Boxing Ambrotypes: A Walkthrough

This is my preferred method. It's the best in terms of flexibility, ease of assembly, and finishing. My previous methods were too likely to admit dust during finishing, and risk damage to the plate. This approach allows you to completely assemble and finish the box before you even get the artwork near it. That means you can make boxes and stick them on a shelf for when you need them! Just pull one down, mount a plate on matboard, and glue the back together. Presto! It doesn't take any longer to make, either. I've left the other walkthroughs up just as examples of how a construction process evolves.

One of the problems I've had with boxing or framing plates is that there's this annoying piece of glass between me and the plate. It's my plate, damn it, and I can touch it or look at it if I want to! So I cooked up the idea of having an armored box that can be left closed for normal viewing but, if you want to show off the plate, you can open it and have the cover glass completely out of the way.

For any of the images in this walkthrough, click on them, if you want an enlarged view:

In this walkthrough I'll do the whole process, with commentary on all the tools and techniques that I used. If you're an experienced woodworker you'll probably already have gear that can replace some of my home-brew jigs, but if you're a do-it-yourselfer all you'll need is a table-saw and the patience to make your own jigs. Once you've done that, you can crank out a frame like the one above in under 1/2 hour (not counting finishing) spread out over the course of a day - glue takes time to dry.

Step 1:

This is my mitre-cutting jig. It's just a piece of plywood with an oak slide that goes in the table's slot to guide it. There are 2 pieces of oak glued to it, perfectly at 45 degrees from the blade, a bit more than 3/4 inches apart. To cut a mitre I just stick a piece of wood in the slot and slide the whole thing forward. Zing! There's a ruler glued to the top so I can measure things easily and accurately.

Calculate the size of your box based on the inner dimension. That makes life a lot easier since you don't have to calculate the length of the long pieces (sqrt 2 * 3/4 * 2) - besides the inner dimension is what your artwork is going to fit and that's what really matters. The edges are going to be 3/4" thick in this example, but we'll be cutting slots for the back and the glass, 1/4" deep on each side - which means that the inner dimension will be the size of the artwork, but the glass and back will be 1/2" larger (2 times 1/4" on each edge) -- so in this example I am making a 10" x 12" box, so the glass is 10 1/2" x 12 1/2" and so is the back. It keeps everything neat and simple!

Step 2:

Make the cuts, clamping the board to the tall side of the jig each time for consistency. I just line the inside of the inner edge up against the correct inch-mark on the ruler - that's a 12" ruler so you can tell I am cutting one of the long side 12" pieces. Make sure you get the angle at the end of the wood the right way around. It's really easy to cut sticks like this, just take the cut-off piece, flip it around, line it up, clamp it, cut, take the cut off piece, flip it around, etc. I like to use a clamp because I have a rule that my hand never gets even with or ahead of the blade, no matter how far it is to the side. That way the worst thing that can happen is that a piece of stock can bind and rip my hand up - but getting ripped up with a piece of wood is like being kissed by a busload of cheerleaders compared to getting your hand into the blade.

Step 3:

Before you can say "rumplestiltskinrumsfeld" your cuts are done. Two 12" inner length pieces and two 10" inner length pieces. I usually make 3 or 4 sets at a shot, because I'm lazy. It saves you a lot of work if you produce multiple boxes at once, but if you screw up you waste a lot more wood.

Step 4:

My grandfather taught me to always put stuff together to make sure it fits, before you proceed, get glue on it, spend lots of time and money, and then discover that you're slightly off here or there. He was right. Just push the pieces together to make sure everything looks right.

Step 5:

We're going to cut the slots for the back and the glass 1/4" deep on each side. So the first thing to do is raise the blade to that height, or a bit more. You'll notice that some saw-blades (like this one!) don't make a square cut at the bottom of the cut (it's shaped more like a W because of the alternating angles of the teeth) - you want the blade high enough that the part where the wood is removed is 1/4" - otherwise when you try to fit your glass it won't go in all the way and *crack* *bang* you'll have a mess.

Where do you want to position the cut? I usually put the glass 1/2" in from the top edge and the bottom 1/2" in from the bottom edge. That makes it easy! Furthermore, that symmetry is going to come in handy in a future step - you'll appreciate it when you get there. So set your rip guide for 1/2" and rip a 1/4" deep cut down both sides of the inner faces of your cut pieces.

