Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Old Pencil Box

I recently picked up this old pencil box, because I like old things, boxes, pencils (don't get me started on the Dixon Ticonderoga 1388...) and mysteries. This box is a mix of all four. What really struck me was how similar it was to Roy Underhill's grease box.

The sliding dovetail lid reveals a upper storage compartment:

It also unlocks the pivoting mechanism allowing the lower compartment to be reached:

On the underside of the swinging section I found a date - cool!

And it's easy to see where some past owner or owners checked their spelling and arithmetic:

Here's the mystery. The bottom isn't really the bottom. It has a full length dovetail that connected something else to this box. What was it? Another level with more storage? Has anyone seen a more complete version?

For one of my next projects, I'm going to try to make a reproduction of this box, but I'm not sure what to do about the missing section(s). Any ideas?


  1. I'd bet that the pencil box was made from leftover wood from another project and the dovetail was part of that project.

    I've done molding repair work for people who live in smaller homes in an area where an estate home was built. The leftover molding from the estate would be cut down and used in the smaller homes and I frequently find unexpected cuts in the trim work.

    But you can use you imagination an believe that the dovetail on the bottom of the pencil box was meant to slide in to a matching counter part on a drafting desk.

    This could make your reconstruction all the more fun.

  2. My first thought was that the box slid into a corresponding dovetail in a desk as well. Maybe a school desk where your clumsy classmate might knock it off. Or maybe a desk that moves around a lot, like on-board ship.

    But the left over molding idea sounds just as (if not more) plausible.

  3. Continuing the meme, maybe it joins a lap desk?

    Interesting puzzle and I hope someone comes along with a definitive answer.

    Yes, it's a VERY neat little box. Like you, I'm bumping Roy's grease box off my to-do list and replacing it with this. My better half likes pencil boxes and this will make a good b'day gift.

    Thanks for posting it.

  4. Michael - Hmmm. So first I need to build the drafting table... That is an interesting idea - I'll have to see if I can find anything about that. Your other idea could be correct too - although I'm pretty sure the dovetail was made for the box itself... Thanks for the ideas!

    Erik - It does sound possible. I think I need to learn a lot more about pencil boxes. The few that I've seen always seemed complete unto themselves. I guess I should look more at old school desks as well... Thanks!

    Bob - Lap desk - I like that idea! It could store inside, and then move to the outside for use. Hmm.

  5. That is very intriguing! I love the functional artistry of it.

    I look forward to seeing your reproduction, that might something to try out later.

  6. Wow, A Dan Quadfecta!

    Is the source of this treasure a secret?

    Very very cool box!

  7. If Erik's view is correct. You will not only be building a pencil box and a desk, but a boat. It a good thing you live in Alaska. Building the dock will be easier.

  8. Have you sent an email to Christopher Schwarz at woodworking magazine?

    Send him a quick note and the picture. He's a great guy and will get back with you in a few days.

  9. Badger - I know, it's a model of form and function working together. I'll post the reproduction whenever I get it finished.

    Josh - Quadfecta! Wild Hoopla!

    Michael - Ahh, a boat! I see it now! The plot thickens.

    I don't think I'll email the Schwarz just yet - I'm working on a few sources of information. I'll post something if they pan out.

  10. Dan, excellent blog. Very nice photography.
    I'll be back!

  11. I remember seeing a similar box in a small museum years ago. It was a three-parter similar to yours with a place for pencils in the top, pens, nibs, etc. in the middle, and the bottom held mechanical instruments (compass, dividers, small ruler, etc.).

    If memory serves, I believe the only difference between it and yours was the section depths. Your two parts appear to be equal in depth while the one I remember seeing had progressively deeper sections.

    Sadly, all those little road-side museums are long gone now.

  12. Dan,
    I have seen 3 part boxes like this. Nothing this small for pencils but larger boxes for candles and such. The bottom section is a realtively flat piece with only the slightely hollow inside the dovetails that allows for a folded document to fit in side or in the case of a candle box, extra wicks.

  13. Dan,

    A found another pencil box picture like that here, but I think it has only two sections too.

  14. Greg - Thank you! I'm glad you enjoy it.

    Mitchell - Thanks for the information. I'd like to know for sure what this was made to hold. It's really too short for pencils, and the slots are too narrow - at least for today's pencils. I did run across a source that said these were meant to hold old soapstone pencils for writing on slate.

    Shannon - Cool. I'd like to see a bigger version of this design. I found a few other examples online that have the third layer - some were very shallow and some were pretty much a repeat of the second layer, with slots for more pencils. Thanks.

    Montel – Thanks. That's one of the sources where I am trying to get more information. I sent her an email asking for permission to post copies of her images and to ask about the "secret" bottom section. I think it actually has all three sections and seems pretty similar to mine. I haven't heard back yet...

  15. Dan, I was just looking at your bowsaw build posts. I had some questions and thought I'd post here as your probably not likely to check older posts.
    I was wondering what you might recommend with regards to blades to someone without access to an old bandsaw blade. Also, how long are your saws and is that the optimal length. Last but not least, how is your handle design working?
    thanks in advance!

  16. Maybe it did (or could) slide into a corresponding slot on a tool chest or tool cabinet....that would be cool, I would think.

  17. Greg - I'm going to respond over at the bowsaw post just so it will be there for others to find/read. Oh, and no worries about commenting on older posts, Blogger emails me.

    Swank - I'm now convinced it just had one more pencil storage section, but you are right, that would be cool!

  18. I love this pencil box because I used these in my school days growing up in Scotland in the 1950's!! Lovely to see this. I had forgotten those pencil boxes,so this was a nice memory jog. They sometimes connected in some fashion to the wooden desks we used, although mine didn't. Great project Dan.

  19. Katerine - And now we know that they did (at least some) connect to desks - thanks for the information! I'm glad this brought up pleasant memories for you.

  20. Hello, Dan. My name is Deb. I have a blog also, talking about 'this and that' in my life. I was recently given one of these pencil boxes as a gift! I put pictures of it on my blog, looking for information...and came across your blog post. Mine has a slide ruler in the bottom, and a list of the kings and queens of England on the back of one of the sliding pieces. The photos are on the post I did about it here --> I'd love to know any other info you've found about it. Thank you!

    1. Deb - Wow - I love the sliding ruler! I'm trying to remember, or find where I saved, some additional info. I dug up. So far no luck. If I find it I'll pass it along. Thanks for commenting, and nice blog!

  21. Great blog Dan. Read this post a couple of weeks ago and could stop thinking about the early commenters suggesting the box dovetailed into a desk. That didn't make sense. Then I found this little comparable box in a virtual museum online.
    Looks almost identical to yours plus a bottom section.

    1. I'm sure that is correct - makes sense, thanks Eric!


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