COOPERED LID TOYBOX
A unique design made possible with a clever router jig.
SHOP OWNER: Mike Vermeil
LOCATION: Phoenix, AZ
I was excited about this project from the beginning, as it was the first time in all my ten or so years of woodworking that I would be able to design and construct a major piece of furniture without taking into account the tastes, wants, desires, and whims of other people. For this project, I had only myself to satisfy. With the exception of a couple of early projects, Iíve always done 100% of my own design work, and with this project I could finally explore my true potential, or lack there of, as the case may be. The only outside considerations were that it was a baby gift for a soon-to-be-born niece or nephew, and that it had to be good. I had to atone somehow for leaving my brother and his new family behind in the Midwest when we relocated to Arizona earlier this year.
Once I decided to go with a toy box, I knew it would be an opportunity to experiment with the clam shell opening mechanism and flowing curves I had been keeping in mind since seeing a beautiful writing desk on the back cover of Fine Woodworking a few years ago (March/April 2000 Ė by Jere Osgood). While mulling over the design in my head for a few weeks, however, I vacillated back and forth over whether or not to actually take that opportunity. My brother and his wife live in a cute, 100-year-old Victorian house, and the majority of their dťcor is period appropriate. In the end though, I decided to go ahead and let my design energies run. I saw the piece not as a toy box to be used by their first child for 8 to 10 years and then be cast off into the basement, but rather as something the child would hopefully cherish, and take with her as she moved out into the world on her own, like a hope chest; something to remind her of her childhood home, yet something that would fit her new apartment, her first new house, and hopefully the bedroom of her children.
I finally settled on the following design vision: a simple, commonplace antique box, perhaps some portion of an earlier piece of furniture or farm implement, resting securely beneath a modern shelter Ė sort of like an antique car parked beneath a sleek, modern carport. To create the sense of antiquity, I decided to construct the rectangular box out of maple, flared slightly front to rear, with finger joints at all four corners. Itís simple, almost like an old feeding trough. I wanted that box to rest, or almost hang underneath a large curved lid, without touching it, to create a sense of shelter and one of slight tension. In addition, I wanted that lid to rotate out of the way, as the lid to the writing desk did. Lastly, I wanted the legs to flow from the bottom of the lid in curving forms, like tentacles from a jellyfish, only more orderly.
With that settled, I had to come up with a design that actually functioned. This took much more thinking than anticipated. Two or three weeks of doodling went by before I finally arrived at a layout that allowed the lid to open completely without first striking the back of the box. The writing desk had the advantage of the lid opening only halfway, but since a toy box must be completely accessible, I had to move the pivot point up and to the rear in comparison to the more centered pivot point of the desk. I also decided that two legs per side, rather than the three I started with, gave a cleaner look. Doodles then turned into sketches, and a final design sketch took shape.
Ordinarily, at this point in a project, Iíd move to the drafting table for complete drawings. The flowing design of this piece, however, dictated a different approach. I made a full-scale, end-view drawing of the box and lid on poster board, scaling the dimensions from the final design sketch. The pivot point was then refined using a large homemade compass. I then sketched in the legs by hand, basing the shape on the design sketch, but altering to taste.
The majority of the woodworking from there on was pretty standard. I settled on Peruvian Walnut for the legs and top, because itís darker than ordinary walnut, I liked the contrast against oiled maple, and itís about half the price of Wenge. I pattern-routed the legs using MDF templates. Tear-out was a huge problem, requiring that I sand almost right to the line before routing, and even then some areas could not be routed.
Shaping the lid, however, was somewhat unique. I originally intended on hand planning the upper surface, but found tear-out again to be a major problem (my guess is 1/3 properties of the wood, 1/3 poor grain alignment between mating boards and 1/3 poor quality hand planes). I remembered a router jig I had seen cut flutes in a column mounted on a lathe, and designed a similar device that allowed the curved lid to be passed, or swung, underneath a router which moves side to side along the length of the top. In the case of the fluting jig, the bit was plunged into the stationary column, run the desired length of cut and retracted. Then the column was spun the desired amount and the process was repeated.
My jig works the same way, except that instead of rotating the lid enough that flutes are cut, itís rotated only slightly, so all thatís left is the bottoms of the flutes. So, instead of using it as a fluting jig, itís used as a shaping jig. The lid mounts between the pie-shaped pieces of the jig with screws, so you need to remember to leave yourself a couple extra inches on the ends to be cut away later. That assembly then pivots on the bolts that pass through the bottoms of each pie-shaped piece and the corresponding ends of the jig. The slot in the top of the jig guides the router side to side with the help of a standard guide bushing affixed to the router. I used a ĹĒ straight cutting bit, making passes in one direction for every 3/16Ē or so of rotation of the lid. Whatís left is a curved top with small flats equal to the amount you rotated the lid between passes. The flats area easily sanded out with a hand-held ROS with the lid still mounted in the jig for stability. Just be sure to move your sander in a figure-8 pattern. The result is a top curved to a perfect radius along its entire length, no waviness or unevenness.
With the upper surface of the lid shaped, I contemplated building a similar jig for the underside. The complexity of such a jig, however, is much greater, and after thinking about it for a while, I realized the only portions of the underside that needed to be perfectly shaped were the end portions. If I could figure out a way to cut the underside of the ends properly, I could shape the space in between by hand. I settled on my router fitted with a ĹĒ straight bit, and a long, shop-built trammel arm. I clamped the lid on edge against the side of my bench, drilling a pivot point in some scrap wood attached to the top of the bench. I was skeptical of the set-up, but it worked perfectly. I made multiple passes, increasing the depth of cut each time. With both ends cut, I shaped the remainder of the underside to match with my angle grinder fitted with sanding disks, and followed up with a hand scraper and ROS. The bottom is not perfect like the top, but itís pretty darn good, and itís only the bottom. Note the radiuses of the upper and lower surfaces of the lid are not the same. The bottom edge of the lid has a larger radius, creating a taper that visually lightens the lid. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but itís really a byproduct of my glue up of the lid, which ended up with a slightly incorrect radius. Retaining the intended upper radius left not enough material at the edges of the lid to make the thickness consistent across its width. Iím happy with this one mistake.
The top hinges on half-inch bolts embedded into the upper portions of the legs. I let the bolt heads into the sides of the upper legs, and anchored them in place with JB Weld. Where the bolts pass through the box, there are nylon washers on each side, followed by a standard washer and lock nut. By adjusting the tightness of the locknuts, I'm able to control the ease of movement of the top, making extra fall control unnecessary.
I finished everything but the top of the lid prior to assembly with five or six coats of a General Finishes brand oil/urethane combo. The lid was then fitted to the legs with screws through the top, which are barely noticeable thanks to plugs cut from matching stock, and was finished with five or six coats of the same mixture.. . . Mike Vermeil
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