Introduction: Miter/Dovetail Flag Case - Unplugged!
I've built many flag and shadowboxes for military veterans over the years. While they can range from simple to complex in construction, I find that they require a high level of attention to detail to get angles, joints and finishes correct. When faced with the retirement of a very dear friend, I knew he needed something unique. There's not much time for something extravagant and the recipient is fairly unassuming so there's no reason to make this flashy (Some times flashy is called for; this isn't one of them).
Step 1: Why??? ...and the General Workflow
For this project, I’ll be demonstrating the construction of a flag box constructed from ¾” walnut entirely by hand. Seriously, like no power tools whatsoever. I’ll be hacking out a mitered dovetail joint with proud tails for the top which will add interest as well as hide the notch for the back and the glass. The sides will be attached to the base with a few screws from the bottom and the back will be attached with turn buttons.
There is a wide spectrum of thought and opinion about the time and application for hand tools in today’s world. For the purpose of this project, I’m referring to “Hand Tools” to refer to any instruments that do not function by power. Blogs and workshops discuss at length the wonder and experience of using hand tools to build their projects and do things how they used to be done. On the other end of the spectrum, Norm Abram on The New Yankee Workshop has built projects where the only hand tool he used was a utility knife.
What’s the right approach? For all of the discussion, I’ve never seen anything that would convince me our ancestors purposefully did things the hard way. i.e, they did things the way they did because there was no better way. A saw, chisel, plane and some beeswax was all they had so that’s what they used.
So why would we do things the hard way? To prove our skills. To understand the principles that we’re incorporating. To gain appreciation for how easy things are now and to add an extra personal touch to your project… Everyone knows homemade beats store-bought.
One more reason… Cost. Not everyone has $20,000 sitting around to outfit a pole barn with the Powermatic demo studio. I started down this road in middle school and all I had was a miter box and a backsaw. Over the years, I've learned that you don't need much more. With $50 and a trip to Lowes, you can get all you need to make a project that will last a lifetime and mean the world to someone special.
This doesn’t mean you can get away with sloppy construction. We’ll need to be precise and check our progress constantly if we want to succeed. Now’s not the time for messy, chipped-up, un-square, middle school shop class projects.
Step 2: Cutting Parts to Size
First, a note about using a hand saw. Although I’m using several with different sized teeth, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it done with a single carpenter’s saw from the hardware store. If yours is more aggressive, leave a bit more room from the cut lines so you can use a chisel to remove the scratches later. To stay on the line, start by cutting the top from front to back. Extend down the front of the board along the line until you hit the bottom of the cut or clear 45 degrees if you’re cutting completely through. Slowly bring the saw back level and let it cut through the remaining material towards the back and let it continue to track the line.
Through it all, go slow and let the blade do the cutting (don’t attempt to force it).
A box for a normal 3x5’ flag can be made with parts around 12” long. I’ll be making mine a little long to account for the ¼” overlap on the tops of the dovetails. This will require a base of ~17” to match. I’ve laid out all 3 parts side by side on a single board. The triangle will be a little over 2.5” deep. Remember we’ll lose over 1/2” to the front and back. Don’t make it too deep as you don’t want the flag to flop around inside the box once its complete.
Since we’re starting with a rough cut piece of lumber, use an aggressive crosscutting saw to cut a piece 17-18” long. Leave a little extra to account for trimming later on. Clamp it down on your bench or in a vice and use a plane to even up one of the long sides.
Use a square or edge guide to mark the width of the base (the longer piece). Take one last look at your table saw and sigh/wave goodbye; there’s no going back now. Use a rip-cutting panel saw to cut the board. Take special care not to let it wander. Once you’ve got them separated, use the hand plane to clean up both sides of the cut. Set the base aside for now.
Mark one end on all sides with a combination square to make a 45 degree cut. Use a miter box or stand the board on your bench and saw through it, keeping to the outside edge of the lines you’ve marked. If you’re right on target, give yourself a gold star. If not, don’t worry, I didn’t do much better. Time to clean up the edge.
