Boxguy's Wabi-Sabi Box

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Project by Boxguy posted 05-21-2012 05:04 PM 6902 views 10 times favorited 37 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Story: I never know where making boxes is going to lead me next. I combined my woodworking with some fine artists and working together we made boxes that we couldn’t make working separately. One artistic friend introduced me to the concept of Wabi-Sabi. At first I thought it was a salad dressing. But no, it is a Japanese philosophical/art concept. Since the Lumber Jocks site is lacking in good Oriental Philosophy articles, I thought I’d take a few sentences to explain some things about Wabi-Sabi…first as a concept and then as an application to making this box. Here goes…

Philosophy: These three truths are a basic tenet of Wabi-Sabi thinking.

Nothing is perfect.
Nothing is permanent.
Nothing is complete.

The flawed beauty of a wabi-sabi art piece strives to produce a sense of serene melancholy.

Well, that wasn’t too bad was it? Of course there is more to this, but that brief summary is enough for our purpose.

Application: So if you’re the Boxguy, how do you make a Japanese philosophy into a box? Well, that was a challenge. So I thought…what could represent the imperfect, the non-permanent, and the incomplete better than a piece of spalted maple paired with a maple burl? Spalted wood is always changing as it goes through the stages of decay. Its the decay and the work of Powder Post Beetles that give the sides of this box its charm. Though arrested for now, this process of change will some day start again in this wood. A burl is a tree’s attempt to heal itself. And the burl on the top of this box is at once beautiful and tragic. Beautiful because of the graceful twists and turns in the grain, and tragic because the tree produced this burl in response to an injury. Thus, the flawed beauty of wood that has decayed and a burl that has a grain disrupted by healing make for a type of serene melancholy…it is beautiful, but it is sad at the same time. The same is true for our life experience…but that idea is for another place and time.

Techniques: Working with spalted wood and burls takes patience. The soft spots tend to dig out when sanding. I found that it helps to put several coats of poly on the wood before you even start the final sanding process. Once the wood is planed, or (in my case) drum sanded, I soak it with poly to get it to stabilize somewhat then I build the box. About 100 pounds of air pressure and an air gun will help “sandblast” away the loose sawdust and the dried mud in the spalted wood. Some people are highly allergic to spalted wood sawdust. Take precautions.

Thanks: As always I appreciate that you took time to look and read. I especially appreciate those Lumber Jocks who take time to write comments. That is what makes these posting fun for me.

-- Big Al in IN

37 comments so far

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 4167 days

#1 posted 05-21-2012 05:50 PM

Really nice use of nice wood. I usually have mixed thoughts about splines, but they look good on this box… like they belong there. Nice box. There is much for all of us to learn from the Japanese. You might want to rethink the chain though. :-)

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

View JoeyG's profile


1275 posts in 3839 days

#2 posted 05-21-2012 05:54 PM

Great concept and box. I have a very similar philosophy, basically it is that wood is not perfect nor am I and neither will my projects. To find the beauty in imperfection is the challenge. I remember growing up and visiting a Native American Reservation with my grandfather who had many friends there and as I questioned the craftsmen as a child they explained that they worked imperfections in on purpose to signify that nothing is perfect. Your concept is very similar to this and it has stuck with me all these years later.

Thanks for sharing

-- JoeyG ~~~

View Joe Lyddon's profile

Joe Lyddon

10963 posts in 5266 days

#3 posted 05-21-2012 06:15 PM

Very pretty box!

Even if it’s not Perfect! LOL

It’ll pass… LOL

-- Have Fun! Joe Lyddon - Alta Loma, CA USA - Home: ... My Small Gallery:

View Ted's profile


2877 posts in 3425 days

#4 posted 05-21-2012 06:19 PM

My philosophy is that if I wanted perfection I would go into plastics. I like overly softened edges to give a soft, worn look. I like when something is ever so slightly not quite square. I like showing (gawd forbid) end grain. And I just love worm eaten wood with twisted, gnarly grain. Wood is a product of nature – not manufactured so that every piece is identical, but grown, and no two pieces are ever the same. Every little piece of wood has it’s own character.

This is why I generally avoid using stain. I prefer to let the wood speak for itself. Wood has a beauty of it’s own, and if I feel it should be a different color than what nature made it, then I think maybe it’s just not the right wood for the project at hand – like I’m trying to force the wood to be something it’s not.

If I mis-cut a piece by a little bit, but the piece still fits, I like to think of that as my signature.

That’s a really nice box, built on the premise of a really nice philosophy. Thanks for sharing it. :)

-- You can collect dust or you can make dust. I choose to make it.

View stefang's profile


17040 posts in 4548 days

#5 posted 05-21-2012 07:22 PM

Great looking box Big Al. The wood really has a wonderful color and grain and the worm holes add to it’s rustic charm.

