Saturday, December 20, 2008

This is my box.....

"This is my box, this is my box, I never travel without my box"
-lyrics from the opera Ahmal and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti

When I was a kid this opera was part of the family Christmas tradition. My folks had purchased the LP and I would play it repeatedly in the season. I had much of it memorized. The story is of a poor crippled boy and his mother on Christmas Eve, a brilliant star is shining that the boy has been gazing at. Who should come visiting but the three kings on their way to Bethlehem, following the star. They come in to the humble abode to rest. In one scene the nearly deaf king sings about his box and what's in it - magic stones and licorice. Not to kill the excitement for some of you eager to run out and buy your copy but the king's magic stone cures the boy so he can dance and skip and go with the kings on their journey to Bethlehem.

I tried to bring this piece of music into my house for the season but the groans and eye-rolling put an end to that. I understand.

Anyway this childhood memory has left an appeal for a personal box and I have made several. I call them "memory boxes". It's a place to keep your life mementos, your personal journal or diary, the special photographs, love letters, sea shells, hawk feather, childhood pocket knife, Mom's necklace that you just can't bear to wear, the small things you treasure.

This box started with wanting to make one with curved sides like a bombay chest, or the way you puff out your cheeks. All but the bottom were milled from a 2" x 11" x 72" plank of walnut I milled from a tree long ago. The curved sides are done as a large molding, cutting large coves on the table saw and then cut to length on a sliding miter saw.

Mitered joints seem simple, and they don't take long to do, but I find them difficult because the slightest error in the 45 degree angle or the 90 degree cut creates problems. Hard to get it perfect. And since it is not a strong joint it must be re-enforced in some way. Here was a place that method influenced design. Curved sides meant I couldn't use splines in the joint as is often done. Dowels might have been possible but difficult to locate. So I decided on trim head screws which lead to the inlaid dots of mother of pearl at the corners. I used 3 screws at each corner which also solved the problem of pulling the joint together on glue up.

The top is done in similar fashion as frame and panel construction. The curved top panel is carved/shaped from 2" stock just as you might make a shallow bowl.

Finishing used a staining technique called "ebonizing". It's one I read about long ago and have been waiting for the right time to use. Even so I waffled back and forth for a week because walnut is beautiful without any treatment and I was a little afraid I'd regret it. And there is no turning back once you start. In the end I decided to go with it to accentuate the inside/outside experience of the box. Dark and light, shown and hidden, public and private. The bottom panel of the box is blonde sycamore to further enhance that feeling.

It is definitely an "old school" technique. You put rusted steel in vinegar and let it sit for a week. This solution will darken most woods but works particularly well with walnut, turning it an ebony black. I put on two coats 24 hours apart. In the end I was happy with the result. I think it gives a feeling of antiquity to the piece, like an old sea chest, a pirate's box full of pieces of eight.

I bought fancy hardware. I ordered hinges, the lock and mother of pearl dots from 3 different places all online and had them on my doorstep in 3 days. No wonder the local hardware store has disappeared. Guitar building suppliers are a good source for shell inlay.

Robin's Box

Dylan's box

I made these boxes for Dylan and Robin in consecutive years as Christmas gifts several years ago. They are identical but for the top panels. Dylan's is nicely figured quarter sawn sycamore and Robin's a plain maple with ebony inlay.


rtuts said...

holy crap dad that is the most beautiful box i've ever seen! and that ebonizing thing is so cool and rustic. just like you :P
also, i opened my prezzies a bit earl and thank you SO much for the earrings! i didn't bring any with me and those are perfect to wear at our xmas eve celebration!

wassail said...

Lovely boxes, but the stone belonging to one of the kings did not cure the crippled boy.
The deaf king shows Ahmal the stones and the licorice in his box, and gives Ahmal some of the licorice. Ahmal moves away eating the licorice, then comes back and asks the king if he would happen to have a stone which could cure a crippled boy.
BUT, the deaf king does not hear him, asks him to repeat what he was saying, but Ahmal says "Oh never mind" (or words to that effect)
Much later as the kings are about to leave, the mother tells the other king to take back the gold she had taken. He tells her The Child doesn't need this gold,even though a Mighty King and sings about just how poor He is. The mother said she had waited all her life for such a King. It is then that Ahmal says the redeeming words "I will give Him my crutch". It is THEN that the miracle occurs, because Ahmal was prepared to give ALL that he had and in fact needed. (not because of a magic stone, that would only defeat the whole moral of the story)