An Awfully Tough Build | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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This weekend, I made a small walnut and maple box. In my six years of woodworking, it’s the toughest project I’ve ever built.

Last Friday morning, I had to say goodbye to Cleocatra, the sweet kitty who adopted me at the SPCA in 1996. I don’t know how old she was – but I do know she was treated like a queen for 15 of her years. She was the friendliest cat I’ve ever met, bar none. She loved screaming babies, rowdy kids, dogs, other cats – almost every creature with which she came in contact. Except mice. Cleo was afraid of mice. (I had a field mouse get in to my apartment one winter, and both she and I saw it at the same time, jumped at least a foot in the air, then ran in the other direction.)

Cleo had trouble getting around for the last year, and for the last couple months, I had to lift her onto my bed at night. Early last week, she stopped eating. And she stopped coming out to say hello when people came to visit. So I knew it was time to say goodbye.

This little dovetailed box will hold Cleo’s ashes. And while it’s a simple project, it was incredibly hard to build. It’s difficult enough for me to see my layout lines on walnut on a good day; it’s a lot harder through tears.

The walnut (to commemorate her dark fur) was from a half-finished project that’s been languishing under my desk for several years; the maple (which evokes the many white hairs she’s gotten over the last few years) is left over from the chop on my small bench. The size was somewhat dictated by the wood I had available, but also, it just felt right.

It’s made from 1/2″ stock and is approximately 4″ x 5″,  4″ tall, with a 1/4″ nailed-on bottom. The top is 1/2″ maple, with the edges rounded over (I planed a 1/4″ chamfer on each edge, then sanded to create the curve). To keep the top in place, I cut a piece of walnut that fit with 1/8″ or so of wiggle room inside the box, then glued it in place to the underside of the top.

I’ve put two coats of oil/varnish blend on the box proper; the glue needs to fully cure on the insert piece for the top before I can finish-sand, then apply the same mixture to the maple. But I’m at a crossroads with the design of the top – I can’t decide whether or not to put a handle on it.

I shaped a small walnut handle using a block plane and sandpaper, but I’m not convinced it belongs. On one hand, a walnut handle on top would help to visually tie the light top back back to the dark base. On the other hand, this box isn’t really meant to be opened; I don’t want the handle to be an invitation to look inside (and I plan to seal it with wax).

Perhaps it doesn’t matter – after all, this box is likely going on a high shelf well out of reach, where the top of the top won’t be visible. But every time I look up at it, I know I’ll remember how difficult it was to build. And whether or not I’m looking up at it, I’ll miss having Cleo by my side.

— Megan Fitzpatrick

I sincerely hope you don’t need to make a box for the same reason I did. Maybe you just like to make boxes – but want something a little fancier (or just prefer to work from plans). If so, check out just some of the many books, DVDs and plans we offer on boxes of all sorts:

“Box by Box,” a book by Jim Stack
“New Masters of the Wooden Box,” a book by Oscar P. Fitzgerald (chock-full of inspiring photographs and essays about the artists’ design choices and goals)
“Box Making Bonanza,” a DVD by Jim Stack and Doug Stowe
“Sculpted Band Saw Boxes,” a book by Lois Keener Ventura
“Puzzle Box Magic” a DVD by Jeff Vollmer
“Creating Wooden Boxes on the Scroll Saw,” a book from the editors of Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts
“Shaker Box Construction Manual,” from John Wilson (we also offer a “Shaker Oval box Kit” from Wilson, with plans, instructions, bending stock, cherry boards and the hardware to make three nesting boxes)

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Showing 20 comments

    P.S. Purr was 17 years old.


    Mega n I lost my cat Purr May 9th, so I know how you feel . I was given her when she was 7 wks old & I lived in an apartment. When I moved states to care for my elderly mother she came with me & was/is a member of my family, I.She had cancer , but mother let her out & she didn’t return (she was too weak to go far & there was never any odor or sight of her) .coyotes took her as 2 dogs & 1other cat on my block were taken in 2 days’ I had bought wood to build her a coffin.but … I know it is a saying but you will learn to live with the loss but won’t ever forget her/him. Like me you will probably look for them when you enter the house. My condolences

  • BoredCutter

    I’ve a feeling these little ones are in a MUCH better place than this planet; call me stupid, but I believe they’d wish us to just remember their antics and joy, since they accept their own passing probably more easily than any of us ever could.

