Lidded Jewellery Box
One of the most popular items to make when you decide to take up woodturning is a lidded box. This turned box is an excellent study of different techniques to add to your repertoire.
The most popular use for these boxes is for keeping jewellery. However, they can be used for many different purposes, from holding paper clips, to pills in a lady’s purse. They make excellent gifts and usually become a treasured possession of the recipient. An assortment of shapes, sizes and different woods can also make a beautiful addition to a display for a local craft show.
Lidded boxes come in many different styles and configurations. The lid style is often dictated by the end use. For example, the lid can pop off, lift off, or slide off, and it can either fit over the lip of the box base, or it can fit inside. Some even have hinged or threaded tops. You can make a simple little box with straight sides with a flat, curved, or dished top, or you can let your creative juices flow and make your design as intricate as you like. You may even want to add a top finial from a contrasting coloured wood, to add style to the piece.
Part lid and bottom
Hollow lid inside
Create lid flange
Mark lid depth on outside
Transfer lid inside diameter to base
Depth groove for bottom
Shape outside profile
Ready for parting off
Base mounted on jam chuck
The billet I used for this project has the end grain oriented from top to bottom, parallel to the ways of the lathe. This is often referred to as an ‘end-grain box’. The finished box is approximately 3″ high by 2″ diameter. The pop-off style lid fits over the lip of the base section of the box. The rest of the design will be created as the project is made, sometimes referred to as ‘free-style turning’. If you are making a larger box, I recommend that a design be sketched out ahead of time. Sketching a larger project can save a lot of time and wood.
Choosing the Wood
The wood used to make a lidded box should be dry. Green wood will warp out of shape causing the lid to distort and it will not fit the base of the box properly. You should use dense straight grained hardwood with no inclusions. It should also be at room temperature to reduce distortion. The piece of wood I chose for this project is maple with light figure. The blank was cut 2 ½” square and 5″ long, which is 2″ longer than the finished box length. This allows a little extra wood for design and making the jam chuck for remounting the base later. It also allows some extra wood in case an unexpected small crack appears at an end of the blank.
Preparing the Blank
After locating the centers and making a dimple on each end of the blank, mount it between the headstock and tailstock centers on the lathe. I used a special spur center that clamps into my SuperNova four jaw chuck. A regular four prong spur center in the headstock will also work. If you clamp a Morse Tapered spur center into your four jaw chuck, you will damage its taper with the jaws. Do not use that spur center directly in the headstock spindle Morse Tapered socket again because the scratch marks will damage it and other Morse Tapered accessories will not fit properly.
Round off the blank to an outside diameter (OD) a little larger than the OD in your finished box design. I use a ¾” skew, but a spindle roughing gouge will work just as well. Make a tenon or spigot on each end that will fit your chuck. Some chucks require a straight-sided tenon and others require a beveled side. Make sure the fit is accurate and the cut is clean so the piece will run true.
Decide where you want to separate the base section of the box from the lid section. The lid should be a little shorter than the base. Some turners like the lid to be ⅓ of the total height and others like a 40:60 ratio. Choose your own dimensions here. If you think it looks good, that’s what matters. Now you can part off the base with a 1⁄16″ narrow parting tool. It is important to use a narrow parting tool for this because the less wood you cut away in this step the closer the grain will match.
Turning the Lid
Mount the lid section in the jaws of the four jaw chuck making sure the shoulders of the tenon fit tight up against the face of the jaws so the piece will be held as firmly as possible.
To true up the blank I prefer to use a skew. Rough hollow the lid with a freshly sharpened ½” spindle gouge, cutting from the center towards the edge so the bevel of the gouge will be supported and you will be cutting with the grain, minimizing tear-out. Check the inside depth periodically with a depth gauge to make sure you leave enough wood for the lid top design you want. As well, leave plenty of wood near the edge for the lid flange and to accommodate your box wall design.
Cut the lid flange with a square nosed scraper positioned parallel with the ways of the lathe making a straight cut about ¼” deep. This cut must be cylindrical and straight so the lid will fit the base without binding, or being too loose. Measure the inside of the flange with inside calipers and make sure it is cylindrical. Leave a small shoulder to separate the flange from the end grain of the dome. Make sure to leave edges thick enough for your box’s wall design.
Refine the inside of the lid with a ½”round nosed scraper, or a ½” side radius scraper. I made the inside of the lid dome-shaped with a point in the center as a design feature. You can remove the little nub in the centre with a round nosed scraper if you want to make the inside of the top dome-shaped.
Measure the depth of the lid with a depth gauge and mark that depth on the outside of the lid. You can also do this by holding one ruler across the surface of the lid and measuring the depth with another one. Continue the mark around the piece by rotating the lathe by hand. This will show you where the inside depth of the lid is so you won’t cut through when you’re finalizing the shape of the lid later.
Sand the inside of the lid starting with around 180 grit sanding cloth and progress through the grits to 600, or finer if you wish. The grits of sanding cloth required will depend on the wood used and the finish you want to apply. Make sure you leave the edges of the lid flange crisp. There’s no need to sand the flange areas as they will be modified later when we do the final lid fitting.
