How to Build a Keepsake Box
Show off treasured wood—and lock other treasures inside with this keepsake box.
IntroductionSmall boxes like these allow you to showcase the beautiful details of a piece of wood. It could be an unusual color, a highly figured pattern or just an eye-pleasing wave of grain. You could splurge on an exotic species or simply use choice leftovers from another project. I made the box in this article from mahogany scraps that were too small for most projects but way too nice for the fireplace.
- Drill press
- Table saw
- 1/16” x 1” x 12” key stock
- 1/2” x 4” x 6’ lumber
- 1/4” x 1/8” rare earth magnet
- 1/4” x 4” x 16” lumber
- 16d nails
Showcase the wood
Splurge! Consider bird’s-eye maple, burled walnut or some exotic species you’ve never even heard of before. Wood-database.com is a great source for images and working properties of various wood species.
Cut part consecutively
Try to cut all your parts in order from a single board. When you assemble your box—particularly one with mitered corners—the grain will look seamless as it wraps around the corners.
Select the best
Cut out cardboard windows, sized to each of your box parts. Position the windows on your boards to find the most attractive section of grain for each piece.
Project step-by-step (17)
Make the parts: Prep the sides and ends
This box is made from 1/2-in.-thick material. Most home centers carry 1/2-in. boards in a few common species like oak and poplar. If you want more choices and don’t own a planer, shop online (rockler.com is one good source). Since the ends (B and C) are so short, leave each end and side (A) as a single board for now. Then cut them free after milling the grooves, leaving extra length.
Groove the sides and ends
Mill the grooves for the top and bottom. Both grooves are the same distance from their respective edges. Plane the bottom to fit the groove. Mark the outside face of the side/end boards. Keep that side facing up as you cut the grooves. The easiest way to cut these grooves is with a dado set. Make one pass for the bottom groove, spin the board and make one pass for the top groove. To cut these grooves with a regular blade, you’ll just need to make several passes to get the right dimension.
Cut the bottom (D) oversize for now, and then plane it to proper thickness. It should be just thin enough to fit in the groove easily without being loose.
Miter the corners
Attach a long, straight fence to your miter gauge. If you have two miter gauges, attach the fence to both of them so they work like a sled. Tilt the blade to 45 degrees, cut a miter on a piece of scrap, then verify that the angle is accurate and the cut is straight. Make any necessary adjustments, then cut the miters on the sides and ends. Rip the short end to final height. Cut the lid (E) and bottom to final dimensions. To get exact dimensions, dry-assemble the box using tape to hold the corners together. Measure the interior width and add 7/16 in. to get the width for the lid and bottom. Measure the interior length of the box and add 7/16 in. for the length of the bottom. The lid length is the interior dimension plus 3/16 in. Plus: Check out our best table saw tips and techniques here.
Assemble the box
It’s difficult to sand inside the box after assembly, so sand all the interior surfaces up to 180-grit before assembly. Lay out the box parts in a line and glue the miters. Slide the bottom into its groove and fold the box together, stretching the tape across the corners. Reset each piece of tape, stretching them to pull the corners tight. Wipe off any excess glue inside the box with a slightly damp rag. This will raise the grain a bit, but you can lightly sand those spots after the glue dries. Let the glue dry for at least an hour.
Rabbet the lid
While the box is drying, pop in your dado set again. Clamp a sacrificial board to your saw’s fence so you can slide the fence right up against the blade. Rabbet both edges and one end of the lid, testing the fit in a grooved offcut. The finished, visible surface of the lid should be equal to the inside width of the box minus about 1/16 in.
Fit the lid
Adjust the lid as needed so that it slides smoothly in the grooves, and then attach the mitered lid end using glue and tape. Slide the lid into its grooves. If it’s too tight, thin the rabbeted edges using a sanding block until the lid slides home smoothly. Once you’re satisfied with the fit, cut the lid end (F) and glue it on.
Kerf the corners
Lay out and cut the kerfs for the corner keys. Painter’s tape marks a clear stopping point for the kerf ends. The corner keys (G) are optional. They’re mainly decorative, but they do add some strength. If you choose to use them, lay them out on the box corners however you like. Clamp the box in a vise and make a single cut on each line with a handsaw.
Widen the kerfs
I wanted my keys to be a little bit thicker than my handsaw’s kerf, so I widened the kerfs using a finetooth reciprocating saw blade.
Cut key stock
Rip the key stock from the outer edge of a wide board. You might have to try a few times to get the thickness just right. The key stock should be just thick enough to slide in easily without wiggling in the kerf; if you have to force it, it’s too thick. Cut the key stock into short sections just long enough to fill the saw kerfs, using a fine-tooth handsaw or utility knife.
Install the keys
Cut the keys with a fine-tooth handsaw or utility knife. Apply glue to each key and then slip them into the kerfs (Photo 10). Let them dry for at least an hour, then trim and sand them flush. Finish-sand the whole box to 180-grit.
Trim the keys flush, and then sand and finish the box. To get a rich, satin sheen on my box, I applied three coats of tung oil, allowing each coat to dry overnight and doing a light 400-grit sanding between coats. Finally, I applied paste wax with “0000” steel wool. Wipe the wax off immediately for a satin finish, or let it dry first for a glossier finish. If the lid doesn’t slide as freely after finishing, lightly sand the underside of the edges. Rubbing the edges with a candle also helps.
Add a hidden lock
Everyone loves a good secret. To add this hidden lock to your box, you’ll need a 16d nail and a 1/4-in. rare earth magnet (available at home centers for less than $1 each). A drill press is highly recommended.
Make a recess
Drill a recess in the bottom edge of the box’s short end using a Forstner or brad point bit, so the bottom of the recess is flat.
Drill the nail passage
Drill the hole for the 16d nail all the way through the short end, offset to one side of the recess.
Install the magnet
Glue the magnet in the recess, opposite the nail hole.
Bend the nail
Cut off the nail’s head and grip it in a vise with about 3/8 in. protruding. Hammer the nail over, creating a “foot.” Hammer the foot until it’s flat.
Drill into the lid
Slide the lid into place and drill into it through the nail hole to mark the spot. Remove the lid and drill halfway through, using a tape flag as a stop. Cut the nail to length. It should contact the magnet and engage the hole in the lid. File any sharp edges.
Lock the box
To engage the lock, slide the nail through the hole and pivot the foot onto the magnet. To disengage it, pivot the foot off the magnet and slide the nail out.