, NY    (E of NYC)

mufti's picture

Building small boxes (post #152862, reply #10 of 12)

      Once upon a time it was a case of  starting by doing jobs by hand and then looking for ways to get the same high

standards yet using machines. Sadly not any more.

For me the main requirements are tight grained stock and constant thickness. The rest is care and patience, not easy to find when using power tools. By hand one has time to think. Good luck.