I rarely work with hardwoods anymore. Not that I even did it much to begin with. I’m totally content working with pine and you probably already know this. Not only do I live quite a drive from any place that sells hardwoods but because domestic hardwoods are not common to my area the price for purchasing hardwoods is pretty high compared to other areas of the country. Well, not as expensive as California but everything is expensive over there.
A couple months ago I drove to Jackson Mississippi to check out a friend’s shop and a local hardwood store. I intended on getting some walnut but the selection wasn’t as nice as I had hoped for. I really didn’t want to leave empty handed so I picked up a beautiful 12′ board of 4/4 sapele. It was actually less expensive per board foot than walnut anyway.
Fast forward a month or so and I got up a box of walnut from Matt Cremona. I had no clue what I was going to make with either of these hardwoods so they sat around for a bit. While recently driving to Kansas City for Woodworking In America I got the idea to combine both of these hardwoods in a small gift box for an upcoming wedding I will be attending. So if you see this before I see you, congratulations Holly and Brian! The gift box design I settled on is inspired from my recent blanket chest but with the attempt to add a subtle Asian flair.
A Walnut and Sapele Gift Box
Before starting any project I make sure everything works out in SketchUp. This allows me the opportunity to make any changes as well as virtually disassemble the project and layout all of the pieces in an efficient way that they will be cut according to the material I have for the project. I settled on all of the structural components being walnut and the panels and interior tray were to be sapele.
With a rough layout sketched on the material I can start breaking down the board into oversized pieces. Although I did rip a long strip of rift sawn material for the legs first the miter saw is my normal starting point for this step. Having a dedicated miter saw station with material support on both sides that is always setup is an incredible convenience. Every time I’m in the shop this station gets used.
All of the material for this build is rough sawn so my newly acquired jointer is being put to good use. One wide face and one short face are jointed flat and 90 degrees before milling the individual parts. After using the full 8” width of this jointer on this step I’m glad I decided to go with a 8” jointer instead of the common 6” jointer.
With two faces flat the opposite wide face is milled flat and parallel at the planer. The final thickness is also established here. You know that great feeling you get when you apply finish to a piece and the grain just pops out at you? I kinda get that same feeling when all of the rough sawn edges are removed and fresh, clean material is revealed underneath.
Then the table saw is used to cut the pieces to their final width. There’s quite a few pieces to cut for this little box.
I find it very easy to accidentally lose track of what pieces were already cut and what pieces need to be cut so every time I go through this milling process I try to layout all of my pieces the same way as my cutting diagram shows them while I’m actually cutting. This way I can visually see what has and has not been cut instead of determining if “top-right frame rail” is in a particular pile of cut pieces.
Just about every piece on this box is too small for the stop block setup on my miter saw station so I used a panel sled on my table saw to establish the part lengths. I actually prefer using a panel sled for final dimensioning of small parts anyway as it is a little more accurate for me and the cuts are nicer.
At this point all of the frame pieces are cut to size. Before cutting the tongue and groove joinery I wanted to mill the sapele panels to their final thickness as they will determine the width of the groove. Because I’ll use my table saw to cut the groove I find it easier to mill the panel first instead of the groove first. If I were using a rail and stile router bit set where the panel thickness is predetermined the process would be reversed. First I had to rip the sapele in half so it would fit in my bandsaw when resawing.
The bandsaw blade I’m using to resaw is a 1/2” Wood Slicer resaw blade. During this process I was getting a crazy amount of blade drift. To compensate for this you just feed the material in on an angle matching the blade drift and you can get a nice straight cut. I thought this was due to the blade being pretty used and not sharp but as I’m typing this article I just took a break to go look at it and found the blade drift was due to the upper bearings moving out of position. Somehow the bearing lock loosened. I just fixed that and gave the saw a quick tune up so all is well now….but back to the project. I resawed the 4/4 sapele in half to get two panels from one thickness of the rough stock.
The process is repeated for all of the parts. After resawing the jointer is next followed by the planer. I wasn’t concerned with the length and width at this stage. I just needed the panel material to be at it’s final thickness.
Whenever you are making tongue and groove joinery on the table saw it’s best to have a few pieces of scrap material go through the milling process with your actual pieces. The scrap pieces can then be used for tool setup to really dial in the width of the groove so you don’t mess up any of your actual pieces. With the scrap piece yielding good results the rest of the joinery can be cut.