It reminds me of a woodturner who said that he didn’t care how he hollowed out stuff and that he would be glad to use termites if he didn’t have a lathe.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Philzoel's profile


303 posts in 3557 days

#6 posted 05-21-2012 07:57 PM

Well say what you want, but I am perfect. I am perfectly imperfect!

-- Phil Zoeller louisville, KY

View Boxguy's profile


2900 posts in 3481 days

#7 posted 05-21-2012 08:22 PM

@ Roger…I understand about the chain, but I already bought 50 feet of it.

@Joey…I seem to add imperfections to my work without really trying. Nice memory though thanks for sharing that.

@Joe…I appreciate you gallery people. If you don’t do what you do, I can’t do what I do.

@Ted…I have made all the mistakes you mention. I just try not to make them all on one box or one day.

@Stephen…if I have both termites and a lathe how much trouble am I in?

@Phil…if you have perfected imperfection it is time to work on impermanance and incompleteness. Maybe not in that order. (Fun comment from you, thanks.)

-- Big Al in IN

View studie's profile


618 posts in 4361 days

#8 posted 05-21-2012 08:22 PM

Really fine box here. I’m building a dining table from old Hemlock with some termites still in it. A pest service man came to see the wood and states that once the moisture is gone the termites will leave or die. While I was working on a dashboard I pulled my hands out with wasps on them, my buddy gave my some brake cleaner spray and after spraying them the bugs dropped dead right away. So I have some around to kill any I see. It’s clean and no poison residue.

-- $tudie

View robert triplett's profile

robert triplett

1566 posts in 4319 days

#9 posted 05-21-2012 11:23 PM

Very nice, clean box. My favorite kinds of woods. I’m not much on philosophy. maybe when I am retired I can slow down enough to think. I do enjoy looking at your boxes. Thanks for sharing.

-- Robert, so much inspiration here, and now time to work!!!

View Boxguy's profile


2900 posts in 3481 days

#10 posted 05-22-2012 12:19 AM

@Studie…I had this wood sprayed and let it sit for a few weeks just in case.
@Robert…Thanks for the kind words. My experience is that if you don’t do something when you’re working, you won’t do it when you retire. You may do more or less of something, but I don’t seem to do anything that is really new.

-- Big Al in IN

View Tom148's profile


39 posts in 3478 days

#11 posted 05-22-2012 12:37 AM


Nice work. I really like your boxes.

I have a couple of questions if you don’t mind? When you use piano hinges do you mortise them in at all? It is tough to tell from the pics.

Also, do you have a preferred hardware supplier? I have been casting around on the Internet and have found some but I am trying to balance cost and quality. I have looked at the Brusso hinges but they are very pricey! For a special box I can see it perhaps but using them routinely would get cost prohibitive.



-- Tom

View Boxguy's profile


2900 posts in 3481 days

#12 posted 05-22-2012 01:06 AM


Good questions. Yes I do mortise my hinges. I do it on my miter table with a simple locking fence, a tri-square, and a 3/4 inch straight cutting bit. It will take too long to explain the whole process here, but I will do a blog entry in a week or two when I have someone to photo and someone to demo. the process. Please tab the blog.

I have been using Rockler’s hinges, but I hate that elongated hole they stick in their continuous hinges. The National brand hinges now made in China have too much slop in the fit and the boxes don’t line up like they should. I can’t find Baldwin hinges any more. Most of the best I have found are made in Canada. I tried the Boston Machine Works hinges. They were well made, but had a poorly plated finish.

I use plated steel hinges and steel screws. Brass screws are a pain to work with in hard woods. After I cut the hinge to length and sand the cut smooth and slightly rounded, I spray paint the cut with matching paint to keep the hinge from rusting. A vix bit is a must for accurately drilling the pilot holes for screws.

I know what you mean about price. I simply can’t put $30 or more in a nice set of brass hinges and make any money on a box; I wish I could.

-- Big Al in IN

View cathyb's profile


860 posts in 4458 days

#13 posted 05-22-2012 02:17 AM

I love this box and the story behind it. It gives me pause, in a good way….....

-- cathyb, Hawaii

View ruddy's profile


550 posts in 4153 days

#14 posted 05-22-2012 10:05 AM

Al….a lovely rustic box and I liked the philosphy that goes with it. I love it when you make something BECAUSE of the timber. Always great to start out with an extraordinary piece of timber and then decide what you will make with it. I rarely ever repair natural blemishes or knot holes, they are part of natures design.

-- And my head I'd be a scratchin'

View nomercadies's profile


590 posts in 3553 days

#15 posted 05-22-2012 10:25 AM

You create with wood and paint with words.

-- Chance Four "Not Just a Second Chance"

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