Canadian Woodworking

Recipe Box

Author: Jim Sinclair
Photos: Jim Sinclair; Lead photo by Brian Hargreaves
Illustration: James Provost
Published: December January 2011

Explore the world of box-making with this easy-to-build recipe box.


Box-making is a rich area of woodworking with a wide variety of approaches and techniques. Combine this with the many choices of woods and you have endless possibilities for box making. This project to build a recipe box will help you explore one set of techniques and see some of the effects that minor variations can have on the resulting box.

The Triangle Trick
Mark stock so the grain of the panels will match after re-sawing.

Keep Track of the Corners
Label the corners of the blanks to help keep all of the parts positioned properly during assembly.

Feathered Friends
Feather boards help with slot cutting by holding the workpiece tight to the fence and down to the table’s surface.

Second Surface
 A shop-built auxiliary planer bed will help when planing thin parts.

Shoot for Perfection
You can use a shooting board to trim the top and bottom square and to exact size.

Four corner clamping
 Picture Frame clamps, or masking tape, help clamp the four sides together.

A Jig of Key Importance
 This shop-built jig will help cut accurate slots for the keys.

Hats Off to Masking Tape
 While separating the lid from the lower box, use masking tape and a spacer to help keep everything aligned.

Mix Things Up
With many variations on this theme, you will never have two of the same boxes again.

Box Techniques

This particular box design will use a mitred carcase and panel approach. With this approach, the box is assembled with the top and bottom and the lid is then cut free of the constructed box. The carcase will be built using a four-corner match technique. This will provide a continuous grain pattern all the way around the box. The carcase of the box starts as a single board that’s just a bit longer than the length of the front plus the side. It is re-sawn into two boards. The inside faces from the re-saw operation will become the outside faces of the box.

If you don’t have a bandsaw for re-sawing, there are techniques for re-sawing with a table saw, but the width of the table saw blade’s kerf is such that you lose some of the re-saw advantage for matching the grain at the fourth corner.

A reasonable alternative is to go for a three-corner match instead. This eliminates the need for re-sawing to get the corner match. You can use ⅜” stock that you purchase directly or produce with your surface planer. When using a three-corner match, you can select wood with a fairly consistent grain pattern in order to get a fairly good match at the fourth corner.

A set of keys will be used to reinforce the carcase mitres and provide an attractive detail to the box appearance. Once the lid has been separated from the base of the box, a pair of end inserts will be glued to the sides. The lid will slip over these end inserts to hold it in place on the base of the box.

Designing the Piece

This design is for a box that will hold 3″ by 5″ recipe cards. The first step is to measure the cards. The recipe cards we have are actually about 3/64″ over-size in both dimensions. Allowing for some slight additional size discrepancies and some room for card movement led me to an interior size to design for of 3 ¼” high by 5 ¼” wide. The overall height consists of the 3 ¼” card space, a ⅛” saw kerf, the two ⅛” grooves for the top and bottom and finally the two ⅛” sections that hold the top and bottom, for a total box height of 3 ⅞”. The saw kerf allowance is for separating the lid from the base after assembly.

The overall width consists of the 5 ¼” card space, two ⅜” side thicknesses at the mitres and two ⅛” thick end inserts for a total box width of 6 ¼”.

The interior depth is somewhat arbitrary, depending upon how many cards you might want to fit in the box. There is one problem that needs to be avoided. As long as the height of the card is significantly greater than the depth of the box base, even a single card will sit easily in the box. If the depth of the box is deeper than the cards are high, the cards will fall over flat when there are only a few in the box. This is not the end of the world; the depth dimensions to avoid are the ones in between. It is at these depths that a card can fall over and get jammed between the front and back of the box. By making the sides 3 ¾” to match the final height, the box will hold a good number of cards and when only a small number of cards are contained, they can fall over flat and not get jammed.

The key locations are somewhat flexible. For this design, I started out by choosing to go with the top and bottom keys both being ½” in from the top and bottom. Assuming the lid key is in the middle of the lid, this gives a lid thickness of 1 ⅛”. This also provides us with the location of the eventual saw cut to separate the lid from the base. Finally, the middle key was positioned ½” below what will become the top edge of the box base, once the lid has been cut away.

I chose to make the recipe box out of cherry, with holly and ebony keys. Feel free to use whatever wood suits your fancy.

Basic Preparation

Mark all the blanks that you are going to re-saw into thinner stock with distinct triangle patterns on one long edge so that you can easily put the pieces back together in the correct order after they have been re-sawn apart.

When re-sawing, place a jointed edge down against the bandsaw table surface and a jointed face against the bandsaw fence. After each thin panel is removed, lightly joint the re-sawn face on the remaining board before re-sawing off another panel. When all the thin panels are removed, surface plane the re-sawn faces to get the panels to their ⅜” final thickness.

Preparing the Sides

In order to create a four-corner match you will need to select a pair of adjacent re-sawn panels. With the pieces held together as they came apart, mark both ends A and B, respectively. Mark them far enough away from the ends that they won’t get cut off when you cut your mitres.

