Project Box: Fit and Finish

The inside of this box is about 36 x 12 x 3 inches – not something that could just sit on a table for decoration. It was built for a purpose: carrying equipment. Let’s talk about how I prepared it to do that.

I wanted the items in this box to be held securely, so they wouldn’t rattle around and bump into each other. I decided to cut profiles of each piece into ribs that span the width. That process was: dry fitting, tracing profiles, roughing in with a coping saw, and then refining the fit with a file. The result was a framework custom fit to the intended contents.

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I also added a handle and lockable latches, to cover “held securely” from another perspective.

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With that, construction was complete. On to finishing! First, a bit of art, and your first real clue to the box’s purpose. A tip: many corporations publish a “press kit” on their website, that includes scalable versions of their logo. I found the logo I wanted, and printed a letter-paper size copy. I used a DIY carbon paper technique to transfer it to my lid: shade the back of the paper with pencil, secure it to the lid, then trace over the image with a pen.

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The logo is often used in yellow and blue, like the Swedish flag it represents. My wood is going to have a yellow tone to it, so I selected a dark blue paint for my work. I’m not a freehand painter, and I probably should have chosen to cut a stencil instead, but sometimes you have to experiment anyway.

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I wanted a finish that was easy to apply, and would offer a fair amount of protection. This box won’t see harsh conditions, but it will get knocked around a little, loading and unloading. I just happened to have some spray-on Minwax Helmsman, so that’s what I used. I covered the hardware with gaffers tape, so I could focus on spraying evenly, without worry about urethane seizing my hinges.

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I propped the box on a tripod and applied two coats.

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Once the finish dried, my only remaining task was fixing suede strips to the contact points on the supports. With those in place, my box was complete.

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I’ve now used this box to carry my shotgun to the range several times, and it has worked quite well. The handle is a little narrow for the weight, and the weight is a little unbalanced, but on the whole, the box has served its purpose. It also stores well, sliding unobtrusively into a corner, efficiently using space. And, it provided a great platform for practice and experimentation with some techniques I plan to use in my next big project.

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Project Box: Planning

While I think about how to tell you about the process of fitting the internal components of this box, I’m going to talk about planning.

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The image above is the whiteboard in my shop, as it was at the end of this project. I’ve lost some of the context about what each scribble meant, but there are three obvious diagrams: the dovetails, the hinges, and the latches and handle. None are to scale. None indicate relationships to each other. All were drawn at the moment they were needed.

It’s tempting to write about how this plan-as-you-go process is because of the nature of wood. The many ways different grain patterns can and cannot be used, and the inability to be sure of what you’ll find inside a slab, means that most projects end up needing to be adapted to fit as they progress.

But this incremental design is how all of my projects go. The basic structure of a program gets sketched and then adapted as I start to code. Presentations are outlined and then rearranged as I find each part needing a different fit in the story. Dinner plans come together on the cutting board. Road trips have a destination and, “Something like this road will probably work.”

I would make far fewer things if I designed the entire solution up-front. There is, of course, plenty of planning that happens before the first cuts are made. However, there is a point in the initial design of every project at which there are too many unknowns. My solution is often to bring the work near the point where the project is blocked without their decision. This brings clarity to the details surrounding the issue. Sometimes the details become so clear that the solution is obvious, and other times I learn that the question wasn’t even relevant.

There are two keys to this flow working. The first is enough familiarity with the domain to recognize which decisions are likely to doom a project if not addressed early. My box must have internal dimensions large enough for the things I intend to store in it. I must have yeast and two hours of lead time if I want to bake bread for dinner. Put another way, it must be possible to determine what can be left unknown.

The second key to this process is the confidence that I can solve the problems that will arise. I find this one key to my work, even if I’ve over-planned. Years of projects in many domains have taught me that I have to expect that I will make a mistake somewhere in either my plan or my execution. I’ve also learned from this experience that very few of these mistakes spell disaster.

So, a whiteboard hangs in my shop to provide a place for information to accumulate to clarify the unknowns, as needed.