Secret Boxes

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Project by coloradoclimber posted 10-14-2007 06:34 AM 27735 views 209 times favorited 37 comments Add to Favorites Watch

About this time last year a friend showed me a little wooden box she had. She knows I’m a woodworker and she said “I’ll bet you can make these”. I took a quick look and thought, yeah, these look pretty simple, I probably could. My next thought was, hmm, christmas is coming up, and I need some presents, and these little boxes look pretty simple and pretty cool…..

And so a whole batch of little boxes were born. Unfortunately I gave most of them away without taking any pictures. They were a huge hit with the ladies, young and old, from little girls to little old ladies, they all delighted in these little boxes. Then you tell them these boxes are called “secret boxes”, their eyes light up.

So with christmas coming up again I cant really make and give these away again (the bar gets higher every year) but I thought some of you LumberJocks might be interested.

These boxes are called secret boxes, I understand the name comes from the idea that if you use the same wood for the lid as the body the lid becomes hard to see and supposedly not obvious how to open (seemed pretty obvious to me, and to the little ladies, one and all). So not so secret but everyone still likes the idea.

The box is basically a hogged out piece of wood with a sliding dovetail for a lid. The box itself is dirt simple. Take a piece of wood, hog out the center, cut a sliding dovetail, make a dovetail lid, assemble, done.

box body

box lid

I made two sizes of boxes, the big ones are about 3/4×2 x 5 inches or so. The small boxes about 3/4×2 x 2 inches. The lids are about 3/16 thick.

Since I was going to make a bunch of them I decided I needed a jig or two. The trick to make this more of a production operation is to make a jig to hold the boxes for hollowing them out. The jig is made out of a piece of milled square 2×4 cut to the same length as the box with a groove cut in it the same depth as the box. You then screw a router template to the top and you have a hollowing jig to hog out the centers. I’ll get to the jig in a second.

First you start out with raw blocks of wood milled to the final outside dimensions of your box and final thickness of your lid. Contrasting wood for the lid really stands out.

wood blocks

Step 1: Cut the groove for the lid into the body of the box. Cut the groove a little narrower than the narrow part of the dovetail of the lid. I used a straight bit in a router table. You could very easily use a dado blade if you have one that cuts a flat bottom. Now you have a block of wood for the body with a groove cut in it about 3/16 of an inch deep (the thickness of the lid) and (for my boxes) maybe an inch and quarter wide, right down the center of the box. I used my router table, a straight bit, my fence, and a captured cut. I know, I know, I know, no captured cuts (if you don’t know what a captured cut is google it. It’ll probably tell you not to do it). And yes a couple boxes did get away from me and got ruined. If you’re gonna do a captured cut for goodness sake use pushblocks and keep your fingers back.

Step 2: I suggest hollowing out the inside of the box next, before cutting the dovetail. Once you cut the dovetail you’re going to have a nice sharp dovetail edge. If you cut the dovetails first and then hog out the box you run the risk of dinging the dovetail edges and it really ruins the clean joint.

To hollow out the boxes I made a simple jig / template for a hand held plunge router. The jig consists of a milled square piece of 2×4 cut to the length of the box with a groove cut in the middle just barely larger than the outside dimension of the box. A router template is screwed to the top of the 2×4.

jig side view

To use the jig the box is slid into the jig from the end

jig with box inserted

The jig is then clamped into your bench vise. Clamping in your bench vise serves two purposes. First the whole jig and box are rigidly held so you can route it. Second the jig sides are flexible enough that clamping the jig compresses the jig sides and clamps the box tightly in the jig.

box jig clamped in bench vise

The template needs to be exactly centered over the groove in the 2×4. It should be exactly centered front to back and side to side. OK, not really. Since I couldn’t get the template exactly centered over the groove I cheated and made the jig adjustable. Lengthwise the jig is not a problem. The box can be slid from end to end until it is centered under the template cutout. When the jig is clamped in the bench vise the box will be held in place. For side to side adjustment I cut the groove in the jig about a 1/16 to 1/8 over size and used shims to center the box. I used some thin wood slivers and some strips from some old business cards to get the boxes exactly centered under the template cutout. Just stack up enough shims on either side until you get the box centered. Once you figure out the shim sizes for the stack of boxes you have milled up it’s pretty fast and repeatable.

