Canadian Woodworking

Keepsake Box

Author: Allan Cusworth
Photos: Allan Cusworth; Lead Photo by Vic Tesolin
Published: October November 2009

People love to hold on to little items with sentimental value. This project is perfect for keep­ing your most precious objects safe and sound.


This project is an exercise in turning with a four-jaw scroll chuck and uses some spe­cial tools and techniques. To make it more interesting I have chosen to alternate dark and light woods for the inlaying process in order to create a layered pattern. The dark wood is black walnut and the light wood is maple. Any dry hardwoods can be used. It is impor­tant that the woods used are of similar hardness so that the different expansion coefficients will not crack the glue joints over time. Do not use a combination of hardwood and softwood.

Easy sizing
 Using an open end wrench is the quickest way to accurately size the tenon.

Drill the hole for the knob
 Use a Forstner bit with the lathe spinning slowly.

Glue the knob in
 Bring up the live center to clamp the knob into place.

Mark the insert
 Using a set of dividers, mark the outside diameter or the disk.

Lid recess
 Cut a recess in the lid with a parting tool or a skew to receive the lid insert.

Finished lid
Use friction to dry all but the last coat of the wipe-on polyurethane.

Shaping the body
Define the body's shape and mark the lid size.

Make the jam chuck
This will allow you to hold the lid to complete the underside.

Hollow out
 Using a swan neck chisel, undercut the inside of the top shoulder section.

Suggested Tools and Materials

The dimension noted here are for a Teknatool Supernova chuck. Yours will probably be different if you are using a different make or model.

  • Four-jaw chuck, 25mm (1”) and 50mm (2”) jaws, 100mm (4”) jaws
  • Woodworm screw
  • Live tailstock center
  • Four-prong or spring-loaded spur center
  • ½” spindle gouge
  • ¼” spindle gouge
  • ½” bowl gouge
  • ¼” bowl gouge
  • Swan neck hollowing tool
  • ¾” round end scraper
  • ½” square end scraper or Bedan
  • Diamond parting tool
  • 1/16” narrow parting tool
  • ¾” skew
  • Dividers
  • Callipers
  • Jacobs Chuck
  • ½” Forstner bit
  • Sanding media
  • Wipe-on polyurethane finish
  • Paper towels

Basic Design

The overall dimensions of this project are approximately 4 ½” in diameter by 2 ¼” high. The shape has a low profile and the bottom has a concave foot to raise the box slightly off the table, which makes it look lighter. The lid will fit into a recessed lip and will be a lift-off style so that the box can be used with one hand.

The components of this keepsake box must be made in the specified order so as to facilitate assembly. We will start by making the lid. The first piece will be the dark wood knob, the second piece will be the light wood insert and the third piece will be the lid itself. These pieces will be made and assembled before the box body is started. The box body will then be hol­lowed out and the lip cut to fit the lid.

The Knob

Prepare a small end grain block of dark wood about 1″ square by 2″ long. Clamp the block into 25mm (1″) jaws in a four-jaw chuck, making sure it is seated firmly against the base of the chuck. True it up with a ½” spindle gouge. Form the rounded end of the knob. Make a ½” x ⅛” spigot at the base of the knob for gluing it into the lid insert. I use a ½” open end wrench to size the spigot. This is much quicker than using callipers and just as accurate. The gluing of the end grain to the cross grain of the insert should not be a problem since the pieces are so small and the dimple from the drill bit tip will create a stronger bond surface for the joint.

Rough sand the knob to remove tool marks. Finish sanding will be done later when the lid parts are all assembled. Part the knob off using a 1/16″ narrow parting tool. Set the knob aside where it won’t get lost in the shavings.

The Lid Insert

Make a 2″ diameter x 1 ½” thick light wood disk. Clamp the 2″ disk into 50mm (2″) jaws in a four-jaw chuck, making sure it is seated firmly against the base of the chuck. True up the disk. Mark the 1 ¾” outside diameter of the disk with a set of dividers. Using a diamond parting tool, a square end scraper or a bedan, and working from the face of the piece, create a 1 ¾” diameter x ⅜” thick tenon. This will become the insert disk piece. Turn a slight oval shape on the face surface.

Place a Jacobs chuck in the tailstock of the lathe and, with a slow lathe speed, drill a ⅛” hole into the center of the piece using a ½” Forstner bit. Fit the knob piece into this hole and glue it in with PVA glue. Place the live center, without the sharp point, in the tailstock. Bring it up to clamp the glue joint. You can place a piece of craft foam between the tail stock live center and the knob to prevent marking it, but I let the sharp ring of the live center make a decorative ring on the top of the knob. At this point, you have to wait for the glue to dry before you can continue.

Part the insert piece off with a 1/16″ narrow parting tool. The lid insert should be about ⅛” thick as it will be an inlay feature and does not need to be very thick. The underside of this piece must be flat so it will fit flat in the lid recess.

The Lid

Make a 3 ½” diameter by ¾” thick dark wood disk and attach a glue block of the side that will become the bottom of the finished lid. If your dark wood is thick enough you can make a 1 ¼” to 1 ½” thick disk instead of using the glue block. Place a four-prong or spring-loaded spur center in the head­stock of the lathe and clamp the 3 ½” disk between the centers with the glue block on the tailstock side. Turn a spigot to fit the 50 mm (2″) jaws of your four-jaw chuck.