Next, open them up and mark the bottom of the faces that will become the outside of your box. You will cut one long side and one short side out of each panel. Be careful when cutting the sides from the front and back that you cut the shorter side pieces from opposite ends of the blanks.

These marked outside faces should always be up when cutting the mitres. I find that I get my best results when I separate the front and back pieces from the sides before I cut the mitres. I do this with a very thin kerf blade on a scroll saw. A small bandsaw blade should also work just fine. Once the blanks are separated I cut the mitres on each end.

The grooves to hold the top and bottom can be cut on the router table. Install a ⅛” spiral bit and set the bit’s cutting depth to 3/16″. Set up a solid fence so that there is a ⅛” gap between it and the bit. Attach both horizontal and vertical feather boards to hold the pieces square to the fence and tight to the table. Push each piece through twice, once to create the top groove and once to create the bottom groove. To make this operation a bit easier, these grooves can be machined before the parts are cut to finished size and mitred. It is sometimes easier to deal with larger pieces.

Use a block plane to add a 1/16″ chamfer on the inside edge at the top and bottom of each of the carcase pieces. The insides of the carcase pieces are now ready to be sanded for finishing.

Preparing the Top and Bottom

To prepare the top and bottom, it is back to the bandsaw for some more re-sawing. Slice off some large panels just over ⅛” thick and then use the thickness planer to bring them down to just under ⅛”. There are a couple of problems with working with stock this thin in the planer. The first is that your planer’s cutting blades may not actually go down this close to the planer bed. The second is that the combination of pressure from the rollers and cutters is often enough to blow boards this thin apart. Fortunately, both problems can easily be overcome by building a simple shop- made auxiliary bed for your planer. Cut a melamine board to the width and slightly over the length of your existing bed. Put a cleat on the underside of the infeed end to hold it in place and put it on top of your planer’s existing bed. This will raise the infeed and outfeed surface up into the operating range of your planer and cover the lower rollers in the planer, reducing the pressure on the thin boards. In case of a blow-out, don’t stand directly behind your planner while surfacing these small pieces. In fact, this is always a good rule to follow.

Once you have the thin stock panel prepared, have a look at it and find some grain pattern that appeals to you. A piece of paper with a window cut in it approximately the size of the top and bottom works well for finding an attractive section. Use a pencil to lay out the pieces you want to use and then cut them out slightly over-sized. A shooting board can be used to square up the top and bottom and trim them down to their exact size. Once you can do a complete dry fit, you may find that some additional shooting board work is necessary to get the top and bottom panels to float nicely.

The end inserts can be selected from the same thin stock using a similar approach. When selecting the end inserts, arrange them so that the grain runs horizontally. This will orient any wood movement in the end inserts to coincide with the wood movement of the box sides and away from putting pressure on the box mitres. Once you have the end inserts cut to exact size, trim off the ½” radius on their top two corners. These are to make it easy to put the lid on the box.

Preparing the Keys

Cut a test saw kerf in a scrap block of hardwood. Use this test block to check the thickness of your key blank. You are looking for a fit that allows the blank to go into a test slot with only modest finger pressure. You will need a key blank about 12″ long by ¾” wide. I cut mine somewhat longer than this so that I can use my thickness planer to plane the blank down to the correct thickness and so I don’t have to get my fingers too close to the saw blade when cutting the keys from the blank. The keys for the recipe box consist of a core of holly sandwiched between a pair of ebony veneer sheets. Mill a thin strip of holly down to a thickness equal to the thickness of your table saw blade less the thickness of the two veneers. Glue the veneers to the core using a vacuum bag, a veneer press or lots of clamps and cauls. When the glue is dry, use a hand plane to smooth the two long edges of the blank. Do a final test fit of the key blank in your test block. If it’s too tight, do some very fine sanding on both sides to fine tune the fit. Cut the keys to size on the bandsaw. Mark 45° lines with a square then cut them to size. They don’t have to be cut perfectly straight, as they will be trimmed to final size after they’re glued into the slots. Cutting them over-sized will make them easier to handle and less likely to get lost down the throat plate of your bandsaw. Cut several extra key blanks to give yourself some flexibility when fitting the keys to the slots. If you want to go with a simpler set of keys, mill up a solid blank to the same thickness as your table saw blade and then cut your keys from it.

Preliminary Finishing

For the recipe I box, I decided to go with a simple shellac and wax finish. I applied seven very thin coats of shellac by wiping it on with a small cloth pad. I sanded the finish after each intermediate coat with 400 grit sandpaper. After the final coat I sanded with 2000 grit sandpaper. To finalize the finish, I wiped on a thin coating of beeswax, let it sit for a few minutes and then buffed it out with a clean cloth to a nice shine.

The top and bottom panels should be finished on both sides before assembly. The inside faces of the long sides should also be finished before assembly. For the short sides, draw a pencil line on the inside down the center of where the saw cut will be made to separate the box base from the lid. The portion of the short sides above the pencil line should also be finished. This area will eventually become the inside of the lid. The portion below the pencil should not be finished; this will be the surface to which the end inserts are glued. For the end inserts draw a pencil line on the side that will be glued to the box base side, just below the interior height of the base. Everything on this side below the pencil line should not be finished. These surfaces will eventually be glued to the short sides of the box base.

