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"Art Box" Tutorial

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Updated 1/15/12

How to make an Art Box

by Andy Campbell


Be safe! Guards, etc…may not be visible in the pictures. This is written for woodworkers of all skill levels.
But, please keep in mind that this is not woodworking #101. I am writing this in a step by step manner that should be easy for a beginner to follow, but some basic understanding of tools and terminology is required.
I ask that the more advanced woodworkers be patient and not be offended. I don't wish to test your patience or appear to be condescending…just helpful to a mixed audience. I have my own way of doing things, but as a self taught woodworker, some of them are unconventional. I am not trying to teach you how to do things my way, but just showing you how I do things. Do each step in a way YOU are comfortable with.

Definition of Art Box -A box with a medallion in the lid that resembles a picture in a frame. The body and lid may be shaped or not.
Let's take a look at a few styles, each with a slightly different lid and hinge set up. Note how the shaping varies on each one.
1) The first one hinges on brass pins allowing it to swing down into the box.

Rectangle Wood Bag Cuisine Tints and shades

2) The main difference here is that the lid sets into a lip of the box body on only three sides. It uses barrel hinges so it does not drop into the box at the back.

Brown Wood Rectangle Packing materials Bag

3) This box is very different from the other two. It has a frame and panel style top, uses butt style hinges and does not set into a lip at all. The lid is sliced off the box after assembly. It uses butt style hinges. The shaping is very different and the bottom was raised up enough to allow cutouts to add a footed look.

Luggage and bags Bag Rectangle Chair Wood

The construction is very similar for all of these boxes, but at a certain point they head off into their own direction.

The Chapters will cover the following:
#1- Introduction
#2- Wood Selection
#3- Making the Box
#4- Corner Splines
#5- Cutting the Lip of the Box
#6- The Lid
#7- The Medallion
#8- The Handle
#9- It all Hinges on This
#10-The Pin Hinge
#11-Butt or Barrel Hinges

great start continuing the blog


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Wood selection

Updated 1/15/12

The "Art Box" concept came about when I was looking for a way to use small pieces of some figured Myrtlewood I had leftover, not large enough for a box, but not something I could not throw away either. I decided to feature it in the lid of a box, like a picture in a frame.
Keep that picture frame in mind when selecting the small piece for the medallion. You might select that picture piece first and then find a less figured wood to use for the lid and body, one that sets it off.


A) What YOU find appealing, which is totally subjective.
B) How you want to do the top, e.g., medallion or not, and type of hinges.
C) What material you either have on hand or have access to.
Here are two different approaches.
A) Contrasting the color or grain, or both between the body and the medallion is very eye catching.
B) Alternately, a tone on tone approach can evoke a calming effect, or in the right combination, it might even feel masculine.
Some suggestions
• A light colored wood such as maple for the sides and top and a figured piece of myrtle for the medallion is stunning.
• On the other hand, a darker body out of wenge works well with ziricote for the medallion.
• For a tone on tone effect, try using plain walnut for the body and figured walnut for the medallion.
To see how two woods look together, wet them with mineral spirits and lay one over the other, this brings out the color and does not raise the grain like water. Just lay one on the other to see if you like the effect.

Grain Matching
The body and top should to be out of the same board if at all possible so the color and grain match closely.
If you are using a figured wood and want the grain to appear to run contiguous from the face and up over the top, then you will need a wider board of about 11''. (That's how I did the Bad Moon secret box)
This isn't always necessary, as when using straight grained lumber, or when a lot of shaping is done, the shaping grinds away the top layer of matching grain anyway.

A. Body - For a contiguous look, matching the grain of the body with the top,
you will need a board about ¾ × 11×40.
B. Body - To grain match the body only, select a board about ¾ x 4 × 40
and a separate piece for the top about ¾ x 7 × 11
Medallion- ¾ × 5×8
Corner splines - I often rip these out of the same board as the medallion. You may wish to go for a stronger contrast. Play around and see what works best with your woods.

E. Handle - This will often come from the same board as the medallion or a scrap of wild figured wood.

F. Dividers - After I have completed the box, I work on the design for the dividers. I prefer to make a visual statement by matching them to the medallion or contrasting them with the body color.

