Mass Production, Part II

Now that I got the pesky design and planning part out of the way, I launched right in. I picked up a handsome half-sheet of birch ply and drove it over to the Tisch Building. Already off to a great start!

I started with the panel saw and ripped one 4″ wide strip and three 2.5″ wide strips, all 4′ in length.

The reliable panel saw still cuts true.

From there, I chopped this strips down into five 6″x4″ pieces for the bases, ten 4″x2.5″ pieces and ten 5″x2.5″ pieces. This is where my accuracy problems began. The compound miter saw in our shop can be accurate… but it was not being accurate on this particular day. While the cuts were close, they weren’t perfect. Unperturbed, though, I knew that I could sand it all down in the end… (We’ll revisit this topic.)

I clamped a piece of wood at the end to speed up the process of chopping multiple pieces of the same size.
Hey, this looks kind of like a box!

Once I had all my pieces of wood cut out, I began the arduous process of drilling holes for the dowels. My main time saver in this process was to stack all of the pieces I would be drilling, and tape them together. This is a risky move even when using a drill press and vise; often the drill press bed is at a slight angle, and even the slightest of angles can result in the bottom piece being totally missed by the drill bit.

A lot of measuring twice and cutting once.

Fortunately, the tolerance of error was established by the miter saw, and these drilled pieces fit well within it. No problems here.

It’s finally time to use the dowelling jig.

Knowing that would have to measure the precise location of the holes from the ends of each piece of wood many times, I tried to see if there was a way I could do this efficiently. While it wasn’t my intention when I laid out the dowel hole locations to optimize the production process, I caught a lucky break in the symmetry of each piece. This means I could block out the dowelling jig and rotate the piece three times without having to remeasure.

My biggest timesaving innovation was the small piece of wood on the right. The piece on the left could be drilled, flipped, drilled, rotated 180 degrees, drilled, flipped, and then drilled again all by relying on the smaller piece of wood for precision.

I realized that I’m not a big fan of the dowelling jig. While it’s certainly useful, I found that its lack of features that facilitated in mass production of accurate holes made it not practical. I figured I could find another way to attach the bottom.

My next task was to use the dowels I purchased to slot into the holes. While the labels on the dowel said 3/16,” I found that this was more a statement of intent and less an actual description. These dowels were larger than the holes, and pushing them in was actually pretty hard. I realized that if I could put the box together, I wouldn’t need glue at all; friction would be able to handle it all.

I decided that I could hammer the dowels into the holes I just made with the dowelling jig using a standard hammer and position the wood piece in a vise grip.

I then could add a short end to each of these making a kind of ‘L’ shaped piece of wood. Then I would hammer those wood pieces together to form a bottomless box (a prototype is shown in the picture above). This worked for the most part with a lot of hammering and malleting, but there were some moments where the wood around the holes splintered off due to the violent fabrication techniques.

These L shaped pieces of wood are waiting to get tightened up and joined with a partner to be made into 4 sided boxes.
Bottomless boxes with dowel ends waiting to get sanded down.

Upon assembling the sides, I saw that minor inaccuracies in the way the pieces were cut, in the way that I drilled the holes in the sides, and the way that I used the dowelling jig all added up to some irregular boxes. I attempted to fix my mistakes using the belt sander, but even the belt sander was not up to the task of straightening these edges.

I knew that I wanted to avoid using the dowelling jig again, so I decided to hold the boxes in place using the vise on the drill press and just drill a hole into the bottom and the sides in one action. This allowed me to line the holes up nicely and let me move pretty quickly. I wondering now whether this would have yielded better results on the sides as well.

I sidestepped the dowelling jig this time and just drilled it all at once.

Hammering Boxes from Lucas on Vimeo.

I then sanded down the resulting boxes and thought I was done. But they just didn’t seem to fit together very well. The corners were jutting out a bit much, and they weren’t accurate enough to rest on the sheer simplicity of their construction as a design principle. I needed to add another detail.

I decided to give them a rounded edge using the router, but it appeared that that bit was missing. I was limited to a chamfered edge, which would be a solid second choice.

I gave my boxes chamfered edges as a way to hide some of the mistakes.

This worked out pretty well and gave my boxes a nice industrial look. More final shots are on the way.

I don’t know if this box is the first one or the last one, but it’s definitely the best looking.


  1. Nice work, boxes are not easy to make. Great documentation.

    I wouldn’t suggest stacking the boards, taping them, and then drilling them on the drill press. Yes it worked for you, but the blue painters tape could fail, and you are correct that any inaccuracies are compounded with every board you drill through. A possible alternative could be setting up a corner jig on the drill press and placing each board into the corner before drilling. We can discuss if that isn’t clear.

    Yes, wooden dowels are rarely sized accurately. Dowel pins generally are, but have fluting on them.

    Nice use of the router. Have you had experience with it before?

    1. Not much. Just small jobs in the past. It was very satisfying to use it in a way that produced a substantial effect. I was actually tempted to route out the inside edges as well, even though I wouldn’t be able to get into the corners. Some tough lessons I learned with it, though, is that when I placed material against the bit with the veneer parallel to the shank, it pulled off the veneer. If I were to do it again, I would actually cut the bottoms larger than the sides and use the router the clean up the edges to be perfectly flush.

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