All of the grooves are cut first. Because the small size of this project and the small size of the groove I didn’t bother with setting up a dado blade for any of this. I instead took multiple passes with the regular table saw blade. This blade has an alternating tooth bevel so the bottom of the groove is not perfectly flat. This is alright as it doesn’t matter for this application.
The same blade in conjunction with the miter gauge is used to cut the tongues. Again, the test block is used first to determine the machine positioning. I like to go for a fit that is easily pushed together but will hold against gravity.
Then all of the tongues are cut. These pieces are quite a bit smaller than what I’m used to.
With all of the tongue and groove joinery cut and the frames test assembled the final dimensions of the panels are determined. My one sided panel sled is used again for this. I always prefer a one sided cutoff sled instead of the traditional two sided crosscut sled. The offcut piece is harmlessly dropped onto the table and I’ve never, ever, had any of the pieces fly back. The main reason I like this sled is it almost always forces you to stand to one side instead of in the direct path of the blade. This greatly reduces the amount of dust that is thrown in your face as well as reduces the chances of you being in the line of fire should something actually get thrown back.
The frames are glued together with regular wood glue and only on the tongues. The panels do not receive any glue to allow for expansion and contraction.
Before assembling the legs and assembled frames I cut a rabbet near the bottom edge of all the frames to accept the bottom panel. I also cut a rabbet along the top inside edge of the long frames to accept a sliding tray later. This is where the design starts to change a little from my recent blanket chest. Looking back on it, I really wish I would have done this and added a tray to the blanket chest.
For the main construction joinery I went with floating tenons. I’ve recently got a lot of questions from others asking what tool I’m using for this. It’s the Festool Domino DF500. It’s quite expensive but it does the job incredibly well. There are plenty of other options out there and I’d definitely not consider it a “must have” tool by any means but if you are wanting strong, invisible joinery that is crazy fast and precise it’s definitely a game changer. But because this connection will ultimately be a long grain to long grain joint a regular, inexpensive biscuit joiner will do the job just fine here. In this application, the floating tenons I am using are mainly for alignment purposes during the main glue-up.
A couple more tasks must be completed before the glue-up. With a dry assembly the bottom panel size can be determined and the location for the leg notches can be marked. The legs must be notched to accept the bottom panel.
Notching the legs is pretty straight forward. Just a 1/4” chisel doing it’s job.
Finally, I tapered the legs on both outside faces. I contemplated making curved legs on this project to add a little more Asian inspiration but I didn’t have much material to work with as the parts are pretty small and I really didn’t feel like milling a new leg in the event that I screwed up somehow with the curves. I used my multi-function table saw sled for this.
The main glue-up starts with gluing the floating tenons into the legs.
Then adding two legs to each of the long frames. The entire glue up could probably be done in one step but I chose to break it in half.
After the long frames and legs are out of the clamps the assembly could be completed with the short frames and the bottom panel.
I wanted the lid to be a stacked assembly similar to traditional Asian architecture but I didn’t want to go overboard with it. I still wanted it to feel like it fit with the rest of the project. So I went with a simple 5 degree bevel on all of the lid assembly pieces. Cutting them to width first.
Then crosscutting everything to the final length. I didn’t show it on the video but I cut the lid oversized at first. Then after notching out for the legs I took equal amounts off each side until I was satisfied with the look. I actually trimmed down the lid about three or four times before getting it the way I wanted.
Rewind just a little bit to immediately after cutting the oversized lid. I didn’t want to just duplicate my recent blanket chest so for this lid I decided to leave the legs 1/16” or so proud of the top side of the lid. Doing so requires the lid to be notched out to fit around the legs. This will also hold the lid in place without any hinges or metal fasteners. I flipped the box upside down on the bottom face of the lid and traced the inside corners of the legs.
Then went super slow at the bandsaw to cut out these notches. At that time I still had a lot of blade drift so I was really trying to not screw it up. Going slow also results in a smoother cut that requires less smoothing.
The stacked lid assembly was made up of three pieces. Each piece gets smaller in length and width and has the same 5 degree bevel all the way around. A little glue, careful placement, and a paint can for a clamp secures everything in place.