There will not be a typical cut list for this box. You will cut parts for the body and size the bottom from that, and after you assemble the body, you will cut and fit the lid, and so on…
A sacrificial box
Depending on your skill level, and how clear my instructions are, I recommend making a second box out of an inexpensive wood, such as poplar or clear pine. This will give you a test subject for each set up. There are several steps where you may feel more comfortable practicing on wood that is less dear to you.
The first thing I do is mark out each part, showing its relationship to the others. This insures that each one gets cut in the proper sequence and is reassembled in order.

Brown Amber Rectangle Wood Tints and shades

You may skip this part if you are using an even grained/colored wood or making a test box. However, it's a good idea to get in the habit of paying attention to grain orientation.
I will be using this piece of bubinga for the body and lid of my box.


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Making the box

Part 3
updated 1/15/12

Regarding size:
Size and proportions are important…to a point.
We will be building a box that will start out at 11 1/8 W x 7 D x 4 1/2 H. (After shaping it will finish out at about 10 3/4'' x 6 3/4'' x 3 1/8 h depending on how much shaping is done.)

I like the proportions of this box, they just look good to my eye. They are loosely based on the Golden Ratio which is a ratio of 1.618. There is much more to it than that, but simply put, here is how it works in relationship to this box. We multiply Height x GR= Width.

The height is 3 1/2 plus the lid and medallion add another 3/8 each, for a total of about 4 ¼ for the overall height. We multiply x 1.618 =6.875 and if we multiply that x 1.618 we get 11.125''.
As you can see this box is very close to the Golden Ratio. After shaping it is going to be a little more off of that ideal, but it is only a guide. It will be up to you to decide what pleases your eye, and for the intended purpose of the box,and the material you have on hand.

But just so we are all on the same page from start to finish, lets work with these dimensions.

Lets start cutting some wood.

Make sure your board is flat. Any twist will not allow your mitered corners to come together.
Start by milling the board to 3/4'' thick.
Rip a strip 3.5'' wide and 38'' long minimum.
Orient the grain direction from left to right and mark out your pieces just to be sure you cut each piece in proper order. Its easy to flip the board front to back and miter the wrong side.
Make sure and mark the front and top of the board for the lid and set it aside for now.

Brown Handwriting Wood Rectangle Wood stain

Next step is to cut a dado to receive the bottom. I use 1/4'' plywood and size the kerf to fit the actual thickness, since it varies. I make the kerf about 1/4'' deep which will allow for more shaping.

Rectangle Wood Wood stain Hardwood Tints and shades

Next step is to miter your 4 box sides. I prefer to use a miter saw with a simple jig to make repeatable cuts.
There are many ways to get the same results, including a table saw with a sliding cutoff sled. I just prefer this setup because I get great results and its simple.

The photo below shows cutting a miter using the first stop.
The saw is always kept at the same position for every cut.

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Then flip front to back and trim away just enough to get a full miter, that ensures the grain on the face will continue unbroken.

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The flip front to back for the next cut using the second stop.

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Its a good idea to use backer boards to prevent tearout, but you will need to take that in to account when setting up a jig like this. They will push your board away from the fence which will change where the saw enters your board,making each piece longer. I prefer putting wide masking tape on the entire back. I did not use any here because I just had this 96 tooth sharpened.

As you can see in this last picture, my cuts dont land on my orientation marks. They are only there to keep me from doing something boneheaded. The preset stops are what determine the length of each cut.

Here are all four sides ready to assemble.

Plant Rectangle Bumper Funeral Flooring

Next we want to temporarily tape the box together so we see how well we did with our miters.
I either use my table saw fence for a backstop or a board screwed to by bench to keep all the pieces in line for taping them together.
I use 3/4" yellow masking tape, it really takes the strain and doesnt leave a lot of gunk behind to clean off. I personally dont like blue tape, it doesnt allow me to get enough pressure on the joints, and it will often slacken off without me realizing it. Some people use duct tape or clear packing tape. Find what works best for you.

This photo is simply showing the faces taped tightly together, edge to edge. The orange highlighted circle shows how I let the edges ride over a little bit, so when its folded it up to form the box this really pulls it tight since its trying to stretch the tape even more. But, just a little overlap is plenty, or the tape may break.

Rectangle Wood Pink Material property Tints and shades

This photo is of the inside after its all taped together.

