I spent the past couple of days working on a prototype shadow box for a client. A shadow box is similar to a picture frame, except that it is more often used to display small three-dimensional objects such as jewelry or coins.

I decided to use up a very warped, twisted board I had laying around. Just cutting and planing everything square provided quite a challenge, but I was successful in the end.


Here are the pieces rough cut into 1.5 inch wide pieces. Normally I can cut much straighter than this, but with the way the board was cupped, it was almost impossible to cut a straight line, let alone meet at the same point.


Each of the six faces of the board are carefully planed flat and square to each other. One of the most enjoyable processes in woodworking is to take a rough piece of wood, and plane it smooth, revealing the beautiful grain hidden underneath, and leaving the wood with a pristine, glass-like finish. It’s a shame this process has nearly been lost today – replaced with noisy machine planers and dusty sanders.



Here’s a quick video of the process.

The surface is now so smooth, like silk or glass. This is impossible to replicate by sanding.


Here, all four pieces have been planed perfectly square. This wood, known as ambrosia maple, has some wonderful grain discolorations caused by ambrosia beetles and the fungus they bring with them.


The dovetails are then cut by hand using a small saw and a chisel. This is exacting work and relies upon the wood being perfectly square, hence all of the work done so far.


As I’m cutting the dovetails, I’m taking into account the type of wood being used, and accounting for how spring is in the wood, in order to avoid splitting the finished dovetail or ending up with gaps in the wood.


Looks like a good fit! The dovetails will be planed smooth after the frame is glued up.


I forgot to photograph this step, but grooves are now run into the lower edge of each side using a plow plane, which enables the plywood or solid wood backing to be secured permanently in place. The box is now assembled and glued, and left to dry for about an hour.

After everything is dry, I can then go in with my smoothing plane and finish the ends of the dovetails.


Here is the finished prototype.

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Love the grain colorations on this!