Tool tote / caddy travel #4: Hand cut box joints - a tool tote tray.

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Blog entry by mafe posted 01-10-2022 11:52 PM 548 reads 0 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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Hand cut box joints
a tool tote tray.

A real step by step, about simple box joints, with hand tools.

My favourite tool tote, that I build back in 2010 (as you can see in this blog series), needed a new tray, as the old one had changed purpose.

The old tray had also always felt wrong for me as, I didn’t like the proportions and the machine made box joints, didn’t go well with the hand cut dovetails on the tote it self. I like machine cut box joints a lot, but not mixed with hand cut dovetails, here the contrast was simply too big.

Here the good old tool tote, that some of you might remember.

Since the tote has been in use for more than ten years, I had to find a way to make the new tray old…
This was where I remembered, that I had some old wine box wood laying on a shelf, it’s from a famous wine company in Denmark, that delivers for the Royal family and so they are allowed to use the crown.

The end piece split in two, were just enough for the ends.

Now I had to find out where to put the cuts, so it will destroy as little as possible, of the ornamentation.

The company name will go.

For the length of the box, it was also a matter of how close I could go.

Of course taking the measures from the tote.

A have a good friend, her name is Kjær, so I saved these parts of the name for her.

Here are the old tote trays, they have become drawers of nonsense and help me keep order trays on the workbench years back and really happy for them here.

For the bottom some 3 mm plywood, even I actually regret that decision later, as the old one had a pine bottom, but we have to remember this is a tool, not a furniture, smiles.

All the parts were put aside, this was a couple of weeks ago.

Yesterday, I were in the mood to do some hand tool work, did not want to start a new project, but so some thing, that was fast and could be made in a day, so this little project was just the thing to finish up.
Up came my little bench top bench , as I love to use this, when hand cutting, box or doves, it gives good hold, it’s fast and in a good working height most of all.

I decided to make a little lesson in making the joints, even I think many of you can, or have seen me do it before, but there will always be a new person, or something we did not see before. For those that are new to hand cutting joints, trust me, everyone can learn it, here I’ll take the fast and easy way, that are good for a beginner to start with.
First step is to layout the joints, this can be done easily with a divider, if you want the same spacing, just set for app size you want and run over the board, if you go too far, close the divider a wee bit, to short open, until you go exactly from edge to edge, then punch small holes with the divider as you go, so you can draw after these.
(I’ll get into more details later).

As I’m using existing wood here, I have to take into account, that the wood might be uneven, here really uneven and warped…

Like so – grrrrrrrr – I can’t fix it, as I want to keep the patina of the old wood.

So first up, place the boards as you want them.
If possible make the warping of the wood go outwards on the middle, as it will be easy to clamp in when gluing.

Mark the pieces, so you don’t get them messed up.
By writing numbers in the bottom, I also know that this is the bottom.

The pieces can now be used to mark the box joints thickness.
If you had wood that were all the same, it could have been done easy with a marking gauge instead.

You can see that the change of the woods thickness, has been taken into account now. Like this the box will be square on the outside and the slope will be on the inside, where it does not matter.

Repeat for all.

Finally we can mark up our box joints with a pencil.
Always mark up what will be cut away, trust me on this, if you don’t, you will fail at some point, I talk from experience.

I were in the mood for Japanese saws, so I picked up the good once and put on some Spanish flamingo music, you don’t need any of that, you can do with any fine teeth saw, if you are a wee confused now…

When sawing the challenge is to hold the saw exactly 90 degrees, but you can correct this in the other side after, so don’t worry too much now and enjoy the prectice.

When sawing, you should leave the pencil line intact on the good side and saw down in the part marked as waste.
Saw only as deep as down to the line, you marked from the other side of the box.

Removing the waste.
No one can cut down straight in one cut, so don’t try that.
I like to go a little out from the line as you see here, then hammer the chisel down just ¼ of the boards thickness or so, something like two good blows with the hammer.
(Here you can see there are some compass marks, that are visible, it was some I made by mistake, as I had forgotten to lock down the compass – why we measure twice and cut once).

Notice I have turned the board around now.
Again a little off the line, but now going all the way through, so most of the waste are gone.

On the same side, going up to the line and around half way though, as it is easy to control now and the chisel will not be bushed into the wood, but the wood be pushed away.

Again turning and now we can finish up.
(You might see I have been a little aggressive when sawing here, but this is so little that the glue will hide it.).

While I were cutting box joints, I had a cake in the workshop oven, this one is finished now. You don’t need that either to cut box joints, but it brings an extra dimension of joy.

Sides done.
Notice that I have full fingers top and bottom, this is to make the side you see look solid and this was what I wanted to get back to in the layout.
As a rule; always end the same and the side you want to look the most solid, is where the top and bottom should be fingers, the side where you start and stop with nothing, will always look a little less as a surface and as if it is tilting inwards there.

For the other half you don’t use dividers!!!
Because you have already made some small mistakes sawing (no matter how good you are) and these can be corrected, by using the matching piece as a template, this is also helping you, if you did not saw perfectly 90 degrees first.
So with a sharp pencil mark the fingers now, as close to the sides as possible.