Brown Rectangle Wood Shelf Cloud

we are going to measure for our bottom and fit it, then we will glue and tape up the box.

Cut the bottom so it fits snug but wont interfere with the closing up of the miter joints.
I allow about 1/8" gap. I glue in the bottom, its plywood so its dimensionally stable and wont cause the box to split. You dont need to glue it in if your joints are tight and especially if you add corner splines. I just prefer to, for the added strength and the solid sound the bottom makes when tapped on. Its a personal thing-)

Brown Rectangle Wood Material property Brick

NOW is the time to tape the box up tight and see that everything fits nicely together, the miters should be snug and the bottom should fit right and it should be square. If not, you will see if you can tweek it where needed or recut everything.

Bottoms Up
When you have your bottom prefitted, add two new bands of tape to act as your clamps. The bands of tape you have been sticking and un-sticking for your dry fitting, are getting pretty sad looking but are ok to just leave on for the actual glue up.

Be prepared.
This all needs to be done fairly quickly! The glue starts grabbing within a few minutes, so work fast. If its very warm, you will need to move quickly or the glue will start to skin over and your joints will not close up tightly. This will cause them to be very noticeable. I use Titebond 3 because it has a little longer open time.
If the miters dont pull up tight you will need to coax them a little with some screw clamps, so have them handy.
Have a damp rag at hand for drips.

Brush a thin layer of yellow glue on each miter face and while that soaks in, brush glue into the dado groove for the bottom if you wish. Then go back and put another coat of glue onto each miter face if has soaked in all the way. This will of course depend on the woods porosity and the glue you are using. Move quickly but dont be sloppy.

Now you can slip the bottom in and fold up the box pulling it closed with the tape.
Check your miters and add more tape as need to tighten it up.

Flip the box over and check the top edges of the miters too. Clean any excess glue off and place the box on a perfectly flat surface, like your table saw and make sure it doesn't rock. If it rocks much at all, then it is out of square. I use a block of wood and a mallet and smack it hard on the high corner to level it out. You will then need to put another band of tape around it to tighten up that joint and keep it in that position. A little rocking is acceptable as long as your joints look good. I will show you how I get the bottom flat later on._

Table Wood Rectangle Bench Hardwood

Check from corner to corner with a tape measure to double check that its square. But be sure the miters are tight!
Rectangle Wood Measuring instrument Ruler Flooring
nice looking good


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Corner Splines

Updated 1/15/12

We now have our box assembled and glued up. Depending on the temperature, let it dry for a couple of hours, or overnight to be safe.
Take the tape off and clean up any dried glue.

This is a good time to smooth up the bottom to get rid of any rocking.
You can double stick sandpaper onto a very flat and firm surface and slide the bottom across that. The problem with this approach is that sheet sandpaper is way too small. You can stick down several sheets and if you go very slow, you may not tear the paper.You can also use a sanding block or a hand plane. I have a Jet 6×48 belt sander/disc combo, but is just not quite wide enough.

I decided there had to be a better way.
I work for a cabinet shop,( in the office only, where I design and blah,blah,blah) and we have a 36" wide Time Saver sander. We toss the belts after they are worn out but I knew they had a little life left so I snagged one to make a sanding platform. After a little trial and error it looked like this:

I use it for the bottom, top and for leveling out the sides after cutting off the splines.
The belts I get are 36'' wide and a 60'' loop. I split them in half lengthwise ( they rip very straight after you get it started with a cut from a razor knife.)
and that gives me a sanding surface of about 18×24.
Do not try ripping these on the table saw…kids!
The angle of the sanding bed gives a nice working position and the ell leg lets it hook onto the edge of a bench, keeping it in place. ( I am sorry but the ell leg I am refering to is not shown in this photo, its at the operators end, its not the one to the right in the picture.) The taper lets the rod progressively tighten the belt by wedging it in place. Simply pull the rod back and the belt slackens so you can rotate it to a new clean section.

There is still enough life in these belts for this purpose. Just check with a local cabinet shop and offer them a few bucks for discards. They will probably just give them to you, but you may get turned away if you go asking for a handout.

Or you could order a new one from Klingspore
They sell this same size but they also have a 17" x54" and they cost about $33 plus s&H

Another shot.

Next we are going to cut for the corner splines (aka slip feathers or corner keys ).

