Lidded vessels handcrafted on the lathe from oak beams salvaged from a century-old barn near Frederick, MD. Antique nail lid pull.

Lidded Box Build

A brief pictorial walk-through of a lidded box build

Lidded vessels handcrafted on the lathe from oak beams salvaged from a century-old barn near Frederick, MD. Antique nail lid pull.
Lidded vessels handcrafted on the lathe from oak beams salvaged from a century-old barn near Frederick, MD. Antique nail lid pull.

Woodturners call them lidded boxes. Having grown up believing boxes have corners, I prefer to call them “lidded vessels,” even if it sounds a bit vaunted. I like them because they meet at least two key goals: They look good and they’re functional.

That we know the provenance of the wood — a 100-year-old barn. The approximately 4″x3.5″-thick beam supported a working barn till everything around it rotted and the whole thing had to be taken down.

The thicker blocks become vessel bodies. The thinner pieces will be lids.

So we salvaged a few promising looking beams, took them home and cut them up. In turner parlance, these are “blanks.” Astute turners cut them into round before applying them to the lathe.

Parts of the beams — including one entire beam about 6′ long — were too far gone to run on the lathe. Long, deep lateral cracks and suspicious looking nail holes meant the wood would either fly apart (woodturners use the term “explode” because that’s exactly what it looks and sounds like when a piece breaks up at high speed) or the embedded nail would mess up a cutting tool and probably leave a gap that would render the piece of wood useless. You’ll see later in this post that one of the lid blanks harbored a two hidden nails. The result was part dumb luck and part irony.

A lid in the making. The raised round is the beginning of a tenon that will insert into the chuck — the thing on the opposite (left) side of the piece. This face will eventually be the top of the lid. Dry wood, and these beams were very dry, mean lots of fine dust.

In the upper left photo, a vessel body is “between centers”, which means a drive spur (left, and obscured by the wood) at the motor end of the lathe and the “live center” — the cone on the right. Notice the cone sticking into the raised round, the beginning of a tenon.

In the upper middle photo, the tenon is gripped in the chuck, which grips the tenon so the other end of the piece can be carved out. The upper right photo illustrates progress in that direction. The bottom photo shows the piece in full spin and the indentation for the lid.

The above series show the piece nearing the finished state. In this case I sanded to 1200 grit using walnut oil as a sanding lubricant. On the rim, I retained the weathered face of the wood as a sign of its long life and service. Exposing the inside of the wood reveals marvelous colors, grain lines, figuring and a century of natural staining.

Here’s the second blank carved up, a different shape, but consistently gorgeous visuals.

Now the lid. Upper left shows the tenon formed. Middle upper show the lid turned around. That hollow will in turn fit onto the chuck so the lid can be finished off — upper right. Calipers make fitting the lid a little easier and faster. Typically I’ll do several test fits as I ease toward the optimal fit. Then it’s perfect. Then a week later the humidity changes and the lid fit can change.

And now, about those nails….

One of the two lids squirreled away a pair of nails that revealed themselves — one at a time — during the turning process. I assumed the piece was trashed. But as long as I had the piece chucked up, I picked away and extracted both nails. I then finished the lid, thinking that at any moment it would break up.

Happily, I was wrong. The lid survived with a rather striking nail stain. And the two nail fragments?

They became pulls for the lids of both pieces. Lousy photo but I was delighted to use the nail frags as part of the pieces. It felt right, whole, and pleasingly ironic.

So … why lidded vessels?

They’re beautiful, the wood seasoned over a century acquires nuance that may not be quite as pronounced in green wood of the same species. The history, the contemporaneous nail as lid pull or finial , that you can hold in your hand. For us, the makers, we get to see it all come to life, hold our breath to see if the blank will hold at speed. Watch as sanding and oil draw out grain patterns, figuring, color tones.

They feel good. The smooth bodies juxtaposed against rough reminders of long service exposed to the elements offer pleasing tactile contrasts. They’re a delight to hold and behold.

They’re functional. Their uses are limited only by their physical capacity and imagination.

We’d like to see this wood do another 100 years of service, this time lavishing its inner beauty on everyone who sees it. Lidded vessels offer the best of form and function. And, you know, frankly, where else are you going to put those nails?