Japanese-Style Sliding-Lid Box

About a year ago, I completed a small, Japanese-style, sliding-lid box. I was drawn to the simplicity and utility of the box after seeing it in Popular Woodworking in late 2015 and the build coincided with my reading of two inspirational books: George Nakashima’s The Soul of a Tree and Soetso Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman. I had a few scraps of red oak that I milled with my grandpa before he died and I knew this box would be a meaningful use for the wood. These boxes are the traditional Japanese carpenter’s toolboxes (大工道具箱, daiku dōgu-bako) but smaller versions like mine can be used for gifts or mementos.

Japanese-style Sliding-lid Box

My box has dovetailed corners though these boxes usually don’t (I needed the practice). The bottom and top pieces are glued on rather than nailed; since the box is small, I think glue will hold up fine over time. The stop blocks on the lid are attached with brass, round head screws through slightly enlarged pilot holes to allow for wood movement. The outside of the box is finished with several coats of Watco Danish oil and the inside is unfinished.

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There are plenty of plans and photos of these boxes online from which you can make one however, it would be difficult to find a better instructor on the subject than Toshio Ōdate so read his article in the October 1995 issue of American Woodworker. If you’re interested in an American perspective on Japanese woodworking, check out “Hillbilly Daiku” and his toolbox build.

A Reverence for Wood

“The heft and feel of a well-worn handle; the sight of shavings that curl from a blade; the logs in the woodpile; the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house; the smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves; the crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs. Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be without wood.”
—Eric Sloane (Everard Hinrichs), A Reverence for Wood

 

White Oak Bookcase

Finished bookcase made from quarter-sawn and plain-sawn white oak.

Recently, I finished a project that—for many reasons—took almost half a year to complete: a Christopher Schwarz inspired bookcase. After reading about this bookcase in Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book back in March, I knew I’d found a design that could be adapted into my long-sought “ideal” bookcase.

Building bookcases combines two of my great passions: books and woodworking. The summer after my sophomore year of college, I built two six-foot bookcases out of home center pine and plywood for my first apartment. They were ugly but serviceable enough to hold my rapidly growing book collection.

Sometime in college, I came up with a scheme to more efficiently shelve my books by size. The main reason to shelve like-sized books together is to maximize shelf density by not allowing much empty space between the tops of books and the shelf above them. One inch of air space is plenty. I came up with five size ranges, designated by Roman numerals, that I continue to use for shelving my books:

0–12.7 cm = Size I
12.8–19.7 = Size II
19.8–27.3 = Size III
27.4–37.5 = Size IV
37.6–∞ = Size V (shelved flat)

In my graduate school apartment I constructed an eight-foot by eight-foot built-in bookcase to accommodate my disconcertingly large gathering of books. The size designations allowed me to build rigid, non-adjustable shelves that helped hold the whole thing together and economized shelving space. Unfortunately, this high-density bookcase was rather plain and ugly, although most visitors were impressed by its size.

In The Anarchist’s Design Book, Schwarz outlines his thoughts on common book sizes which dictate the shelf spacing for his bookcase. Since I shelve my books by size too, I wholeheartedly embrace his arguments against adjustable shelves. In my experience, you don’t need them and they aren’t worth the added effort.

After earning my master’s degree in library and information science (surprised?) and several moves, my book collection now is considerably smaller than it was in college and grad school. During my time living on the east coast, my books lived comfortably in a couple of IKEA shelving units. They at least had solid pine sides (but chipboard backs). What I hated most about them—and many bookcases—was you could not remove books at the ends of shelves because the face frames got in the way.

Having thought about and built bookcases over the years, I was in awe of the simplicity of Schwarz’s design and knew immediately that I would build at least one. It has no face frame to get in the way, it’s deep which provides stability and room for larger books, and it has a simple, classic look. I made the following changes to the design:

  • Built out of quarter-sawn white oak with plain-sawn back
  • Back is shiplap rather than tongue and groove
  • Added a top for more dust protection and because I like to put photographs and other things on top of bookcases
  • Size adjusted slightly to accommodate my shelving scheme

Below are a few photos taken during the build.

This stack of quarter-sawn white oak became a bookcase.
All the pieces waiting to be sanded.
Gluing everything together.

This bookcase was designed to hold two sizes of my books: sizes I and II on the top shelf, flat-laying size V on the second shelf, and heavy size IV on the bottom two shelves. A second case for size III books is already underway and I might even build a third. While Chris Schwarz’s bookcase—made of pine and finished with milk paint—has a vernacular, almost “country” look, I think the quarter-sawn oak and exposed wrought nails of my bookcase make it look like a Craftsman-style piece.

All of the wood came from C. R. Muterspaw Lumber in Xenia, Ohio. I used dadoes, Titebond Liquid Hide Glue, and 4d (1 1/2″) Tremont wrought-head nails to fasten everything together. The back is nailed on with 4d Tremont clout standard nails. The finish is three coats of “medium walnut” Watco Danish oil and one coat of S.C. Johnson paste wax.

Detail showing the Tremont wrought-head nails and the oak’s amazing medullary rays.