Super Mario Bros. question mark block box

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Project by Charlie Kilian posted 01-07-2018 08:45 PM 2568 views 5 times favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I made the question mark block from the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System as a Christmas gift for my brother. The structure of the box is maple. The question mark design is cut from yellowheart, padauk, and chacate preto turning blanks. It is finished with shellac.

I started by ripping the turning blanks into approximately 1/4” planks. Then I crosscut the planks into “pixels”.

By cutting the pixels this way, each pixel was composed of face grain instead of end grain.

I downloaded the question mark block sprite from a site on the Internet and expanded it to make a template that I could use to build each row of pixels. I glued up each row of pixels with superglue. My intent was to finish each row, and then epoxy the rows together. I figured I’d use epoxy here because each row would have endgrain facing out. Unfortunately, reality got in the way. The first problem was, the 1/4” planks had been cut uneven. I’d bought the last yellowheart turning blank at my local Woodcraft, so I couldn’t go back for more to try again. Instead, I found if I carefully selected pixels that matched up with each other, I could get a more-or-less straight line. It wouldn’t be the beautiful grid that I’d imagined in my head, but I figured I’d press on and see how it looked at the end.

The other problem was, the rows were very uneven. You can see what it looked like in the bottom five rows in this picture:

That picture also shows the results of my solution for this in the top eleven rows: I took it to my disc sander, and used it to level the rows while being careful not to get my fingers involved.

After fixing up the rows, I mixed up some epoxy and started gluing them together. And that’s when I hit the next problem: The sanding I’d done to level the rows wasn’t perfectly square. Things were starting to bow a little bit ridiculously. I stopped adding rows to the glue up, figuring I’d need another pass at the belt sander to make this work. And then another problem cropped up: Epoxy is slippery! The rows kept sliding around on me. It was one of the most frustrating glue-ups I’ve done.

Eventually, after another trip to the belt sander to level off the bowing, I found that super glue worked fine to join the final rows. I had the block glued up!

Next, I took the block to the band saw to slice it up. I needed to turn the block into four planks, one for each face of the cube.

I’d already surfaced and crosscut some maple to become the sides and top of the box, so the next step was to route a mortise on each face to hold the designs. It came as no surprise to find that each slice was shaped a little different; I’d expected no less after all the kludging with the disc sander.

In that picture you can also see the block I glued up for the top and bottom. I followed the same process as for the question mark block, but with no design.

I left about 1/8” gap between the top and bottom of the design for the kerf to cut the box lid off. Before I glued the designs to their side, I used the bandsaw with its small kerf to separate the top three rows from the bottom 13. (I had originally intended to glue up the top three as a separate block from the rest, but when I was gluing up the blocks, I got excited and forgot.) Then I glued the top and bottom of the designs into their mortise. I cut the sides to their final length and width, added a rabbet along the top and bottom for the top and bottom of the box, and then mitered the sides. And here, disaster struck again.

Because the side designs were far from square, I had to make some compromises when deciding how to place them on each side. If I placed the top square, sometimes the bottom so far out of square that it would draw your eye to it. What I ended up doing was skewing each face to distribute the unevenness around the top, bottom, left, and right of the design. But that decision came back to bite me when I cut the sides to their final dimensions. In some places, there wasn’t very much wood left to support the design on the sides that were mitered. Adding to that, some of the mortises weren’t as tight as they could have been. That left a small sliver of maple on the miter that was unsupported. On three of the sides, they broke, leaving a gap on that side of the miter between the design and the other side of the box. It left a gap where a thin sliver of maple should have been framing the design.

Superglue to the rescue! I took the offcuts of the miters that did work, and cut them into pieces to slot into the gap. I used thin CA superglue to secure those pieces in the missing gaps, building up a structure around the missing miter, and making sure to get plenty of glue into any gaps that formed. You can see the Frankenstein-esque results in this picture:

I took that side back to the table saw and cut the miter again. This time, it held up, giving me a nice looking miter and a well-framed design on the face of the box.

I glued up the faces and started working on the top and bottom of the box. First I cut a maple insert for the top and bottom.

