I’m taking a break from furniture to try something that I’ve always wanted to make, Shaker bentwood boxes. These are lightweight oval boxes with telescopic lids, like a hat box. They are made from thin bands of hardwood, with softwood tops and bottoms as plugs. The whole thing is held together with copper tacks and wooden pegs, no glue.
These boxes were originally made by Shaker woodworkers in a variety of sizes that have since been standardized. Today, they are often sold as a nesting collection, although there is no indication that the Shakers used them that way. Usually, they were found in cupboards much like kitchen canisters.
Traditionally, they were painted with milk paint, then oiled or waxed. Today, they are often finished with clear finishes to show off the wood. In the photo above, two (made of maple with pine top and bottom) are painted with Barn Red, Old Fashioned Milk Paint, then scuffed with a ScotchBrite™ pad and buffed with dark wax. The other two are made of black walnut with Douglas Fir top and bottom, and finished with oil and wax.
The boxes are traditionally bent by first heating in boiling water to make them pliable. Since I don’t have a large boiling tray, I’ve been using my over large steam box to heat the bands. It’s a bit of overkill, but it works well enough. When the bands are sufficiently pliable, they are bent around solid softwood forms. When cooled, they are removed from the form and fastened with copper tacks, clenched on a pipe anvil. Tapered oval cores are inserted in each end to re establish the proper shape as the oval dries overnight. The band for the lid is bent around the outside of the larger, box band, and also allowed to dry overnight.
Next day, the top and bottom pieces are scribed, cut and fitted to the bands. They have a slight taper to them so they fit like plugs. A boring table with a 5/64″ drill bit, precisely bores a number of holes 1/16″ up from the bottom (or top) edge and around the perimeter. Tapered wooden plugs (toothpicks) are driven in to secure the tops and bottoms.
The boxes are traditionally left unfinished on the inside, although sometimes they were lined with fabric, and given hoop type handles to turn them into carriers for sewing notions etc.
So far, I’ve only made the #3 size. I have forms and cores for sizes #0 through #5 and will be trying to complete a set soon.