A Curly Hickory, Tiny Spline Mitered Box

Just like the salt and pepper shakers I made last week, I made a gift project this week. And just like I’ve previously said, being able to give a gift that you yourself make is incredibly rewarding, regardless of the size of the project. It doesn’t really matter what it is. When someone gets a gift that you made they appreciate it more. In this case I didn’t have anyone in mind for this gift but opportunities to give always come up.

This also wasn’t a project that I had planned. I was actually milling some rough sawn hickory for a different project and found a particular board that had an eye-catching appearance in its rough state. I’ve been let down by a false appearance of figure in rough boards before so I didn’t think much of it. Especially considering I don’t recall ever hearing the words curly and hickory being side by side before. Curiosity got me so I stopped progress on that project and went through the full milling process on smaller section of the board.

What I found was indeed curl figure. Curly hickory. That sounds odd just saying it. Anyway, the next day I decided to switch gears and make something out of the smaller cutoff I milled up. Smaller sections of wood like this are perfect for boxes. Here you can see the milled board on the left and the rough sawn board on the right. I still have seven feet or so of the rough sawn board and the figure runs all the way through it.

I started by using a hand plane on one of the narrow faces. A little bit because the face had some burn marks on it but more so because I wanted to see how the curly wood was going to react by being worked with a hand plane. The results were a little hit or miss. Some tearout but nothing major. It was enough for me to decide against using a hand plane for the final surface prep.

I didn’t need the entire board for the box though. As I said previously, smaller sections of interesting looking wood are great for boxes. In this case I only used a strip about 3” wide. I ripped it from the rest of the material with the table saw.

The material is too thick for a small box. So to make it lighter, as well as allow for a continuous four corner grain match, I resawed it right down the middle with the bandsaw.

Curly wood tends to chipout when ran through a straight blade planer because the grain is going in so many directions. Sometimes the knives are cutting downhill and sometimes the knives are cutting uphill. Also, hickory tends to be difficult to plane because it’s grain generally tends to go in multiple directions. Therefore, curly hickory is a recipe for disaster with a straight blade planer. But I got away with using mine to bring the two pieces to an even thickness by running them through one right after another and very, very slowly lowering the cutterhead. This was a slow process but I was able to get them to the same size with minimal tearout. There’s no way this could be done at anywhere near “normal speed” or cutting depth.

To maintain the grain alignment I taped the two pieces together and then cut them to the overall length that I needed. Short side + long side + blade kerf = final length.

Any time you resaw a board down the middle you are left with two pieces that are as close to a mirror image as possible. The two pieces are now what’s called a bookmatch. This can be used to create visually stunning pieces with symmetry. In this case, a bookmatched set of boards will allow a continuous four corner grain match for a box if cut correctly. With the boards sitting so that the bandsawn faces are touching switch the boards right and left while maintaining the same orientation. Now, if you follow the grain all the way around the perimeter of the two bards the grain should flow from the end of one board, around the end grain, and into the beginning of the next board. Hopefully that made sense in this article. I explained it better in the video.

With the boards flipped you can cut the first long side of the box from one board and cut the other long side from the opposite end of the other board. These are still 90 degree cuts at the table saw.

At this point all four box sides are established but the joinery is not. A simple mitered corner is plenty strong enough for a box this size and it also allows for a better grain flow visually around the corner. To establish the 45 degree miter I set the blade to 45 degrees and used a stop block on my miter gauge. I don’t want to make the pieces shorter though. Just a 45 degree cut is all I’m looking for.

And the miters look good when held together. Make sure you mark the pieces so it’s easier to keep things in order. Yes, all you really have to do is look at the grain direction to know what pieces go where but it’s just a lot faster if you add notation of which piece goes where.

I did this step out of order. I should have cut the top and bottom panel grooves before separating the sides for consistency stake. Oh well. They can be cut now. A single table saw kerf cut at 1/8” wide will be perfect for this.

The box sides are cut from the heartwood of a hickory tree. Hickory heart wood is a reddish-brown color while the sapwood is a bright white color. For a contrast I resawed a piece of white sapwood for the top and bottom panel.

The resawn piece is too thin to use the planer to clean it up and I didn’t want to risk ruining it with a hand plane. So the next best option is to clamp it to my workbench and attack it with a card scraper. I had to do this not only to clean up the bandsawn faces but also get it to the final size to fit in the grooves.

Because the panel is so small, as well as the fact that most of the expansion will be in its thickness due to the grain direction, I will glue it in place on the box. Typically you wouldn’t do that with a solid wood panel but this is too small to do any damage. And because I’m gluing it in place I can just use the overall length of each groove to determine the final size of the panel. I cut the panels to the final size at the table saw. I commonly get asked why I crosscut at the table saw instead of the miter saw. The reason is because it’s much safer and more accurate to cut smaller stuff with the table saw.

After a successful dry run the box is glued together with the help of painters tape to act as clamps.

I wanted to try something different with the mitered corner splines. In every previous situation where I added splines I used the table saw. With this I wanted to use the thinnest hand saw I had to give it a unique look. This is the test board with saw cuts made with my Dozuki “Z” Saw.

When making spline cuts on the table saw you have to use a jig. The jig makes all of the cuts consistent and so long as you don’t adjust the blade height all of the splines will be identical. That’s not the case when cutting with a hand saw so to help with consistency of the cuts I marked a line about 1/2” in from each edge to determine the depth of cut.

Followed by using a marking gauge set at about 3/16” to determine the spline placement from the top and bottom edges. I used a pencil to make these marks a little easier to see.