That's one side. Now flip them around and go back and do the other side. That's another reason it's nice to go 1/2" on each side - you don't have to start keeping track of which edge is which, yet, and you can just zoom through this part.

Step 6:

Both sides cut. Now, here's an important thing to think about: how thick is your glass? If your glass is thicker than the "kerf" (cut width) of your blade, it won't fit in the slot. This would be a good time to check! If it won't fit, then just move your rip guide over a teeny bit so that if you run the wood through again, it'll enlarge the slot(s) on the outer side - toward the top and the bottom edge.

Step 7:

Now, you're going to cut the opening for the bottom. Since your slot you already cut is 1/4" deep, you want to set the rip fence at 1/4 (so it'll align with the cut slot!) and the blade at 1/2" high (so it'll cut all the way into the slot and make an opening) Only cut one side of the pieces. That way you'll have one edge - the top - with a slot for the glass, and the other - the bottom - with a larger opening that will accept the back.

See those two sticks in the left corner of the frame? Those are my push sticks. One stick goes against the face of the board to hold it against the rip guide, and the other goes against the back of the board to slide it forward. When I'm pushing the wood past the blade, I'm nowhere near it - my hands are 2-3 feet from the blade the whole time. Yeah, I'm a big sissy.

See the bottoms now have a nice clean wide slot for the back to go in, and a thin slot for the glass. You've also got these small pieces that came out of the bottom when you cut them free. Keep those - you will need them later!

I had to keep stopping to photograph the steps but the total time, so far, would be about 5 minutes. This is a quick process. Which means: take your time. Never rush around a table-saw. If you have to take time off your project for a trip to the emergency room, you've ruined your schedule completely.

Step 8:

This is important! Now is your last chance to finish the inner faces of the boards! Don't worry about the rest, but in a couple minutes you'll have a piece of glass embedded in there and you'll be cursing and hand-sanding (and scratching the glass) and hating life. Sand the inner faces of the boards.

Step 9:

Now, cut your back. I use 1/4" plywood with a veneer face. You only need veneer on one side because your art-work will be on the other.

Sand the back. You can actually wait on this but I forget and after Step 8 you've got the sander sitting right there... use it.

Step 10:

Now is a good time to test-fit things. You can't see the piece of glass that's in there but I cut a 10 1/2" by 12 1/2" pane and test-fit it into the slots. The glass serves as a guide that makes assembly pretty easy, really. The back should just drop in. There should actually be a bit of extra room for the back (because of the thickness of the saw blade) I like it that way - it makes final assembly really easy.

Step 11:

This is a bit of "gorilla glue" (urethane) - I use it because I have a lot of it. Using titebond or one of the water-based glues is much more pleasant and just as strong. You can see, if you look closely, that I have a tiny bit of glue in the mitered edge of the glass slot. This urethane glue expands when it cures, so that little bit of glue will lock the glass in place. There is no need to put glue in the glass slot. In fact, if you do, you'll wind up cursing and scraping dried glue off your glass or the inner face of your boards. Remember - once this is assembled, you will not be able to do much to the inner faces of the boards except stain them.

I assemble my frames by putting glue on the mitered corners of the long edges. Then I stand the glass up in one...

...and add the edges. Easy! There are harder ways to do it, and if you try really hard you can slice yourself with the edge of the glass.

Then clamp it to let it cure. Now you can see how the frame works - the back just pops right in and the glass is embedded in the box. I love the clamps that I use. They are just 4 corners of polypropylene (you can use plywood if you're not as cool as I am) threaded with rods on one side and drilled through on the other. The whole thing tightens with the brass thumbscrews. This is an incredibly effective frame clamp and costs a whopping $5 or so to make.

Closeup of clamp corner. One end of the rod (in this picture, the top) is epoxied into the corner, the other piece is drilled through so the brass thumbscrew tightens it down. Brilliant! My grandfather had a set of these made out of aircraft aluminum, which is where I got the idea. Mine are better. His were cooler.

