Ever since watching Roy Underhill’s 11-grooved box episode, I added making a box to my long list of projects.  Shortly thereafter, a good buddy of mine died in an accident a week prior to his wife giving birth to their first child.  I knew then that my best contribution to helping his cause, and the remembrance of him to live on, would be in the form of a keepsake box for his daughter.  I tucked the thought away. With a move to a different country and a busy work schedule later, I waited patiently for a moment that would provide the opportunity to build it.old-box

The guys over at New English Workshop gave me a year’s head’s-up that Peter Follansbee was crossing the Atlantic to re-teach the English how to make a 1600’s-style box from a freshly chopped log, an art long since dead.  An example is at right.  And with that, my moment for this box had arrived.

I’m not normally a guy that likes to hand-process his own boards, but there’s just something caveman-like (ie, cool) and therapeutic about splitting open a log into wedges, and turning those wedges into boards.  Unlike buying the rough-cut woods, the grain is always in the same direction and you can hog off wet wood by the bucketloads with ease… not to mention it’s easier on your tools with one caveat: the tannic acid of the fresh oak turns the medal tools black (as well as where the tools touch the wood – exemplified by the carving below for where it blackened to my carving gouges).


After a day or two of making a few boards, you select your front and come up with patterns to carve onto it.  Peter gave us a crash-course in basic patterns as a foundation to practice, then provided us with a selection of historic 17th-century examples to copy or emulate. Peter seemed to look upon my traditional carvings with admiring approval… until I veered hard-right off the reservation with a formation of fighter jets:

But you gotta understand, the box is intended for the daughter of my gone buddy, for her to look upon it and at least feel a connection to him, though their lives never overlapped.  So the formation of jets is ‘the missing man formation‘, a sort of 21-gun-salute for fallen pilots – if you’ve ever seen one in person (especially if it’s in honor of someone you know), it will leave you with a huge lump in your throat to prevent you from swallowing down any tears.  The ‘S‘ in the other corner is for Serene, the beautiful daughter of my buddy.

crackThe rest of the carvings were kept in the 17th-century spirit, filling up nice blank space with ornate patterns.  Assembling the box was a bit of a nail biter as I drove dried oak pegs into holes bored into the crying oak: if you’re not careful, you can get some splitting in the joint (and the last thing I wanted to do was recarve another board to replace the one I messed up joining).

The top and bottom are traditionally oak (if you’re European 1600’s) or white pine (if you’re Colonial American 1600’s).  I chose to go with oak for uniformity, thanks to a donation from Paul of the New English Workshop.  I only had enough for the top, however.  So the bottom was the class-supplied white pine hidden by hand-done oak moldings.

I again veered radically from the teachings of Peter, the 17th-century arts, and the rest of the class, by spending a few extra hours carving out the inside of the lid.  With the help of a projector procured by Jamie from Warwickshire College, I traced the silhouette of my buddy to the inside of the lid and carefully carved it out.

The nice thing about working with oak split into boards like this is as it dries, it shouldn’t warp or twist.  It was pulled straight, and straight it will remain.  Now I just have to wait a month for it to dry to apply a nice wax finish before I can send it off and surprise the family.

So there you have it.  A carved outside of yin and yang, of traditional vs modern/custom.  And the box opens up to another sentimental reminder of a dad that continues to look upon his daughter:

BoxThough the silhouette is obvious, the seashells were given to me by his mother from the beach where his body was finally found.

Unfortunately, there’s been my fair share of buddies that have moved on; each one of them has had a story to tell.  For Gaza (whose daughter I’ve made the box for), I’ve wanted to make sure she knows her daddy’s legacy.  With this box, and with proper time and care, I guarantee you she will never forget.

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  • Jonas Jensen

    Sorry to hear about your friend.
    The keep sake box is looking really good. I especially like your missing man formation carving.

  • Pete Owen

    Thanks for sharing the box and the story behind it, great work on all counts.

  • Brian Eve

    I think it turned out. I’m sure she will always treasure it.