Clean the inside of the lid and polish with your favorite finish. I applied wipe-on polyurethane with a paper towel. I created some friction heat with the paper towel to dry the finish. I don’t like using cloth to apply the finish because it can get caught on the piece, or the chuck, and can cause an injury whereas a paper towel will tear away leaving your fingers intact.
It’s a good idea to mark the location of chuck jaw #1 on the blank in case you have to remount it. This saves a lot of line-up time. Now you can remove the lid section from the lathe.
Turning the Base
Mount the base section in the chuck the same way as you did the lid section earlier; making sure it is fastened firmly. Now you can proceed with truing up the blank.
Transfer the inside diameter measurement of the lid to the top of the base by using a 3⁄16″ parting tool to cut a small tapered flange just so the lid will start to fit on the tip of the base. A peeling cut with a skew can also be used to do this. Take your time with this process, you don’t want to make the taper too small. Do not fit the lid tight on the base at this time. The base may change in shape when you hollow it out and the lid may not fit properly. Hold the lid against the tip of the base section to make a burnish mark on the taper. This marks the exact inside diameter of the lid on the base.
Mark the location of the inside bottom of your box design on the blank. Mark the depth measurement on a ⅜” depth drill with green masking tape. You can also put a ⅜” drill bit in a Jacobs chuck in your tailstock to do this. Cut a V-notch in the center of the blank to align the drill and, with the lathe at slow speed, drill a pilot hole down the center of the blank to the measured depth. Hollow out the base section of the box with a ½” spindle gouge. You can make the inside walls straight or curved, as desired. If you want to make the inside bottom surface round as I did in this project, refine the inner walls with a curved scraper, the same way you did the inside of the lid.
To make the inside walls straight, I use a ¾” side cutting angle scraper. An angle scraper allows you to make the side and the bottom of the box with one tool. The angle where the end and the side of the scraper meets is less than 90° and there is a small radius there to reduce the tendency of catches and tear-out. These scrapers are available commercially but I made one myself by custom grinding a ¾” square end scraper. A ½” or ¾” square end scraper will work but you have to be a little more careful of catches, especially when you are forming the square corner at the bottom.
Sand the inside through the grits then clean and polish with your favorite finish. Again, I applied wipe-on polyurethane and used friction heat from a paper towel to dry it. Measure the depth of the base section and mark it on the outside. Use a 3⁄16″ diamond parting tool to part a groove on the headstock side, ⅜” (or the thickness of the bottom) to the left of the mark. The depth of this groove should be approximately ½”. This step allows you see exactly where the finished bottom of the box will be as the box shape is developed.
Finalizing the Shape of the Base and Lid Together
The outside surface of the box needs to be turned in one piece to get continuity in the design and shape. To refine the base flange to fit the lid, reduce the taper until the lid fits on tightly, but not so tight that the lid splits. Take your time. Use a 3⁄16″ diamond parting tool, or ¾” skew lying flat on the tool rest, and take very light cuts. Check the fit frequently. If the lid fits too loosely you will lose the pop-fit effect. If a loose fit is what you want, you can take up the slack for the next step by placing a piece of paper towel over the base flange and jamming the lid over it.
With the lid and the base together, and the grain of the top and base lined up, bring the tailstock live center up for support. You should leave the tailstock in place as long as possible to lessen the chance of the lid coming loose.
Using a freshly sharpened spindle gouge, or a skew, refine the outside shape of the box and lid. Note the location of the inside surfaces as shown by the groove in the base and the pencil mark on the lid. Create your design with those points in mind. You don’t cut through to the inside. You’re making a box, not a napkin ring! You can make this design as simple or as intricate as you want. However, a simple design is often more desirable than a complicated one. Remember the old saying, ‘less is more’. Now you can remove the tailstock support to refine the top of the lid. Sand and finish the outside surface. Depending on the choice of finish there may be waiting time between coats.
Carefully remove the lid and with very lights cuts, perfect the final fit of the lid, if necessary. As mentioned at the start of this article, the lid can be a pop-off or a liftoff fit. It depends on whether you want to use two hands or only one to remove the lid. Remember to allow a little room for the finish that will be put on the flanges of the box.
Now you can proceed with parting off the base section with a narrow parting tool. Leave a little spigot and make the final removal cut with a coping saw, or some other small saw to prevent a twist from ripping out the center piece as the box comes away.
Completing the Bottom
Using the piece left in the chuck, make a jam chuck to fit the inside of the base section. If necessary, this jam chuck can be made from a piece of scrap wood. It’s a good idea to place a piece of paper towel between the base section and the jam chuck (when creating the jam fit) so as to reduce the damage to the inside surface of the base flange.
Make sure the base section of the box is mounted tightly against the bottom edge of the jam chuck. Using a freshly sharpened spindle gouge, nibble away at the bottom surface of the box creating a slightly concave surface so the finished box will sit flat on a table. Create any desired decorative embellishments that you like on the bottom. Sand the bottom to the same grit as the other surfaces and apply your finish.
The last decision to make in this project is whether to keep it for yourself or give it to some lucky person who will appreciate the beautiful box you’ve turned.