A Box Full of Love – Part 2

I had my prepped side pieces all set up and I was ready to glue them. Duncan made two pools of glue with little spreaders, one for me and one for himself. Gluing is something that needs to happen fast and the pieces need to be put together with as much accuracy as possible on the first try because the glue sets quickly and once it sets it’s really hard to change anything. You also want to make sure you have a damp cloth on hand to wipe away any excess glue.


After we coated each edge with glue we stuck them together, hammered them firmly to make sure they fit tight, and clamped them. Then I set the box to the side to dry.

I was admiring my box when I realized that I had flipped both of the long boards inside out by accident. Oh no! The sides I had worked so hard to make perfect where hidden on the inside of the box and the sides I meant to be hidden were now on the outside for all to see. Oh well, it was too late to do anything about it. I would just have to replane the outsides and walk away with a lesson to pay attention to the details of what I am doing.

The next step was to glue a piece of plywood onto the bottom of the box. But guess what? That’s right, I glued the bottom to the top of the box. I didn’t realize this until after it had dried and I turned it over only to discover the ugly, pencil marked, unplaned edges that again were supposed to be hiding on the bottom. Oops! Now my box was inside out and upside down. I guess that lesson I was supposed to walk away with didn’t make it very far. But hey, it’s not so bad, all I had to do to fix that was to plane the top edges. It was a bit trickier with them all glued up but I managed. Mistakes happen and it’s a learning process. These mistakes weren’t too bad and maybe next time I will actually remember to pay attention.

Once the body of the box was finished the next step was to make and attach the base trim. I picked out a very textured looking 2×4 and we used the same process as before to make it straight and square. This time we ran one side through the jointer first then used the planer.

On the jointer, if the board is bowed, you want to make sure you put the convex side up otherwise it’s hard to gauge where the center of the curve is and you may not get it flat. You also don’t want to put pressure on the center of the curve when you run it through because you’ll end up taking wood off an area that will bounce back up and remain a high spot.


Using the table saw with the blade set to certain heights we cut out an L shape out of the 2×4. This would become the border and the body of the box would rest in it once the pieces were attached.

I wanted the edge rounded so Duncan showed me how to use the hand plane to achieve that. He said it was possible to use a router to do the work but he wanted me to use the hand plane. I didn’t mind. I watched him demonstrate how; he made swift back and forth motions with the plane up and down the board taking off tiny, thin strips that curled up wildly. He handed me the plane and left me to it. I had so much fun, I felt like I could do that all day. Every now and then Duncan would check in on me and give me a subtle amused look; there was a barely noticeable smile with a slight twinkle in his eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but it made me feel like a sheepish novice (not in a bad way though).


I worked for a while completely engaged in the work. It was meditative and I enjoyed it. I took my time and got the edges just how I wanted then with as even a curve as I could get.

Now it was time to measure them out and cut the corners at a 45-degree angle. Duncan suggested working my way around the box and to try to leave a piece long enough that if I messed up on a long side I would have enough to replace it. A long one can always become a short one but not the other way around.

I started by using a chop saw to cut one edge off at a 45-degree angle. I placed that next to one corner and marked it at the edge of the next corner. Then I cut that at a 45-degree angle as well. I went around the box making one piece at a time. The first short piece I cut was a little too short so Duncan had me try it on the other side where it ended up fitting nicely.

Once they were all cut I used a bandsaw to cut a rounded section out of the bottom of the base trim. I used some scrap wood and made several practice cuts before cutting the final pieces. Then I used a plane to smooth the flat side I just cut and I used a file to smooth out and even the rounded sections. I finished by hand planing the front to clean it and smooth it.



Next we glued them up together, wiggling them a little to make sure everything was as flush and snug as we could get. Duncan put so many clamps to hold it in place it reminded me of a pincushion.


I came in for a short time on Saturday to finish up. Duncan and I talked for a bit at first as we usually do then I got started on my work. The base trim was dry and I spent the last bit of the few hours I was there filing down its uneven edges making it look like a real nice decent box.

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My box is now nearly complete; I just have a lid to go. I certainly had my ups and downs through the process but nothing too catastrophic. Overall I am proud of what I have created so far and the hard work I have put into it. I am excited to make the lid and complete my box. I am also looking forward to learning the joinery techniques required to make the lid. Stay tuned for Part 3; the making of the lid.