Once I had the jig and box clamped in the bench vise I used a 1/4 inch solid carbide up cut spiral straight bit and a router bushing sized to the template cut out. I used a plunge router with a turret stops and routed out the box in a series of maybe 3/16 ths of an inch increments. Plunge the router, route out the interior of the box within the template, lift up, rotate turret to next depth increment, repeat. Keep going until you’ve routed down to leave yourself about 1/8 th of an inch thick bottom in the box.

So now you’ve got a box, with a groove where the dovetail is going to be, and the cavity of the box hollowed out.

Step 3: Cut the dovetails in the box. I used a 14 degree dovetail bit mounted in my router table. In order to get exactly the same cut on both sides of the box I did a captured cut between the bit and fence. The fence references the side of the box and the thickness of the dovetails to the edge of the box is the same on both sides. Again, use push blocks and caution if you choose to use this method.

Now the box body is pretty much done. The box is hollowed out and the dovetail is cut in the box.

Now to make the lid. To make the lid I picked a contrasting wood. The one shown here is maple for the box body and zebrawood for the lid. Maple and bloodwood was my favorite.

Step 4: I first cut a block of wood from some 4/4 stock just a bit over the lid width, maybe 1 and 3/4 of an inch wide. I jointed one surface and edge and resawed a strip maybe a 1/4 of an inch thick. I then planed it down to the final thickness, about 3/16 ths of an inch. I then took that strip of wood to the table saw and ripped it to just a hair over the final maximum width of the lid at the widest part of the dovetail.

Back at the router table, with the 14 degree dovetail bit still in place I routed down the edges. I did a standard cut with the fence to guide me. I had the fence moved out to just expose enough of the bit to just cut the dovetail. Once you have the dovetail cut you start fitting it to the box. I cut my lids slightly oversized and made multiple passes over the dovetail bit, just barely trimming the lid, until I got a perfect fit.

A perfect fit, that requires a comment. What is a perfect fit? A perfect fit is one that is snug enough that the lid stays firmly in place when the box is tipped, that provides firm resistance when closed, but is not so snug that when the wood swells the next summer the lid gets firmly wedged in place. You might wonder how I know this. Well along about the next spring I was back in the shop doing some lid tuning so the recipients of these boxes could get the lids off. As soon as the lids swelled they wedged TIGHT. They were tough to get out. I just hope I didn’t trim off so much that come next winter they don’t shrink so much the lids fall out.

Step 5: Now that the lid is dovetailed to a perfect fit, cut it to length and slide it into the box. Take the box with the lid in place and treat the box outside edges as you want. I used a 1/2 inch radius round over bit in my router table and went all around the outside edges of the box. If you route the edges do it with the lid in place. This insures the lid edge treatment is a perfect fit with the rest of the box.

Here’s roughly the workflow:
- Decide the dimensions of your box and lid and make a jig / template.
- Cut and mill a stack of blanks for the box bodies.
- Cut and mill a stack of blanks for the box lids.
- Groove the top of the boxes for the lids, slightly undersize. Router table with straight bit or flat bottomed dado blade.
- Plunge route the box, hollowing out the box body.
- Dovetail the box for the lid. Router table with dovetail bit.
- Dovetail the lid. Slightly oversize and work you way down to a perfect fit making multiple passes.
- Trim the lid to length.
- Edge treat the entire box. Router table with round over bit.

And there you have it. If you make a jig and set yourself up with a planned workflow you can crank out a stack of these boxes in pretty short order. Hey! Christmas is only a couple months away, you better quit sitting here reading and get out in the shop and start making boxes!!

37 comments so far

View WayneC's profile


14359 posts in 5380 days

#1 posted 10-14-2007 06:38 AM

These are really great. Thanks for the detailed instructions.

