Monday, August 14, 2017

touchstone in a box

Back in the early 1980's I was very busy at work and it seemed like ages since I had made anything, so despite not having an adequate workspace to put things (or work) in, I built a bench and then this box. My Art Department was clearing out old storage and discarded some shelving but seeing that it was all Kauri Pine from pre-war times I lathered at the mouth a bit, and then saved the boards from a miserable, wasteful fate.

 It is several boxes within a box really, and nothing special in design or construction- but it has lasted a number of bumpy moves, and dark months in storage sheds covered in dust. I should have fitted handles but never got around to it. There is a box in there for my oil stone, but now that I use water stones it is there 'just in case'. The tray holding the old screw drivers can lift out or slide across. Those old drivers were my maternal grandmother's. She was the handy one in that household and her tools are over 100 years old now. I used to have quite a few of her old carving tools, but some were stolen when I set up shop as a violin maker, before they were even unpacked. The square in the lid belonged to my father. He was not very handy, but loved to potter and he did encourage me. He arranged for Santa to give me my first hammer when I was four and the coping saw in the lid of this box was a gift from him when I was in Grade Four at school. I still have the original box of blades that he gave me with it. Parts of the dovetails on various joints in these boxes were done using that coping saw.

When people brought me old family violins, wanting me to buy them I always tried to talk them out of it because inheriting an instrument or a tool that has been loved and used is to hold the possibility of creating something that furthers their memory I think. I generally bought the violin if they persisted but it was important to me to make the point anyway.

The bottom drawer lock has a lever which locks the lid too. What with the tools that I seem to have accumulated for different jobs over the years, this box has become a 'touchstone' for me, representing a time when I wanted to make things and to collect some treasures in one place. I still go to it, but the things I use most are now on the walls...and shelves...and drawers...and cupboards.

And finally, a few thoughts on boxes I shared for a group getting together to make some stuff with wood (from the Metung Violin Maker's Workshop Facebook Group).

For the people coming to our meet and greet who have limited experience with wood, may I suggest that you spend some moments thinking of a box that may be useful to you as a project to get started. It might be a tool box, a wooden tray for jewellery, an implement tote or caddy, a box for your boat, a box for rigging tools...etc. It might be rectangular, open, lidded, handled or plain. I'm thinking finger-jointed corners for machine experience or maybe hand cut dovetails for more experienced grafters with a determination to be patient. Boxes can be precious, utilitarian, humble or extraordinary. Maybe honest, vernacular and basic of pine, and machine made (but nicely), hand finished. Maybe delicate and decorated and hand cut from an exotic piece of wood that has a meaning for you..Putting meaning into simple things can be done through memory association, recycling old bits of a something that no longer works, maybe a shape that reminds you of a better time, or a special person, or maybe a function that reminds you of those things.
I'm just saying that in a group of more than four it may be that some need to consider an achievable goal that gets you into a 'groove' that makes getting ambitious and motivated more likely. We might then have secondary aims that are more ambitious and then I'll have time to prepare ideas, designs and materials. A beautiful piece of wood does not need to have a complex structure to invite people to touch, hold or admire it. I also recommend drawing ideas in a little sketch book if you can. Ideas in the head get out more easily if they can be tested through drawing. Making bad drawings is cheaper than making bad objects and failure at some level is what creation is all about. Over and over, we can always do better by simply doing more -thoughtfully.


  1. Thank you, Robert, for sharing the photos of your work and your thoughts about that work. Boxes are wonderful, and potentially beautiful things. The thought, care, and effort that we invest in life can lead to very rewarding experiences. Reading your blog post has been, for me, one of those experiences.

    1. Very kind of you Chris, thank you. I'm always a bit embarrassed when I write a post like this in case it is too full of ego. I hope it comes across as being in the spirit of sharing rather than of boasting- I have been very lucky to have had the time and opportunity to make these things!

  2. that is such a stunning box. I am about to build myself a workbench on castors Robert so it will have a table saw recessed into it; and a shelf for the mitre saw. I will post on my blog. It will provide people with some amusement - I suspect. I love the box above - it is so beautiful

    1. Cheers Steve, good plan with regard to the multi purpose bench. You might even get a router table in there too! Castors (with locks) are great for space saving. I have them on a few machines, to save space. Dealing with shavings and dust is the worst bit in setting up a shop. (I'm not known for having good broom skills)