A Box Full of Love – Part 1

After a weekend of planning my box I was jumping out of my skin with excitement to learn the process and start building it.

IMG_9632I picked out a straight piece of 1×12 ponderosa pine board. We ran it through one of Duncan’s planers. The planer was a neat looking portable one; I had never seen one like it. Duncan explained to me that usually in order to get a board flat, straight, and square you would need to run it through a jointer first which would completely flatten one side, then you would run it through a planer to make the other side flat and parallel to it. But because my board was wider than the jointer we skipped that step and went straight to the planer.

Once we had a smooth straight surface, Duncan ran one of the edges over the jointer to make that edge perfectly flat and squared to the planed sides. Then he used his table saw to cut the opposite edge off leaving a perfectly straight and squared board.  I asked him why he used the table saw instead of the jointer for the last edge. He said that the jointer would make that edge straight and flat but not necessarily parallel to the other edge.

IMG_9633I took that board and measured out my sides trying to work around as many knots as possible. Knots are harder to plane and can degrade the integrity of a structure. They also don’t always look good. Then I cut the pieces to size and made sure the two long sides and the two short sides matched up perfectly. One of my long sides was off a little and I had to recut just a sliver off. After that they were all good.

Then Duncan sets up a nifty router jig. He put all the cut boards together with a scrap piece on either side and clamped them together. Before clamping them, he made sure they were all square. This took several tries; he would square them but by the time they were all clamped they would be a little off and he would have to take the clamps off and start again. He was so patient and didn’t seem to mind how many times it took. It was more important to get it right than be fast. This quality of calm patience is who he is through and through.IMG_9635

Finally he got it all clamped and square. He turned on the router and proceeded to make the box joints. After doing a few he handed it to me telling me to hold it tight but gently and push it firmly downward and while moving it slowly forward. I did just that. It was fun! After I finished that side it was time to square and clamp the other end. The process went just as it had the first time around.

When it was all done, Duncan’s shop and I were completely covered in dust. I brushed myself off and got the shop vac.

Now it was time to get the hand plane ready, the blade needed to be sharpened again but this time instead of sharpening it evenly all the way across I needed to make it into a crescent shape. This takes the corners off the blade so they don’t dig into the wood.

Duncan showed me how it’s done then handed it over to me to finish. You sharpen it normally twenty to thirty times then you rock it to one side, keeping the bevel of the blade at the proper angle (so not lifting the end up or pushing it down), and sharpen it twenty to thirty times then rock it to the other side and repeat process until a burr forms. The burr should be larger on the outer edges now.

It took me a bit of time to get it but the sharpening process overall was becoming easier. I ended up cutting my knuckle not on the blade but on the sharpening stone. I guess I will have to work on the way I hold it.

Finally it was time to hand plane the pieces. When planing a board you want to check the direction of the grain to make sure you will be planing off the grain. The same is true when you are using the joiner or the electric planer machine. Otherwise it may cause “chip out”.

IMG_9642I picked the nicest looking sides of each board to be on the outside of the box. I spent more time planing these sides than the insides and I really worked to get them perfectly smooth. I also planed the edges of the boards that would be on the top.

When you hand plane something it cleanly slices the wood fibers which leaves a natural shiny finish, as apposed to sanding which rips and mangles the fibers leaving it with a dull look. Hand planing ponderosa pine makes it shimmer; oh my, it looks so beautiful! 

The boards have been prepped and are looking pretty good now. They are ready to be glued up and made into a box. Stay tuned for part 2.


Thinking Inside, Outside, and All the Way Around the Box

My first project was finally assigned to me. I was to design a box that I would be building over the next week. Duncan sat me down in his shop and walked me through the design process. It’s not just drawing a pretty picture of what I want or sketching an approximate idea, it’s thinking through all the details. What do you want it to look like? What will it be used for? How much weight will it hold? What materials are you going to use? How will you attach all the pieces together? It’s thinking about form and function, aesthetics and durability. It was fascinating to watch him break it down and I realized how much work goes into the design process.

So over the weekend I sat down with a pencil and paper excited and thinking it would be pretty easy. It ended up being harder than expected. I started by looking up pictures of boxes to get an idea of what I wanted. This took refining my search terms to find what I was looking for; there are just so many wooden boxes out there.

