Heritage project: Newfoundland wall box

This Newfoundland wall box reflects its designer's Irish heritage

By Michael Campen

Photo by Roger Yip

While it’s true that you could build this Newfoundland wall box project using the same basic hand tools that the original was created with, today’s tools reduce the amount of time and skill required.


Getting started

We'll start by working on the back piece. Using 1/4" plywood, transfer the outline of the back piece onto it. Print the template file at full size, then glue the paper to your wood as a guide. Saw along the pattern outlines, then sand the shape smooth and true. Take your time because the shape of your pattern will be duplicated when you make your project parts.

To keep this design from looking bulky, I used 3/4"-thick stock for the parts, then brought them down to a sleek 5/8"-thick with a thickness planer. It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a difference on a project this small.

With planed wood at hand, start by roughing out an oversized blank for your back piece, then trace your pattern onto it, including the decorative details. I used a bandsaw to cut away the waste to within a 1/8" of the pencil lines on the outside, leaving the internal cutouts alone for now.

With the rough outline of the back cut, fasten the pattern to the wood in the location you traced before. Four woodscrews do a good job here: one into the spot that will become the mounting hole, and three though the centre line of the shelf.

Pattern routing

Next comes a technique called "pattern routing." Use a flush-trim bit in a table-mounted router to transfer the shape of the pattern precisely to the slightly oversized shape of the solid wood back it's attached to. The plans show how to adjust the height of the bit so the bearing rides only on the edge of the pattern. The flush-trimming cutters mill off any excess wood that sticks out beyond this pattern. It's a terrific system, producing finish-ready edges in minutes with no need for sanding.

The only hitch to pattern routing is the wavy shape of the back piece. Alternating grain direction can lead to tearout and chips, but you can get around that problem.

Depending on the temperament of your wood, you may need two flush-trimming router bits for smooth results. One needs to have the bearing on the bit's shaft, and is used with the pattern positioned underneath the back piece, sliding on the router table. This arrangement allows you to cut half of the wavy edges with the grain direction. Next, swap the bit for one with the bearing on the tip. Flip your workpiece over so the pattern is on top. You can now trim the curves you missed earlier, and you'll still be travelling in the same direction as the grain.

Decorative cutouts

While the plywood pattern is still mounted to the back piece, use a 1 1/8" Forstner bit to mark the centre of the eight holes you need to drill for the whirling wheel cutouts. The Forstner bit is ideal because it leaves smooth sides, which reduces sanding time later. To cut the outline of the whirling shapes, use a scrollsaw. Take your time and you'll get a cleaner cut. See the plans for guidance.

The box hangs from a diamond-shaped hole; cutting one involves a few steps. Start by using a 3/8"-dia. bit to bore into what will be the centre of the hole. Next, drill four additional holes at the corners of your diamond cutout using a 5/64"-dia. bit. Beyond removing additional waste wood, these holes will act as guides for the sharp chisel and flat file you'll need to complete the hole.

Carry on with the rest of the project by cutting out the box's bottom, top and sides. The plans show how to obtain the angles on the top edges of the sides.

Sanding comes next. I used a random-orbit sander for the faces and a stationary belt sander on the edges. As you work, use a light touch to smooth the wood without affecting the shape of the part. You'll find a sanding drum on a drillpress will work wonders inside the curved cutouts, and an emery board will let you get right into the pointed corners.

Add depth with bevels

After sanding with up to 220-grit paper, set up a 45º chamfer bit with a top-mounted bearing in your router. Adjust the tool to create a 3/16"-wide bevel and rout all of the outside edges of the project. I lowered the bit height to create a 1/16"-wide chamfer on the insides of the decorative cutouts. The bevels' shadows create a more interesting effect than rounded edges would. You'll find that the router won't be able to chamfer all the way into the point of the large cutouts, so use a sharp chisel and a steady hand to finish the job.

Cutting the dado grooves for the glass comes next. I used a ripping blade in my tablesaw to prepare the grooves in the sides. My table-mounted router, complete with end stops on the fence, completed the stopped dado required in the bottom. The glass I used for this project came from a picture frame I picked up at a dollar store, but a glass shop can cut a piece of glass to size for you. To attach the box lid, I used standard hinges, mortised into the top using the same method I used for cutting the stopped dado in the bottom.

Before you move on to finishing, drill and countersink holes for #6 x 1 1/4" brass assembly screws. There are 11 in all: seven through the back and four through the bottom.

Assemble the whole project and fine-tune the fit of the lid and glass. Once everything is ready, disassemble the project and move on to finishing.

Historical finish

To maintain the heritage feel of this project, I applied milk paint-a type of finish used in North America more than 250 years ago. I find it's a paint that behaves like a stain. It is composed of lime, clay, casein and natural pigments, and it's durable: it never peels or flakes. Milk paint is sold as a powder that you mix with water. I ordered mine from Homestead House Paint Company (877-886-5098) in Trading Post Red.

Milk paint usually requires two coats to achieve complete coverage, and it's easiest to apply to the parts before assembly. This finish dried in about 15 minutes. Use some fine steel wool after the first coat has dried to knock the grain back down and remove any excess powder. Apply the second coat and rub it down again with light pressure.

A modern high-tech film finish would look out of place on a heritage project such as this, so I sealed mine with a couple of coats of Watco Natural Oil. My completed box hangs by the back door, next to the dog's leash, filled with her biscuits.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.

Back pine 5/8" x 8" x 17 1/2" 1
Sides pine 5/8" x 3 5/8" x 3 7/8" 2
Bottom pine 5/8" x 4" x 7 3/4" 1
Lid pine 5/8" x 4 1/2" x 7 3/4" 1
Front glass 1/8" x 3 3/8" x 6 3/8" 1
Wood screws brass #6 x 1 1/4" 1

* Length indicates grain direction

Recommended Tools


Heritage project: Newfoundland wall box

Illustration by Len Churchill

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