Making Shaker boxes

The process of making Shaker boxes is simple, but takes a while to master.

(If you are interested in having me make a Shaker box for you click the link to find Shaker boxes for sale)

Cutting beautiful swallowtails (the familiar fingers that form the joinery) takes patience and practice.making Shaker boxes

Traditional Shaker boxes come in specific sizes that are numbered from #000 (1" x 2" ellipse) - #20 (25 7/8" x 38 1/2" ellipse).

They also have specific numbers of tails for each size box. The Shakers had religious and social reasons for the design of their boxes, nested Shaker boxeshowever, there's no rule that says you have to make a traditional box.

To make a Shaker box I start by milling wood into thin bands.

The bottom band forms the sides of the box, while the top band encloses the solid wood top.

I cut out templates of the standard sizes and use them to shape the swallowtails. making Shaker boxes making Shaker boxes

Once the bands are cut to size I cut the swallowtails, giving their edges the tiniest of chamfers.

making Shaker boxes

I then soak the bands in hot water until pliable.making Shaker boxes
While still hot, I wrap the bottom band around a form the shape and size of the box I want to make.

The band should be long enough to wrap around the form with the swallowtails overlapping the end of the band.

The ends of the band are marked where they overlap. This way, I can slip the band off the form and line up my marks so the band is the same size as it was on the form. Keeping tight hold so I don't loose the shape, I then drill through the swallowtails and the band behind.

In the photo, a piece of scrap wood is clamped over the tails because they have a tendency to split if you don't hold them both down at the same time.

I use brass tacks to secure the tails in place. I either hook the band over a metal rod or use a mini anvil to cinch the tacks in place.

Once the tacks are in place the wet bands are the shape you want them to end up, but they need to stay that shape while they dry.

So, I take a pair of drying forms and put one in the bottom and one in the top of the newly cinched band. The fit should be snug, but not forced. The forms are tapered to make it easier to get them on and off.

Once the forms are in place I use the base of the newly made Shaker box to form the top band in the same way I made the bottom. In other words, take the hot top band and bend it around the box. Don't forget to make sure the tails line up nicely in the top and base.

Tack the top band together and re-wrap it around the base band. Keep it wrapped and the forms in place until the wood is dried. Usually overnight, but the weather will make a difference in drying time. Once the top band has been tacked together the whole thing is left to dry.

Once everything is dry it's time to make the bottom and top that fit inside the bands. They are cut out using the bands as a template.

I put the base on the piece of wood I'm using for the bottom and trace around the inside of the box.

Then I cut to the line - actually I cut close to the line, then use a sander to bring it exactly to the line with a tiny bevel to help it slide into place.

This process takes some back and forth to get the fit right. Same process for the top. Once everything fits to my satisfaction I'm ready to attach the top and bottom to the bands. This is done using toothpicks (who would have thought that making Shaker boxes would require toothpicks).

I made myself a jig to hold my drill so I can pre-drill holes for the toothpicks through the side into the bottom. This has to be precise or the hole will be too high (and come out the top) or two low (and miss the top entirely). The jig helps keep everything steady.

making Shaker boxes I drill the holes and tap toothpicks into place - no glue needed. Then I cut them off and sand the whole thing.making Shaker boxes

The top is done in the same way. Then all that's left is to finish it.making Shaker boxes

Traditionally the Shakers didn't finish the inside of their boxes, and they often used milk paint for the exterior. However, I like to use a simple oil finish. making Shaker boxes

I like the process of making Shaker boxes, because most of it is done without power tools. It's simple, but not easy and the result is both beautiful and useful.

In the end, isn't that what making Shaker boxes should be all about?

The box on the right is made from cherry with a curly maple top. The hole is original to the board that the top came from and was most likely made when a tap was drilled into the trunk of the tree for maple sugaring. Once you've gotten good at making Shaker boxes it's fun to start experimenting with different woods for the top. Keep in mind however, that wood moves with the seasons and the larger the box the bigger the problem. I have more information about wood and wood characteristics at this link.

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more about the Shakers

the history of Shaker boxes

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