Assembling the Box

I use multiple picture frame clamps to clamp small mitred boxes together. They stack nicely to provide whatever height is needed. They provide pressure on all four corners at once, automatically square up the corners and eliminate the need for cauls. You could also use masking tape across three corners and then, when the four sides are brought together, apply tape to the final corner.

Make sure you dry fit everything first to make sure you can get good pressure along the full length of all the mitres. During your dry fit, don’t forget to allow for keeping the box square. If things are going together out of square, you will need to apply pressure across one of the diagonals. Figure out how you are going to do this before applying the glue.

Cutting the Key Slots

Build a shop-made jig to hold the box while cutting the key slots. Start with a hardwood block about 8″ long by 4″ wide that is fully squared up. Use your table saw or mitre saw to cut the block into a pair of 45° supports. Square up a ¾” piece of plywood to about 13″ by 6″ to be the base. Rub glue the support blocks to the top of the base next to one side. Glue one on first, then, when dry, add the second in the proper location. Once the glue is dry, attach some adhesive backed sandpaper to the 45° faces of the support blocks. This will help hold the box secure while the keys are being cut. I also added a small adjustable stop block to the base, consisting of a piece of softwood with a slot cut in it, a wing knob and a carriage bolt that passes through a counter-bored hole in the base.

Set the rip fence on your table saw so that the blade passes through the center of the support blocks when the side of the base without the support blocks is next to the fence. Adjust the height of the saw blade so that it cuts approximately 2/3 of the way through the depth of the mitre when the box is supported in the jig. Pre-cut the slot in the jig by making a pass through the table saw without a box held in the jig.

Cutting the key slots can now be done with two settings of the stop block. First, set the stop block to position the box so the lid slot is cut. Since the bottom key and the lid key are equally spaced from the bottom and top, this setup will serve for both sets of slots. Put the box in place and push the jig through so it completely clears the blade. Lift it up and away from the blade and then bring it back to the front of the table saw. Rotate the box to cut the next slot and make another pass. When you have made all eight passes at this setting, adjust the stop block to cut the middle set of key slots. Make your final four passes and you are done with cutting the key slots.

Adding the Keys

Test fit each of the keys. They should slip into the slots with only a modest amount of finger pressure. If you encounter a slightly thicker key or a slightly wider slot, rearrange which key goes with which slot until they all fit well. Once you are happy with the fit of all the keys, glue them in by brushing a small amount of glue on each side of the key and pushing it into the slot. Make sure the long flat surface of the key is pushed in evenly and fully seats against the bottom of the slot. This should leave you with no gaps at the surface where the key meets the side of the box. Glue in all the keys and wait for the glue to dry. Once the glue is dry, use a flush cut saw to get rid of most of the protruding waste. Here are two hints for using a flush cut saw to trim keys. First, keep as much of the saw surface as possible registered against the box face in order to get a clean level cut. Second, angle the blade so that you cut the unsupported wood fibres on the outside of the key first and work your cut in toward the portion of the key that is supported by the box side. This will avoid chipping out pieces of the key below the surface of the box sides. Once all the keys have been trimmed, do a final clean up with a block plane. Now smooth the outsides of the box in preparation for finishing.

Exterior Finishing

The outsides of the front, back and sides can now be finished, as can the top and bottom edges of these pieces. Be careful when doing the edges to not get any finish on the exposed top and bottom that are already finished.

Separating the Lid from the Base

Set your rip fence so the blade will cut a kerf that is centered between the lid key and the upper base key. Set the height of the blade to be just over 3/8″. Hold the box securely against the fence to cut the slots on each of the four sides. After each slot is cut, push a spacer into the slot and tape it in place. I use leftover key stock, since it has already been sized to be exactly the thickness of the saw kerf. These spacers keep the lid and the base square to each other, hopefully minimizing any inconsistencies in the cuts at the corners.

Final Finishing

The saw marks on the bottom edges of the lid and the top edges of the base that were exposed when the lid and base were separated need to be cleaned up before being finished. A few passes with a block plane works well for this job. Keep the number of passes on each edge consistent. You want the edges of the lid and the base to go back together with no obvious gaps. Use a very lightly charged pad when applying finish to these edges. You don’t want to get any finish on the inside or outside of the box.

Adding the End Inserts

With all the finishing completed, the end inserts can be glued into the box base. Apply glue to the unfinished face of the insert and clamp it to the unfinished short side of the box base. Watch to make sure that the insert stays firmly seated at the bottom of the box as the clamps are tightened. You don’t want the end inserts sticking up so much the lid won’t go back down all the way on to the base. Wait for the glue to dry and you have yourself a completed recipe box.


Using the same basic approach as this recipe box, you can easily change the choice of wood for the top and bottom, change the choice of wood for the keys, change the size of the keys or change the dimensions of box. Your results might come out something like one of the boxes shown here.

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