It’s a truism that the first birthday is a gimme, more about the parents than the birthday girl. She’s never going to remember the day, and anyway you’re the one who just survived twelve months of short sleep, runny noses and diaper changes.
In my social circle, at least, the day calls for grilling up food the kid can’t eat yet and consuming adult beverages at a rate that would be appropriate for any college football tailgate. Gifts are perfunctory: plastic toys or clothes or cardboard books that, while important, will in a few months time be handed down to someone with a child of a more appropriate age.
Kids don’t generally remember what they got for their first birthday, I wanted to give my daughter something she could use her whole life. If it meant getting to engage in my favorite hobby, then so be it.
As summer rolled around and the days got longer, I started wondering if Duplos and contributions to the college fund were really the best I could offer.
I started woodworking a few years ago after we bought our house, starting with picture frames and working my way up to small pieces to fit our house that we couldn’t find elsewhere. Over time, I built up a small but respectable collection of tools and learned to use them by watching YouTube videos.
When my daughter was born, my free time predictably vanished. Her first birthday offered an opportunity for us both: For me, a chance to get back to my hobby. For her, a birthday present she’d remember.
Try Something New
Woodworking is like most other skills that you build up over time: at the end of the day, you’re doing the same sort of thing over and over again with minor variations. A large, impressive cabinet demands mastery of the same basic techniques that you would use to make a simple picture frame. The key to getting better—and to keep the hobby interesting—is to find something new to try on each project.
I decided that the toy chest needed some sort of interesting visual detail, so this project was the perfect opportunity to try out a technique called marquetry. This involves cutting pieces of veneer (very thin strips of wood) so they fit together, jigsaw-puzzle like, to make a pattern or picture.
Possessing no artistic ability whatsoever, the first step was to find an image to use as the foundation of the piece. Turning to Google image search, I turned up an art tile that seemed right for the project. Unlike me, my daughter is a native Californian, so a landscape featuring a couple of live oaks, hills and the ocean struck me as perfect.
The next step was to use the grid transfer method we all learned in grade school art class to copy the picture from my screen to an appropriately-sized piece of paper. Along the way, I made adjustments to the image that would help out when I started cutting the wood, fattening lines and simplifying parts of the design where it was too complex.
With this complete, it was time to shop. I logged onto Amazon and ordered supplies: A box of assorted veneers, an Xacto Knife with several dozen spare blades, carbon paper, mechanical pencils and a roll of veneer tape, a special type of paper tape that goes on and comes off with a little water.
The first step in the process was to sort the veneers. They arrived in a box without any labels—some of the types of wood I recognized, others I still have no idea about. I sorted them by color and character, then assigned them roles in the image—this lighter piece with the wavy pattern will be the water, this dark piece with the straight grain will be used for the hills, etc.
Finally, the best part of any woodworking project: it was time to get cutting.
“Building the Picture” or “The Fine Art of Thumb Butchery”
The challenge to marquetry is that all the individual pieces need to fit snugly together. I approached this by building the image up, starting in a corner and working my way out across the picture. Each piece was cut out using the same four-step process:
- Use carbon paper to trace the outline of the piece in question onto the appropriate veneer, paying attention to details that will impact the final look such as which way the grain of the wood is running.
- Compare the outline to the existing pieces that have already been cut, noting the inevitable differences. Reality wins here, the cut needs to fit as perfectly as possible.
- Cut out the piece using an Xacto Knife. Several passes are called for here. Since the object is a very clean cut, avoiding tearing the wood while cutting is critical.
- Secure the piece in place using veneer tape.
The picture I was building required me to repeat this process more than 50 times. I found that if I cut more than a few pieces at a time I would get sloppy and make bad cuts on the wood or worse cuts on my thumb, so frequent breaks were a must. The saving grace of this portion of the project is that I was able to work on it at the kitchen table at night after my daughter had gone to bed.
The final step in marquetry is both the easiest and the most terrifying: gluing the assembled veneer down onto a substrate. Easy, because all you’re really doing is gluing one piece of wood to another. Terrifying, because screwing up here can mean problems that are very difficult to fix.
I selected a piece of ½” MDF for use as my substrate, using a disposable foam roller to lay down a film of wood glue. This is where I made my mistake: Fearful of damaging the marquetry I’d so patiently assembled and which was held together only with veneer tape, I disregarded the advice of several YouTubers and applied glue only to the MDF and not the back of the veneers.