I sketched a few ideas down of what I might like the box to look like.       


Then I needed to choose what size I wanted my box to be. I had a 1” x 12” x 8’ board to work with so the dimensions needed to fit into that.

Man, I went around my house like a lunatic, measuring everything. I had a picture in my head of what I wanted it to look like but it was hard picking the size, I am a visual person and couldn’t wrap my head around it until I could physically see it. Then I thought, maybe if I could figure out what I wanted to put in it, I could figure out what size it needed to be. So, I went around my house like a lunatic again looking at all of my stuff and judging whether or not it was worthy of being put in my first hand made box. Finally I settled on a 24×12 inch box to put near my front door that I can throw scarves and such in. And I’m sure it will end up doubling as a seat for my son while he gets his shoes on.

Finally I made it to the sketching part. Time to think about the details I had gone over with Duncan. I tried to remember all he had told me and did my best. I played around with my sketches then designed the box I was going to build.

Although it was harder than expected, it was fun and I learned a lot. I know that it was slow going for me this time, but the more I do it the better I will get. Eventually I won’t have to measure everything in my house to get an idea of size… I hope.

The Cutting Edge

Yesterday I sharpened a Japanese hand plane. I had tried it once a while ago, and honestly, I didn’t do so well. So, I had little faith in my ability and didn’t think I’d make it that far. But, as I’m learning, my inner voice is powerful. Being positive is strengthening and supports growth. Everything takes time to master and I am slowly allowing myself to realize that. I get so caught up in the notion I should be good at things the first time I try that I beat myself up when I’m not. As I grow older I realize that being good at something the first time around doesn’t make someone an automatic master and being bad doesn’t mean improvement can’t happen. Mastery comes with experience; when one becomes so familiar with the task at hand that he knows it, sees it, feels it, and understands it on a most profound level.

First I watched Duncan sharpen his own blade. He took his time explaining to me all the details about how to hold the blade, how to find the proper angle, and how to move the blade across the waterstone while incorporating a bit of history of why the Japanese did it a particular way. There is definitely an art to hand sharpening a blade. If you put too much pressure on one side you round the blade. If you pull the back up or push the back down you round the blade. If you rock it while moving it you round the blade. You get what I mean; your movements have to be precise.


Polishing wet stone

Duncan got on his knees and bent over the waterstone. He had the middle knuckles of his
dominant hand on the back of the blade and the two middle fingers of his other hand pressing firmly on the front of the blade above the bevel. His arms moved briskly back and forth like a pendulum with long even strokes. He maintained a proper, precise 25-degree angle the whole time
. After a while he held the blade up for me to feel the “burr” on the back of it indicating enough grinding was done on the coarser stone. Once the burr formed he moved to the finishing stone to polish it up. He did twenty to thirty strokes on one side then twenty to thirty strokes on the other, back and forth until there was no longer a burr. Then he dried it off and held it up to the light to check it. His trained eyes honed in on the detail of the blade. It was sharp!

My god he made it look easy. He explained the process in detail to me but you could see his body needed no such explanation. This has become natural to him, automatic, something he does so often he no longer thinks about it. He has mastered it. His body takes over knowing exactly how it should feel and effortlessly performs the task.

Then it was my turn. I got on my knees and placedmy hands the way he showed. I rocked the blade back and forth getting a feel for where it laid flat. Then I started making small, slow movements stopping often to make sure I still held the blade at the correct angle. It was awkward and hard and after a short time my knuckles started to hurt and my fingers grew stiff. Duncan told me to relax my muscles (which I didn’t even notice were tense) and find a position that was comfortable to maintain.

I worked for a while then dried the blade to check my progress. Almost no burr at all had formed. So I literally went back to the grindstone.

With a few more suggestions, a lot of time, and some perseverance I finally got it sharpened and polished. My knees were sore, my fingers were stiff, and my knuckle was blistered but I did it. I even suppressed a smile after Duncan tested it and showed another apprentice the shaving that came off a board, saying, “Look at that, she did a pretty good job.” The other apprentice nodded and said, “Impressive!”

Then Duncan explained how to put the blade into the body of the hand plane and had me do it. The body is made out of a block ofwood and you adjust the blade by tapping the block at different spots and angles with a hammer to get it in the position you want, even across and just sticking out a hairline.