Really bad picture sorry, but if you look carefully, you can see they have been marked now and again waste part, has been marked also.

Same as before saw on the waste side of the line, but now look carefully, that you stay on the line.

As you can see I stayed on the waste side, even a little extra, as my pen was not super sharp and it’s easy to remove a little if needed after.

The sides are easiest to just saw, then you don’t risk a blow out on the side, when using the chisel again leave the line.

Just like this.

For the middle, same way as before.

Now comes the moment of truth!
Here I’m happy with the result.
If you want it better than this, you will need to cut the markings, with a marking knife, before sawing and using the chisel.

Getting closer again.

Time to cut the cake.

It was soooooooooooooooooooooooooo good!
A pound cake, with spices, a dark chocolate bar, roasted almonds and vodka infused cherries.
I to a break and had a coffee with it, at this time.
Big happy smile here.

Cutting rabbets for the bottom on the table saw, I ran out of hand tool zen.
Notice the small plywood block on the left, I also made a cut in that one.
(Perhaps you will also notice something else strange…).

The small block is used to find the correct thickness for the second cut for the bottom.

To make sure it has the right thickness, before cutting into the actual pieces.

The size of the bottom can now be found.
Yes I know it’s not pretty with the holes in the fingers, we will solve that later, don’t worry.

Length can be taken like this, put ruler into the bottom groove, measure up to bottom of finger, then add one deepness of groove, minus a wee bit (1mm).

24,1 + groove deepness 4mm – 1mm tolerance = 24,4cm here.
Hope it makes sense.

Cutting the bottom.

It fits!

We got a tool tote tray.

I think it’s sweet and got a story in it.
The text says: KONGELIG HOFLEVERANDØR – ROYAL WARRENT, meaning the company are supplier for the Danish queen.

Enough wit the talking about queens and wine…
Wood glue and coffee.
The coffee just for joy.

Put glue on all surfaces, that will touch the other side.
I use plenty here, as the cuts are sawn, so quite rough.

Especially the end wood, needs a good layer as it will suck the glue up fast.
End gluing has only little strength if ant, in the first place.

Bottom can be pushed into place, once the three sides are done and then it can be glued up finally.

And clamped up, you can never have too many clamps!
When clamping check the diagonal measure, in the both directions, they should be the same or your box is out of square and need adjustment.

Once the clamps are on, you can see the fingers match nicely, except this one, where I were asleep sawing, so I did cut on the wrong side of the line… Yes wood working is also making mistakes.

So another important discipline of woodworking, is fixing mistakes.
From the waste wood, I cut some thin strips, with a chisel.

Like this the small mistake is hidden and no one (except from you), will ever notice.

For the ugly rabbet holes (not rabbit holes), we also just make a small plug.

That we glue in.

The fixes can be cut off, with a flush trim saw.
Again Japanese and still Spanish flaming music in the back.

With a low angle plane I trim the end of the fingers, this can also be done by sanding.
Be careful planing, that you hold the plane skewed and cut in towards the centre from each side, so you don’t break off the corners of the wood and go in from each side.

I’ll call that fair, as I can’t go deeper without cutting into the wood where I want to keep the patina.

Finally the tote got a little tray again and is now ready to hold carving tools to bring out of the work shop.

I think it’s sweet and in time they will fit each other completely, but as this is a tool, I will not start with dye and so on.

I think the contrast gives some life and I also like to leave the pencil marks as a charm.
If you want the fingers to get a even better fit, you can wet them a wee bit with water, this will make the wood grow a little.

But I’m pleased.

Put in a small tool organizer, just a quick one, this might become another project some day, where I want to use hand tools…

But for now I’m a happy monkey.

And the tray can slide from side to side, as the tote were meant to be used.

Other totes:
One smaller, but same design, with different method of box joints:

A more modern twist, with machine cut box joints:

Hope it can be to some inspiration, or a tote, or a tray, or at least a few box joints, or even a cake…

Best thoughts,


-- MAD F, the fanatical rhykenologist and vintage architect.

9 comments so far

View Jim Jakosh's profile

Jim Jakosh

27231 posts in 4436 days

#1 posted 01-11-2022 12:09 AM

Very nice work, Mads. Hand cutting joints like that is very time consuming. I like the rustic handle!!!!!!!

Cheers, Jim

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View HowardAppel's profile


138 posts in 4365 days

#2 posted 01-11-2022 12:59 AM

Very nice, the cake too. Question: are those brass clamps homemade or store bought?

View Eric's profile


2819 posts in 1204 days

#3 posted 01-11-2022 01:19 AM

Nicely done Mads, and a good lesson in hand tool work. That cake sounds good too with the coffee.

The dividers are the way to lay out even joints and such. The last set of box joints I cut was done with a table saw jig set for 1/2” dado blade. I still mark everything out to include the waste. Very good tip you made about that.

I am sure that there are folks here that have learned a new task in the shop by following you.

Those clamps you are using look awesome.

Smiling here.

-- Eric, building the dream

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

9282 posts in 1913 days

#4 posted 01-11-2022 03:04 AM

A nice quick tray, and a great job preserving the bits you wanted from the wine box.

