Southern Crafts

Driving home, I couldn’t help but keep thinking how that poor lady dealt with reaching into her grief box and tossing out a rose thorn every time she had a pretty good day and didn’t think all the time about the loss of her 20-year-old daughter who had taken her own life.

In summing up our week-long class at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee, Michael touched again and again on what a box is and perhaps isn’t and how it can be used. After all, if you simply want something to hold your pencils, you can go to WalMart and get a practical plastic container complete with a top. But what about something you can create that will hold thoughts and emotions and will call up memories and help you reflect on times both joyous and sad.

Learn how to use a wide variety of joinery and shaping techniques to create beautiful and interesting hardwood boxes. Observe a wide range of techniques including wood bending,lamination strategies, and various surface treatments. Next,experiment and develop your own design variations. You are sure to surprise yourself with what amazing things you can make in just a few days with quality materials, a well equipped facility, and an instructor with a lifetime of experience at your side.

So Michael told us the story of a special box he gave the mother who was grieving over her schizophrenic daughter who was taken from this world for reasons no one really knew. After some time, Michael had made her a special small box with a threaded lid and filled it with the thorns of a rose bush with the thought that this lady would open the lid on days when her grief eased and she was able to enjoy bits of life again and toss away a thorn. Eventually, the special box would be empty.

I was most fortunate to be able to attend this class taught by the highly imaginative and knowledgeable Michael Mocho, who lives in New Mexico. He’s a celebrated woodturner, furniture maker, sculptor, and all-around good guy. There were six of us, two ladies and four guys. One of the women and one of the guys were part of the study/work program that allows promising young people to take a variety of classes in exchange for the sweat of their brows working about the campus.

On the Sunday night get-together when we introduced ourselves and tried to explain why we had chosen to come to his class, Michael asked us to fill out answers on a 3×5 card to a number of whimsical questions you might not think of as having anything to do with woodworking. He then asked us to pin them to one of the posts in the room and put them out of our minds for the week. The questions ranged from the name of someone you love dearly, to someone you are estranged from, to your favorite song, to your tastiest snack, to the name of the artist who has had the most influence on you. And a last but most intriguing question: What would your ideal Chinese fortune cookie tell you?

One theme that played through the week was that we should never be afraid to fail, since how we respond to failure offers new opportunities to grow. Michael attached to one of his slide presentations the following quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce, who has written extensively on child development:

“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”

What the quote conjured up was that little inner demon who likes to play house critic. As we all know, self-inflicted pressure is the worst kind. The classic demonic way of putting it is that “If you argue for your limitations, for sure, they’ll be yours.” We all agreed that one way around this pitfall is to remember to be your own person and march to your own drummer.

So when Michael defined what he thought the class was all about, high on his list was that it should be fun, noncompetitive, and without pain or bodily harm. In his attention-getting way, he told us it would spoil his day if we decided to paint any of the walls blood red. And it would certainly spoil our day, too, in case we were wondering.

So here we were, strangers from different walks of life and different backgrounds gathered together in this workshop. Tom was a retired Air Force fight surgeon, Wayne was looking forward to retirement from a career riding oil rigs around the world, Amy lived on an outer bank near Corpus Christi, and Megan and Jordan were graduate students chasing MFA degrees. Despite the differences, we all were comfortable beings looking for new expressions.

On this Sunday night in the Great Smokey Mountains, we found ourselves gathered together for a week learning the craft of making wooden boxes and gathering in the magic and the mystery of the world of containers and enclosed space. Some of the principles that would speak to us throughout the week focused on design proportions, surface quality, and structural systems. We wanted our parts to be fat and square if we expected them to all come together in the end with any semblance of precision. We were also to learn that this was not all about tools, power or hand, but also about using our hands as tactile supplements. We were learning to trust our eye and touch and let our senses complement the tools.

Michael has a fine sense of balance between lecture and hands-on work, between when to show and tell you how it’s done and when to back off and just be there to be called upon. When Monday morning came, we were given a demo on using a hand chisel to cut a round over edge onto a rough piece of construction wood cut with lots of angles and curves. All looked pretty straightforward and refers to the alternating regions of relatively darker and lighter wood resulting from the differing growth parameters occurring in different seasons (i.e., growth rings). The term is used in several ways. For us, we were learning how to “read” the grain so we wouldn’t butcher it when we cut it with either the hand or power tools at our disposal. In describing how we were to approach the milling of the wood, we had some options as to which direction to run our tools over the wood or our wood over the tools:

  • with the grain (easy; giving a clean result)
  • against the grain (heavy going; giving a poor result such as chipping or tear-out)
  • across the grain (direction of cut is across the grain lines, but the plane of the cut is still aligned with them)
  • end grain (at right angles to the grain, for example trimming the end of a plank)

Monday was filled with these discussions as well as practical exercises trying to “read” the grain so we wouldn’t be cutting in the wrong direction. As Michael phrased it, if you have a dog or cat, you pet the animal from the head to the toe,not the other way around. Same thing with cutting wood with a chisel or plane or jointer. If you cut from the tail to the head, you pull up the grain and it tears out and looks awful.