Then I started working on design for the top and bottom. I’d already glued up a block for design the same way I had build the question mark block for the sides. I sliced up the block with the band saw, and then found another problem. The slices for the top and bottom fit in their slots in one dimension, but were accidentally built oversized in the other, so I needed to shrink them down a bit. I sliced them in two with the band saw, being careful to cut from the middle of the design to keep the colored lines on the top and bottom of the design in tact. I sanded each half from the middle until both pieces would fit snugly into the top and bottom.

After all the faces were on, I cut the lid off with the table saw and cleaned up the faces. And then I found the final problem. The barrel hinges I’d bought were too big. For some reason, I’d been thinking the faces were 3/4” thick when I bought the barrel hinges. But they aren’t, they’re only 1/2”. So the barrel hinges were out. And I already knew I didn’t have any other hinges I liked that wouldn’t interrupt the design of the cube.

My solution was a pattern of three magnets. On the back face of the body of the box, I secured two rare earth magnets with epoxy about 1” from each side. On the front face of the body of the box, I placed only one magnet, centered on the face. I repeated this pattern on the box lid. I figured given everything else that had not gone according to plan (ahem “learning experiences”), that something would probably go wrong with the magnet installation, too. If they were just a little off, the pattern on the lid wouldn’t line up with the pattern on the box. Fortunately, installation went smoothly for once. I guess the woodworking gods felt I was owed one stroke of luck after working diligently through all the other problems.

With the triangular arrangement of magnets, the box lid will only be held on in the correct orientation. The rare earth magnets are strong enough that I can pick the box up by the lid. And the magnets allow the whole top to come off, and then be placed back on, without interrupting the lines of the design like a regular hinge would have.

After finishing the box with shellac, I took a step back and just looked at it without eyeing it for flaws. And I was just a bit shocked to find that it actually turned out pretty nice. Much nicer than it had any right to be, given all the problems that cropped up.

So I’m quite pleased with it! I hope you all are, too. It was the hit of the gift giving season; everyone was quite impressed by it. I know what I’ll do different next time, but for a first go, I’m very happy with how it turned out.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!

7 comments so far

View Charlie Kilian's profile

Charlie Kilian

86 posts in 1832 days

#1 posted 01-07-2018 08:50 PM

My wife, Sarah, helped a ton. She did the glue up for the block used for the top and bottom of the box. (Though I must stress that she wasn’t the problem with the dimensions—that was mostly my fault; the pixels used for this glueup came from a different set of pixels than the question mark block, so they had slightly different dimensions. Plus they needed less sanding, so the whole thing turned out a little taller.) She also did the finishing. She’s getting really good with shellac; the pictures here almost don’t do it justice. She also took the pictures, but the lighting wasn’t really cooperating and we didn’t have time to try again before it was given away as a gift.

I wouldn’t have finished all my Christmas presents if she hadn’t jumped in and helped, so really this was a joint project between the both of us.

View jeffswildwood's profile


4946 posts in 3192 days

#2 posted 01-07-2018 09:15 PM

Very nice job. I am an old Mario player myself so I like this. I have found that sometimes a project just want to fight you a little, sometimes a lot! Way to hang in there to the finish. It came out great!

-- We all make mistakes, the trick is to fix it in a way that says "I meant to do that".

View Ivan's profile


16964 posts in 4082 days

#3 posted 01-08-2018 07:58 AM

Lot of work, but great result!

-- Ivan, Croatia, Wooddicted

View helluvawreck's profile


32122 posts in 4081 days

#4 posted 01-08-2018 06:25 PM

This Super Mario box turned out beautifully. Nice work!

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View kocgolf's profile


408 posts in 3393 days

#5 posted 01-08-2018 10:08 PM

That’s ridiculous cool and what a great step by step! I can see doing this as some spiffy coasters someday!

View BenDupre's profile


813 posts in 1702 days

#6 posted 01-08-2018 10:17 PM

Very cool! Opens up a whole world of wood pixel art. I just don’t think I would have the patience for this. Amazing.

-- The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred. – George Bernard Shaw

View mj_and_hj's profile


38 posts in 1350 days

#7 posted 01-12-2018 12:24 AM

Wow! That is awesome. Very time consuming.

-- I love the smell of wood chips in the morning

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