I find that I almost never cut box joints. I’ve done so many dovetails in the past couple years that I almost always do hand-cut dovetails when I need a small box, unless I’m in a huge hurry and just do rabbeted joints (usually with nails) or miters with splines.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View Thefarmer's profile


25 posts in 86 days

#5 posted 01-11-2022 10:50 AM

Nice job, Mads! Inspiring.
Where can I find those lovely brass clamps?

-- The Farmer, Sweden

View Sylvain's profile


1508 posts in 3830 days

#6 posted 01-11-2022 02:58 PM

I like the “KONGELIG HOFLEVERANDØR” mention on the box.

We tend to use thicker board then necessary.
Wine crate are made with pine (maritime pine in France).
A nailed twelve bottle crate would have 12 mm thick short sides, 10 mm tick long sides and a 8 mm thick bottom.
And 12 bottles would weight about 17 kg.

Of course it is the box shape which gives the strength; I would never put 17kg on a 8 mm thick shelf (especially if it is good wine).

Note: the short sides are thicker because there are grooves in them for bottle separators.
six bottle crate:

Unfortunately, wine makers tend to use cardboard boxes now;
In addition, some people grab the boxes in the big food stores without asking the permission so now they don’t want to give empty boxes any more. Only solution: buying the six or twelve bottles in their crate.

-- Sylvain, Brussels, Belgium, Europe - The more I learn, the more there is to learn (and that is nice)

View MikeB_UK's profile


823 posts in 2365 days

#7 posted 01-11-2022 08:29 PM

Nice box Mads, looks good in the tote.

And a pound cake, well a 0.45 kilo cake nowadays I guess ;-)

-- Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

View lew's profile


13482 posts in 5086 days

#8 posted 01-11-2022 10:02 PM

Really inspired by the way you were able to save the patina on the pieces. I must remember that!

Your cake slicer reminded me of many years ago, while I was in high school vocational class, we had end of term parties and cakes and pies were always served with mason’s trowels!

-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View mafe's profile


13647 posts in 4420 days

#9 posted 01-12-2022 01:29 PM

Hi hi ho and a bottle of wine…,

Jim Jakosh, Smiles thanks. I tried in this version to make them as little time consuming as possible. I can see from the original pictures, that it took 45 minutes, including marking and taking pictures, as well as looking out for the cake. So I guess it will be able to be done in 15-20 minutes, if one should go for speed, so not too bad actually. Perhaps I should try one day a speed test, just for the fun of it. Cheers dear Jim.

HowardAppel, The clamps are store bought, try searching for Japanese brass clamps. I live in Denmark, but buy mine from Fine tools in Germany – and I love them, think they are both beautiful and a joy to work with, so they give an extra dimension to the work. Thanks.

Eric, Thanks Eric, I tried this time to make it into a lesson, so I happy if it worked. The cake were really good, just ate last piece this morning. In Europe we are not allowed dado blades, you cant get a saw that can take them, they are considered to unsafe here… grrrr. The clamps are form Fine tools in Germany, but just search Japanese brass clamps and you will finde some local. Big smile back.

Dave Polaschek, Yes it’s actually fast, when you do this method, as I wrote Jim, I could see on the pictures, that I spend 45 minutes including marking and taking pictures, so I will guess I can do it in 15-20, if I go just for speed.
I love box joints, but I think it a matter of the project, style, that the joint’s are in style with the projects style. They are the same to cut by hand, it’s just a matter of angle. Mites and splines are wonderful too. Thanks Dave.

Thefarmer, laughs, you are the third asking about the clamps. The clamps are form Fine tools in Germany, Dictum also have them, but they are with a less beautiful finger thingy, like for a winding toy (bought some by mistake and the look always makes me think grrrrrr, laughs – you can see both types on the pictures). Thank you.

Sylvain, Yes kind of quirky, in a wonderful way, the KONELIG HOFLEVERANDØR and extra cool you only see it, when the tray are taken up – smiles. I agree, we most often make things too thick and this makes the design suffer, this was why I never liked the first tray. The dimensions should fit the size and the need, that gives a natural beauty, a aesthetic ruled by nature, not by man. Laughs, I would never put 17kg on a 8 mm thick shelf (especially if it is good wine). I love the way you wrote that. Here in Denmark it’s also quite difficult to get hold of wineboxes now.

I build a few tool cabinets out of wine boxes and love them, they always give a good talk also, when people see they are wine boxes, from the old stamps.
(In the post you can see more links).

MikeB_UK, Thank you Mike, I also think they are different, but a fit, like a good couple. Smiles, yes we are metric here in Europe.

Lew, Thanks Lew, it’s always a joy to keep some of the original life, when possible. I were in doubt, if I should give some patina to the fresh cuts, but I think it’s fine with the contrast here. If I regret I can always do it, it can be done with a little black tea and vinegar brew, then one will not see the difference. That’s so cool to use the masons trowel, love that idea, might have to clean one of mine up and use for that now! Thank you dear Lew.

Best of my thoughts and thanks again,

-- MAD F, the fanatical rhykenologist and vintage architect.

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