How To Build a Vintage Wooden Candle Box
First there were candles. Then came the need to store them
Shortly after the invention of candles, there was a need to store the surplus. These storage boxes came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many boxes were open on the top and very simple. Other boxes were a bit more elaborate and had fitted lids. With hardware and hinges being very difficult to acquire, sliding lids were often made. This also became a way for craftsmen to show off their woodworking skills with hand cut dovetail joinery.
This particular candle box would have been popular in the early 1700's. Although designed for candles, this box can be used for almost anything. Many people will have one or two just for their rustic or primitive décor. This makes this piece a little more timely.
If you can't find an original, do the next best thing. Make one!
The design of this candle box requires some patience, perseverance, and some woodworking skills. If you are not up to cutting the dovetails you could use a simpler joint, but it won't have quite the pizzazz if you do. I like to keep the look as authentic as possible.
When I build these boxes I use power tools, so I am not a total purest! I have done projects using nothing but hand tools but prefer a little quicker method. I have also used conventional stains and varnish. In this case I will be using another technique to give the box an aged look. Let's get started!
Pick your materials.
Materials - The beginning
I seem to have a personal challenge to find older scrap material that someone else would throw out. I like to give the wood one more chance to turn into something nice. For this project these pine boards will be the perfect material to keep the box "original."
When these old boards get cleaned up they will look very nice. You could build this box out of hardwood as well, but the originals would have been made out of pine. Also as a general rule, hardwood is a beautiful wood and when you build things out of beautiful wood you are generally trying to showcase the wood grain. When you are trying to showcase joinery like the dovetails on a candle box, it's better to use a wood that doesn't cause admirers to focus on something different.
Pieces are cut to size and ready to go.
With all of the boards cleaned up and cut to size, it's time to get this project off to a great start. The dimensions of this box are 16" long and 7" wide. I cut two of these boards for the sides and two for the ends. These boards have also been cut to a width of four inches.
You can keep your boards 3/4" thick if you want. I have a planer and made mine 5/8" thick. This only helps to make the dovetails a little less "bulky" and helps to make it look dressy. I have worked with either dimension and either thickness will look nice.
Using a bevel gauge to mark the lines.
In the picture above I am using a bevel gauge to make the cut lines for the dovetails on the side boards first. I have the angle set at 14 degrees. This creates a nice joint size for soft wood such as this pine. The length of the dovetails will equal the thickness of the end board. In my case, because my boards are 5/8", the length of the dovetails will be 5/8". I made a "stop" line on the board 5/8" from the end.
I will use only two dovetails per corner. With this box I measured in 1/4" from the edge of the board and angled down to the stop line. I then measured 3/8" along the stop line to create the narrow part of the dovetail, finishing by angling back to the end of the board.
In the photo below, I took the marking a step further. You can see that I shaded the area to be cut out. Believe me, this is worth doing! When you start cutting the wood away you are going to repeat the process four times, once for every corner. When your mind goes on auto pilot, things can sometimes go wrong when you are cutting down lines. Many times I have removed the wrong portion of the board and had to start over.
Making the first cuts
When all of the layout lines have been made on each end of the side pieces, it's time to start cutting. I like using my scroll saw for this. This could also be done with wood chisels and a mallet if you want to do things the "old way." When cutting, take your time and cut on the outside of the line to keep your dovetails the exact size that you drew them on your boards. When you are done you will have results like the photo below shows.
The other part to the dovetail puzzle
With all of your dovetails cut on each end of both of the side boards, it's time to move on to the end boards. Using the side boards as a pattern, hold the cut dovetails up to the end boards as if you were putting the corner together. Now trace the dovetails on the end of the side pieces.
Working only with the end pieces now, draw another "stop" line on the top and bottom of the end board. Next you will draw lines from the profile of the dovetails down to the stop lines. Do this on both sides of the board. Repeat this process for each end of the end boards. See photo below.
Cutting the end dovetails.
When you have all of your reference lines drawn on the end pieces, go ahead and shade in the areas to be cut out. If using a scroll saw, tilt the table to 14 degrees to make the cuts. When following the lines cut on the waste side of the line.
To remove the waste wood from your "stop" line, you can easily use a chisel and mallet. If you try it with a scroll saw, you have to reset the table to zero degrees and take out a portion of the waste wood and chisel out the remainder.
Fine tuning the fit.
With all of your cutting done, things get exciting. It's time to test the fit. More often than not, you will have to do some very fine shaving on the sides of the dovetails in some places. This is normal. Put the side and end piece together and see where the restrictions are that won't allow the joint to go together. Remove very small portions of wood with a chisel or knife. Test often until the two pieces go together perfectly. If you see some gaps in your joint these will be filled with wood putty.
Label the side piece and the end piece with a number 1. Continue on to the next corner, fit the joint, and label it number 2 and so on. This way when it's time to glue things up you know things will go together without any surprises.