Layout, and how many you use is strictly up to you. You can just place them randomly if you wish making each corner unique.

If you are going to really do some wild shaping then placement isnt that critical, since your eye wont be able to align one side with the other anyway. Maybe after a few drinks you might be able to.
This is the layout we will use for this box. The reason the top spline is placed further from the top edge than the bottom one is from the bottom edge, is that this will allow for more aggressive shaping of the top without getting into the spline too much.
Another reason, is that if you are going to make a box that has a lip on only three sides of the lid to nestle into and you will be using butt style or barrel hinges, then this will ensure the cutout for the lid at the back doesnt cut
down into the splines.
This will become clear a little later on.

If I want the center one to be exactly centered between the top and bottom ones, I dont measure its location ne until I have cut the bottom and top kerfs. It easy to be off a little when allowing for blade thickness, etc…

Here is the layout I used, but yours can be whatever you want.

Here is my corner spline jig that rides overtop of my saw fence. It cant move to the side ensuring a straight cut.
I placed sticky back felt on the inside surfaces so it slides freely.
There are several other versions on LumberJocks to model yours after.

For clean flat bottom kerfs the correct saw blade is important. I bought a flat grind toothed blade by Forrest since all I had was a selection of ATB ones which leave a veed or angled bottom. I would carefully try and flatten the bottoms with a file, but it was very difficult not to mess up the sides. I understand why some still use an ATB blade, its a chunk of money for a blade that I only use for kerfs.
If you arent sure what type of blades you have, do a test by cutting shallow kerfs in a board with each one, you might just have a flat cutting blade on hand.

You will get better looking kerfs if you only push the box through the blade once, and do it like a machine.
Stop after you go over the blade and raise the box up to clear the blade before pulling it back through.
It doesnt take much…a little wiggle…a little sideways pressure…or even a blade with poor runout, and you will get a sloppy cut. Even a little slop is visible when you glue in a spline that contrasts with the box.
Thats the whole idea isnt it, to draw the eye to the splines?
So do your utmost to make them crisp.

Next we need to cut some splines and I have decided to use Maple for this Bubinga box.
There are several methods for doing this, including an adjustable stop that sets to the left of the blade. You can also rip them on the bandsaw and run them through a thickness sander, and you can even take your chances with a planer to size them if you wish but they usually just spit it out like scrabble pieces.
This is my approach and it works very well for me.
As you can see it is simply a push stick with a heel, a good handle, and a flat side that rides against the fence.

I set the blade to the approximate width of the spline and make a pass or two until I get it just right testing with some scrap wood. Yes, the thin strip is between the blade and the fence but is prevented from shooting out the back because of the matching heel on the push stick. Just be sure and use a good wood with an intertwined grain such as this White Oak one shown here so the heel doesnt break off too easily. Its a little scary at first, but its safe.

Test your splines!
Slide them in and out to be sure they are snug, but not so tight that you need to force them in while they are still dry. They will swell pretty quickly with glue on them and they may not even bottom out. Its a fine line between too tight and even a little too sloppy. A loose fit will mean that you will see the glue around the spline.

Cut the splines to about 1 1/2'' long using a handsaw or bandsaw. I always cut extra so I wont be tempted to use one thats too tight or too loose. Now you are ready to start glueing them in the slots.

It is very easy to mess this up!
Dont get in a hurry, and do one at a time. Quit texting your girlfriend and focus!

Use a small brush to apply the glue. ( I use acid brushes for soldering. They are natural animal hair and can be used over and over. They are cheap too. I cut the bristles shorter with a chisel and mallet.)

Have a wet rag at hand to wipe away excess glue and another acid brush to clean around the slots, just to be sure the splines are seated all the way to the bottom of the slots. You may need to coax it into place with a mallet.
Do this slowly and carefully on each one. And, be sure you dont bump the others out of position.
If there is any gap anywhere, it will show when you trim the splines flush. Not much you can do to fix it. So, be careful.

After you have them all done, give it an hour or so to dry and trim them flush. I have a 14" bandsaw, so I can just fit one of these boxes through to trim off the ends. A handsaw will work too. So will a trained beaver if happen to own one.