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View Colin's profile


246 posts in 5203 days

#2 posted 10-14-2007 11:28 AM

Wow, I like the simplicity and I can see how the boxes would be liked by everyone, your details are excellent.

-- Colin, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. "Every craftsman was once an amateur"

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 5245 days

#3 posted 10-14-2007 12:05 PM

Great how-to article and a good product. Thank you for sharing.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View Corey's profile


68 posts in 5364 days

#4 posted 10-14-2007 05:13 PM

Very nice and great info, thanks for posting it!



View Karson's profile


35279 posts in 5683 days

#5 posted 10-14-2007 05:28 PM


A nice tutorial and some neat boxes.


-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia [email protected]

View Napaman's profile


5535 posts in 5360 days

#6 posted 10-14-2007 06:19 PM

i am going to favorite this…thanks for all the knowledge and experience shared—-for a beginner (and I am sure experienced as well) this tutorial is really appreciated…cool project!!!

-- Matt--Proud LJ since 2007

View Don's profile


2603 posts in 5460 days

#7 posted 10-15-2007 01:41 AM

Wonderful, Brad. This produces a real sweet little box and I just love small wooden boxes. Thanks for the tutorial.

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

View CharlieM1958's profile


16292 posts in 5501 days

#8 posted 10-15-2007 04:06 PM

Nice little boxes….really good tutorial. Thanks!

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Andy's profile


1724 posts in 5191 days

#9 posted 10-15-2007 09:12 PM

Love it! Thanks Brad for taking time to share the details. There is a shop out here in Oregon that makes these,predominately from Teak, because the natural oils keep it lubricated.I look forward to trying this out.

-- If I can do it, so can you.

View YorkshireStewart's profile


1130 posts in 5184 days

#10 posted 10-15-2007 11:17 PM

These caught my eye. Very useful ‘how to do it’ – thanks for that. Had Don not said it once or twice, I would’ve said: “I just love small wooden boxes”.

-- Res severa verum gaudium - True pleasure is a serious business.

View Don Kondra 's profile

Don Kondra

117 posts in 5169 days

#11 posted 10-16-2007 12:11 AM


I find it’s a lot safer to do all the machining while the blank is still together.

In other words, one “stick” ~ 24” long will make six boxes. You cut it apart after all the machining is done and then round over the ends slightly… My boxes ended up at 3 1/2” x 2” x 5/8”....

Also I band saw the lid from the same blank of wood as the body of the box. That will give you an almost perfect grain match…

Cheers, Don.

-- Don Kondra – Furniture Designer/Maker

View Jon3's profile


497 posts in 5388 days

#12 posted 10-16-2007 09:52 PM

Very clever. Added to my todo list!

View Jon3's profile


497 posts in 5388 days

#13 posted 10-16-2007 09:56 PM

Could you make the captured cut safer by simply leaving the box in your jig, and getting a bearing-guided dovetail bit? (Similar to what the keller jig uses, apparently).

View coloradoclimber's profile


548 posts in 5351 days

#14 posted 10-16-2007 10:17 PM

Jon3, That sounds doable.

I don’t see any reason you couldn’t do all of the operations in a jig with a bearing or bushing guided bit. I used the router table and table saw because I can reference against the table fence. Seems like you could make a template and route out the grooves, the box body, and then the dovetails.

Now that I think about it that might be a sweet way to do it.

Make the jig body with some reference pins and multiple templates that mount to the jig, aligned with the reference pins.

Clamp the jig with the raw box blank in the jig / vise.

Put the different templates in place for each operation.
- Template one, cut the groove.
- Template two, hollow out the body.
- Template 3, dovetail the body.

Do all operations with a hand held router. If you had two routers, one with a straight bit and one with a dovetail you could setup a production workflow and crank out each box without taking it out of the jig.

If you use a bushing with the straight bit and templates sized to cut the groove and then the cavity you could use one router / straight bit / bushing combo to do both jobs.

Sounds like it would work.

View mot's profile


4928 posts in 5319 days

#15 posted 10-16-2007 10:39 PM

Great boxes and tutorial. Thanks!

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

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