Carefully positioning the marquetry on the glue-coated panel, I sandwiched the piece between two scrap pieces of wood and screwed on every clamp that I own. The object is to press the pieces together tightly enough that the glue bonds them together tightly.
After letting the piece dry over the weekend, I unclamped it. As I started the tedious task of removing all the veneer tape, I started noticing pieces lifting away from the substrate. Certain species seemed more prone to the problem than others—they were more absorbent, so the connection between the thin veneers and the MDF had suffered from an affliction called glue starvation.
Not sure what else to do, I went inside and had a beer.
Coming back to the problem with fresh eyes, I could see that not all was lost. I began the slow process of re-securing the troublemakers by gently prying them up, dabbing in a more generous amount of glue and then re-clamping the problem area.
A few small pieces broke off or stubbornly refused to fit back together. For these few problem areas, I made up filler from a gummy mix of sawdust and wood glue. I taped off the afflicted area to avoid overspill and reduce the amount of sanding that would be required (never a good thing when your picture is made from very thin slices of wood) and then applied the fill very carefully.
Using this same technique, I also applied a fill made from ebony sawdust to the gaps between the pieces. This not only filled in the few small remaining gaps, it also lends the image a certain weight it was missing previously.
After I was convinced that everything was firmly glued down, I carefully hand-sanded the piece with a fine 320-grit sandpaper and applied several coats of a tough urethane finish. This helped to bring out the natural character of the wood without darkening the piece.
Time check! Start to finish I’d spent just under a month getting to this point, largely thanks to distractions like “going to work” and “caring for a baby”. Time to get cracking with the rest of the build!
With the front panel finally completed, it was time to start building the toy box itself. The first step was to rough out a basic design for the piece, something that I could use as a reference for measurements. In the past, I’ve done this freehand using my wretched drafting skills, I’ve laid pieces out painstakingly in
PowerPoint, but for this project I taught myself to use a free computer-aided drafting program called SketchUp.
This isn’t strictly necessary since I already had an idea of what I wanted the piece to look like, but experience has taught me that figuring out dimensions ahead of time will save a lot of time and money in bad cuts.
The plan for this piece utilizes the same couple of basic techniques applied over and over again. The structural pieces are all assembled using a traditional strong woodworking joint, and the panels are all framed into grooves cut into the structural pieces.
One thing that I didn’t understand until I started woodworking myself is that pieces that are glued together are actually far stronger than those that are assembled using screws. Wood glue actually binds wood together stronger than the wood itself. Since I want this piece to last a very long time, the hardware for the lid will be the only metal used.
The piece is assembled in portions, fit together and clamped until the glue dries. Once the glue dried, I built up the sides, slid the bottom into its groove, dropped on the front and stood the unit up for the first time. Wood expands and contracts with the seasons, so I prefinished the panels to allow this to happen without risk of exposing any unfinished wood.
While the glue on the main chest dried, I built the lid. Again, you can see that I’m using the same basic techniques over again: a framed-in panel. In this case the panel is made from maple, a very hard and very light-colored wood. While I stained the oak surrounding it, the only thing I applied to the maple was the same urethane finish I used on the marquetry.
I did it this way to create an interesting contrast between the types of wood and make the lid less boring, but mostly because I’d run out of oak and had some leftover maple in my garage.
The oak is finished using a multi-step process intended to mimic the fumed finishes popular at the turn of the (20th) century. It’s dyed, sealed, stained and finally topcoated, a process that takes about a week start to finish. This style brings out the interesting character of the wood itself, showing off the grain and, as a bonus, being really tough.
The lid is attached to the main body using a pair of beefy and expensive stop hinges milled from solid brass. These alone cost almost as much as the materials for the rest of the project, but should stand up to the abuse that a kid will inflict on them. These are called “stop hinges” because they will only open to 95°, keeping the top from falling back when the lid is flung open.
The finished toy box has a couple of important safety features:
The first, visible in the photo here, is a soft-down lid support. This works the same way as the gas damper on a screen door, keeping the lid from slamming down on little fingers. The top closes so softly that the heavy lid doesn’t make a sound when dropped.
Second, there is an intentional gap between the sides of the box and the lid. This is to let air flow through the box in the event a child climbs in and closes the lid—this is also why there is no latch or lock on the piece.
This project took just under three months from the day I started the marquetry to the one where I mounted the lid, but again that was with very limited free time. The finished unit weighs in at exactly 60 lbs, but even at a generous 32″ x 16” x 17” it’s nowhere near big enough to handle all of the toys the modern 1 year-old requires.