And then on to the sanding platform to flatten the sides. It doesnt really need to be pretty, just flat for referencing off of a fence or measuring for hinges, etc.. The sides of this box will be shaped anyway, so dont waste time on getting all the marks out…unless you want to….which I usually do :)

nice splines


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Cut the lip for the lid

Updated 1/15/12

At this point we have a box body with corner splines.
Our lid is still oversized, so we can stop here and just use it to make a traditional box,one where the lid sets on top.

For some, this may be the best option. They may not have all the required tools or may feel their skills need a little more honing.
Or, you could leapfrog over the next few stages and pick up the project again when we do the medallion.
Then you could continue on to the shaping if desired.
For now, just follow along with the tutorial, and continue at your own pace.
I strongly recommend making a test box. Are you listening to me at all or are you still texting little Sheba?
You will feel more comfortable when trying out some of the following procedures on a lesser grade of wood.

We want the top edge of the box sanded flat in case you havent already done that.
What we are going to do is route a recess on the inside top edge of the box to recieve the lid.
We will invert the box over a router fixed in a table. Any bumps at the corner joints on the top of the box will transfer to the lip we are routing down inside. Its much easier to sand the top edge than to sand inside.
Once the top edge of the box is smooth, remove any sawdust, etc from the inside of the box and the router table so we have a clean surface.

We are going to route a rabbet, a lip, inside the box, all the way around. It will finish at 3/8'' wide x 1/2'' deep.
Keep in mind that any chipping is a real issue with this style of box. Any variations along the gap, which is called the reveal, between box and lid, will really jump out. We do need a gap between the lid and box for the lid to open, but it needs to be small and very even. Capiche?
NO? OK, OK, then look at it this way,, if you sand out a chip, or deep router burn on the inside lip of the box it makes a divot, meaning it becomes wider at that point, a wavy line. The lid cannot be shaped to fit into those "wide spots". Its like trying to parallel park a Winnebago.
I route the lip using several shallow passes for the depth and the width. This will minimize chipping and burning.
I use a rabbet bit with interchangeable guide bearings and start with one that gives me a cut just under 3/8" wide. I go fairly slow on the first shallow pass, not worrying about the burn marks. I cut down to just shy of the full 1/2'' depth, leaving about 1/16''. I then clean this up with a bearing that gives me the full 3/8'' width and also I reset the router to take the full 1/2'' depth.

Be sure and let the bit stop spinning before lifting the box off, clean away all the chips after each pass, and be sure you move around the bit in the correct direction. This of course will depend on which side of the equator you live on." Here in Oregon, thats clockwise.

Wet the wood with a damp cloth prior to routing to minimize tearout.

If you dont have a set of bearing, just use a pattern bit and make multiple passes. Depends a lot on the wood.

with the edge of the cutter about 1/8 above the table. Use a high speed setting if you have that option and lower the center of the box over the bit and move it in a clockwise direction, (moving into the bit). After a complete pass around the bit,c enter the box over the bit and turn off the router. Clean away all the chips and raise the bit to about 1/4" - 3/8" and repeat. Leave the bit about 1/16 shy of the total 1/2" depth. Last of all, change your guide bearing and raise the bit to exactly 1/2'' deep and make your final pass, moving at a little faster pace to prevent new burns.
Your final results will depend on the wood you are cutting and the sharpness of your bit, and how tight you crossed your fingers.

Here is the bit set and the router. Also, you can see the bent wrenches for the router I made. I massaged them to fit down into the well by heating them in the woodstove and tempering in oil. But thats another story.

Gas Auto part Machine Engineering Composite material

A close up of the bit.

Household hardware Gas Auto part Wood Metal

The first pass just under our 3/8" width.

Ruler Office ruler Wood Measuring instrument Tool

Done @ 3/8" wide x 1/2" deep

Wood Gas Tints and shades Rectangle Electric blue

Carefully and lightly sand the rabbet just enough to smooth it out.Then sand a very small radius on the inside edge of the lip to ease fitting in the lid. This will prevent denting it as you test fit the lid… over and over.


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The Lid

Updated 1/15/12

Regarding wood movement:
Depending on the wood you use, where you live, and your own personal experience,y ou may want to allow more clearance.
This is what works for me.

