Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Birthday Pencil Boxes

This post has been in the hopper for quite a while. I took and edited all the pictures, but didn't get to the text before getting buried in the holiday hoopla. After looking it over, I almost posted it without any text at all, but in the end I decided to go with some minimal writing. Here it is; I hope you enjoy it.

At my new school, we have a tradition that as part of each birthday celebration the teacher presents a hand made gift to the student. My gifts are wooden pencil boxes. Here's how they are made.

The first step is to groove the 1 1/2" by 1/4" oak strips that will make up the four sides of the box. Here the Stanley 45 is set up in "plow mode" using the off cuts from a previous box as a template for setting the plane's fence and depth stop.

After securing the strip to the bench, the 1/8" groove is plowed in short order. The holdfast bridging arrangement allows me to clamp on the very edge of the strip without crushing the wood.

Next, the rabbets are planed in the stock that will be used for the bottom and the sliding top.

After the plowing and the rabbeting, a smoothing plane cleans things up.

Parts get cut to length on the miter box.

The sides get marked for rabbets.

The shoulders get cut...

...and the cheeks are split off with a chisel. I don't gauge for the cheeks, I just use the grooves to set the bottom of the rabbets - simply spanning the end grain between the grooves with a wide chisel and then removing the bits of waste at each end.

The rabbets in the ends of the top and bottom are cut using the side rabbets as depth gauges and then split off with the chisel. All end rabbets are cleaned up with a shoulder plane.

Test fit before glue up.

Here's the body of the box after glue up - the small scrap next to the knife is from removing the wood from the groove up in one end to allow the lid to slide on and off.

The lid has been fit, but is still extra long.

Starting the finger pull.

The lid is cut to length (this should always be done after finishing the finger pull - DAMHIKT):

The joints are trimmed with a chisel and smoothing plane.

My maker's mark is added (you may have seen this photo in an earlier post).

And here are some shots of the finished box.

Here's the tool kit for this project (minus the miter box and marking knife which somehow wandered off).


  1. Lovely work. I may have to make some, although I fear that pencil boxes are soon to be relics of an earlier, less enlightened age :-)

  2. What - a pencil box for each student's birthday?! That doesn't sound feasible with the schools that I know - at least not without entering mass production.

    But I really like the idea - and the pencil boxes. Nice work, Dan!

  3. Nice work Dan, as always. Good job.

  4. Gee, I wonder what kind of pencils should go in them......

  5. Scott - Yes, like hand planes :)

    Michael - True, at my last school (a standard Middle School) I had up to 120 total students (not all at once of course), but at this school (a Waldorf inspired K-8) I have only 24. Besides the huge difference in numbers, the school environment is very different. I mean, I never made my students gifts before, but at this school it just feels right.

    Rick - Thanks!

    Josh - Well, some vintage Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 #2 HBs would be great (as you well know), but since they stopped making the good stuff since getting sold out of the country, we have to settle for their current product.

  6. Dan -

    Great project! I'm going to be borrowing heavily from this design for a demonstration I'll be performing at the Kansas City Woodworker's Show end of this month.

    I've got a similar design made with mitered corners so the rabbeted joint version makes a nice complement.

    Just finished up a prototype in pine to test my ideas. On to cherry or soft maple for the next one(s)!

  7. Great project! Thanks for sharing it with us, and the process. The pictures are great too.

    Best regards,
    Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
    The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
    The Best Turkey Hunting Tips!

  8. Great work... I love the pictures, the detail is amazing!

  9. This is really a wonderful idea; I'll bet your students feel that you care for them. I want to steal it for next year - I'll have to use the summer to get a head-start on the 120 I'll need.

  10. Wonder of wonders, I found time to actually turn out one of these this week. I was aided by the fact that 2x1/4 oak strips are readily available at my local Big Box Store.

    I've posted my project at Lumberjocks (with Dan's permission) and it includes a Sketchup model with some dimensions if anyone else wants to try one.


    Thanks again for the inspiration!

  11. Dan
    Enjoyed the project. Could you remind me (or us) about your use of the knife. I'm assuming you are cutting the board with your knife rather than your saw in those pictures when your knife is featured? When do you prefer to cut with your knife?

  12. Rob - Sounds great, I think cherry would make a beautiful box!

    Albert & John - Thanks and you're welcome!

    Ted - Thanks! Yes, the students do appreciate the care and thought that goes into a handmade gift. Besides woodworking, they are all learning crocheting, knitting, and the values and satisfaction that come from hand work.

    If you do make these for your students, I'd recommend making the parts in the summer and then assembling and finishing them one at a time while keeping the particular recipient in mind. I am a big believer in putting your "energy" into your work and think somehow it makes a difference. Just something to think about...

    Scott - It looks great! I'm happy I could provide some inspiration!

    William - Actually, the knife is used with the rule and a square for marking. This is almost always superior to using a pencil.

    After marking the placement for the rabbet shoulder with a short stab of the knife (6th picture), I knife the line across the stock using a square. One of he ways the knife is superior is this: when I am ready for the square, I put the tip of the knife back in the small cut made by the "stab" and then just slide the square over until it hits. Perfect alignment!

    After the line is knifed, I cut a small vee in the waste side of the stock to make a groove for starting the saw. It's a little hard to see (click on the picture for a larger view), but in the 7th picture, the bottom piece has the vee visible, while the top piece has already been sawn. The vee not only guides the saw, but also eliminates tearout.

    Now, after saying all that, I do sometimes cut wood with the knife! Usually in very thin, and straight grained stock, the knife can be just as efficient as the saw. This oak is a little too hard for that.

    Whoa, this might be a record long response. Thanks for asking that question William!


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