Make Shaker Boxes

Making Shaker boxes is simple, but takes a while to master.

(If you are interested in having me make Shaker boxes 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, however, there is no rule that says you have to make a traditional box. Having said that I will now describe the way I make Shaker boxes.

Prepping the Wood

I start by milling wood to the appropriate thickness for the box I am making. I like to use quartersawn wood for the tops and bottoms because of its increased stability. I also make extra stock in case something splits.

I also sand the wood, but I'm not too worried at this point because soaking the wood will raise the grain, but now is a good time to get the scratches out.

(You can also buy Shaker supplies including wood for bands at this site.)

Taper the end of the band.

The final step in prepping the wood is to taper the end of the band where it overlaps itself when you bend it to form the box. You want the taper to be long and smooth.

If you skip this step your box will be lumpy where the band overlaps. It's especially  important on the top band because it is so visible. I sometimes do this after soaking the wood and sometimes before.

Next soak the wood.

In the photos below I'm using a single burner to heat the wood. I've since started using two burners - be careful with the open burners in your shop! Wood is flammable! You want it hot. I don't let the water boil, but I need to use tongs to grab the wood.

I usually soak the wood for 10-15 minutes. I'll work on one box while another is soaking.

Once I have soaked my wood I use templates to cut the swallowtails. You can do this any way you like, with a hand saw or a scroll saw. I prefer a simple mat knife. I try to make the cut with one swipe of the knife, holding it at the slightest angle to give a bit of a champher on the edge.

Here is where you can be as creative as you like or you can stick with tradition. Once I've cut the bands I return them to the water.

making Shaker boxes

Wrapping the boxes

After re-heating the bands, I wrap the band that forms the body of the box 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.

now let your box dry

I use copper 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.

Making good progress

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.
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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.

making Shaker boxes

All that's left is to finish it

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.

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. It was made by a customer of mine as a thank you gift for a pair of Jefferson lap desks I made for him. I have great customers!

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?

Congratulations you now know how to make Shaker boxes

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.

PS: Making Shaker boxes can be addictive. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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