While making a gift instead of buying a gift does feel a little more personal I wanted to add a bit more of a personal touch. So for that I decided to put together a small hand cut dovetail tray to go on the inside. I’m not a hand tool or hand cut kinda guy at all but I do enjoy venturing on unfamiliar paths from time to time and trying something new. I’ve also been really inspired and motivated by Matt Cremona’s recent crazy super amazingly awesome secretary that he completed. Seeing him complete a masterpiece of that magnitude has really inspired me to push a little further with my projects. So for the tray I started cutting the tails with my Harbor Freight flush trim saw.
And cleaned them up with a few chisels. I haven’t invested much money in my hand tool set so hopefully this is a reminder that you can indeed make good work without investing a lot into a shop. I’m using a $10 set of chisels for this that I picked up on Amazon a couple years ago. Nothing fancy but I do keep a good edge on them.
A Harbor Freight coping saw and a few more chisel chops later and the pins were cut.
I don’t own any hand tools to efficiently cut the bottom tray groove so I just made a shallow pass with the table saw to establish the groove. The pin boards can be run right through but to prevent the groove from showing on the outside of the completed box on the tail pieces I had to do a non-through pass on the table saw and clean up the ends carefully with a utility knife.
Before assembly I carefully planed (not by hand) the bottom panel to fit the 1/8” groove. A little glue and some clamps later and this becomes a simple, strong tray.
To allow the tray to slide back and forth on the previously cut rabbet I added a couple strips of sapele to the top of the tray. Just wood glue to hold them on.
After that dried in clamps I cut the runners flush with the sides of the tray and cleaned everything up with a scraper. Man what a handy little tool this is. I’ve drastically cut down on my sanding time since getting one of these. Don’t make the same mistake as me and not get one until several years after you started woodworking. They are super inexpensive (regardless of where you buy it) and pretty easy to use. Keep it sharp and you can sometimes skip the sanding step all together as the wood surface can feel glass smooth after using one. The Wood Whisperer has a good video on how to keep them sharp.
Its a rewarding feeling knowing the tray fits and slides properly. All that’s left to do is a light clean up with sand paper as needed and apply the finish.
For a finish I went with natural Danish oil. It really makes the grain pop without the film look of lacquer or polyurethane. Brush it on, let it soak in for a few minutes, and wipe it off.
The tray turned out great. Not perfect but much better than I had anticipated for being hand cut.
I’m really happy with how this project turned out. I wasn’t too sold on the sapele and walnut combination on some pre-project testing but in the end I’m glad I went that route.
I’m also a new fan of this beautiful sapele. I would really like to incorporate it into more projects around the house if budget allows. Especially table tops. I wouldn’t mind a sapele dining table if I could talk my wife into the the cost. :)
Gift Box Plans
To see this box being built CLICK HERE. This small gift box build was made for a wedding gift for a relative. The design is inspired by my tongue and groove blanket chest with a slight Asian flair. Materials cost to build this blanket chest where I live is about $60 with using walnut and sapele. Every piece of this project was cut from 1″ rough sawn lumber. The frame assemblies are made with tongue and groove joints with floating panels. Material can be resawn for solid wood panels in the frames or you can use plywood. The main assembly joinery can be either floating tenons, dowels, or biscuits. The interior tray is dovetailed but you can build it however you want. There is a lot of flexibility with the project allowing you to complete it with the joinery you choose. The overall size is 8″ high, about 8″ front to back, and about 14″ left to right. The plans are in imperial units only at this time. The following is included in the plan:
- 14 detailed pages
- shopping list
- helpful links
- access to download the SketchUp file used to create the plan
- a rough lumber layout diagram
- reference diagrams for specific part and assembly dimensions
- step by step 3D assembly diagrams with written instructions
The entire plan is included in one PDF document. Most everyone will have a PDF reader installed on their computer already but if you do not you can use the free program Adobe Reader to view the plans. You can download Adobe Reader HERE. The checkout process for this plan uses PayPal. You can use major credit or debit cards through PayPal. You do not need a PayPal account. To purchase the plan follow the link below. After you purchase the plan you will receive an email receipt from me containing a link to download your plan. Make sure to check your inbox and spam filter for the receipt. If you do not receive the email within 10-15 minutes or encounter any problems please contact me.
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