    Our hearts are with you.

    Nice looking box! We’d say go ahead and add the handle, and a strong latch possibly(?).

  • Bowyerboy

    My condolences. Keep the handle. Add a lock.

  • John Cashman

    I’m very sorry to hear about Cleo. Thanks you for sharing this with us.

  • schnp

    Megan, I am so sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing your story. I still need to build such a box for my two Siamese cats, Jack and Pippen. I am thinking of making the top into a frame to hold my favorite picture of the two of them together. I have a special piece of figured walnut I want to use for the box.


  • Eric R

    She might not have been able to say it, but I bet Cleo was awfully happy to live with you too !
    Beautiful box.

  • MikeDoughty

    Having built four of these boxes, none the same but as you say, all tough builds. Please accept my condolences on your loss and as to the handle, your heart will guide you. So nice to know there are so many wonderful care givers out there enjoying this special craft.

  • RonSellsAlabama

    Megan, Only a Pet “Lover” understands, what losing a dear Pet-friend means! I’m not a Cat lover, but took on a cat in the very early 80’s because no one wanted him (he was the Runt and had an ATTITUDE!) Named him “Chuck” thought it was appropriate. Chuck lived for 25 years, and he was do dear to me . . . I shed tears when it was time to put him to rest. The pictures taken of Chuck over the years, I still go back and review each and smile while remembering the moments we shared. The little box does not need a handle, in my opinion, but I would router your pet’s name on the face of the little box . . . even though you have to do it by hand. When the day comes for, “BabyGirl,” she’s our Toy poodle to rest, I will have her name, birthday and passing date routed on her coffin . . . you can see her in my GMC window on: http://www.RonSellsAlabama.Com. She loves going on jobs and just riding around with us. I will say to you, “Remember the Memories” and be grateful for all the moments and fun your Loving Pet gave you!

    Ron Hidalgo
    Pike Road, Al.

  • Fred West

    Megan, I am so sorry for your loss. I know just how hard it was to build that box as I have done the same several years ago. I also know that the pain is really rough but I think what you are doing is hugely therapeutic and I think the people here have given you some great ideas. My thought would be that if you have a special toy or two that will also fit in the box, I would include them as well. Fred

  • miathet

    I’m sorry about you loss our oldest cat just cleared 15 and it is hard to think about losing her.

    Maybe a embedded picture covered by bar to finish in the middle of the top?

  • ChrisG

    Thanks for sharing Megan. I’m so sorry for the loss of your beautiful feline friend. I grew up with cats and currently have 2 feline shop “helpers”. James Krenov was also a cat lover by the way. Animals make such wonderful companions.

    Anyway, beautiful job on the box; it’s a lovely use of the craft. And oh yeah, I’d leave the handle off. You could leave the top as is or perhaps had an alternative decorative touch.

  • Joe "the Pro" Sainz

    Sorry for your loss Megan. I think that some stringing, Glen Huey style, might provide the balance that the box needs.

  • Michael Kratky

    Megan, so sorry about Cleo, I have 3 and they are so much a part of our household and our lives that I couldn’t imagine
    being with them. Woodworkers are special.

  • nolandm48

    My heart goes out to you, I just put down my little dog that’s been with me for 14 years. If only people were more like our pets this would be a much better world to live in.

  • jqlouie

    Please accept our condolences on your loss. We had two Siamese cats who each shared our home for eighteen years. Her container will be a lasting memory of her life and your love of her. I would leave the handle off, and may I suggest something simple such as a tapered edge disc of Purpleheart wood appliqué instead of the handle.

  • tsstahl

    You’re right, A handle screams “OPEN ME!”. Carve a little rosette in the top. No, I have no idea how.

    I use green colored pencil to mark dark wood; works well for me.

  • Chester Field

    Very hard to build, but I am also sure that you took comfort in knowing that you have never put more of your heart into a project. I think it is quite fitting that Cleo’s picture was taken beside “Paradise Lost”. Bless our 4 legged friends!!

  • TOD

    Losing a pet is never easy – what a wonderful way to celebrate Cleo’s life. On your decision about the handle I would leave it off.


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