Step 12:


Step 13:

If you're impatient about glue, you can glue a scrap, and let it dry alongside your frame. When the glue on the scrap is cured, the glue on your frame is probably cured. Clever, huh? (depends on your glue)

Now the frame is unclamped and looking good! Next step is to spline the corners. That funny thing on the saw, up against the rip-guide, is my "splinealizer" - a spline-cutting jig. Basically, it's just a right angle that the box can drop into, and the saw comes up through the bottom. You can set the distance for the splines using the rip-guide. Getting the right depth is tricky - what I did was made a few test cuts on scrap and then noted the blade height and wrote it down on the side of the splinealizer. Ditto the rip-guide settings. So now all I do is dial in the settings off the side of the splinealizer and make the cuts.

You don't want the cuts to be too deep, nor should they be too shallow. In fact, with modern glues you can completely omit this step. But I like it! The main thing to realize is that, if you make the cuts too deep, you risk having the blade hit the glass! *bam* *crack* *tinkle* that's bad. I fiddled with it until I got the cuts to be about 1" long.

Using the splinealizer is simple! Just put the box in, push it forward and make the cut, pull it back, rotate it, push it forward, repeat. Flip the box over, and make 4 more cuts.

There are probably woodworking catalogs that would cheerfully sell you a splinealizer for $70. Mine is made of scraps, held together with glue.

Step 14:

I can hear you thinking "where do you get your splines?" Why, from the spline-o-matic, of course. All that this does is holds a piece of stock slightly offset against the vertical piece on the far side. The thickness of the spline is controlled by the number of pieces of gaffer's tape that are stuck up against the vertical piece. They serve to both help control slippage and set depth. The sliding corner piece is just so I can hold the stock against the blade from a safe distance. You'll notice that the blade comes out through the bottom of the slider-piece - the back piece of plywood is what holds the whole thing together. Be very careful not to use the back of the plywood to push with your hand! Or, your remaining hand, I should say.

Once the spline pieces are cut, chop them to length by stacking them and running them through the saw. I use a sled (A sled is just a sliding piece of wood that locks into the groove; my mitre-cutter and spline-o-matic are also sleds) Now I have lots of thin little chunks of ebony about 1 1/4" long. By the way, it sounds like mankind won't have affordable ebony much longer. Enjoy it while you can?

Glue the splines in.

Step 15:


Step 16:

Trim the extra ebony down by running the edge of the box past the blade using a sled. I handhold and eyeball this part of the process. I've got a big badass belt sander that makes wood vanish pretty quickly, so I don't need to get too close to the edge of the box with the saw. Do not get too close - if you hit the edge of the box with the saw it'll make a big circular divot in the side and it's "start again."

This is the box after a visit to the belt sander. The ebony is flush with the surfaces and (if I may say) looks really elegant. One thing I do at this stage is to sand the top and bottom so they're flat/flush, and fine-sand them. It makes the next step a little easier.

I also angle-sand one of the corners (as shown) pretty radically. That way it's easy to tell which way the lid goes back on, once you have it off.

Step 17:

Lookin' good!

One option is to stop right here, and go finish the box then add the artwork.

Step 18:

This sled is my box slicerizer. You can see there are blocks at the front and back to hold it together, and the blade comes up so it can run along the bottom of the box and hit it in the same place on each side. It should fit tightly in the slicerizer so it doesn't wobble. The stick coming out of the bottom of the slicerizer is a push-stick so I won't make the mistake of putting my hand on the back of the block where the blade comes through.

Four cuts with the slicerizer and the box now has a separate lid with glass in it.

Step 19:

Remember those sticks from Step 7? They're what hold your lid on.

I just eyeball cut these either straight or mitered, and test-fit them until they fit snugly against eachother. Then glue them in and hit them with a bit of tape to keep them from bowing away from the edges until they cure.

Finishing it is up to you. What I like to do is go over the boxes with Fiebing's leather dye, then beeswax and linseed oil. When it's all finished and dry and buffed and the glass cleaned, etc, take the back, cut a piece of mat-board to fit (10 1/2" x 12 1/2" in this case) and mount your artwork on it. Then you can glue the back in or nail it, depending on how you like to do things. With glass plates I usually tie them to the matboard with monofilament line, then glue the matboard to the back, let it dry, then glue the matboard/back into the back of the box.