Boxing Ambrotypes: A Walkthrough

Notice: this method is deprecated. I have a better way of making them now. See here.

box2 complete

This is another one of my wooden boxes for glass plates. I wanted something appropriately dark to go with the dark imagery of the plate, and the black glass I was using. I love the way the surface of the plate looks when you hold it to light, and I was trying to think of a way of protecting a plate without having a cover-glass. This solution involves protecting the artwork by turning it into a kind of armored unit.

In this walkthrough I'll show you the steps for how it's done.

The plate that I want to box is 4"x4". So the inner dimensions of the box should be about 5 1/2"x5 1/2" (I decided on that size; you can go larger or smaller depending on how much space you want around the plate.

First off, make sure your saw-blade is vertical. The way I cut my side-pieces uses a sliding jig (a 'sled') that holds the wood at the correct angle to the blade.

This jig (my mitre-izer) has 2 pieces of wood forming a channel 3/4" wide (+ a tiny bit) at 45 degrees to the blade. I glued a ruler to the top of the channel so I can precisely measure the cuts. The jig has a wooden slider that fits into the mitre-slot in the top of a table-saw, so it's always pretty much perfectly aligned. Above are two 45 degree rules set to show you how I initially positioned the channel when I made the jig. Jigs like this are really easy to make and make a job much more reliable, predictable, and safe.

When I cut the pieces, I have another piece of plywood on the other side of the blade to support the cut-off piece. You cut the mitre then flip the stock over and cut again - always keep the cut edge at the same angle against the jig.

Once the side pieces are cut, the next step is to cut the slots for the plywood base and top. In case you can count you'll notice I cut 8 pieces; I made two boxes at one time in this project, just because. Remember - you can save a lot of work if you duplicate your parts. But the more you duplicate the more expensive it is if you get everything wrong.

Here I set the height of the blade at 1/4". That means that the top and bottom will be 6" squares. You can eyeball this with a ruler if you don't have a gauge like mine. I actually don't use a gauge normally - it's only there for the picture.

Next, figure out how far from the top/bottom (inset) you want the top and bottom pieces. In this case I thought I'd put them about 1/4" from the bottom edge, so that the top and bottom would be slightly recessed. Set your rip-fence at that distance.


Run the pieces down one side then rotate them and run it down the other. Make sure you don't flip the piece, because then you'll be making a slot on the wrong side.

Now, you need to widen the slot so that the 1/4" thick plywood for the bottom and top will fit. I usually just eyeball it by putting the slotted piece on the deck and sighting down the saw-blade, then moving the rip-fence whichever direction is best.

Once you've adjusted the rip-fence, run the pieces through again.

To get the little rib of wood out of the slot, use a chisel; just stick it inside and lever the wood until it cracks. Some kinds of wood might not work well with this approach - then you can either make 3 cuts or use a dado blade. If you make your outer cut close to the edge of the board make sure that you brace the chisel against the thicker-cut side or you may pop the bottom piece off.

Earlier we calculated that the slot through the wood should be 6" long. You can check with a ruler if you like. It's a good idea, in fact, since there's nothing worse than having a slot that's almost 6" long, and a bottom piece that's a tiny bit more than 6" long.

I used a sled to cut one side of the bottom plywood 6" and made sure it fit in correctly width-wise and length-wise.

Here's an important thing I learned the hard way: once you've assembled the box, it's really hard to sand the inside. So, sand the inner faces and top and bottom pieces prior to assembly.

Now, it's time to assemble the box! I have my glue ready, paper towels handy, and my wicked cool clamp, all on a flat surface. I use foaming urethane glue but - seriously? Plain old woodworkers' glue is probably just fine. Most modern glues are much stronger than the wood, anyway, so there's no point in worrying. I use the urethane because I've gotten used to its quirks.

The way I assemble a glue-up is by putting glue in the first piece, laying it down, and assembling the rest of the box vertically around it. Here I've glued the slots in one side, and put in the top/bottom. Next the sides go on. Don't use too much glue.

Attaching one of the sides: glue in the slots, fit it together, and you're done! I don't put glue on the edges of the mitre-cuts on the bottom piece; I only glue the mitres on the pieces I assemble vertically. There's no reason for doing this other than that I remember which pieces have glue so I don't accidentally smear it all over myself.

