Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Shaker Oval Boxes

At the [boys] woodworking club meeting last night, the topic was "How to make Shaker Oval Boxes", a presentation given by fellow club member and President of Volunteers of America, Alan Garner.

The Shakers used oval boxes to hold everything from nails to thread to dried food to paint pigment. According to Alan, Shaker oval boxes were the original tupperware. Typically the boxes were made with pine tops & bottoms and maple sides. Originally they were painted bright colors, but when natural wood became the fashion in the mid-late 19th c., the Shakers switched to clear finishes.

Using a belt sander, Alan feathers the squared-end of the wood strip that will lie beneath the fingers of the box, creating a smooth overlay.

The fingers are already cut to shape when he soaks the wood strips (that will become the walls of the box and lid band) in a water-filled metal box which sits atop and is heated by an electric hot plate. Once the wood is wet, he uses a utility knife to cut a 10º bevel on the fingers. Then he reheats the wood strip.

Working very quickly, he bends the heated wood around an oval form and marks the point of overlay with a pencil. He removes the wood from the form, re-bends it and aligns the pencil marks.

Using a 12" long, 2" thick pipe as an anvil, he fastens the box together with copper tacks, which are hammered through pre-drilled holes. Copper tacks will not stain wood as steel tacks will. By tapping the tacks into the wood while it's resting on the pipe, a hook is created on the point of the tack and it bends itself back into the wood.

Two shapers are inserted into the top and bottom openings of the box to help maintain the shape as it dries. The heated lid band is bent around the box to determine the circumference, marked with a pencil, and tacked together in the same manner as before. The box is allowed to dry for 24 hours.

Alan uses either quartersawn wood or plywood for the lid and bottom of the box and marks the shape by tracing inside the box and lid band. He then roughs out the shape on a bandsaw and uses a disk sander to create a 2º bevel along the edge.

To fasten the plywood inside the lid band and bottom of the box, Alan uses a jig to drill holes for square-sided, wooden toothpicks that act as dowels to pin the pieces together. In the second to last photo you can see 2 toothpicks along the bottom edge of the box. The jig secures his drill, and a wood rest, placed in front of the drill bit, positions the box at the right height for drilling.

For a finish, Alan uses General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Oil & Urethane Stain followed by 2 coats of paste wax. And the result, along with Alan's fine craftsmanship, is gorgeous.

Everything you need to start making these boxes, including detailed instructions, can be found at


Anonymous said...


I have a theory that those boxes, together with barrels, grape boxes, cheese boxes, bent wood berry boxes, and crates were 'disposable' in times past. While they were not discarded as we do today, they were just packaging.

We find these old pieces wonderful examples of the past, I don't think our ancestors thought of them as anything other than what the food or goods was packed in.

Water or used whiskey barrels made of white oak burn nicely and the hoops can be fashioned into butt hinges for cabinets.

I think because the Shaker oval boxes looked so good and were well made and endured, people kept them around.


Vic Hubbard said...

Thanks VC. Those look like something you could make in mass for the holidays. I think everyone would love them.
Oh, by the way, thanks for the advice. NOT! Sylvia laughed! She thinks it's cool you're so much better than I am at woodworking! But, I will get there. Thanks for all the info you pass on.


Kari Hultman said...

Stephen, you might be right about the boxes, but something tells me that since the Shakers took great care of their belongings, including furniture, seeds, tools, etc. that they built the oval boxes to last. Everything they made, they made as a spiritual practice, and maybe that's in part why their pieces are still sought after and have a timeless and subtle elegance.

They regularly polished, cleaned, repainted, restained, refinished their furniture, including the built-ins. And they were such practical people that I believe they built everything to last.

Also, they made oval boxes, among other things, to sell to the outside world. So, even then, these oval boxes must have been appreciated for their beauty.

That being said, I doubt they ever would have imagined that their oval boxes would now be selling for between $300-$2,000!!

Kari Hultman said...

Vic, Alan made the process look easy because he's made so many, but it seems like once you get the hang of it, you can make a bunch of boxes in no time.

I'm glad Syliva laughed instead of throwing a frying pan at you!