Then the fun part…cutting the kerfs. The goal here is to be as consistent with the cutting angle as possible and to take long strokes. The worst thing you could do is leave a hump in the middle of the cut which will cause the spline to not seat properly.

For the spline material I thought it would be best to just take a huge shaving with a hand plane. This thought ended up being a little bit more difficult in reality. With my #7 jointer plane set extremely aggressive I took the deepest cut I could physically take. Then tested the fit of the shaving in the kerf. Success.

Gluing the splines was a little more tricky. The shavings were thick which makes them a little more durable but I was still worried about breaking them off before they were properly seated. Everything worked out OK though. A little glue on the splines and they were inserted and then immediately cut off with a chisel.

The end result is a super thin spline. I went with sapwood for these splines because I thought they would contrast well with the darker heart wood sides and hopefully stick out visually. I was wrong. They ended up blending too much for my liking after finish was applied. You’ll see in just a bit.

Time to separate the lid from the box. For this step the table saw is used but I don’t like to completely remove the lid at the table saw. First, the blade is set so that it doesn’t cut all the way through the sides and the short sides are ran through the saw.

Then the blade is raised so that it does cut through the sides and the long sides are ran through the saw. This establishes the lid shoulder all the way around the box but doesn’t allow for the lid or base to shift into the blade which it can potentially do when completely separated with the table saw.

Using a vise to hold the box and a hand saw to complete the cup is a lot better in my opinion.

However, doing it this way does require a bit more clean up work. The remaining lip material is cleaned up quickly with a block plane.

Because the grain is going in the same direction all the way around the box it’s possible to make a shaving with a hand plane around the entire box. I did this to ensure there was no high spots on both the lid and the box where the two pieces will meet.

I decided to use curly maple for the interior lining. It continues both the theme of white contrasting wood as well as the curly box theme. For this I milled a 2” wide strip and resawed two pieces at the bandsaw.

Then cut two short sides and two long sides using my shooting board as a bench hook.

The liner pieces were intentionally cut a little bit too long. Sneaking up on the exact size is the better strategy. These pieces were also going to be mitered at the corners just like the box itself. However, to make these cuts I used a 45 degree ramp on my shooting board. This is much easier than trying to get an exact length and miter on such small pieces at the table saw.

Here you can see the clean miter established with the shooting board.

I started with a long side and worked my way around the box testing, cutting, testing, cutting until each piece was in place.

The interior lining not only adds some visual interest to the inside of the box but it creates a lip for the lid to reference off of when closing.

Because I planed a small section previously I knew it would be best to use a scraper for surface prep. All of the pencil lines are easily removed with a scraper.

Finally, a couple of coats of finish can be applied. I used semigloss Arm-R-Seal from General Finishes. It was the first time I used it and I really like it. It leveled nicely and was really easy to apply.

The box is complete. What did I learn? I learned that hickory is a tough wood to work with and curly hickory is even more tough to work with. I learned that the tiny splines are only worth while if you want to add an almost hidden feature for someone to notice. They definitely go unnoticed at first glance. I also learned that curly hickory looks incredible.

Is the box perfect? No. Two of my miters have a slight gap on the lid. This was most likely due to too much glue in the joint and nowhere for the glue to go when I clamped the box together. Assuming the inside corners contacted first when the box was clamped. I also think I should have used darker spline material as a black line would probably have been more visible in the end. In that case I would have used walnut for the interior liner.

But that’s just nitpicking small stuff. The box looks great and will be a good gift to pass on to someone when the time presents itself. I had fun with this detour project and hopefully you did while watching and reading about it. Have a great day and I’ll catch you on the next one!


  1. Really nice box! Those are the smallest splines I have ever seen. I make splines on small boxes using a 7 1/4 inch circular saw blade which is about a 16th of an inch, and I thought those were small.

      • Great article Jay! You were very generous with progress photos – far better than most wanna-be woodworking sites. Not to mention sharing the (tedious) reality of getting a good fit – especially the lining!
        I especially like your technique of partially sawing off the box lid, then finishing by hand. Sadness can follow an attempt on the table saw that goes South when the blade grabs the unstable sides.

  2. WOW! I learn so much from your projects that I can use later in something completely different. You should consider starting a school in the far future. It would be a rewarding experience to pass on your knowledge and a fitting retirement plan.

    • Over time I will build up a list of online classes for projects and such. I’d love to share what I can in person but the correct opportunity hasn’t arrived yet.

  3. Very excellent job Jay. Even when you messed up with your process, you showed how to overcome that and continue with the project. Loved the train sound effects on the shooting board, not so much on the red lips ;-).

  4. A very nice box, Jay. I enjoyed this article and the video very much! Thanks for taking the time to do the video and the article.

  5. Do you expect the very thin splines to add structural strength or were they intended to be purely decorative?

  6. Absolutely awesome, both the project outcome and the valuable insights on techniques. I believe this worth archiving and reviewing for help on future projects. Thanks, Jay.


  7. Beautiful box Jay. I love watching your videos, Ive seen almost every single one, some Ive watched multiple times. My only question for this project is how much strength do the small splines add being as thin as they are?

  8. Jay can you tell me what Model band saw you have, it seems to be able to re saw really easy. Very nice box. ThankYou.

  9. Jay.
    As we say downunder in Australia that is a ” Flamin’ Ripper” of a Craft Job. I Love to watch your video’s they are so professional and informative and teach us Aussies just that much more of how a Job should be done.
    All the best
    Dusty Urquhart.

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