If you’ll bear with me and read a bit of these technical facts, the rest of my narrative should make more sense. Grain alignment must be considered when joining pieces of wood or designing wooden structures. For example, a stressed span is less likely to fail if tension is applied along the grain, rather than across it. Grain direction will also affect the type of warping seen in a finished item.

Wood grows in trees in certain grain alignment patterns. The grain you most commonly find in most trees is:

  • straight – grain which runs in a single direction, parallel to the axis or direction of the growth of the tree;
  • spiral – grain which spirals around the axis of the tree;
  • interlocked – grain which spirals around the axis of the tree, but reverses its direction regularly, alternating, interlocking.

Hence, the rub… the grain plays tricks with you and changes direction or goes off in some unexpected way. As we pushed and tapped our chisels along the test piece, we all learned that just because the cut was going smoothly sharp tools, your body language and motion can never be ignored. In milling wood, it’s essential to “dance” with the wood and tools and flow with your legs and entire body, rather than just stand rigidly only using your arms. In addition,you need to develop a feel for the right amount of force to use…it’s the Goldilocks theory– not too much force,not too little, just enough. With practice, you’ll get a feel for the wrong angle of approach and for the differences in denseness of the various parts of the heartwood and sapwood. You’ll also learn to clamp your work securely to the table or you’ll find your piece slipping and playing havoc with your plans.

As part of the greater scheme we were to get a feel for the hand tools first, the chisels and gouges and mallets, to gain confidence through our fingers and hands and proceed in small steps where we could better feel the control of the cut. We were quickly learning that the tool’s geometry played a great role in understanding the way the wood cut…the chisel’s angle, the sweet spot that revealed itself after much practice, riding the bevel…all the mechanics of the tools that determined how the cuts would emerge.

As for the wood itself, Michael went to great lengths explaining how the sawyer cuts the logs and what the differences are between wood that is fat- or plain-sawn,quarter-sawn or rift-sawn.

And then there’s the moisture content of wood and how it’s cut and dried. What you have to know above all else is that wood moves–both green and dried–so you have to remember that you have to accommodate for this quality if you don’t want to be surprised by seams that open over time.

One book Michael highly recommended if you want to know more about wood is Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloane, an American landscape painter and author of illustrated works of cultural history and folklore. By Tuesday when we finally got into the big room with all the power tools, we were told that we owed much to a humble 19th century Shaker lady. In 1813, Shaker-Sister Tabitha Babbitt (1784-1854) invented the first circular saw used in a saw mill. Babbitt was working in the spinning house at the Harvard Shaker community in Massachusetts, when she decided to invent an improvement to the two-man pit saws that were being used for lumber production. One day when watching men saw wood, she noted that one half the motion was lost and conceived the idea of the circular saw.

With this bit of history, Michael told us that the saw blades are nothing more than the chisels we had been using earlier, just this time they were mounted on a wheel. Of course, there are various circular saw blades, some of which do better work cutting across the grain while others go with the grain or “rip” it.

Entry into the power tool room was a major shift in our class focus. Here we were to learn the milling process. In selecting our wood, we were getting better at inspecting both sides of the plank and the end grain, noting any defects to avoid or “figure” to include. We also knew the principles by now of grain direction, color, and wood “graphics,” and how all this can affect the final design. We also knew to avoid using planks with major structural defects, excessive twist, rot, or knots. And, most importantly, we had our eyes peeled for grit, staples, nails or other foreign matter anywhere in the wood that could damage any cutting tools.

But before we turned any tool on, Michael lectured us not to trust any of the settings, especially on our tools, such as combination squares and tape measures. Fences that are not square are the most common culprits that steal accuracy and prevent tight fits. Motto is “Trust but always verify!”

Our sequence of cutting started on the Radial Arm saw where we made our rough cut to length. We then went to the Bandsaw to make a rough rip cut,especially if the board was too wide for face jointing or there was excessive grain “run out.” Then off to the Jointer to plane one face fat, paying careful attention to the grain pattern and to feed the board slowly over the cutter head. We then marked the freshly jointed face with an “X.” Next stop was the Thickness Planer where our plank was milled to its final thickness. Then back to the Jointer to square one edge which is also marked. Another stop was to the Table Saw where we ripped the board to width. Final station was to another Table Saw equipped with across-cut blade and a cross-cut sled to cut the board to final length.