Mount the disk in the chuck and true up the face. Mark the 3 ¼” lid outside diameter on the face of the ¼ blank with a set of dividers. Create the lid about ⅜” thick with a parting tool or a square end scraper. Some extra thickness/depth is needed to part the lid off later. Turn a slight oval shape on the surface of the lid, keeping the shape complimentary to the lid insert.

Cut a recess in the lid with a parting tool or a skew and fit the lid insert so it is flush with the lid surface. Glue in the insert, making sure that the grain directions line up. Clamp the assembled lid with tailstock, as before, and wait for the glue to dry before continuing.

You may need to refine the shape of the lid with a sharp ¼” spindle gouge. Sand the lid through the grits, starting with 150 grit, to at least 800 grit. Each successive grit size used should not increase more than 50% from the previous grit size. As you sand the edge of the lid, make sure you do not round the corners unless by design. Apply at least three coats of wipe-on polyurethane with a paper towel to the top and edge of the lid. I use friction heat from rubbing the paper towel on the surface to dry all but the last coat. Allow the finish to dry thoroughly.

Part the lid off about ¼” thick to allow 1/16″ to complete the bottom surface.

In order to complete the bottom surface the lid must be reversed in a chuck. I made a jam chuck with a saw cut split in the center and a hose clamp with a wide rubber band protec­tive cover. Tightening the clamp held the 3 ¼” lid to complete its bottom side. There are many other options, such as a set of Cole Jaws with the rubber buttons in the appropriate locations, a vacuum chuck, or padded 100 mm (4″) jaws. With some of these options, make sure the jaws do not damage the knob and/or the insert.

Take light cuts with a sharp ¼” spindle gouge and carefully turn the lid thickness down to 3/16″. I like to put some concen­tric rings on the bottom of the lid for decoration. Sand and finish the lid bottom as before.

The Box Body

Prepare a 5″ diameter disk x 2″ thick piece of dry light-coloured hardwood for the box body. I used maple for this project. Drill a 5/16″ diameter x ¾” deep hole into the center of the side of the blank that will be the top of the box and mount on a Woodworm screw installed in the chuck. Make sure the blank is tight against the face of the chuck jaws to make a firm connection to shape the outside of the box. True up the blank. Turn a spigot to fit your chuck jaws. The 50mm (2″) jaws of the Supernova chuck require a spigot approximately 2 ¼” in diameter.

Remove the blank from the Woodworm screw, and mount it in the chuck jaws. True up the blank. Mark the size of the lid’s actual outside diameter, less about a 1/16″ on the face sur­face of the top of the box with a set of dividers. Make another mark ⅜” smaller to mark the diameter for the 3/16″ lip for the lid to sit on.

Shape the outside of the box. Here’s where you create the profile shape of the box. I made a short foot about ½ of the diameter of the box to give it a lighter, more airy look.

At this point you can establish the inside bottom of the box before starting to hollow it out by drilling a hole to the required depth in the center of the blank.

Start hollowing out the inside of the box from the inside ring mark with a ½” bowl gouge. Since the blank is cross-grain, make small cuts towards the center so you are cutting with the grain. The wood fibres are then supported, reducing the ten­dency for tear-out. Make the walls about ¼” thick with a little more thickness at the bottom for stability. Measure the walls often with outside callipers to make sure they are of consistent thickness. I suggest leaving the top lip area a little thicker so the lid will have good support.

To undercut the inside of the top shoulder section, you will need to use some type of hollowing tool. I used a swan neck tool made by Robert Sorby, but there are many tools on the market that will accomplish this. As with all scrapers cutting inside profiles, make sure that the cutting edge is very sharp and cutting at, slightly above center. Cutting below center on an inside profile risks a serious catch. Smooth the bottom with a ¾” round end scraper.

Using a square end scraper or a skew, fit the lid into the recess with a loose fit. I like to leave the lid slightly proud of the box to make any slight discrepancy in the lid thickness imperceptible. It also adds a little character, in my opinion.

Sand the outside and the inside of the box through the grits the same way as the lid was done, taking care not to destroy the edge dimensions of the lip. Apply at least three coats of wipe-on polyurethane finish to the inside and outside of the box the same way as the lid was done. The finish for the bot­tom of the box will be blended in later.

After the finish has dried, remove the box from the lathe to reverse it for completion. An easy way to reverse the box body is to place a ¾” wide strip of craft foam around the 50mm (2″) jaws of the scroll chuck and expand it to gently hold the box on the chuck jaws. Make sure the top edge of the box is firmly seated against the base of the jaws. Do not over-tighten the jaws or you will split the box walls. Using light cuts with a freshly sharpened ½” spindle gouge, remove the tenon and complete the small foot. Make the bottom of the foot slightly concave to prevent the box from rocking on the table surface. I like to make some decorative rings on the bottom.

Apply at least three coats of wipe-on polyurethane and blend in with the finish on the outside walls.

All that needs to be done now is to add your signature. You have just created a keepsake box that will become an heirloom that will last for many years in the hands of its proud owner.

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