Once you've assembled all the pieces, put the box flat, press it down to make sure it's flat, and clamp it together. Tighten the clamps down slowly.

My clamp is made out of polypropylene blocks and threaded rod. It's really easy to make your own - use a reciprocating saw on pieces of polypropylene or nylon butcher-block. Corian samples will also work, if you glue rubber feet along the inside so that the hard material doesn't injure the edges of the wood. The way my clamp is made, it's cut away slightly from the corner so it won't mar them.

When the glue is set up (be patient! if you knock the box apart you'll never get the mitres tight again because of the glue in them - just let it sit overnight) it's time to cut the corners for the splines. What you see against the rip-fence is my mark II spline-a-lizer jig. It's just a corner mounted between 2 pieces of plywood. You set the rip guide at a standard distance, and the blade height, then you put the box corner-down and push the whole thing into the blade. Pull it back, rotate the box, do it again. 8 cuts total. The jig makes this very safe and predictable.

When you're done, the corner cuts should all look the same. You'll see why it was important to do this in the right order in just a second.

Next, the box is cut in half. If I do more boxes like this, I'll make a jig. When I did these with the rip fence, there was a little vibration when I pushed it forward which made slight riffles in the cut edge of the wood. Unless you have a big flat-bed sander (I do!) you'll never get them straight again.

The last bit of tricky cutting is to make some thin strips that will hold the lid onto the bottom. I made these by ripping strips from an oak board, then cut them to length using a sled and eyeballing them. Once the pieces were cut I sanded them a little on the top edge to angle them slightly so the top would come off without a lot of trouble.

You'll notice that in the picture above, the wood lid-retainers don't stick up very far. That's because they're all the way down in the lid. When the piece is finished, there will be spacers and a piece of glass to raise them up a little bit.

Now we adjourn to the assembly room. Cleaned glass, lid retaining pieces, top and bottom, and litte cut spacers. The spacers go to keep the glass up off the top of the lid. The little pieces of paper which comprise the plate's title are cut out; the idea is that they're going to bang around under the glass; the glass will be inside the lid, not between the viewer and the plate. It's backward but the plywood top and bottom are what protects the plate, not the glass.

The artwork is going to sit on the raised plywood base, held on with a good glob of silicone glue. Yes, you read that right. I glued the damn plate right to the damn box. Why not? It's mine!

Little cut pieces of oak at the corner act as spacers to allow the pieces of paper enough room to move but not enough room to flip over. I have no idea why I did it this way but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I wanted the wood to be all black. So, at this point, before assembling the lid, take leather dye to the inside and stain it, let it dry thoroughly, and buff it with a paper towel. Don't get dye up the sides because you'll need to glue the lid retaining strips.

The assembled lid. Pieces of paper flutter inside.

Keys are cut from lignum vitae strips, then sliced into smaller chunks with the table-saw using a sled and glued into the key-ways at the corners.

Once the glue is cured, I close-cut the extra wood off the corners and put the whole box on the belt-sander and sand it down. Finish sand with an orbital sander. In order to make it easier for people to tell which way the lid goes back on, I cut back one corner with the saw so that it's angled more than the others.

If you're not familiar with Fiebing's leather dye - it's amazing stuff. It's basically liquid magic marker innards. Whatever it touches is black forever. Always leave it to dry for 24 hours before handling it, then immediately buff it with a paper towel. It will crock off. I seal the dye with butcher's wax (beeswax dissolved in turpentine) then buff the wax off, let that sit for a day, and finish it with 2 coats of hand-rubbed linseed oil. Hand-rubbing wood with linseed oil gives a great finish but you need to keep the amount of oil in the range of one or two drops per square foot. Think in terms of stretching the oil to make a very thin coat. Let it cure overnight and do it again.

One of the things I like about this box set-up is that the artwork goes in dead last. That means there are plenty of opportunities to screw up and not hurt the plate. I was less happy with some of the other processes, where you've got to sand a box with the plate already mounted inside - a slip of the hand and the box flies across the room into a cinderblock wall.

The final step is to glue the plate in place. Finito! A coffin of darkness for a dark plate.