To make things easier, you’ll need a jig, aka block of wood cut at 45 degrees. Clamp it to the top of the board with the leading edge at the line you marked before. Let a chisel ride on the guide and with a steep, slicing motion, pare away the angled edge until it is even and smooth.
Mark the middle with your square placed along the planed edge and saw the board in half like before. Clamp them back-to-back and use a plane to smooth them down and make both pieces the same width. Decide which side you’ve messed up the least and call it the front.
Step 3: The Mitered Dovetail
A lot can be said about the types of corners and joints to be used on boxes and furniture. The dovetail is a classic, known for its appearance as much as its strength. Since the joint is held in place by both pressure from the surrounding wood as well as the glued surface area, they are widely used in fine furniture.
I’ll often use machined and routed dovetails in my projects but since there is only one on the flag box, I’ll be doing it by hand. In addition, I’ll be fitting in a pair of miters which will hide the grooves underneath.
Let’s start with the miters. Measure up 12” from the bottom of the board, and mark the outside edge. This will be the top of the finished case. Mark the thickness of the board below that line so you know how far the dovetail will extend and wrap this line around to the inside as well. From there, make a mark ~3/8” from the front and back edges of the board which will establish the transition from the miters to the dovetails.
With a small dovetail saw, cut the angled miters and then flip the board upright to trim the excess away. You can use the angled block as a guide to pare them back as needed. Compare both boards to each other and confirm that they’re the same length and that both sides meet when pressed together.
Now that the miters are mostly complete, we can move on to the dovetails. Pick a side to cut the tail. Mark two lines on the end about ¼” back from the edge of the miters. Use a dovetail guide to mark an angled line down both lines on the inside and outside.
I’m using a dovetail gauge from Lee Valley with a 1:7 ratio for this operation which is effectively an angled saddle square (12 to 14 degrees). If you don’t own one, they’re easy to make.
Cut both sides of the tail away and do the same on the inside of the miters. Use a hand saw to trim away the excess and add some relief cuts. A coping saw can make quick work of this but if you don’t have one, place it flat on your bench and use a chisel to chop through whatever remains. Get your cuts to line up with the marks you made before and don’t let biases sneak in: swells and hollows can keep things from fitting together correctly later on.
Step 4: The Pin Board
That was starting to get long. Once you’re satisfied with the tail board, line up both boards on your bench and with a sharp knife, mark the location of the pins based on the size of the tail. Stand the board upright and use the dovetail gauge inverted this time to continue the lines around the board.
Use your dovetail saw to cut the pin board from the INSIDE of the lines to keep the joint tight. It’s much easier to take material away. Replacing it gets complicated. Cut away as much as possible with the saw and clear the remainder with a chisel.
Time for a test fit! The joint should be snug but not tight; pounding with a mallet is usually not a good sign. Use a chisel to pare away the sides of the pins as needed until the boards fully interlock, square and true. If you decide to keep altering the fit, go slowly and try to determine where the joint is getting stuck before you make a cut.
Step 5: The Base
So it took me two tries to get a base I liked. The initial one was a little short and thin so the final version ended up being a full inch thick and 19” long (1.5” overhang on each side of the assembled box). Cut it to size and plane all the surfaces.
I’ll normally use architectural router bits to make fancy profiles but for this one I’m going to use a simple chamfer and call it good. If you have some molding planes, knock yourself out with making it more complicated.
Use a marking gauge to define the top and bottom of the profile and use a plane to knock the edge back to meet the lines. On the ends, I started by cutting away about 80% of the material with a saw while on the front I started with an ancient skew plane in my collection that I have set for heavy stock removal.
On the ends, I clamped my 45 degree block in place and used a paring chisel to slice away the remaining material. Going about 1/8” at a time went fairly well as you can see in the video. I finished up by planing all three edges with my restored #7 Stanley.
Step 6: Grooves, Rabbets and Profiles
We’re making progress! Just a little more to go. Next, we need to make a groove along the front to fit the Plexiglas. In this century, we have things like routers, table saws and laser engravers to help us out. Here, not so much.