With all of your joints fitted together the way you like it, it's time to take the pieces apart and apply glue. You will want to apply glue to every part where wood touches wood. I like to pour some glue in an open jar lid or something similar and then find a small stick to apply the glue. You can purchase glue brushes for this as well.
Working with one corner at a time, coat the sides of each dovetail and areas where the pieces of wood touch each other with a thin coat of glue. Dovetails are a very strong joints by themselves and don't require too much to hold them together. Be careful not to get so much glue that it squeezes out and becomes a problem to remove later. The glue that gets on the surface will cause an unsightly appearance when you put the finishing touches on your box if not removed or sanded off.
With all of the corners assembled with glue, take a square to make sure your box will set up nice and square. Let glue dry.
Applying the glue
Assembled sides and ends.
Putting in a bottom
With your frame all put together, no doubt you are admiring your handiwork at this point. It is time to cut the bottom to fit your box. With this box I had some pieces of good quality finished plywood that was 1/2" thick. The plywood seemed to be waiting for this moment and I let very few things go to waste!
Carefully measure the opening of your box bottom. Select your material that you are using and cut it to size. I always to prefer cutting a bottom just slightly too large and using a sander, sand the sides of the bottom piece until it goes in with slight pressure.
Once you have the fit you want it's time to put it in place. Put glue around the edge of the bottom piece and gently tap it into the opening from the bottom until everything is flush. If the fit is good, the glue alone will hold the bottom just fine.
If the bottom isn't a perfect fit you are still in luck. You can drill 1/8" diameter holes around the perimeter of the box about 1/8" from the bottom of the ends and sides and into the bottom piece. Space the holes out evenly. Next take some 1/8" dowels and drive them into the holes. Do this instead of nails to keep an authentic look.
Putting the bottom piece in.
Adding the slide track for the lid.
The next step is to make the pieces that will enable the lid to slide to open and close. I start with pieces that are at least 2" wide. I do this so that I can keep my fingers well away from the saw blade. I cut a square notch out of the corner of the board that is 3/8" x 3/8" to accommodate the lid. Then I will rip the 2" down to 3/4". See photo.
Miter the pieces and then glue on to box.
After making the pieces, miter the ends with a 45 degree cut. Dry fit everything to make sure it looks good. If it does, then glue the pieces on with a light coat of glue only where the pieces touch the rest of the box. If the fit is close and not perfect, sandpaper will take care of the details after the glue dries. Pieces only go on the sides and one end. The other end allows the lid to move in and out.
When the glue dries, take off the clamps and then sand all of the joints smooth. I like to use an orbital sander with 120 grit paper for this. It will flatten everything out and smooth the surface nicely.
Making the lid.
With your slide track mounted on your box, take a careful measurement from the recessed part of the track on both sides. Take another measurement from the recessed part of the track from end to the edge. This will be your lid dimension.
Once your board is cut to size, it's time to put a bevel on it on three sides. This gives the lid a raised panel look. On my particular board, it was 6 1/8" wide and using a test piece first, I determined that an 18 degree angle would give me the look that I was after.
The finished top.
Putting the pieces together.
With your lid cut out, slide it into the opening on the end and into the track. If it is too snug of a fit take some sandpaper and sand some on the edges. Once it slides easily, finish sanding the top. 120 grit sandpaper works well to get the saw marks out.
Now you can use wood putty around small gaps in your joinery that need to be filled. Finish sanding with some 150 grit sandpaper. Sand entire box until it is smooth. You can leave it a little distressed if you prefer.
Time to put on the finish!
You can put on any kind of finish that you desire here. I have put on stain and top coated with a varnish. You could use some milk paint and lightly sand some "wear" areas. The methods are nearly endless.
I used a homemade aging process with this box. It is simple to make and simple to put on. I took some strong brewed coffee and painted a light coat over the entire surface. This won't appear to do much. It will color it very slightly. The real action comes later.
As the applied coffee is drying, I took a steel wool pad, (not Brillo or any other soap pad), and put it in a glass jar. I then put in enough white vinegar to almost cover the steel wool pad. This solution needs to sit overnight.
The next day, take about a 1" paint brush and cover the entire box. When you do you won't see anything happen right away. Look again after about an hour. The steel wool/vinegar mixture is reacting with the tannic acid from the coffee and will give the wood a very aged look. The wood now looks 200 to 300 years old. Incase you are wondering, it doesn't smell like vinegar either.
The wrap up.
When using the aging method, using a paste wax works very well. It keeps the aged look while enhancing the grain. I will do a little painting on this box with acrylic paint to personalize it for a friend. If you do any painting, do it first and then paste wax when you are totally done.
I would encourage you to give this project a try. You can simplify the lid and the joinery if you are not up to doing what I did here. The important thing is have fun doing it!