I really dont allow for any movement at this stage. I know this sounds like trouble waiting to happen, but it works just fine for me. Even if we start off with a snug fit, we will still end up with a small gap around the perimeter. This is due to the final sanding and easing of the edges between lid and lip. Feel free to start off with a small gap (1/16) or so if you wish. But keep in mind that as you sand your mating edges, that its very easy to get a sloppy fit. This would allow the lid to move from side to side, which will just feel wrong, and the pins may show too much in the gap, and the handle may not drop straight into the seat, and the sides may rub on the way down.

Cutting the lid to size is nothing more than cutting a rectangle exactly the size of the opening and then radiusing the corners.

Here is the lid blank cut to size and prior to rounding the corners…obviously.

Wood Rectangle Hardwood Wood stain Drawer

I choose to sand the corners to match the profile of the box using a template to first mark out the radius.
I bought a set of cool templates at Woodcraft.

Writing implement Pen Office supplies Handwriting Wood

Then its over to the disc sander to get close but leaving enough to fiddle with by hand.

Wood Stairs Rectangle Table Wood stain

OR you can make a template for the entire top out of ply or masonite or…well you get the picture. With a template you can stick it to your lid and run it around a router with a template bit. It may want to eat a corner or two, thats why I prefer to sand to fit. Just go slowly. Turn down the Rap music and pay attention at this point anyway.

Rectangle Wood Ingredient Cuisine Tints and shades

The lid all snug in its new home.
Brown Handwriting Rectangle Wood Font
love it


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The Medallion

Updated 1/15/12

Now we need to cut a recess in the lid for the medallion to set down into.
DONT cut your medallion until you have routed out the home for it.
I typically make the medallion about 1" to 1.5" smaller on all sides than the lid depending on the box size and the piece of wood I have for the medallion.
Rectangle Wood Font Wood stain Musical instrument

We are now going to make a simple jig for a router to set on and run back and forth making several passes of incrementally deeper cuts. There are a several ways to do this next step and it will depend on the router bit you use and the thickness of the material you have to make your template.
Here is how I made this one:

#1-The photo below shows two layers of strips of 1/2" melamine butted tight to the lid. This will hold the lid in place and make a flat base for the next layer of strips. I used scraps about 3'' wide, running one end past the other, all the way around the lid.

Wood Rectangle Floor Flooring Wood stain

#2- Next I mounted a block of wood the exact size of the medallion, centered in the top of the lid in the exact spot I want the recess to be.
You can use double stick tape, but I prefer screws so it cant get bumped out of place. The holes go away with the milling.
Now add the last layer of strips, rotating the joints so they are offset with the ones below. Butt this layer up to the center block, making sure its snug, but remember you will need to be able to remove the block.

Wood Gas Composite material Plywood Rectangle

The height will depend on the pattern bit you use. My bit was 1 1/4" PLUS THE BEARING so I ended up with a template stack of 1 1/2". ( 3 layers of 1/2" melamine )
Thats on the extreme edge of reach for most routers to travel, so If you are buying a bit for this project just get a shorter one and make your jig accordingly.
Wood Table Wood stain Hardwood Varnish

Make it smooth on the inside or you will get bumpy sides. You need to allow the bit to ride on a perfectly smooth face down the sides of your jig, for about 3/8'' of travel. I always do a practice run on a scrap just to be sure the quality of the cut is smooth.

Its a good idea to remove most of the material in the center using a forstner bit, that way the router bit is only cutting one edge instead of two. If you just plunge into the center of a hardwood like bubinga the bit will chatter because it is trying to cut on all its edges at the same time. Thats not so bad as long as you stay away from the edges, but it can break a 1/4 shank bit. Its hard to believe but this chattering and even chips bouncing around can cause small uneven cuts along the edge that will show up. The only way to fix it is to reposition the jig and recut the recess.

The best way to prevent this from happening is to:
Work from the center out
Work at a slow and even pace
Keep the chips cleared as you get closer to the sides
Wet the edges with a damp rag
Make multiple passes

Wood Gas Machine Composite material Plywood

And here is how the test block fits into the recess.
Wood Rectangle Tints and shades Wood stain Gas

This photo shows the lid nestled into the rim of the box and the medallion setting in its recess. The medallion doesnt need to be this thick, it can be flush with the lid. It all depends on how you want to shape the top. Sometimes I will split a 3/4 board in two pieces and use it for two medallions and just shape a gentle dome on the top.

Wood Rectangle Handwriting Material property Font

The handle comes next.
my turn


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