A plow plane or a kerfing plane would do wonders here. Unfortunately I don’t have access to either one so time for some more improvising. This notch is basically a wide kerf from a saw blade so a couple parallel cuts from a hand saw should do the job. Clamp a board to the front to use as a fence and attach a piece of scrap to the inside edge to offset the blade. I used a 1/8” thick strip left over from another project. Take the most aggressive saw in your arsenal and cut a groove ~3/8” thick. Add another piece of scrap and make a second cut parallel to the first. I used some old veneer but even a few layers of tape can be enough. Check the sizing against your Plexiglas.
On the other side, we’ll need a 1/4x1/4” rabbet to hold the plywood back in place. Mark the two cuts with a straightedge and use a hand saw to cut into both sides. The square remainder should fall away once you saw through both sides. As an option, use a shoulder plane to clean up the saw marks.
As for edge profiles, I’m really taking it easy as I don’t want to reach for the router and I don’t have any molding planes to speak of. Since all the lines so far are sharp and square, any additional curves or ornamentation would likely just detract from the project. Along the front of the triangle I added a ¼” chamfer to add some interest and used a small block plane to knock back the other edges maybe 1/32”. This helps make the project look more complete and reduces the chance of splinters.
Step 7: Glass, Assembly and Hardware
Once you’re happy with the fit of the triangle, add some glue to the joint and clamp it while the glue sets. A 90 degree square comes in handy to keep everything lined up.
The triangle will be attached to the base with two screws fed from the bottom. Mark the location for the triangle and transfer it to the bottom while accounting for the 45 degree spread. Use a drill or brace/bit to bore a pilot hole and the countersink. That’s right, hand-powered all the way!
Once the triangle is dry, remove the clamps and test-fit a piece of Plexiglas. Use a utility knife or dedicated cutter to trim it to fit. Insert the glass and dry-fit the parts. After assembly, measure and cut the plywood for the back. Drill small pilot holes along the back to allow insertion of the turn buttons and a hanger.
I normally buy turnbuttons in bulk through Amazon; for most boxes I'll use 6-9 at a time and they can get expensive if you buy them in small lots. Likewise with the felt feet and bumpers for the bottom/back.
We should be coming pretty close to the end. All that’s left is the ratty bottom of the Plexiglas that’s now exposed. Use some leftover material to make a 1/4x1/4” strip to cover the edge and chamfer the ends so it fits tight below the triangle. Attach it with a small amount of CA glue from the bottom, taking care not to get any residue on the surrounding surfaces.
Step 8: Finishing
Home stretch! Sand the parts as necessary to remove any remaining marks and stain everything however you wish. I went with dark walnut which tends to be popular before continuing with some gloss wipe-on polyurethane. I put on ~5 coats, lightly sanding the surface with 600x sandpaper or #0000 steel wool between each one. Use black spray paint on the plywood back.
Assemble everything one final time, attach the turn buttons and a hanger to the back, and insert the flag. Hopefully at this point you can present it to someone who is worthy of the work you just expended; this easily took 5x the amount of time it normally takes me to put a flag box together.
So what did we learn? We learned to appreciate the tools that allow us to streamline these operations and make us far more efficient (looking at you, Domino XL). We learned to improvise. We learned that even the sides of a chisel can slice your fingers up (ouch). We forged a deeper connection to our craft, the project and by extension, the recipient.
Although I used a wide range of tools depending on what the situation called for, they really weren’t all needed. The bare minimum, best as I can tell is the following:
-Midsize bench plane (Stanley #5 or equivalent)
-3/8” bevel-edged chisel
Really… that’s about it. Everything else makes things easier but if you’re up to it, that’s all you need. If that’s all you have in an antique toolbox in the basement, then I’ve been there with you and there’s no excuse to not give it a shot.
This might be a bit much as a first project, but is entirely doable with a little skill and patience. Take some scrap and practice making the dovetail joints by hand; take some 4” wide boards and cut the dovetails to attach them together. Cut them away right below the joint and try it again. Keep going until they’re straight and tight.
For the more advanced, take this as a challenge to increase your skills and remember where you started.
So who was this flag case built for? Trust me, someone worthy who will fully appreciate the work that went into it.
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Please be positive and constructive.