Japanese hand planing

For the next while I practiced hand planing a long, skinny piece of pine until I had a large pile of shavings and the afternoon was transitioning to evening. It was time to wrap up and I was pleased with my accomplishments. When I got home I felt like a kid as I told my husband, “I sharpened a blade today and when I used it, it worked!”

Although I eventually got the blade sharpened I have a long way to go before it becomes natural for me. My hands are clumsy at holding and steading the blade, my fingers have a hard time feeling the burr, my eyes are untrained when looking at the blade, and my body is tense. But I am excited to continue and excited to improve. I am ready to give myself time to go through the learning process and not be too hasty to judge myself.

“…even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.” – Elza Wheeler, Miss Maple’s Seeds

The Master

Duncan Mac Master in His Shop

Duncan in his workshop

Duncan Mac Master studied Japanese woodworking and tools with Japanese masters and has mastered the craft of furniture making and timber framing. His one room workshop is modest, simple, and meticulous. His handmade Japanese tools are lined up on shelves, his papers on his desk are squared up in neat piles, his wood is stacked against the wall, and his floor and equipment are swept clean. Large murtis of Chinese Goddesses also line the shelves in between his tools. This room is the embodiment of Duncan’s own simple, grounded, and spiritual personality. His demeanor is calm with no sense of rush and his voice draws you towards the transcendent.

On Monday, September 2nd I started the first day of my first internship in woodworking with Duncan. He brought me and two others on a field trip to a small cabin in the woods built by Robert Laporte, the founder of EcoNest. This small cabin has a timber frame and straw clay walls. The inside is clean and organized with utilized space. It was great to experience how a small room can feel spacious when the space is actually used properly and the furnishings are an appropriate size. Duncan built the doors and stairs as well as a nifty island on wheels for the tiny kitchen and a beautiful coffee table. It was nice to see his work for the first time.

After we left, Duncan brought us to his house to show us more of his work. His friendly, fluffy kitty cat came up to greet us as Duncan showed us his yard full of fruit trees and berry bushes. Inside, the furnishings he made for his house were astonishing. Their beauty caught me and I fought to hold back tears. I turned to my two other companions and mouthed, “I’m so excited!” Upstairs there was large table, built low to the ground, made out of a huge, single piece of wood. Wow! There were also simple boxes and shelves throughout the house that Duncan had made.

Like I said, I am so excited and looking forward to all I am going to learn from Duncan. Even after my internship is over I plan on taking him up on his offer when he said I am now part of the family and I can come to the shop any time.

The next day we replaced a half rotted rake board (the board that runs just under the roof) from a house that is getting repainted. We measured it then proceeded to take nails out. I watched Duncan for a bit then he handed over the tools, a hammer and a small Japanese flat bar (a small crowbar). Duncan had made it look so easy as he hit the flat bar a few times with the hammer then, with much strength and momentum, pulled the nail out. I climbed up the ladder and clumsily attempted to take out my first nail. I was a little nervous yanking a nail out, with the momentum needed, while at the top of a ladder. I got two out but the third one I ended up stripping the head off making it impossible for even Duncan to take out. I also managed to thump myself on the head with both tools at the same time giving myself a small bruise. I am really looking forward to getting more coordinated and comfortable.

After removing one board we headed over to the lumberyard to purchase a replacement. As Duncan sorted through some 1×10 cedar I asked him what he looked for in a board. He showed me one and we studied it to see if it was straight. He also pointed out the knots in the boards and said to avoid large ones and ones that were falling out. He narrowed the stack down to the best four then chose three to purchase. As I handed down the boards the rough side let loose one of its splinters into the palm of my hand. In the car ride back to the shop I asked Duncan if he got used to splinters and he said, “no, it’s pretty much an every day thing.”

Unfortunately I caught a cold (in the middle of summer) and for the next two days I was stuck feeling awful at home in bed. I have been looking forward to my woodworking internships for so long and of course I get sick only two days in. When I told Duncan he said it’s very important to be comfortable in your body especially when working with tools. As excited as I am to get going I see his wisdom. If your mind is stuck on how your body is feeling, it’s hard to focus on what you need to be doing. It’s nice not to feel rushed or pressured to get back and taking those few days off for rest has helped me recover more rapidly. However, today is a new day and although I am not 100% I am pretty close and absolutely determined to not waste another day of my precious internship.