All this cutting emphasized safety, safety, safety. We used a variety of push sticks and heavy push sleds. We also were told never to run objects less that a certain length or thickness through any of the machines. Everyone paid close attention and no walls were painted red!

The handouts were invaluable in keeping our heads straight about the many helpful tips and techniques we were learning. As Michael liked to say, “Experience is what you get when you proceed without it.”

Since we were cutting Cherry pretty thin for one kind of box, we used thin pieces of wood — winding sticks — to stack or” sticker” the various parts to ensure air movement and consistent drying.

Since the drying would take a day or so,we set this material aside and took up another technique. Starting with a block of Poplar, we cut off the edges and top and then used the band saw to cut out a half-moon “scoop.” Lots of sanding on the Oscillating Drum Sander to remove the Band Saw blade marks. After making sure the sides were all square and sanded, we glued them back onto the body which we had just cut the half-moon void out of. All the parts are marked with triangles with the base facing you and the tip pointing away. A simple and most reliable system that does away with confusing numbers and letters to designate which part will eventually go where.

Then the fun part of conceiving what shape we wanted. Some of the pictures capture the imagination of several of my fellow students. But we all found out–sometimes the hard way– the critical importance of designing your project from start to finish before any cuts are made. Of course, we didn’t always know the right questions to ask of ourselves on this first project so sometimes as our ideas changed or evolved and new possibilities surfaced, we had to retrofit.

The point Michael was making was that we should always be thinking of design and layout first. One should be aware of the graphic quality of the wood and learn to anticipate the next step, just as in music. Design by accident is too costly. And always cut on the correct side of the line… a classic bit of advice never to be forgotten is “Do not make the inside larger than the outside.”

With the Poplar boxes finished, we could then go back to our Cherry cuts and assemble and form them. We cut rabbets (nothing more than a dado or channel that is cut into the edge of the face of the stock rather than in the center of the stock) for our joinery on the sides. A saw blade kerf was then cut on the lower part for the bottom to rest in. Tops could be routed with another rabbet so that they fit down snugly inside the box.

Freshening you up on your Shakespeare,be sure to note that the joiner who appears in Midsummer Night’s Dream is named Snug, a most appropriate name for some of our projects. With everything dry fitted, Michael provided us with jigs complete with cam pressure knobs to hold everything tight when our final boxes glued up. It’s advisable to pre-finish the inside and tape it to prevent any squeezed out glue from messing with the look. Along the way, we also used some large Jorgensen Hand Screw Clamps as well as steel bar clamps to ensure that the parts were pushed up against one another with sufficient pressure.

The glue is a story unto itself, as is finish. For this story, suffice to say, glue should be viewed on a molecular, not mechanical, level. Lesson here is that you don’t have to rough up your surfaces before gluing. In fact, that might be counterproductive. The important lesson is that the more surface you have glued,the better. Michael also used his pinkie to spread glue…he never had to rummage about looking for his little finger the way he did his pencil and as a bonus he had excellent control over its movement.

As for finish, there are many choices from lacquer, to shellac, to various oils, to paint. One neat paint we fiddled with was milk paint, an ancient medium that allows you to bring color to a finished object using milk, lime and earth pigments. In fact, objects removed from King Tut’s tomb had been colored with milk paint. We mixed up some of the dried pigments with water and experimented. For variations you can add other ingredients such as eggs, linseed oil, animal glue,waxes. Some of the finishes produce a durable coating while others disintegrate,leaving only a permanent stain on the painted surface. It can also leave a thiner surface which can be burnished with steel wool for other effects.

We also touched on bending wood using a metal pipe heated with a blow torch. When you visit Michael’s webpage ( you’ll discover the ribbons he wrapped around gift packages as well as the bows he was able to create.

At the end of this busy (we were often in the shop till late in the evenings) and fun-filled week, we gathered round the table to discuss what we had learned and where we will be going in the future.

But more importantly, we discussed how broad the definition of a box is and what it is to be a box maker. It doesn’t have to be a practical vessel, although it certainly can be.

It is part of something bigger, as we learned from the box that carried the thorns of a mother’s grief. It is the gift of the gift maker and can express care between people. It will come apart overtime — hopefully not for centuries,though–but it will have a good time and be a part of the lives of various people in between.

I like to think that I learned that it’s just as important to live within the box, snugly intact, as it is to view the box from the outside, marveling at its construction and wondering how its secret compartment is opened. And I left with the 3×5 card of a fellow box maker, sharing some of his hopes and dreams.


Class: A World of Wooden Boxes, 12-17 June, 2011


David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.